The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is a familiar passage from John’s Gospel, rich in allusion and meaning. Jacob’s Well, the main setting of the story, was an historic public watering hole and meeting place, where earlier encounters between Isaac and Rebekah and Jacob and Rachel had taken place. Moses also met his wife, Zipporah, at a well. The setting hints at the possibility that yet another important relationship is about to commence.
The question of thirst and the provision of water also bring to mind Israel’s complaining in the wilderness, until Moses struck the rock from which water flowed to slake their thirst. Hovering in the background of the dialogue between Jesus and this woman is the plaintive question raised then: “Is the Lord among us or not?” It is a timeless question, the question I daresay we’ve all asked at one time or another, whenever we’ve found ourselves in a desert place; dried out, bone tired, and parched. In those times when it seems like God has brought us this far, only to abandon us, we, too, can wonder if the well has run dry.
We don’t know much about this Samaritan woman. The Western church treats her much like Mary Magdalene: as an icon of fallen womanhood restored to moral propriety. Of course, there is none of that in John’s story. Jesus says nothing of repentance or sin, as he does with the woman caught in adultery later in John’s Gospel.
We can assume that the people of Sychar treated her like an outcast. There is no other explanation for her being at the well at noon, alone during the heat of the day, rather than in the morning or evening when everyone else came to the well to gather water and gossip. Only a woman already marginalized would appear in public unaccompanied by a male relative. In the course of her conversation with Jesus, we learn that she has had five husbands and is now dependent upon a man with whom she is not married. That is a tragic situation, but not necessarily sinful; she could have been a widow, and only men could initiate divorce in that time and place. Her initial responses to Jesus are guarded, even a bit cynical. She is hardly a woman on the make.
Although the people of Sychar treated her as a scapegoat, Jesus does not, so why should we perpetuate her victimization? Whereas others saw her as a wanton among respectable people, a mere woman in a man’s world, a Samaritan heretic cut-off from God’s chosen people, Jesus saw her as a vessel of living water welling up to eternal life. Being seen in this way changes everything for her. She had internalized the image reflected in the contemptuous faces of the people around her. Her heart had become well defended against the world, with a rocklike armor. But Jesus touched her heart, and living water flowed out from the rock. That current of love was so powerful that it washed over the whole community.
Jesus saw her whole, telling her everything she had ever done! Can you imagine? He accepted every bit of who she had been and who she was and said, “I see a spring of water gushing up in you to eternal life. Isn’t that the water you really want? Isn’t this who you really are?” He tells her not to get caught up by the invidious distinctions we make based on religion and ethnicity and gender, worrying about who is in and who is out, who is right and who is wrong: none of that matters. What matters is worshipping God in spirit and in truth, whether in Jerusalem or Samaria, Rome or Canterbury, Mecca or Bodh Gaya. The location of the well is unimportant. Just drink deeply.
Jesus invites her into an intimate relationship with God without preconditions. She doesn’t need to change in any way to drink this living water. But having drunk deeply, her world would change in ways she couldn’t have possibly imagined. She became the first apostle, beating out even Mary Magdalene for the title.
We are told that she left her water jar behind and ran back to Sychar, telling everyone in town that she has met the Messiah. She can hardly believe it herself, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” What is even more amazing is that many of them believed her! This woman, who had made herself as small and defended against them as she possibly could, sneaking to the well at midday to avoid attention, was suddenly in their face; and not with bitter recriminations at having been victimized by them, but with an offer of a love the she just could not keep dammed up.
Even more believed because of Jesus’ word. The Samaritan woman did not point to herself, but to the one who healed her. “They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.’” This is what a good apostle does: invites people to tap into the flow of living water themselves. God desires an intimate, loving relationship with absolutely everybody.
If the Western church has looked down its collective nose at the Samaritan woman, the Eastern church saw her very differently. In the hagiography of Eastern Orthodoxy, the Samaritan woman, along with her sisters and her son, were baptized at Pentecost. At her baptism, she took the name, Photini, which means, “enlightened one.” She then began a wide-ranging missionary career, which eventually brought her to Rome, where she attempted to convert none other than the emperor, Nero, who had already ordered her arrest! When he asked her why she had come to Rome, she replied, “We have come to teach you to believe in Christ.”
Three years passed, during which Nero tried and failed to get her and her companions to renounce Christ through a combination of temptation and torture. In fact, it resulted in the conversion of Nero’s daughter, Domnina, to the Christina faith. Their prison became a joyful center of Christian preaching and worship. Nero finally ordered Photini’s death. Guess how she became a martyr? By being thrown down a well. And so she became St. Photini, hailed by the fathers of the Eastern church as an apostle, as reflected in the Troparion to St. Photini:
“Illuminated by the Holy Spirit, All-Glorious One, from Christ the Savior you drank the water of salvation. With open hand you give it to those who thirst. Great martyr, St. Photini, equal to the Apostles, pray to Christ for the salvation of our souls.”
The Samaritan woman became St. Photini. She discovered within herself a well of living water gushing up to eternal life by looking into the face of Jesus, and seeing reflected there her image as the beloved caught in the gaze of the divine lover.
The true nature of your Beloved.
In His loving eyes your every thought,
Word and movement is always-
The Sufi mystic, Hafiz, expresses what I imagine St. Photini must have experienced so powerfully in her encounter with Jesus at Jacob’s well. There commenced a new and important relationship – a relationship that forever answered the question, “Is the Lord among us or not?” with a resounding, “Yes! He is here. He has always been here.” St. Photini knew herself loved, and she invited absolutely everybody, even Nero, to discover this truth for themselves.
God desires an intimate, loving relationship with you, without preconditions. You do not have to change to be loved, but being loved, you will be changed forever. Amen.