Photini: Mother of Evangelists
"Many Samaritans in that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s word when she testified, ‘He told me everything I’ve ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to Jesus, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. Many more believed because of his word, and they said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe because of what you said, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this one is truly the savior of the world'." (John 4:39-42)
Photini aka the Samaritan woman at the well
You may never have heard of Photini, yet you know her story. This is the name the Eastern Orthodox church has given to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. The story of Photini is one of the longest stories in the Bible about a woman and it is the longest conversation that Jesus is recorded as having with anyone. Photini is allowed just as much speaking time as Jesus, however she remains unnamed in scripture. Eastern Orthodox Christians have done her a service that the western church has not, she is given a name, and in the tradition of Orthodox hagiography, (the biographies of saints), the story of her life has been passed down orally over centuries to give us a broader picture of her importance. According to Eastern Orthodox Christians, Photini left quite a legacy in the early church, however Photini’s impact didn’t begin there. We first see Photini’s influence as the Mother of Evangelists in John 4. She is a bold, curious, smart woman, and is a gifted evangelist who is trusted by her people and chosen by God.
A misinterpreted story
Like many women in the Bible, Phontini’s story is one that has been gravely misunderstood. Her characterization as an adulterer or as a sinful woman has been a misrepresentation of the truth and it needs correction. To fully understand Photini, we must first recognize the layers of marginalization that impacted her life. The intersectionality of the discrimination she must have faced as a person of a shunned race (Samaratan women were considered perpetually unclean by the Jews), and likely as a woman with no means of her own who had to rely on men to survive, discrimination would have been a way of life for her, it would have been her identity. Shame would have been her norm.
Scholars have historically suggested that Photini was a woman of immoral character, originating from Jesus’ acknowledgement of her history of five marriages and her living with a man who she is not married to (John 4:17-18). This is an assumption that conflicts with the history of Samaria at the time and causes us to miss the point. Women were not given the rights to divorce and if Photini had been divorced 5 times, it was likely because she was cast aside, perhaps she couldn’t conceive, or there was some other reason she was unwanted by her husbands. She likely was not an adulteress. No man of her time would have dared to marry a convicted adulteress and voluntarily bring shame on himself or his family. It is most likely that her five marriages are recorded in scripture to tell us how hard her life has been, that she had outlived the lives of most, if not all of her husbands, potentially first becoming a wife when just a child. Photini would have had to re-marry to survive in a culture that did not have a way for women to live independently of a man. Women were considered property, even children were considered at a higher social status than women and if she had no male relatives, continual re-marriage was her only choice.
Photini the truth seeker
Photini engages in the longest recorded conversation with Jesus. One where she is not a passive listener but an engaged questioner and theological thinker. In the course of their conversation we learn several things, most prominently is that there is no barrier that Jesus cannot cross to embrace a relationship with someone. Jesus revealed himself to Photini and proved how well he knew her, and how he saw her as a truth seeker. Jesus gained Photini’s trust and her life was radically changed. Contrary to popular understandings of their encounter, Jesus never called her a sinner, and he never asked her to repent. Jesus focuses his attention on her as a truth seeker, sees her value and recognizes her intelligence. Jesus and Photini’s conversation initiates Photini’s gifting and ministry as an evangelist and missionary.
Jesus also accepts Photini’s direct questioning and borderline argumentative nature. She was smart and Jesus’ engagement with her intellect shows us this. Their exchange also models for us a way of talking with God that isn’t always accepted in the church, especially not for women. Questioning and seeking God, arguing with God and pressing God are all okay. Photini is a biblical model of a woman who does this and provides us our permission to talk to God candidly as seekers of answers and truth. We question not always because of doubt but because we have faith and because we want more faith and that is welcomed here by Jesus.
Once Photini recognizes Jesus as a prophet, she asks an important theological question that happens to be the most pressing one of her time in Samaria, one that affected the marginalization of her people as separate and as less than the Jews. Photini asks: “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you and your people say that it is necessary to worship in Jerusalem” (verse 20). Jesus then reframes her idea of worship and of faith (verses 21-24) and she responds confidently in verse 25: “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one who is called the Christ. When he comes, he will teach everything to us”. She paves the way for Jesus to reveal his identity to her. Once he does, she is enthralled with her revelation. Meanwhile the disciples return and silently watch the end of Jesus’ exchange with Photini, likely full of questions as to why he was talking to a woman. She leaves her water jar at the well, maybe because of excitement, or as some scholars have suggested, maybe to symbolize that she now has the living water and is no longer in need of the well’s water. She runs back to her city and begins her work of evangelizing.
A Credible Witness
When Photini returned to her community they listened to her. Her ministry was to all of the people there, both men and the women heard her and were impacted by her ministry. She was bold and disruptive and I imagine her full of joy. She spoke publicly to the people of her city and it was effective. We are assured by the town’s response to her that she was not perceived as the village crazy lady nor was she a shunned sinner, she was respected among her people because when she spoke, those that knew her listened and believed, she was a credible witness (John 4:40). The townspeople believed her enough to go and see Jesus for themselves.
Photini’s life after meeting Jesus
The Eastern Orthodox tradition regards Photini as equal to the apostles and praises her for her work in growing and strengthening the early church. Often our western-churched minds are so colored by our history of two centuries of the “enlightenment” and the training we’ve received to remain skeptical that we miss the benefits of imagining the remainder of Photini’s life as an evangelist. Photini must have led some sort of life after meeting Jesus face-to-face, and I can imagine after such a life-altering encounter she continued to use the gift of evangelization she was given. The Eastern church has done us a great service through historical oral storytelling (called hagiography) to preserve her legacy. Although likely not 100% accurate, Photini’s story is preserved to remind us of the importance of these saints who established and shaped the early church. Photini is recorded as being baptized by the disciples (where she is first given the name Photini, meaning “enlightened one”), and she spent her life evangelizing, converting countless people and towns to Christianity, not only in Samaria but beyond. She is said to have traveled to Carthage, where she received a vision of Jesus calling her to Rome to confront the Emperor Nero, a persecutor of Christians. She went along with family members and those who led alongside her and they all faced grusome torture and imprisonment as a result. Photini eventually was martyred by being thrown in a dry well (the irony being she already had the “living water”).
Relevance of Photini’s story for us today
Jesus chose to reveal himself to an intersectionality marginalized woman and gave her the gift of evangelization to her people. Jesus chose not to present himself first to the authorities of the town when he arrived (as was the custom of the day), but chose the most unlikely of people in Samaria to reveal himself to first. In the narrative of the upside down kingdom of God, this should not surprise us but remind us of how God works and moves among people in surprising and unlikely ways. This leaves me wondering how often today we still presume the one who holds authority is also the one with the most privilege or power. In the church and in God’s kingdom this is not the case. Jesus reveals himself and along with the Holy Spirit pours out gifts according to his will alone, not by the systems established by the authorities of the world.
- Have you heard of the name Photini before? How do you feel about embracing the hagiographies as a part of more fully understanding the lives of people in the Bible?
- The Samaritan woman has been misunderstood as sexually promiscuous and vilified as a sinful woman for much of the history of the church. What other women in the bible come to mind for you who have met similar fates?
- What do you make of the detail that Photini leaves her water jug at the well? Do you think it is symbolic or simply to portray her excitement to go and share the good news of Jesus?
- How does it make you feel to consider the teachings you have previously heard on the Samaritan woman at the well? What questions do you still have about interpretation and teaching on texts that emphasize the sexuality of women?
About the art
In this piece, Photini is represented surrounded by the flowing living water (in her halo) and water droplets radiate around her as I imagine her evangalistic gift radiated out the living water of the good news of Jesus during her ministry on earth. She is represented as middle age, around the age that I imagine she would have been when she first met Jesus at the well. She seems wise but also has a spark of mischief in her eye expressing her assertive nature. Water jugs form a subtle pattern in the background reminding us of the simple task of water gathering mid-day that led her to an encounter with Jesus that changed her life forever.
- Bronwen Speedie, “Samaritan Sinner, Celebrated Saint: The Story of the first Christian missionary,” Mutuality (Winter 2016): 6, https://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/mutuality/samaritan-sinner-celebrated-saint-story-first-christian-missionary (accessed March 4, 2020).
- Karen Gonzalez, “Apple Picking Theology: The Intersectionality of Jesus,” Mutuality (Summer 2017): 12, https://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/mutuality/apple-picking-theology-intersectionality-jesus (accessed March 4, 2020).
- Lynn Cohick, “The ‘Woman at the Well’: Was the Samaritan Woman Really an Adulteress?” in Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, ed. Sandra Glahn (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2017), 251.
- Brenda Salter McNeil, A Credible Witness (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 33.
- Frances Taylor Gench, Back to the Well: Women’s Encounters with Jesus in the Gospels (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 111.
- Cohick and Glahn, The “Woman at the Well”, 252.
- Alice Connor, Fierce: Woman of the Bible and Their Stories of Violence, Mercy, Bravery, Wisdom, Sex, and Salvation (Mineapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017), 132.
- Gench, Back to the Well, 117.
- Ibid., 118.
- Reverend Dr. Roberta Hestenes, “Jesus and the Ministry of Women,” Priscilla Papers 4, no. 4 (Winter 1990): 6, https://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/priscilla-papers/jesus-and-ministry-women (accessed March 4, 2020).
- Frederica Mathewes-Green, Frederica.com. http://frederica.com/writings/st-photini.html (accessed March 4, 2020).
- Speedie, Samaritan Sinner, Celebrated Saint, 9.