She walks into the center of town
She holds her head down
Gazing at nothing but the dusty road.
Hoping to stop and do the chore,
—John 4:7, author’s paraphrase
The Samaritan woman, whom the orthodox church names Saint Photini, carries a burden of shame along with her water jar as she walks the through heat and dust. She is going to the well, a chore that most of the women would have completed earlier in the day. We can imagine that as a social space and time in the cool of the early morning, where the women chat and gossip, enjoying the company of the other women in their community. Yet Photini goes alone at noon; is she scorned by the other women with their husbands and families? She is marginalized by Jews as a Samaritan, but is she also cast out by her own people? Why has she lived with so many men?
Traditional interpretation of this story claims Photini is a woman of lax morals to have gone through so many husbands and men. However, that reading ignores what we know about the culture of the time and place. Photini has no right to divorce, thus she has either been widowed or cast aside by the previous four men. Her shame arises from her status; she is cast as other and is a woman with no power or agency in a deeply patriarchal society.
We all carry burdens of shame bolstered by the narratives that we are not good enough, not smart enough, not thin enough, not making enough money, not faithful enough. Parenting brings its own potential for shame, as we relive the times, we’ve lost patience or missed the mark and fear the damage done. It is hard to remember what we’ve been taught, and believe, about forgiveness, much less live into forgiveness when it comes to ourselves.
When we sit in shame, we want to disappear, to remain unseen in our flawed humanity. Photini has been marginalized by her community and perhaps she wishes to remain in the margins, unseen and unacknowledged, because it feels safer. And yet, there is spirit in this woman, who challenges Jesus, a Jew, for speaking to a Samaritan woman and for claiming he has living water despite having no vessel for it. She challenges him in asking if he is greater than their common ancestor Jacob, who gave the people the well at which they meet.
Photini is unnamed in scripture, but Jesus sees her. Perhaps Jesus is not chastising her about her husbands but instead recognizes the hardships she’s endured, and admires her resilience? Jesus spends a good deal of time in conversation with this woman, he gifts her with his time and his teaching. He puts her in a position to evangelize to her community, bringing her out of the margins and into the center. Jesus sees Photini, he sees the light shining from within her, and helps her to claim her space to shine out into the world.
And just like Photini, Jesus sees us. Jesus invites us to lay down our burdens of shame and inadequacy. Jesus invites us to see our children, and ourselves, as he sees Photini—resilient, worthy, enough. Jesus strengthens us to challenge any shame that would have us hide our light, and to celebrate the light that shines from within, every day.
This Lent, may we all remember, every day, that we are seen, known, and loved…exactly as we are.
[Image Credit: Meštrović, Ivan, 1883-1962. Christ and the Samaritan Woman, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.]