If you’ve participated in a church community for any length of time, you’ve likely heard the story of the woman at the well. The beautiful story is found in John 4 and usually has these highlights:
Samaritan. Adulteress. Unworthy. Woman. Sinner.
Shame. Shame. Shame.
Anytime I hear or read the word “shame”, I get that scene from The Princess Bride in my mind of the old woman screaming “Boo! BOO!” at Buttercup as the sweet girl makes the best decision she knows how to make, even by betraying her one, true love.
As I was reading Without Rival by Lisa Bevere a few years ago, the story of the woman at the well was retold with more cultural context and with the lens of a loving, compassionate Savior.
Let’s dig into more of this story, exposing the traditional lens of shame it is recounted in, with a lens of love – and see what more important truths we can glean.
I’ve often thought it interesting that many teachers highlight that she was a Samaritan, without going into too much of what that would have meant to Jesus and his followers.
In the biblical setting, Samaria, also known as Palestine, and Israel were basically in a race war. The territory of Samaria is found in land allotted to the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim when the Israelites conquered the Promised Land (Joshua 16 &17). Samaria was the capital of Israel when the country split.
The biggest issue evident in Jesus’ time in this century old conflict was they practiced their faith differently. Samaritans even went as far as to create their own version of the five books of Moses.
Israel, being way more judgey than they should be, looked down on the Samaritans for their overt mixing of Jewish practices and pagan, settling non-Jewish practicing people in their land and claiming that Mount Gerizim should be the home of The Temple instead of Jerusalem.
Unresolved conflict and removing love from interactions had caused generations to hate, literally HATE each other. The fact that Jesus marches directly into this region brings the utter surprise of the disciples into context and begs so many more questions of the later parable of the Good Samaritan.
Different faith. Different culture. Different skin color.
Shame. Shame. Shame.
The term “adulteress” frequently visits the retelling of this story from our modern-day pulpits. Why would this woman have had 5 husbands, the most recent she was living with but had not married?
In the first century Samarian culture a woman was unable to initiate divorce from her husband, since they practiced a version of Judaism. The insinuation that she was an adulteress woman is very likely far from true.
Laying down those lenses of condemnation and picking up the lens of Love, we can explore a few other possibilities that showcase Jesus’ heart in meeting this woman in an even greater way.
First, she could have been widowed.
Since a woman’s worth in that time and place was only determined by who she was married to, can you close your eyes and imagine what that grief and fear would have been like to lose not only your husband, but your position in the village, the security of food and shelter, the very home you had established…four times over?!
Can you open your heart to the fear of being handed off again and again to the “next in line”, likely without your consent, the stigma of death following you everywhere you go in your village?
Another possibility is that she was divorced or cast away by her husbands.
Causes for divorce in this time and culture could have been a physical defect, infertility, incurable physical or mental illness. When your only job in society is to marry, please your husband, care for your household and raise as many children as you can produce, I can not even begin to fathom the shame this situation would have produced in her heart.
Some scholars have speculated this immense burden of shame is why she was at the well gathering her daily water in the middle of the day, when no one else was around. At the high heat of the day she wouldn’t have to worry about hearing all the hushed whispers or comments. She could just be alone.
No good. Unworthy of love. Cast off.
Shame. Shame. Shame.
One undeniable aspect of this story is that Jesus was speaking to a woman. This part always makes me cry. Even now, as I write this I’m crying.
Growing up, as this woman did, in a culture where women were second rate citizens has immense impact on one’s heart and mind.
Knowing no matter what, your life is second thought. Your life is a negotiation chip of interests and property. The knowledge of how powerless you are to initiate change infuses every choice, every day.
It is from this place of utter hopelessness, that the unfathomable beauty of the heart of our Father shines. It shows His heart to see each woman, just as He sees each man, different, yet equal.
Both powerful, with different strengths.
I don’t believe for a moment that Jesus got a word of knowledge about how many husbands she had to provoke shame in her. He wasn’t trying to keep her in her place or remind her of her status. There was no desire to pour salt in the wounds of her broken heart.
He had no desire to see her turn red and hang her head. That is not how He operates. That is the voice of the Accuser of the Brethren.
I believe Jesus spoke the word of knowledge to her to let her know that even though she was a woman, from a conflicting racial heritage and her marital record was rough, He was speaking to her. Jesus saw her, knew her and wanted connection to her heart.
What happens next in the longest recorded dialogue between someone and Jesus in the New Testament blows me away. Jesus and this woman embark in a lengthy theological discussion! This would have been unheard of in their time.
Yet, this woman holds her own. She knows what her faith culture believes as well as Jesus’. In a day and age when women were separated from men in the temples, she knew her Scripture!
In the progression of this theological debate, John 4:26, Jesus reveals Himself as the Messiah to this woman. Jesus’ profound compassion on her and His gently delivered prophetic word bring about transformational belief. She knew in her heart that what this man spoke, that the love and gentleness, the equality and patience He showed her set Him apart from any other rabbi.
She knew He was the Messiah.
The woman is then catapulted by Love into the role of the first missionary we see in Scripture. No fancy schooling. No big ceremony.
Jesus trusted this woman to proclaim Him. She delivered a simple Gospel, “He saw me. Messiah has come.”
Many in the town believed because of her testimony which exemplifies her as an apostle…all this before Jesus’ death and resurrection. He had yet to even reveal who He was to His 12 Disciples and only one of them actually figured it out (Matthew 16).
The invitation of this story is not only to watch Jesus wipe out shame from a life but to watch Him rewrite the narrative. Shame is really great at telling us who we aren’t. Jesus is really, really incredible at reminding us who we are in Him.
We lose so much when we stop a story, just like we would lose so much if we stopped at the death of Jesus and never followed the story of His Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost, etc. Continuing what we know of the story of this incredible mother of the faith is vital to grasping the glorious story of redemption and restoration.
So who did this famous “woman at the well” become?
Early church historians tell us she followed Jesus’ ministry through His death and resurrection and was one of those 3,000 baptized at Pentecost, along with 5 of her sisters and two sons. It was at this momentous occasion that she received the name Photini.
Photini was known for the boldness that she preached and eventually it gave her the opportunity to share the Gospel with the dreaded emperor Nero in Rome. After sharing the Gospel, Nero tried to severely torture her, hoping she would turn from Christ, but instead Photini succeeds in sharing the Gospel with Nero’s own daughter who choses to become a follower of Jesus.
Nero ordered Photini to death by fire, which she survived for 7 days, then to death by poison, which she also survived. Her faith was supernatural. Her determination was evident. How can one meet Jesus face-to-face then deny Him existence?
Photini had been captivated by a Love stronger than life. She is revered as a martyr and in the eastern Church she is “equal-to-the-apostles”.
Where does shame live in this story now?
So many times we let shame tell our story. Something terrible happens and we let that write the narrative of our life. We push back on invitations of healing or cover up the needs of our heart in the searing aloneness of the noonday sun.
Handing our power over to the loudest ridicule, we let the cycle of lies about us tell the story in our mind and weave madness about us in the minds of others.
Your race, faith, gender, marital status, don’t get to hold your value. Jesus does.
The Lover of your soul who sees it all and speaks to you. The Living Water who gave this woman a ravenous hope is not limited to one redemptive story.
Photini says in John 4:15 “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” I like to imagine her saying this, “Jesus, make it stop hurting. Nourish my heart and soul. Give me life. I don’t want to strive for existence anymore. I don’t want shame to write my story.”
A hallmark of shame running the show is running and hiding. Adam and Eve did it in Eden (Genesis 3) and Jesus invites us into this incredible shame free life in John 4:24 “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The greek word for truth in this verse is alētheia and can be appropriately translated naked or transparent truth.
You can’t give true worship with a naked, transparent heart if you are wearing the dress of shame.
Shame doesn’t get to write your story, my friend. Jesus died for that shame and in the words of Graham Cooke, “Quit taking that back for yourself. (Jesus) wants that back.”
Be free, indeed.