Wednesday, March 19, 2014

St. Photina

Reflections on the Readings
Third Sunday of Lent - March 23, 2014 - Year A

St. Photina
An Example of the Missionary Spirit

A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." The Samaritan woman said to him, "How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?"  (For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered and said to her, "If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him and he would have given you living water."

Jesus is thirsty. Arriving about noon, having walked some distance, Jesus is tired, hungry, and thirsty. He rests a bit on an ancient well, Jacob's well in fact, unable to draw water from the deep, cool waters below. For centuries this well has been the source of refreshment for man and beast. Now, Jesus who created the water that he cannot reach to quench his own thirst, asks an approaching woman of Samaria, a half-Jew with a past, for a drink of water.

[Samaritans are the result of the intermarriage between Jews of northern Israel and Assyrian colonists. Through conquest, exile, and returning back a racially mixed population is the result with roots nonetheless in the land of promise and the law of the Lord. 
The Samaritans were inspired when Nehemiah organized the effort to rebuild the Temple and offered to help in the project. Regarded as religious apostates, their offer was rebuffed, creating deep feelings of animosity faithfully passed down to every generation by Jew and Samaritan alike. 

The true Jews would have no camaraderie or dealings with the half breeds! The result? The Samaritans built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim inspired with no small amount of spiritual superiority on their part. Their religion was a mixture of idolatrous worship assimilated from the Assyrians and Judaism. Consequently, they were knowledgeable of Moses and the Law and possessed a Messianic hope as well.]  

Now the rest of the story!

Jacob's well has a rich history serving the needs of the rural area for centuries. A Samaritan woman with a past approaches the well with a shriveled heart. If Jesus had not said a word, she would have thought nothing of it. Protocol. Just the way things are. A Jew, a Jewish man at that, has no dealings, cordial or otherwise, with Samaritans, let alone a Samaritan woman. She would have drawn her water and gone on her way with a pitcher full of water and an empty heart.

Same stuff, different day.

But not this day. This day is different because Jesus asks her for a drink of water. And because Jesus will not let her past, racially or morally, keep him from quenching her deep thirst. Looking into her empty eyes he sees a woman used, and abused; an empty heart filled with useless and empty promises. Many years she's struggled with faith and fear; hope and hopelessness; promises, mostly broken. Even the local women scorn her. They never accompany her to the well. And if any women are at the well, they scatter quickly.

No social network. No welcoming smiles. No escape from her past. She's a woman. She's a Samaritan woman. She's a Samaritan woman with a past. And Jesus greets her with a request. 

"Give me a drink, please. I'm thirsty." 

Startled, she objects. 

"Why? You and me shouldn't even be talking to each other. Don't you remember? Jews and Samaritans hardly breathe the same air. And we certainly don't drink from each others pitcher. And where's your pitcher, anyway?"

"If you knew the gift of God, and who is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him and he would have given you living water."

Bewildered, she ponders what she's heard.

"Sir, again, you don't have a pitcher! And this well is deep. Are you greater than our father, Jacob? He gave us this well, you know. He and his family and herds all drank from this well. And many generations since he fell asleep drank from this well. So, just who are you?"

Jesus smiles with compassion.

"This water here in Jacob's well is good water. However, everyone who drinks from this well will thirst again. That's just being human. But whoever, and I mean whoever, drinks the water I shall give will never thirst!" In fact, the water I shall give you will be in you a spring of living water welling up to eternal life. It will burst forth in you so that you will taste of the very depths of everlasting life!"

"Sir, give me this water! Please! I don't ever want to thirst again, nor have to come here to draw water."

Jesus said, "First, go find your husband and bring him to the well too." 

She confessed, "I have no husband."

"I know. You've had five husbands and the man your living with now is not your husband." 

"Are you a prophet? I believe there are prophets. On this very mountain many holy people have prayed. But you say that in Jerusalem is the only place where men should worship."

"The fullness of salvation is a promise deeply understood and embraced by the Jews. We worship what we know. This has not always been true among your people. But there is something more you should know. Today is a new time when all true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. God is not a mountain nor a place. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."

Standing up, the Samaritan woman could hardly contain herself. She said to Jesus, "I know that Messiah is coming; when he comes, he will show us the way." 

Jesus said to her, "I who speak to you am he."

Her heart bubbled over with the gift of eternal life. The waters of everlasting life caressed her soul into a joy she had never known. Falling down before Jesus' feet she wept, overwhelmed as she was with a newness of life she never dreamed existed. Rising from the dust and her past she asked Jesus not to leave.

"I'll be right back. I promise." 

And running through the community she shouted with a joy that could not be ignored: "Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?"

Today this Samaritan woman is venerated as a saint in the Christian East by both Catholics and Orthodox as St. Photina. She is known as Svetlana by the Russians. In Christian tradition she is noted for the missionary spirit she maintained from her conversion until her martyrdom in Rome. One of her last missionary efforts resulted in the conversion of Nero's daughter Domnina and all of her servants.

Infuriated, Nero had her confined to a well, where she gave up her last breath in praise of him who gave her the Living Waters of the Holy Spirit.

May it please God that we should be as immersed in the Living Waters of the Holy Spirit as St. Photina. And like St. Photina let us invite all to meet Jesus, the Savior of the world.  Amen.



Dennis Hankins is a parishioner at Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral, of the Diocese of Knoxville, TN.  Prior to uniting with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil 2006, Dennis served as a priest in the Charismatic Episcopal Church. E-mail Dennis at: or follow him on Twitter: @dshankins or visit him at:

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