as retold by Tanja Cilia
The woman was looking around her furtively. She was feeling uncomfortable, knowing that she did not “belong” where she was. This woman was from Samaria, and Samaritans were the mixed race of the Assyrians and the Jews of the former northern kingdom. So they were neither one, nor the other.
She was a woman at a time when women were treated as second-class citizens. She was a foreigner, living in a strange country. She was not married, but she lived with a man, and this meant that the other women looked down upon her.
This is why we find her at the well in the oppressive noon heat, “the sixth hour”. This well was dug on the plot of ground that Jacob gave His son Joseph. The other women used to fetch the water in the early morning, or in the evening, when it was cool. So in order not to meet them, she used to go when the sun beat down mercilessly upon her; but at least she did not have to avoid the eyes of the others, knowing that their malicious whispers were gossip about her.
This story happened when Jesus was traveling to Samaria. Now we must realize that the Jews avoided all contact with the Samaritans, and even with their country, if at all possible. For a Jew to call another Jew “A Samaritan” was a grave insult – in fact, in the Gospel of John [8:42] we find how during a quarrel, some of His fellow countrymen told Jesus “You are a Samaritan, and you are possessed by a demon.”
Jesus could have taken another road, skirting past Samaria, but He did not. He wanted this event to happen. He and the disciples came to a town called Sychar.
So, imagine her surprise when a man comes to the well, and talks to her. From His clothes, she realized that He was a Jew – and at that time, men just didn’t walk up to women and engage them in conversation – not even if the women were related them and especially so if the women were foreigners.
So it is to be expected, somehow, that the conversation which follows is not one that would have occurred between a Jewish man and a Jewish woman. For instance, there was the quasi-theological discussion about where God prefers to be worshipped – in Jerusalem, or on Mount Gerizim.
Jesus tells her “Believe me; the hour is coming when we will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. Indeed, the hour is already here when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”
Jesus, of course, knew all the answers. But He had a lesson to teach her – and us. That is why when the disciples had gone into the town to buy food, Jesus stayed behind.
He asked the woman to slake His thirst – and she was taken aback. This would entail her lending Him a cup – and that was unthinkable. “What? You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan!”
The Gospel explains that ‘Jews will not use the same cups or dishes that Samaritans use’, because Jews considered themselves as pure, whereas to them Samaritans were racially impure. Then He told her that He, too, had water, but His water was special because it gave eternal life.
She could not comprehend the deep meaning to His words. She stated the obvious – that He could not bring up water from the well, because He did not have a bucket. Perhaps with a bit of sarcasm in her voice, she asked whether He was greater than the forefather Jacob; who, it was said, had constructed the ancestral well, used by generations of people, each father and mother taking the children to it as a necessary part of tradition.
Then, she though better of it. How much better it would be to have the water that this person would give her, and never thirst again. Oh, this would mean she could steer clear of the well, and she would never, ever, have to see those women again.
Then, something inside her moved, and she realized that Jesus was special. She told Him, not asked Him, whether He was a prophet. She stated adamantly that she knew the Messiah was coming, and that when He came, He would make known all the things that until then would have been hidden. It is pertinent to note that the conversation between Jesus and the woman takes up nearly 40 verses in the Bible.
At this point, Jesus said the beautiful words that she treasured forever after: “I am He, the One who is speaking to you.”
Can you blame the woman for being so excited? She dropped everything – and this is an important thing – and ran into the village, telling everyone what had happened. She begged them to go to the well and meet Jesus. “He told me everything I have ever done!”
Later, when the disciples returned with food for Jesus, He told them He had food they didn’t know about. They assumed the woman had shared her lunch with Him.
Exactly because she was a Samaritan, people from her nation went to look for Jesus, something they might not have done if the Good News had been told by a Jew.
We do not know the name of this woman – but the Eastern Orthodox Church gives her the name Saint Photina (from the word for “light”), and celebrate her feast on February 28. The well is re-named as The Well of Jacob and Jesus.
The woman, like Saint Paul, is honored as an Apostle and as an Evangelist who spread The Good News, and there are apocryphal stories about her that say she went to Carthage and Smyrna in Asia Minor.
This is the hymn sung in her honor:
The water of eternal and blessed life.
And having partaken thereof,
O wise Photina,
thou went forth proclaiming
Christ, the Anointed One and the light of the world.
Great Photina, equal-to-the-Apostles,
Pray to Christ for the salvation of our souls.