Have you ever wondered about the back story of some of the Bible’s women and men? Like what happened before, or after, a certain conversation with Jesus? Sometimes there’s a story right in front of us, hidden in the text. Or just beyond us, in the history kept through the Catholic and Orthodox churches.
A New Angle on the Samaritan Woman
I’ve read the passage about the Samaritan Woman of John 4 many times, and even written a fictional version of it. But only through the focusing practice of The Mother God Experiment have I been able to see her apart from all I learned about her in church. And then that new light led me to find out the Samaritan woman’s baptismal name, Photina, which the Orthodox and Catholic churches have kept sacred.
We all tend to think of the Samaritan woman as having lived a sinful life, since she had five husbands and was not married to her current man (John 4:18). Martha Pearl is the author of three works of fiction based on the historical Photina. She reminds us that after the church merged with the Roman Empire in the third century, the church began to see women as inferior to men, including Bible women of the first century. So this is the negative lens we tend to use when we read Scripture.
However, during my last reading of John 4, I realized that the Samaritan woman was not what she has always seemed. For example, she had no control over the number of husbands she had. Women did not have the legal right to initiate divorce–almost never, anyway. Each of her husbands either died or divorced her. And if the latter, her children were likely taken away to live with the father. That was the law.
The Decisions of a Leader
It’s not too hard to imagine why she finally decided to make her last relationship outside the bounds of marriage, though it likely cost her socially. My guess is she decided any new babies, and any property she had, would not be taken from her should this man leave her. She would not marry again.
Despite her choice, she was a leader in her community. For example, when she told the people in her town about Jesus, they believed her story (John 4:42) and came out to Jacob’s well to see Him. Without having even heard him speak, “many…believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” and they “asked him to stay with them” (John 4:39a, 40b). It was only after he had stayed two days speaking with them that they also believed because of Jesus’ message (John 4:41).
Based on the Bible text and history, Photina was a smart, knowledgeable, initiating woman. These qualities may have irritated the men she married. Perhaps her husbands left her for more docile, submissive women, characteristics more highly sought after in a Middle Eastern wife.
Finally, A Man to Believe In
Note that Photina did not ruffle Jesus. On the contrary, He showed His trust in her by revealing His true identity to her (John 4:25, 26) and His mission, which was to make true disciples who could worship Him in spirit and truth (John 4:24) and not only through religion.
When she met Jesus, she knew she had met the Real Thing, the one to give her life to. Martha E. Pearl writes about scholar Carlum Carmichael’s fascinating reading of John 4:18. Carmichael believes that Jesus was speaking of himself as the Samaritan woman’s final man when he said “you have had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband!”
Carmichael’s argument goes that Jesus was differentiating between the woman’s previous relationships and theirs, reinforcing that this relationship was not sexual. If this reading is correct, Jesus wasn’t exposing the woman’s immoral relationship. He was merely revealing that He knew her history and that the relationship He was beginning with the woman was different from the ones with her abandoning husbands. Very different.
The Rest of the Story
And she got it. Right away. The enthusiasm and leadership she showed in witnessing to her city carried over into her life following Christ.
The rest of her life? How do we know anything about that? Well, believers like me typically don’t, but our sisters and brothers in the Orthodox and Catholic tradition do.
The Eastern Orthodox tradition is the oldest one within Christianity. The Holy Martyr Photina is one of the most common early icons, or sacred pictures of saints, among the first churches. Martha Pearl whittled down the history about Photina that is most likely valid and not hagiography. She writes, “…certain central facts remain that seem credible historically. These are: she had five sisters; she had two sons who went on missionary journeys with her; she was present at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was received; she was sent by the Apostolic Council as a missionary to Carthage and North Africa; she spent the years 62 to 64 AD in Rome, spoke before Nero, and died during or shortly after the Neronian persecution in 64 AD.”
I have always been afraid I was squeezing the text to use the word missionary for the Samaritan woman. I was gladly mistaken. Jesus sent her to her town, and then the Apostolic Council sent her to not only Carthage but all of North Africa.
Photina was a respected leader in her community. Her husbands may not have appreciated that. But Jesus did. She went on to share her experiences with the Messiah until her martyrdom. The Holy Martyr Photina would be called “Equal to the Apostles”.
More To Come
Intrigued by Photina, I did a search for first century female saints (in the Orthodox and Catholic traditions) and found there were many, some mentioned only briefly in the Bible. I hope to find out more in the weeks to come and share what I find!