Photina, the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well

Anonymous: St. Photina, Wikipedia Commons

 A Samaritan woman went to Jacob’s well to draw water. Nothing special about getting water at a well, except it changed her life and the lives of others. At the well, a man told her to give him a drink. She pointed out that he was a Jew, and she was a Samaritan. This ethnic difference was so significant that a Bible verse explained it: “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” (John 4:9) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10) 

Of course, the woman, known as “Photina” in the Orthodox Church in America, was confused by the idea of living water, which launched them into the longest conversation recorded in the New Testament. Not the longest conversation between Jesus and a woman, but the longest conversation, which was remarkable for two reasons. First, the conversation was between a man and a woman who were not related, and second, she was a Samaritan. 

Returning to the story, Photina was practical and direct. She “said to him, ‘Sir, give me this [living] water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’” (John 4:15) As we can imagine, hauling water was not the highlight of anyone’s day. In addition, avoiding thirst in the desert would be an amazing gift. Of course, Jesus intended a larger meaning.

Then the conversation took a new direction. Jesus revealed that he knew Photina had had five husbands and that she was not married to the man currently in her life, which was all true. With that astonishing information, she concluded that Jesus must be a prophet. He also told her that “…the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24).

After telling Jesus that she knew the Messiah was coming, the woman continued: “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Undoubtedly, he surprised her with: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” (John 4:25). That dear woman left her jar, went to the city and told everyone that she had just met a man who told her everything she had ever done. That was a rather remarkable statement to hear, but people believed her and followed her back to the well. Jesus so captivated his listeners that they asked him stay, and he did for two days. (John 4:39-42)

            Some preachers focus on all of Photina’s husbands, that is, her sins, which may not have been sins, after all. Instead, let us focus on the concept that Jesus used the information to validate his authenticity. He wanted her to believe his dramatic statement that he was the Messiah, an announcement easily made, but not so easily verified. When he chose a Samaritan woman with a half dozen men in her life over the years, he also made a clear statement that he came to be with the marginalized, those with the lowest social status, the ones who needed him and his message the most. 

            That is the end of the Bible story; yet, there is more. The Orthodox Church in America continues Photina’s life. (As a historian, I want authentication and sources, but alas! Religious traditions also have validity.) According to tradition, Photina had several sons, all of whom preached the gospel. Nero, the Roman emperor at the time (54-68), commanded that several Christians be brought to Rome, including at least one of Photina’s sons. When Photina, who was in Carthage at the time, heard the stories, she and a group of Christians went to Rome as well. When Nero saw them, he told them to renounce Jesus. They refused. Nero ordered their finger joints smashed, but they felt no pain, and their joints remained unharmed. Various forms of torture followed over the next years. Eventually, Nero had her thrown into prison a second time. According to tradition, there “she surrendered her soul to God. (~ca. 66)

Photina appeared in sermons from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries as an apostle and an evangelist. The Orthodox Church in America and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America are among the denominations that recognize the Samaritan Woman at the Well as Saint Photina. 

The Orthodox Church commemorates her on February 26. 

New Revised Standard Version

John 4:5-30  

5So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to him.

Luke 4: 39-42

39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 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.”

Secular Source

“Martyr Photina the Samaritan Woman, her sons, and those with them,” Orthodox Church in America,” https://www.oca.org/saints/lives/2009/03/20/100846-martyr-photina-the-samaritan-woman-her-sons-and-those-with-them(accessed March 3, 2021).

Copyright release

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

©Suzanne O’Dea, 2021

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