Photina is a prime example of victim blaming. Divorced 5 times in an era when only men could instigate divorce, she has nevertheless been slut-shamed by preachers for hundreds of years.
Because she was trafficked, and somehow, she must have done something to cause that.
When we think about her, we don’t think further than the preaching we’ve heard, that she was a brazen, immoral woman. This idea has gone unchallenged for centuries; another example of the way in which we don’t think for ourselves about what the Bible says, but take for truth the teachings we’ve been enculturised in.
In OT and NT societies, women were chattels, bought, sold, given away, and married off to expedite alliances between families, or being passed from brother to brother to maintain a family line, the links of which must not be broken. It was vital that a man have sons. Should he die without children, his wife was given to his brother, with the understanding that the first child/son born from that union would belong to the original husband. There are biblical examples in the old and new testaments of hapless females being passed from hand to hand in this way.
The Samaritan Woman is always held accountable for her 5 husbands, notwithstanding that any man could divorce his wife if she didn’t have sons, had become fat, wasn’t a good cook, or he was just plain sick of her, but no woman was legally allowed to divorce her husband. It seems convenient that preachers forget that little piece of information in order to shame the lady even more.
At no time did Jesus address sin in her life as He did with the woman caught in adultery, the guy at the Gate Beautiful, or Matthew the tax collector, leading us to suppose that she did not, in fact, have the worst reputation of any woman in the town, regardless of what time she goes out to get water. The Samaritan woman is the first person Jesus told outright that He was the Messiah, even before His disciples, and He used the same words He used to announce Himself to Moses, saying: ‘I Am’.
The flimsy case that’s been built to victim blame her is based on the number of men who’ve thrown her away, and that she went for water in the hottest part of the day, the idea being that no respectable woman would do that. I don’t know what her household was like, but in mine, I can assure you, the last jug of water could easily be knocked over or used up before the cooler part of the day had arrived. Had she really been a pariah to her neighbours, why would the whole town have immediately followed her when she called them to come and meet Jesus? The argument doesn’t stand up.
When Jesus engaged the Samaritan woman in conversation, He was contravening every social convention. The fact that she responded makes clear that she was a woman of great courage with a deep desire to know God. She was hungry for understanding, for relationship, and most of all, for the feeling of finally belonging somewhere, to Someone. She had not let the pain of her history destroy her longing for meaning, and when Jesus came, she bravely engaged with Him openly, unlike Nicodemus, who, in the chapter before, came to talk to Jesus under the cover of night. Her heart had been broken many times, her self-respect was in tatters, she felt used and empty, but she was resilient, a survivor who knew there was more to life than what she had experienced up to now.
In the story’s first line we find the clue to His heart for her. It says Jesus had to go to Galilee via Samaria. Jews would go any distance to avoid Samaria, for risk of being contaminated by people they considered inferior. Yet Jesus had to go there because He had an appointment with the Samaritan woman.
He wasn’t even supposed to look her in the eye. She should have kept her eyes downcast. He should have seen her as merely a supplier of water. Many times any of us can feel as though our identity has been reduced to what we can supply – water, help, sex, money, babies, counsel, goods and services. We and others have come to believe that what we do is who we are, but that’s not how Jesus sees us. He saw beyond the water jug and into who she really was, an intellectually and spiritually aware person, who perceptively questions Him in the longest and most intensely theological conversation he has with anyone in the NT.
Preachers adopt a superior tone when they tell of how Jesus spoke to her about the men in her life. They tell it as though it were word play in which Jesus proves His mastery of her attempts to avoid the point. Yet, in what other story do we ever hear of Jesus speaking like that to a seeker?. The Jesus I know would have spoken to her with tenderness, knowing her pain, understanding that one man after another had used and then discarded her, and even the man she is with now for some level of safety and provision, only wants a housekeeper and a warm body in the bed next to him. Jesus sees all that, and He reaches out to her pain with His words, and lets her know that He understands. It’s all in the tone of voice. Preachers have given Jesus a completely different tone than the one He would have used toward her.
The Reformation did the Samaritan woman a great disservice, judging her as promiscuous by impossible and hypocritical standards which have been preached and repreached over the last few centuries, but the Early Church saw her as she truly was – a leader who became a mighty evangelist. The Eastern Orthodox Church named her Photina which means: the Enlightened One, and they gave her the rare title of: ‘equal to the apostles’. Tradition says she brought so many people to faith that Nero ordered her to be tortured and she died as a martyr. This woman whom the Western church has looked down on as a scarlet woman, has her own feast day in the Eastern Church tradition and is revered as the first evangelist.
Victim blaming has been a problem across the centuries. Photina is finally coming into her own; maybe there are others. If we read the Bible with an open mind, rather than through the lens of the enculturation which has been allowed to form our opinions, we might find many of them.
Bev is back in Australia after having spent almost two decades in the UK co-founding a church planting network. She is founder of Liberti Magazine (UK), Cherish Uganda for abandoned HIV+ children, and Kyria UK, a network for women leaders. She has an MA in Global Leadership from Fuller, is an author, and speaks at churches and conferences internationally. An entrepreneur, she is most passionate about the Church and its leaders, and the cause of women, particularly women leaders.