Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

St Photeine, the Woman at the Well

The Eastern Orthodox Church honors the Samaritan woman whom Christ met at the well as Saint Photeine. Celebrated on February 26 and again on the fourth Sunday after Easter, she entered Christian literature and history in the fourth chapter of the fourth Gospel, when St. John, writing around 90-100 A.D., records as an extraordinary happening, Jesus' encounter with a woman from Samaria. This story does not appear anywhere else in the New Testament.

The encounter, the Evangelist relates, took place at high noon or the "sixth hour"; when a Jewish teacher or rabbi weary from heat and travel stops to rest by the ancient well of Jacob in Samaria. A woman, carrying a water jar, has come from a nearby village to draw water for her household. When the man asks her for a drink of water, the request surprises her. Something extraordinary was indeed taking place. She knows that Jews despise Samaritans and avoid all contacts with them. And, despite centuries old religious prejudices, a Jew was talking to a Samaritan, courteously asking for a drink of water.

Her great surprise notwithstanding, the Samaritan woman responds. Soon the two at the well are engaged in conversation, discussing Jewish and Samaritan theology. This was even more extraordinary. Jewish men did not talk to women in public, especially Jewish teachers or rabbis. Rabbis, moreover, never talked theology with a woman, either publicly or privately. No wonder, then, that when Jesus' male disciples arrived at the well from their shopping in the town they "were astonished to find him talking with a "woman" (John 4:27). Had the disciples heard the remarkable conversation between their teacher and the woman, their astonishment would have increased.

In the course of the conversation, the weary traveler sitting by the well and talking about "living water" reveals for the first time to anyone that he is the Messiah: "I am he, l who am speaking to you now" (John 4:26). Thus, according to the Evangelist, the revelation of Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah first is made to a woman. An important disclosure about God has taken place.

The woman immediately accepts the disclosure. She believes that Jesus is the Christ of God and runs eagerly to tell her other villagers the good news. On the strength of her witness, we are told by St. John, many Samaritans came to believe in Jesus. And so, it was a woman who brought Jesus his first converts.

The Greek theologians and teachers of the early Christian centuries did not fail to appreciate the significance of the Samaritan woman with whom Christ had spoken at the well. Greek Church Fathers — St. John Chrysostom among them — praised the woman's sensitivity and faith, as well as her intelligence. They grant her the titles of "apostle" and "evangelist." In Greek sermons written between the fourth and 14th centuries, the Samaritan woman is compared to the male disciples and apostles and found to be their superior.

During this same period many hymns were composed to honor the woman at the well. The poet of an elaborate sixth-century hymn calls her "wise," "holy," "faithful" and "god-bearing." With one voice Greek hymn writers sing the praises of the woman who, when she received the water of eternal life, rushed to share it with others. In more than a few hymns the Samaritan woman is herself glorified as a "spring of living water."

In time she was canonized by the Eastern Orthodox Church and enrolled among her saints. Her cult spread throughout the Eastern Mediterranean world, and reached as far west as Spain. On Mount Zion, Jerusalem, a Syrian convent bore the name of our saint.

Along with a saint's golden halo, the Samaritan woman also received a name, while in the Gospel of St. John she is nameless, being identified only by her ethnic origin and by her sex. According to tradition Christ names her Photeine, which in Greek means "bright," "shining," "radiant." The nameless woman of the Gospel becomes transfigured into light, listed in Orthodox liturgical books as the "Glorious Saint and Great Martyr Photeine, the Samaritan Woman." In the Roman Catholic Church she is commemorated on March 20 as St. Photina.

Like all proper saints, Saint Photeine has a legend, which begins where the story in the Gospel ends. Recorded in Greek collections of saints' lives, it tells the story of a pioneer woman apostle.

Photeine, baptized at the first Pentecost with her five sisters and two sons, then began an illustrious career as a missionary. She traveled far and wide, from place to place, in the company of other apostles, preaching and converting pagans to Christianity. With her younger son, Joseph, Photeine went to Carthage to carry the Gospel to North Africa. She preached there "with great boldness" and won many souls for Christ.

After a vision in which Jesus appeared to her, she sailed from Carthage for Rome, her last mission field. In the imperial city she amazed the populace. Never had they seen a woman of greater faith and courage. Photeine even dared to confront the Emperor Nero, who at that time had ordered the persecution of Christians who were living in his capital. Not only did she confront the persecutor of her co-religionists, but she tried to convert him.

Infuriated by Photeine's missionary zeal, Nero did everything in his power to destroy Photeine and her faith. But, when he sent his daughter and her hundred maidservants to persuade the saint to abandon Christianity, the results did not please him. Photeine converted and baptized the imperial princess and her attendants.

The tyrant then resorted to punishments and tortures of all kinds. He sent his most powerful magician to poison the saint.But when she swallowed his most lethal poison. the magician became a Christian and was baptized by Photeine. On hearing this, Nero ordered his magician beheaded. All his attempts to break Photeine's faith had failed.

For three years Photeine remained imprisoned in Rome. While in jail, she transformed it into a "house of God." A marvelous bright light and sweet fragrance filled her prison. Romans came in crowds to see and to hear her talk about Christ. Many were converted by her into Christians, "children of light."

Finally when her five sisters had been put to death and Saint Photeine was left alone, Nero tried one last time to annihilate her. She was thrown into a very deep and dry well. When this cruel torture failed (as had all others), Photeine was returned to prison where she died peacefully.

Sad that she had not been "crowned with martyrdom" along with her sisters, Photeine had prayed for death. In answer to her prayers Christ appeared to the saint, blessing her with the sign of the cross. Some days later, while singing praises to God, Saint Photeine put her beautiful soul into the hands of the Savior.

The legend of Saint Photeine, the Samaritan woman, preserves the memory of Christianity's first valiant woman, who not only believed in the Word but also proclaimed it. In honoring Saint Photeine, the Orthodox Church pays homage to the first women apostles.

Christ with St Photeine

Christ and St. Photeine
Feb. 24

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