I have been sitting with the woman at the well for some time. Her story is found in John 4, where she meets Jesus in the middle of a hot day. This story, for me, becomes an onion (stick with me) – every time I sit again with Jesus and the woman at the well, there is a new layer of the story that provides more depth and more clarity than the last time. As such, that is the purpose of this piece; that the story would become more and more alive to you, that it would be a telling of your story. That if God in all of His power weaves a story so intricate and redemptive for the woman at the well, surely He is still moving today, willing to do the same with the story that is our own.
We begin as always, with a thirst. A human thirst that led the woman to walk to the well at noon, supposedly the hottest time of day. There is a layer and a telling here, even in the time that the woman walked to the well. Noon was not the time that women walked to the well. Like shopping or coffee-shop sitting, walking to the well was the social excursion for the women of that time. They did it in groups, usually during the early morning, when it was cool out.
This woman, however, chooses to go during a time when she knows hardly anyone will be at the well. She chooses to go alone. While there, she meets a man who she decides must be prophet, for all that He knows about her. “‘That’s nicely put: ‘I have no husband.’ You’ve had five husbands and the man you’re living with now isn’t even your husband. You spoke the truth there, sure enough.’ ‘Oh, so you’re a prophet! Well, tell me this: our ancestors worshiped God at this mountain, but you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place for worship, right?’” (John 4:17-22, MSG).
My favourite part of this story is when she tells him of the Messiah, the one that will reveal all truth. I’m sure that she never believed in her wildest dreams she would be sitting and having a personal conversation with the Son of God, and so in my head, Jesus almost cannot contain his excitement when he tells her that He is the Messiah. I can see Him listening patiently to her, waiting for the right moment to tell her who He is. I can almost picture His sneaky grin.
He told her of true worshippers who might worship in spirit and in truth, where it didn’t matter where they worshipped or what they looked like – the only thing that mattered was the condition of their hearts.
“’Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you Samaritans will worship the Father neither here at this mountain nor there in Jersualem. You worship guessing in the dark; we Jews worship in the clear light of day. God’s way of salvation is made available through the Jews. But the time is coming – is has, in fact, come – when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship.” (John 4:22-24, MSG)
And the woman runs back into town after listening to everything He said, and begins to tell the people what she has heard. She has seen and heard the Messiah. She has been offered a gift of life, of grace, of a second chance. The story on the outside looks wonderful – a man who breaks all social code to sit with a woman, the reveal of who He really is, like superhero, the gift, and the life offered. And as we dig even deeper, the story holds even more weight – very much in fact, like a well, deep and full of living water.
The story of redemption was not just beginning at the well on that hot day, but merely continuing. Jacob’s well had been built 4,000 years prior, in Genesis 22: 18-20, “After Jacob came from Paddan Aram, he arrived safely at the city of Shechem in Canaan and camped within sight of the city. For a hundred pieces of silver, he bought from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem, the plot of ground where he pitched his tent. There he set up an altar and called it El Elohe Israel.” (NIV) The well had been built in significance of God’s chosen, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The son that Jacob bought the plot of land from (where he built the well) went on to humiliate and defile his daughter Dinah by way of rape, in Genesis 34. For years and years, it was a picture of promise, and destruction. A picture of a place and a people that were in desperate need of a Saviour in the midst of their story.
Jumping back to John 4, we see the woman running into town and telling all she knew about what she had seen and heard. Her instinctive evangelistic heart never left her. According to the Orthodox church, the story of the woman at the well continues, weaving it to completion of a woman radically changed by grace.
She was baptized shortly after her conversion, and at her baptism was given the name Photini,or Photina, which means “enlightened one.” With her five sisters and son, she made her way to Africa, where she began to preach the gospel of Christ. Her eldest son was fighting in the army against Rome, and was called before the Emperor Nero (54-68).
He threatened to punish her eldest son, and asked them not to preach the message of Christ. He refused. The seven who were in Africa heard of the attack of Nero in Rome, and immediately set out to convert Emperor Nero. Once there, the Emperor got word of who had arrived, and called them before him. Photina boldly preached the gospel, and was rejected by the Emperor.
The sons were thrown into jail, while the women were tempted to turn from Christianity by way of gold, jewels, and dresses. When they refused, Emperor Nero ordered for their hands to be beaten with rods. And yet none of them sustained injuries – in fact, they did not even feel any pain. He ordered the women down to prison where they lived for three years.
During that time it is said that they turned the place into a house of the Lord, converting many Romans who were sent down there. During the time that they were down there, they were subjected to tortures that they all miraculously were never harmed from. Eventually, he ordered all to be beheaded except for Photina, whom he threw down a well. After this, he removed her from the well, and stuck her once more in prison for 20 days. She was martyred shortly after.
Photina was a woman too ashamed to go walking with the others in the early morning, who became a woman so fearless as to spread the gospel as far as Africa, and march into Rome to preach the gospel to an Emperor so vicious that he had ordered the murder of his own mother. That fateful day at the well changed everything. Jesus’ hand in her story led it to become one of destiny, power, and boldness in the name of Christ.
She had drank from the well of living water. She had met her Saviour. She had accepted grace and His hand, and in doing so, her story came alive. Between the fourth and fourteenth century, she was regarded in Greek sermons to have as high a standing as the apostles and evangelists at the time. She often, in fact, outranked them. She was a preacher, a teacher, an evangelist, and a martyr, all in the name of Christ.
God uses what looks like on the outside cannot be used. He takes stories and events for His glory and with His hand turns them into a web of symbolism, strength and power so that His name is exalted, and His fingerprint is left on the dustiest parts of humanity. We are the woman at the well. We sit with Jesus and He invites us to drink living water. He invites us to become a part of His larger story, the one that He writes with a pen of grace in His hand.