Beyond the Well

The Gospel lesson for this morning (at least if you’re using the 3-year lectionary cycle) is John 4 and the story of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well.  It’s a beautiful story, a beautiful depiction of the love and patience of God in action in the life of an apparently troubled woman.  Some people call her the first evangelist, because she might be the first person who goes to share the Gospel with others after a personal encounter with the Son of God.

Some people also call her Photine.  Or more accurately, St. Photine. 
According to the interesting site orthodoxwiki.com, this Samaritan woman was baptized by Jesus’ disciples (that this could be possible is indicated in John 4:1-2, which simply states that Jesus’ disciples were baptizing people).  She was given a new Christian name, Photine, which means enlightened one.  She didn’t just help convert her town (as John 4:29 indicates), she converted her siblings and her sons.  They all became evangelists, and St. Photine eventually moved to North Africa, in Carthage sharing the Gospel.  There she was arrested and with several others, taken to Rome to stand before the Emperor Nero.  Accounts vary of the particular tortures she and the others suffered, but they refused to renounce their Lord, and were eventually martyred for their faith, but only after converting Nero’s own daughter, Domnina, and all her servants, to Christianity.  
These stories fascinate me.  The historian in me marvels at the accounts that have been preserved for hundreds and hundreds of years.  And, being a good 21st century rationalist/skeptic/post-modernist weenie, I can’t help but doubt.  Accounts of St. Photine begin around the middle of the fourth century – a long time after her death and the deaths of anyone who knew her.  Granted, in historical terms this is still the relative blink of an eye.  But it is hard to accept.
Much as my trip to Israel two years ago, I need to challenge my skepticism.  The woman at the well was a real woman, every bit as real as Jesus was a real man.  I have no problem with this proposition.  But because I hold Scripture to be the inspired Word of God, subject to his special protection and purposes, I trust it at a level I don’t trust other historical work.  I don’t believe this is problematic.  A brief investigation into the textual transmission and accuracy of both the Old and New Testaments ought to convince anyone that there is something extraordinary about these writings.  
But the people in Scripture don’t live in a Bible-vacuum.  Their lives also bleed over the pages to potentially touch other history.  If the woman was bold enough to go back to town and share about Jesus with the people who probably despised or mocked her, who is to say that she wouldn’t be capable of everything else said about her?  And while hagiographers (people who devote themselves to researching and writing about the lives of saints) might have an imaginative field day with the particulars of her tortures, are there kernels of truth to be ferreted out in the broader details?
I won’t likely know until the Day of Our Lord, but it’s fascinating to wonder.  And I am grateful for the witness of the saints through history, and to one day being amazed again to learn truth from fiction, and see the thread of faith that God has woven into the structure of space and time itself.  I look forward to meeting the Samaritan woman, whether her name really is Photine or not.  

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