Today is International Women’s Day, and I was due to take the lunchtime service. It just so happens that, alongside the readings set for today in the Lectionary, there is another set of readings that ‘may replace those provided for Holy Communion any day during the Third Week of Lent’—and that the Gospel in that set is John 4:5-42.
The Samaritan woman at the well is largely disregarded in the Western Church (Roman Catholic, Anglican Lutheran, Baptist, and other Protestant traditions). Moreover, she is generally misrepresented, as an adulteress, on the grounds that she had had five husbands and currently lived with a man who was not her husband. However, at no point in the account is she described as an adulteress or as a ‘a sinful woman’. Indeed, it is highly unlikely. We know that the Law required those guilty of adultery to be stoned to death. [We even have just such a story only a few chapters further on in John’s Gospel.] If we think it unlikely that this happened in practice, perhaps we have forgotten how popular a lynch-mob has been across times and cultures—especially against women. Consider the witch trials.
We also know that the Law decreed that if a man should die without leaving an heir, his brother was to marry his widow and provide both for the deceased man’s legacy and the surviving woman’s security. It is possible that the woman at the well had had the misfortune to have married into a family which carried a genetic life-limiting condition [and again, we have a story of just such a woman presented to Jesus as a test-case]. It is also possible that not all her husbands were brothers, but they had died of unrelated tragic reasons: life was far more precarious then than now. It is perfectly likely that this woman went to the well in the heat of the day to avoid the other women because she could not bear their blessings. She may also have been shunned as one cursed by God. These things are all more likely than that she was an adulteress. Nonetheless, she—presumably in agreement with her latest man—had taken matters into her own hands in an attempt to cheat death.
While the Samaritan woman is overlooked by the Western Church, the Eastern Church (Russian-, Greek-, and other Orthodox traditions) have honoured and preserved her memory. While we don’t know her actual name, she is known to the Eastern Church as Photini—which means, Enlightened One: or, rather, as Saint Photini, Great Martyr, Equal to the Apostles.
Whereas John records that she introduced Jesus to her native city, with the result that many put their faith in him, Church tradition recounts What Happened Next: how she and her children (for at some point she did have children) travelled far-and-wide telling others of Jesus; of how she eventually reached Rome, where her testimony resulted in the conversion of the Emperor Nero’s daughter and all her attendants—much to the disgust of daddy, on whose orders Photini was tortured and martyred.
On so many levels, I can’t think of a more fitting Gospel reading, and a more fitting story to tell, for International Women’s Day.
Alongside her story, I have chosen to use Eucharistic Prayer G, a Communion prayer that originates in the Eastern Church that honours Photini, and that explicitly employs the female imagery of mother to describe what God is like.