One of the best-known yet least known stories in the Gospel of John is about a woman known simply as the “Samaritan Woman.” The familiar story tells us that Jesus had left Judaea and was returning to Galilee. The trip took him through the region known as Samaria where, tired and thirsty, he sits down by a well. A Samaritan woman comes to the well in the middle of the day to get water.
Jesus, breaking every cultural rule possible, engages her and asks her for water. As the conversation unfolds, we learn that this woman has a past. She is an outcast who comes to the well in the middle of the day instead of in the cool, early morning hours when the other women come. She has had many husbands, and who knows how all that came about. Plus, she is from Samaria and Samaritans and Jews did not mix. The Samaritan/Jewish conflict was centuries old and, like many old conflicts, it was likely people did not even know how it all began. Never one to be put off by a past, Jesus keeps the conversation going and finds the woman a willing, if a bit evasive, participant. From living water to husbands to the Resurrection, Jesus speaks to her heart and her conscience.
The story ends with the disciples coming. It turns out that they are none too pleased about a woman with a past speaking to their respected teacher. The woman leaves her water jar and runs back to the town. There she utters some of the most beautiful and terrifying words written in the Gospel: “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did!”
For much of my life, that is all I knew about the story of the Samaritan woman. She had no name, just this one story. Despite the fact that Jesus wasn’t put off by her past, many Christians know her purely because she had a past.
Church tradition reveals much more about this extraordinary woman, and it is a beautiful picture of redemption, faith, and missions. The woman’s name is Photini, meaning “the enlightened one.” She was baptized at Pentecost, and went on to join this early Christian movement. Photini is considered a leader in the missionary movement, going to North Africa and preaching a message of love and redemption. While there, she had a dream that she should return to Rome and confront Nero. It didn’t go well, as was the case with most Christians and Emperor Nero.
Most of the accounts of Photini end with her martyrdom. She, who learned the true meaning of “living water”, died by being thrown into a dry well.
Photini knew what it was to encounter Jesus. Her heart had the ability to both hear and respond to truth. She knew what it was to be fully known, and fully loved. It was this that compelled her to tell others. It was this that was foundational to her faith. It was this that gave her a voice in that initial missionary movement that spread Christianity so long ago. In the Orthodox Church, Photini is not only known as a Saint, but also as equal to the Apostles.
Photini is not someone without a name. Photini is a beloved one.
A couple of years ago, while at an outside meeting, I noticed a tattoo on the neck of one of my colleagues. The tattoo was one word – the word beloved. On the way back to our office, I asked her about the tattoo. She smiled and said “It’s just to remind myself of who I really am.” My friend is African American, so when people want to dismiss her, when they want to deny her humanity and not allow her a voice she still knows at her core that she is beloved. When the headlines tell a story of prejudice and discrimination, my friend remembers she is beloved. She knows who she is, and no one can take that away from her.
Beloved – that beautiful word that tells us we are cherished, treasured, owned by love.
That day by the well, something happened to Photini that changed her life story. She met a man who called her out, and then brought her in. She became a beloved one, and the news was too good to keep to herself.
“Come see a man who told me everything I ever did!” That fact didn’t scare her – it freed her. Like my friend, beloved was branded on her permanently and no one could ever take that away. Not her neighbors, not the town gossips, not the disciples, and not Emperor Nero.
When we communicate with others out of a place of belovedness, our message is hopeful and compelling. We are not defensive or fearful. Saint Photini gives us that model – a model born from a redeemed past and a hopeful future. And with that hope, we too can tell the world “Come see a man who told me everything about myself!”
Beloved is branded on my friend’s skin permanently; may we, like Photini, have it branded on our hearts eternally.
“The engaged mind, illuminated by truth, awakens awareness; the engaged heart, affected by love, awakens passion. May I say once more – this essential energy of the soul is not an ecstatic trance, high emotion or a sanguine stance toward life: It is a fierce longing for God, an unyielding resolve to live in and out of our belovedness.”*
*Brennan Manning, Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging