Aemilia Metella Interviews the Samaritan woman who debated theology with Jesus
“You are not going to Samaria, are you? It’s full of uneducated and foolish people.”
A friend said this when he heard I intended to travel to Samaria to interview a woman called Photine. I wanted to speak with her because I heard she debated theology with Jesus. This intrigued me because it sounded neither uneducated nor foolish. Many others said Photine was an immoral woman with loose morals, but I wanted to find the real Photine.
This prejudice goes back many generations to the time the people of Judea were taken away into exile in Babylon. When they returned, they found the people left behind had intermarried with local tribes. From then on, they would have nothing to do with them, and arguments arose as to how, and more importantly, where, they were to worship. Arguments that Photine was well aware of.
Sychar in Samaria has seen better days. Once a great city, now it is little more than a village. Run-down houses line dirty streets in need of repair. Photine invited me into her home and offered me refreshments. Wrinkles lined her forehead, with deep lines around her eyes, and I found it hard to judge her age. Yet there was a spark of energy, which was contagious. Her clothes were clean, but like the village had seen better days and showed signs of being mended many times.
“Can you tell me about the day you met Jesus?” I asked.
“I can show you where if you like,” she replied.
Photine picked up a scarf before ducking out of the low doorway and into the street. We walked the short distance to the village well, past shepherds watering their flocks and a woman on the return journey with a heavy pitcher on her head. She called out to Photine and wished her a good day. Rumours said Photine was an outcast, but there was no sign of it.
Photine pointed to the well. “Here is where it happened.”
“Can you tell me the events of that day?”
“I needed to pop out to the well at noon because I had run out of water, when I saw a man sat on the edge.” Photine took me by my shoulders and positioned me on the low stone wall. “He was on his own and sat right there when I arrived. Sometimes you see men hanging around the well, with no good intentions, and I was ready for him. I’ve smashed more than one pitcher on the head of a man who got too friendly. But as I got nearer, I sensed he was not like that. He was not intimidating.”
“I knew he was a stranger because no one from around here sits on the edge because it isn’t safe.” I jumped up and Photine laughed. “Don’t fret, Aemilia. We repaired it last year.”
I sat back down and felt safer when she joined me.
“What did Jesus say?”
“The first thing he asked for was a drink of water. Now, I could tell he was Jewish because of the clothes he wore and his accent. I’m not well educated, but I know a thing or two. Jewish men have nothing to do with Samaritan women. Even if they were dying of thirst in the desert, they wouldn’t speak or share a drinking cup. I asked him why he approached me for a drink.”
“Why did he ask you?”
“Because he was thirsty. Why else? When I had drawn a bucket of water, I offered him a cup. After drinking, he said if I knew who he was, I would ask him for a drink, and he would give me fresh, living water. He didn’t even have a bucket, let alone a rope, to get the water from the well, so how on earth could he give me water?
“Now, this is where it got interesting. He said that everyone who drinks the water from this well will be thirsty sometime later. But anyone who drinks from the water he gives will never be thirsty again. It’s like a spring, gushing fountains of living water from deep inside you. That was water I was interested in because I have to come out here three or four times a day and carry a heavy pitcher on my head. And I’m not as young as I was.
“So, I asked him for this everlasting life-giving water, and he told me to get my husband. Well, the man I’m with wasn’t exactly my husband at the time, so I told Jesus I wasn’t married. Not exactly lying, but not telling the truth, either. Jesus commended me on putting it nicely, then said I had five husbands and this one wasn’t legally my husband.” She spread her arms wide. “How did he know?”
“I’ve heard that about you, Photine. Have you been married five times?”
“Yes, that’s true. And I bet you’ve heard I either bumped them off, dumped them or done the dirty with someone else?”
I laughed at her choice of words and nodded.
“I’ll let you into a secret, Aemilia. Don’t tell anyone, but it’s really not that interesting. Four died of natural causes, and nothing to do with me or my cooking. And I divorced the last one because he ran off to Caesarea with my money and the girl from next door. Being a single woman around here is difficult. With no children to look after me, and no sons to provide and protect me, I was in a dangerous position until a kind widower took me in, and we were living as husband and wide, so to speak.
“How could I not think I was speaking to a prophet because he knew all about me and my past? Also, I’m not stupid and know what he was meaning. Jesus was talking about what the Jews think of us Samaritans. My five husbands represent the five tribes with which the Samaritans intermarried, and the man who is not my true husband shows that our worship is not true worship. Jesus was talking about how we were to worship, so I asked him to explain.
“I said, we Samaritans worship on Mount Gerizm, but you Jews say the only right place to worship God is in the temple in Jerusalem, but you don’t want us there. Tell me, if you are such a great prophet, where is the right place to worship? He said there is a time coming soon when the place where we worship will no longer matter. That was surprising, and what he said next added to it. It’s who you are and how you live that count before God. He is looking out for people who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. Those who worship must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”
“What did you think about what he said?”
“I understood what he said but found it difficult at the time to understand how important it is. I told him I wasn’t sure about what he said, but I believed the Messiah was coming, and he would show everyone the way to God. He leant in so I could hear correctly and said, ˋI am he, you don’t have to look anywhere else. ˊ
“Well, you could have pushed me over with a leek! But there was something special about him I couldn’t quite grasp, like smoke escaping from my fingers. Any other man who said that I would have laughed in their face, but he was different. I knew he was not joking or delusional, but being honest and telling the truth.”
“What happened next?”
“The men who are his disciples turned up with food, but before he spoke to them, he looked at me, smiled and nodded his head. I realised I’d found the Messiah and wanted to tell everyone in the village. Running back home, I grabbed the man, who wasn’t my husband, and anyone else who would listen, and took them to see Jesus for themselves. They were all as amazed as me, and we stayed talking and listening to him until dusk. By then, it was too late to leave, so I invited them to stay at my home. The following morning, I couldn’t find my pitcher and realised I’d left it at the well in my enthusiasm to tell everyone. They stayed for two days, and it was the most exciting thing to have happened in Sychar for generations.”
“A little while later, we heard the authorities in the Temple conspired with the Romans to get rid of him. So, they crucified him. But we were right, he is the Messiah, and he showed that by coming back to life three days later. It didn’t surprise me in the slightest. After that, his followers came out to us and taught us the other things he said, and we learned more about him.”
“That is not the end of your story, is it?”
“Definitely not! There was a lovely young man who used to come here, called Stefanos, and I heard they stoned him to death. Such a tragedy. After that, those in Jerusalem were persecuted and many of the believers had to escape quickly. I can’t say much, because Simon and James, our leaders, have asked me to keep it secret, because people’s lives were at stake, and could be again. I do what I can to help anyone in need, regardless of who they are.
“You won’t stop, will you?”
Photine cuffed me on my shoulder. “Would you, after what I experienced? That day changed my life, and I will tell anyone who will listen.”
This story is taken from John’s gospel, chapter 4. It is the longest recorded conversation Jesus has and it is with the nameless Samaritan woman. She is venerated as a saint by Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Christians and by tradition is called Photine, which means luminous one. A very fitting name. She appears in my novel, Leaving Bethany, and I won’t give any spoilers. You will have to read it yourself! She is often misjudged as being an immoral woman, but there is nothing in the gospel text to suggest that. Tradition has it that she continued her evangelism work in Carthage but was tortured and martyred by Nero.
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Susan Sutherland is the author of Leaving Bethany, a historical and Biblical fiction written from the point of view of Martha of Bethany. She is currently working on the sequel, Return to Caesarea, due out winter 2022.
“I bet you’ve heard I either bumped them off, dumped them or done the dirty with someone else?”
“He is looking out for people who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship.”
The Message Version of the Bible
“That day changed my life, and I will tell anyone who will listen.”