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Samaritan Sinner, Celebrated Saint: The story of the first Christian missionary

When I was a child, a popular Australian women’s magazine had a regular section on “Great Women of History,” telling the stories of women who changed their country or the world, from Catherine the Great of Russia to scientist Marie Curie and suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. These mini biographies helped to awaken in me a lifelong interest in the true stories of the lives of women who stepped outside of the roles society defined for them.

But the lives of many of the Bible’s women are not always so easy to uncover as those from more recent history. Often, we have very limited details available from Scripture—maybe a single sentence or paragraph. Many of the Bible’s women are known to us only by their relationship to a particular man (Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11) or their place of origin or residence (the Shunammite woman of 2 Kings 4). Often, their stories are fascinating fragments that seem to hold the promise of so much more, if only we had the rest of the story.

The story of the Samaritan woman of John 4 is something of a paradox. It is one of the Bible’s longest stories about a woman (and contains the longest conversation Jesus is recorded as having with anyone), and yet she is known to us only by her ethnic and religious identity. John provides some details of her past and present, but no clues about whether her encounter with Jesus continued to bear fruit into her future. Despite the powerful response to Jesus that resulted from her witness, we hear no more within the New Testament of this Samaritan village’s conversion to belief in Christ.

Given all we don’t know, what can we discover about this woman whose faith was worthy of a whole chapter of John’s gospel? How could she have had so many marriages? How is Jesus’ approach to her unusual? And what happened after the events of John 4?

Unraveling False Assumptions

Throughout my life, I have heard the Samaritan woman presented as a shameless sinner. But is her marital status proof of her own wrong choices?

We don’t know why she had five husbands. My own grandmother has outlived three husbands, but probably in quite different circumstances. My grandmother’s husbands were quite close to her own age, but it’s likely that the Samaritan woman married much older men. Even today, Samaritan women (yes, there are still Samaritans today) are often betrothed in infancy. In a first-century society with a life expectancy of twenty-five years, a young Samaritan woman could have outlived several older husbands.

Although Samaritans today interpret the Levirate marriage law (that a deceased man’s brother is to marry his widow) as forbidding marriage to the husband’s brother but instead encouraging marriage to another blood relative, it is uncertain how long this has been the case. It is possible that in New Testament times, Levirate marriage to a late husband’s brothers was practiced. If a woman’s first husband was relatively old, his brothers may also have died within a reasonably short period.

Is it possible that she was divorced five times? It’s highly unlikely. If she had been repeatedly divorced, the chance of being married again would be slim. At least today, divorce is strongly looked down upon in the Samaritan community. It could have been different in the first century, but some evidence suggests that divorced women have, in the past, been put to death.

Not being wholly reliant on a man for financial support, my grandmother has sometimes waited over a decade before marrying again. But the financial circumstances of women in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in Western countries are very different from those of ancient Samaria. By this stage of her life, the Samaritan woman may have had no living male relatives to support her. To survive financially, she may have had to grasp at any opportunity that was offered, however undesirable. Living with a male provider and protector outside of marriage may have been a desperate measure for survival.

Was the Samaritan woman living in a sinful situation? Yes. May she have been outcast from the women of her village as a result? Highly likely. Was it necessarily her fault? Quite possibly not. And Jesus seems to see past this. Although he opens a discussion about her marital status, he is not recorded as telling her to repent. It seems he saw something in her heart that defied what could be seen from her situation and status.

Worth Beyond Circumstances

Jesus had a way of seeing the person and not just their circumstances, and as a result, he often broke the cultural taboos—eating with a tax collector and sinner, healing the servant of a hated Roman centurion, and dealing with lepers. Jesus breaks many rules in this encounter—rules about men (and particularly rabbis) speaking publicly to women, about Jews having dealings with Samaritans, and about the righteous consorting with sinners.

Even today, women are forbidden from entering a Samaritan synagogue in case they begin menstruating and render it unclean (there is no women’s section like in the Jewish counterpart). Many Jewish rabbis of Jesus’ time would cross the street rather than walk near a woman, but Jesus crossed into unthinkable territory for this “divine appointment” with a Samaritan woman.

Walking two or three days out of your way to avoid going through the “unclean” Samaritan territory was the norm for Jews in Jesus’ day. But a respected rabbi walking into Samaria to talk to a woman about theology? Unheard of! A Jew would not eat or drink from the same vessel as a Samaritan, but here is Jesus, sitting on a Samaritan well, asking a woman to draw water for him to drink from her vessel. Kenneth E. Bailey, in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, points out that unlike the wells Westerners may imagine, there is no wooden bucket permanently attached to a Middle Eastern well—you supply your own foldable leather bucket. Jesus’ request makes it necessary that he would drink from the Samaritan woman’s bucket. His message is implicitly, “I am willing to make myself unclean in order to create the opportunity to have this conversation with you. You matter enough to me.”

An Iranian friend pointed out to me another common Middle Eastern cultural rule that Jesus broke. On entering a village in that region, a person is expected to present themselves to the village leaders before going about their business. (Is this perhaps the cultural background to Jesus’ instruction to the Seventy in Matthew 10:11–14—if the village leaders reject you, don’t break cultural rules by entering there?) Jesus, however, rather than approaching the village leaders, approaches one of the lowliest and most rejected members of this village community and starts his mission to the Samaritans from this upside-down circumstance.

Throughout the Samaritan woman’s adult life, men—five husbands and another partner—have always wanted something from her. In the kitchen, the bedroom, and probably side by side in the fields or whatever her husband’s industry was, she would have been expected to serve her husband’s needs. Jesus starts out with a need, too—a simple request for a drink of water—but ends up offering her something far greater, which will satisfy her deepest need eternally.

Missionary and Martyr?

I rarely reach the end of a good book without asking, “But what happened to these characters next?” To lovers of sequels such as myself, sometimes the Bible can be a tad frustrating in the very brief glimpses it gives into the lives of many of its people, without providing the answers to “what next?” However, traditions handed down by Eastern Orthodox Christians may give us a glimpse of “the sequel” in the Samaritan woman’s life.

It is important to note that Orthodox hagiography (biographical stories of the lives of saints) is not “history” in the way we might understand it. Much of it has been handed down orally over the centuries and has been greatly embellished. But often, a kernel of truth lies behind the stories. 

Given that the disciples were away buying food for most of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman and were therefore not eyewitnesses, I wonder whether preservation of this story in such detail is testament to the ongoing faith of this woman and her involvement in the early Christian movement beyond Samaria. Did she spend time with John or with someone close to him, giving him her version of events to later include in his gospel?

The Orthodox believe that the apostles baptized the Samaritan woman at Pentecost, and that she took the baptismal name Photini (alternately, Photeine, Photina, or in Russian, Svetlana), meaning “the enlightened one.” She converted many people, including her five sisters and two sons. Her mission was not just to her native Samaria. She is believed to have journeyed as a missionary to Carthage in North Africa with one of her sons, her sisters, and other Christians. Photini is always viewed as the chief figure in this missionary movement, despite the presence of mature Christian men such as her son Joses (or Joseph).

While in Carthage, Photini was said to have received a vision of Jesus, calling her to go to Rome and confront Emperor Nero, one of the cruelest persecutors of the church. With her family and a contingent of African believers, she set sail for the imperial city. She confronted Nero with an unwavering faith in Christ, which led to the torture and imprisonment of herself and her followers. The gory descriptions of torture are where the story most obviously enters the realm of legend, in keeping with the popularity of graphic tales of torture and martyrdom surrounding figures in the early church, highlighting the person’s strong faith in the face of the vilest oppression. 

Most of these accounts end with Photini being martyred by being thrown into a dry well. The sweet irony of this story is, of course, that having found “living water” in Jesus Christ beside the well in Sychar decades earlier, her death was no miserable ending, but rather a glorious beginning of her eternal life in Christ.

So significant was Photini’s life and mission believed to be that Orthodox give her the title “equal to the apostles,” a special title given to some saints whose outstanding service in spreading Christianity is believed to be comparable to that of the Twelve. It has only been given to a small number of saints throughout the centuries, including Mary Magdalene, Thecla, Constantine, and Saint Patrick of Ireland. Many of these saints were women.

Photini’s scandalous past and her gender may have made her unclean and outcast in Samaritan society, but they were no obstacle in the body of Christ. In Jesus, she found unconditional forgiveness, a place of honor and leadership in the community of believers, and a surprising legacy in history.

When I was a child, a popular Australian women’s magazine had a regular section on “Great Women of History,” telling the stories of women who changed their country or the world, from Catherine the Great of Russia to scientist Marie Curie and suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. These mini biographies helped to awaken in me a lifelong interest in the true stories of the lives of women who stepped outside of the roles society defined for them.

But the lives of many of the Bible’s women are not always so easy to uncover as those from more recent history.

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