Photini, The Samaritan Woman

by | Feb 26, 2024 | beauty, courage, faith, grace, healing, love, scripture

How our presumptions about her obscure an amazing synergy

Whenever the story of the Samaritan woman is preached or taught, certain presumptuous add-ons frequently, perhaps inevitably, show up. These presumptions, while deeply rooted in cultural bias and traditional interpretation, don’t track with what scripture actually says (and doesn’t say) about the Samaritan woman. 

On this, St. Photini’s feast day of February 26, let’s look at these presumptive assertions and why they don’t track. Then let’s look at how her conversation with Jesus reveals a grander and more glorious narrative.⁠1

I offer these alternative possibilities for the presumptions that are made about the Samaritan woman. I present them solely as possibilities, and not as certainties or presumptions, lest I be found equally at fault as those with which I find fault. I do find concerning that many seem to be okay with “adding to scripture” and besmirch the Samaritan woman’s character in ways that scripture does not. Yet these same people would not choose to think better of the Samaritan woman and her situation and consider other possibilities, ones that actually agree with the narrative, and how Jesus himself related to her.

On with the presumptions…

Presumption 1: She was a woman of loose morals (adulteress)

The Samaritan woman readily talks of worshiping God and recognizes that Jesus was a prophet. Jesus in response, does not judge, criticize or condemn her. In fact, sin, confession of sin, repentance, or forgiveness is not mentioned in the entire conversation of John 4. There is no “Go and sin no more” or “Your sins are forgiven” in this, the longest recorded conversation a person had with Jesus.

Also, her community believed her testimony before even meeting Jesus. Meeting Jesus confirmed what they already believed because of her testimony. This implies a level of trustworthiness within her community.

Presumption 2: She was with a man who wasn’t her husband, and Jesus called her out for her sin

As noted previously, sin is not mentioned in John 4. While cohabitation without formal marriage was a possible (and sometimes legally necessary) option, it was not the only possibility (see below.) She may have had no dowry, and therefore wouldn’t have a marriage contract. For whatever reason, she was not married to the man she currently “had” and Jesus commends her honestly in saying she had no husband without condemning her state or inviting her to change it. 

Presumption 3: She was a serial divorcee

What were the possible reasons for five husbands? Scripture is silent here, but divorce certainly would not be the only reason. Death from old age (old men marrying young women was not unusual), casualty of war, murder, accident, or disease were very real possibilities for some or even all of her husbands. 

While divorce could possibly account for the end of some of the marriages, it is not stated as such in the account. If we admit the possibility of divorce, it is also important to note that within this culture, either husband or wife could initiate divorce legally. Women could initiate with a male advocate and men could initiate by themselves. The divorce could be for a variety of reasons, not only for barrenness or adultery.

What scripture does say is she had five husbands, something that was unusual and certainly unusual for Jesus to know. Jesus affirms her statement, acknowledges her honesty, and gives an account of her marital history and present state in a matter of fact way.

Presumption 4: She came to the well at midday because of shame

Coming at noon and alone was stated factually in scripture, without any criticism of the method or time of her coming. She may have needed more water that day for some reason, or something may have prevented her from getting water earlier. What was noted as unusual was Jesus’s request for the Samaritan woman to serve him water. 

Finally, in Genesis 29 we read that Rachel, Jacob’s future wife, was at the well in the middle of the day. Was she there because of shame? (Interestingly, Jesus is meeting the Samaritan woman at the well named after that same Jacob.)

Presumption 5: The Samaritan woman “changed the subject” because Jesus found her out

Jesus actually first changes the subject of the conversation by asking about her husband, knowing she didn’t have a husband currently. Then with her reply and his response, she perceives he knows details he should not know and declares Jesus a prophet. Jesus could have redirected the conversation back to her present lack of marital union, but instead goes with her deeper questions and in turn, invites her into deeper spiritual truths. 

The nagging question is of course, why didn’t he call her out? Was anyone in scripture able to manipulate a conversation with Jesus? If anything, we are told time and again that when someone was trying to manipulate a conversation, Jesus knew and did not allow it. Since this was the longest conversation recorded with Jesus in the Bible, he had ample opportunity to call her out, but he didn’t. Is it possible that it was because there was no reason?

Summary: What we actually do know about the Samaritan woman from scripture

  • She was getting water at midday. 
  • Jesus asked her for water, and she conversed  at length with him.
  • She had 5 husbands, which was admittedly unusual.
  • The man she was living with wasn’t her husband.
  • She was spiritually inquisitive. 
  • She was a voice in her community that people listened to and believed. 
  • Her testimony compelled others to come and see Jesus for themselves. 

Was the Samaritan woman’s backstory shameful, or just unusually tragic?

Is it okay to continually besmirch the reputation of a woman whom Jesus commended for her honesty? A woman who was the first documented evangelist in the gospels? 

Can we drop our cultural bias that classifies the Samaritan woman as another “fallen woman” that Jesus saw in her shameful state and yet  “loved anyway” or “used anyway”? It makes a great conversion story, and who doesn’t love a great conversion story? But a conversion story that is supported by manufactured immortality does no service to the cause of Christ.

What are we presuming about Jesus?

While we are on the subject of presumptions, in making presumptions about the Samaritan woman, there are some implicit presumptions we make about Jesus. The first is that Jesus is okay with sinful behavior, as he never names it or invites repentance. The second is that Jesus was not able to see the truth in this woman’s heart, and allowed the conversation to be turned to spiritual matters without resolving her immoral and sinful state. If we believe this, I ask myself, what in the world has happened to the Jesus I know?

Finally, do these presumptions blind us to a greater and grander conversion story? A story that places a loving Jesus and his mission to seek and save a lost humanity at the center. 

What is really going on at Jacob’s well?

What if we see Photini* as the counterpart to Nicodemus?

*The Orthodox church recognizes the Samaritan woman as Saint Photini, “the enlightened one.” So, I will refer to her by this name from this point on.

Is it more than coincidence that Nicodemus’s story is in John 3, and Photini’s is in John 4? When read together, an amazing synergy arises. 

  • Both encountered Jesus in unusual circumstances.
  • Both were willing to defy religious rules of conduct to speak with Jesus.
  • Jesus spoke prophetically to both.
  • Both dialogued with Jesus and both were discipled by Jesus.
  • Both recognized Jesus was one who heard from God. 
  • With both Jesus began with a natural concept (birth for Nicodemus and thirst for Photini) 
  • With both he enlarged their spiritual understanding (spiritual birth the Nicodemus and spiritual life and worship for Photini)
  • To both Jesus reveals his divinity
  • Jesus then revealed himself personally to them both; to Nicodemus as Savior and to Photini as Messiah.⁠2
  • With both Jesus reveals the activity of the Holy Spirit within conversion.⁠3

Jesus’s interaction with Photini was his longest recorded conversation. He recognized her honesty and desire to know who he was and rewarded her with great spiritual truth, including Jesus’s identity as Messiah. She then went into her village and freely proclaimed what Jesus told her, becoming the first evangelist recorded in the Gospels. 

After this conversation, Jesus said to the disciples, “I have food that you don’t know about.”

Are we also ignorant of the feast of spiritual truth laid before us in John 3 and 4? 

More reflections on Photini

Go didn’t ask Photini to repent or change anything about her situation at this time. She herself knew her situation. What she didn’t know is that God brought this man into the the midst of her life that could speak for HIm. And when she became aware of that, she jumped right into how she could enter into a closer communion with God – “Where should I be worshipping?”

What does Jesus say? In Spirit – right here and now, and in truth. Because these are the worshippers God seeks. You don’t have to seek God if you’re in this posture – God will seek you out. And if you ask for the Spirit to fill you as streams of living water, God will do this. Just ask! 

When Photoni said, “He told me all I’ve ever done” we presume (again) this was just about he husbands, but she never says that. What Jesus first says to her is, “If you knew.” Did what Jesus know include her inner thirst for God? He knew her heart, no doubt. Did he see the thirst, the longing as yet unmet and sought for on the mountain where she worshipped? This is the good news Photini shared with her community – that God sees our longing for deeper relationship with Him and sent his Son, the Messiah. 

I’m not going to get into prevenient grace or irresistible grace here. That’s another conversation for another time. But Jesus spoke to a thirst that Photoni presumed was physical, but by the end of the conversation she felt a dawning awareness that Jesus spoke of a deeper spiritual thirst. The thirst David expressed, “As a deer pants for water, my soul pants for you. Where can I meet with you, the living God?” 

Then came the kicker. “Go, get your husband.” Does she tell Jesus the truth? Will this man make a false presumption? She takes the risk, tells the truth, and Jesus affirms her fidelity to veracity. “Yes, you said rightly…” and for whatever reason, nothing more needed to be said about the subject of husbands. But more was said about worship. 

Those who worship God will do so in Spirit – the living water Jesus freely give so of His Spirit, and in truth, the honest humility of an open heart. Because these are the ones the Father seeks. Those like you, Photoni. God is seeking you, and you have found Him at the well, in the midst of your daily life. 

Photoni’s life wasn’t easy. With five husbands, she likely never experienced much stability. Her roots had to go deep. This is why when she realized Jesus wasn’t talking about regular water, she dove into the deep end. She asks, “How to worship this God who knows me and wants to give me a fountain of life inside?” Then Jesus tells her she doesn’t need to do anything other than worship God in your spirit with honesty, and then God will seek you out. 


1 I do want to recognize the amazing scholarly work done by Marg Mowczko on the Samaritan woman. This blog post first put me on the trail to discover more about Photini and explore the idea of her being a counterpart to Nicodemus. samaritan-woman-john-4

2 I’m intrigued that this was not done vice-versa by Jesus, which would have been the expected order. Nicodemus needed a Savior, Photini needed a Messiah.

3 With Nicodemus, Jesus explains the process of being birthed of the Holy Spirit. In his conversation with Photini, Jesus promises her that if she asked, springs of living water would flow from within her. Compare this with Jeremiah 17:13 we’re God refers to himself as a Spring of living water. So living water coming from within is a reference to the gift of the Holy Spirit, the first time recorded where Jesus makes reference to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.


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