Sunday, March 27, 2011

St Photina at the Well: Part 1

This is a reflection on today’s reading; I’d especially like to hear Lynn Gazis Sax’ thoughts on it, since she often writes on the interface of Christianity, gender, and sexuality).

“Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

“A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, `Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

“Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, `I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

“Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.”

-John 4:5-29.

This is (part of) today’s reading, from the Gospel of St. John. I quote it here in the contemporary language of the NRSV: though normally I prefer the King James version, the translators of the King James for some reason decided to put this passage into the historic present tense, which is awkward and grating on the ear. It sounds better this way.

There’s a lot that this passage says to us- and a lot, as our priest (FTR, it’s a woman priest) said today, that it doesn’t say, and that we have read into it. And then of course there is a lot that isn’t said or even read into the passage, but that the tradition of the church has supplied for us. This woman isn’t named in the text, but the tradition of the church gives her a name- ‘Photina’, or ‘Light’ (in the church of Russia she is called ‘Svetlana’, the near equivalent), and a whole story of what happened to her after she met Jesus. There is a lot we are told about St. Photina, Equal to the Apostles, after this fateful encounter with Jesus at the well. But about her life before she met Jesus, we actually know less than we think.

The passage is powerfully interesting to us, in twenty first century America, for a number of reasons, some good and some ill. It’s interesting on one level because it shows us an example of the miraculous, and the supernatural, though on a fairly subtle level. Here Jesus breaks the veil that his humanity cast over his divinity, and for just a moment appeals to the gift of divine clairvoyance. He wasn’t from Samaria, and shows no sign of having been to the town of Sychar; we know he wasn’t coming from there, since his disciples had just made a trip to get meat, leaving Jesus behind. So it wasn’t through listening to gossip, or talking to friends, that Jesus had learned of her story. It was through peeling back, for a moment, the limitations of his human nature, and seeing with the eye to whom all is revealed. He glanced, for a moment, into that pool of wisdom that C. S. Lewis writes about in his ever-evocative children’s book ‘The Hose and His Boy’, in which a desert hermit is able to see, in a moment of time, everything that is happening in the world, anywhere, at that moment. He saw with the eye of true and perfect vision, and showed that woman who he was, as he said of himself decades later to John: “And all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works” (Revelation 2:23).

We live in a skeptical age, when it often seems that miracles have faded away, when it seems to us, too often, that the world is a machine working along purely natural processes, and we long for a miracle, for a drawing back of the veil (the literal meaning of both ‘apocalypsis’ and ‘revelatio’), when we see that supernatural realities exist after all. The clairvoyance and supernatural vision that Jesus showed on that hot afternoon at Jacob’s well are one example of that kind of unveiling, that we crave to see, and that no doubt the men and women of first century Palestine craved as well.

The passage is also interesting to us, of course, because it ties in three of our preoccupations in twenty first economy, three topics that are endlessly interesting for us to talk about: race, gender, and sex. The woman that Jesus talked to, called in tradition St. Photina, had several strikes against her in the eyes of first century Judaean society, which is probably why she was getting water in the hottest part of the day, when everyone else would have been taking a siesta. She belonged to the Samaritan people, who were looked down upon by many first century Jews, as being partly Assyrian in origin. Her people were viewed as practicing a degraded form of Judaism, and as being traitors and impure Jews: the passage makes that clear, and puts into context how much Jesus was perturbing the comfortable sentiments of his time when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. She was, of course, a woman in a patriarchal society. And then, of course, there’s the history of her marital and sexual life. She had had five husbands, Jesus tells us, and the man she was currently living with was not her husband. This would have been enough to brand her, under the law of Moses, as guilty of sexual immorality, and of what was called then, ‘fornication’. And possibly, depending on the circumstances of her previous marriages, of adultery as well. Many people reading this passage have immediately concluded that she had divorced five husbands, or been divorced by them, and was thus an adulteress five or six times over. It’s not difficult to see why she would have been viewed as a woman set apart and cast out, and one who went to fetch water during the most unpleasant part of the day, to avoid contemptuous eyes and nasty tongues. And it’s been easy for all too many people to dismiss this poor woman, Photina, as a ‘sexual sinner’.

And yet, and yet. One of the interesting things about her discourse with Jesus is the tone that Jesus takes. He draws out, pretty quickly, that there is something irregular about her marital situation: “You are right in saying, `I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” One thing he doesn’t do, however, is condemn her himself. And nor does she respond to his remarks by expressing guilt, and falling at his feet and saying, ‘Yes, I have been living immorally, and I want to give up my life of sin.’

This is quite different from the encounters that Jesus had with people who were, genuinely, living lives that neither we, nor they, nor Jesus would want to defend. When confronted with people guilty of serious sins, Jesus normally either asked them to repent, or else they themselves were only too happy to acknowledge their sin and repent themselves. Consider the woman taken in adultery, to whom Jesus said, ‘ Go, and sin no more’ (John 8:11), or consider Zacchaeus the tax collector, who on meeting Jesus almost instantly said, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor, and if I have taken anything from any man by false accusation, I restore to him fourfold” (Luke 19:8). Or consider the woman in the house of Simon, who no sooner sees Jesus than she begins weeping all over his feet, that she might wash them with her tears. Or consider the repentant thief on the cross, Dismas, who as soon as he saw Jesus, before he even implored him for remembrance and heard the words of the promise, acknowledged his own criminality, and that he and his companion ‘received the due reward of his actions’. Or consider the crippled man healed at the Pool of Bethesda, to whom Jesus bade to sin no more, lest a worse fate befall him. The encounters of Jesus with genuinely guilty people tend to have a theme of repentance, of people being confronted- either by Jesus, or by themselves- with their own need to change. Of course this woman needed to change, as do we all, but it’s interesting that neither Jesus, nor she herself, appears to bring up the theme of guilt and sin here.

In fact what we see here is that almost instantly the scene slides into a discourse between Jesus and the woman, about theology; it goes from there into a scene where the woman expresses her faith, and Jesus reveals himself to be the final end and the goal of that faith, and following that, she runs into the city, declaring Jesus to be the Christ. And is believed. Jesus in his discourse with her almost skips over her sex life, bringing them up merely as a tantalizing hint that he knows every detail of her life, and in this way revealing himself as more than an ordinary man. It leads us pretty quickly- especially in an age where we are spending a lot of time, words, and ink on debating Christian teachings about sexuality- to this question: what did Jesus, actually, think about this woman and her sexual life. If he condemned them, then why didn’t he do so more explicitly; and if he didn’t disapprove of them, then why bring them up at all?

In answering this question it’s important to deal, first of all, with the issue of why this woman would have been viewed by her society as a sinner, because this is a different question than whether she had, objectively, done something wrong in the eyes of Jesus (as well as what we, today, would think about her life). And it’s also important to separate the issues of her five husbands, and the issue of her current nonmarital relationship. Let’s take the first issue, first.

There are at least three ways that a woman could have ended up with five husbands: through actively leaving them, through being divorced / deserted by them, or through being repeatedly widowed. The first would raise eyebrows both in our society and in hers, and assuredly would fall short of Jesus’ ethic about divorce as well. The second would probably not raise many eyebrows today, and would make us sympathetic to her more than anything else. It would, though, still fall short of Jesus’ strict ethic on marriage and divorce. Christian teaching, beginning with Jesus himself and continuing for the first few centuries, prohibited remarriage for the innocent party as well as the guilty party in a divorce. Cf. the Shepherd of Hermas, that intriguing and mystical text that was read as inspired literature in the early church, regarding the duty of an innocent party to a divorce:

“And I said to him, ‘What then, sir, is the husband to do, if his wife continue in her [adulterous] practices?’ And he said, ‘The husband should put her away, and remain by himself. But if he put his wife away and marry another, he also commits adultery.’” (Shepherd of Hermas, Fourth Mandate, 1:5-6).

The Eastern church relaxed this prohibition in, I believe the fourth century, but they viewed this as a loosening and a departure from the teaching of Jesus, and from the strict ideal that he had set forth. Nevertheless, we would certainly have more sympathy for this woman if she had been the innocent party in her divorces.

To my mind, though, there’s no real reason to believe she was divorced at all. One could equally well postulate that she was widowed. Because we have ample reason to believe that a woman who had survived five husbands, would be viewed with scorn and contempt by the society of her time: as a kind of adulteress, or perhaps even as a witch and a murderess, and certainly as a disreputable woman. Consider the hypothetical story that Jesus’ intellectual opponents asked him, testing him, regarding a woman who had had seven husbands.

“Then came to him certain of the Sadducees, which deny that there is any resurrection; and they asked him, Saying, Master, Moses wrote unto us, If any man’s brother die, having a wife, and he die without children, that his brother should take his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother. There were therefore seven brethren: and the first took a wife, and died without children.And the second took her to wife, and he died childless. And the third took her; and in like manner the seven also: and they left no children, and died.Last of all the woman died also. Therefore in the resurrection whose wife of them is she? for seven had her to wife” (Luke 20:27-33).

Implicit in this story is a bit of contempt for the woman; there’s certainly no question raised about her husbands, whether they are adulterers, but only about the poor woman. Some argue (in a few cites I was able to dig up, but I have no clue about how accurate they are) that remarriage on the part of a widow was frowned upon in first century Judaea, as it was in Hindu culture until very recently. It’s certainly possible that the Samaritan woman was an outcast not for being serially divorced, but for being serially widowed. We get a hint of this response when we look at the story of Sarah, the daughter of Raguel, who had married seven men and had each one die on their wedding night, slain by the demon Asmodeus. (Asmodeus is an Old Persian name, meaning literally ‘demon of wrath’: the suffix ‘dai’ from ‘daeva’ is apparently cognate with the Latin deus and the Sanskrit deva,which ironically both mean ‘god’. Asmodeus is said to have been a powerful dark being, that King Solomon had some command over; he plays a big role in Jewish and Christian mystical and extracanonical writings, and this evocative name gives us a hint of the influence that Zoroastrian demonology had on later Jewish and Christian though).

“On the same day, at Ecbatana in Media, it so happened that Raguel’s daughter Sarah also had to listen to abuse, from one of her father’s maids. For she had been married to seven husbands, but the wicked demon Asmodeus killed them off before they could have intercourse with her, as it is prescribed for wives. So the maid said to her: “You are the one who strangles your husbands! Look at you! You have already been married seven times, but you have had no joy with any one of your husbands. Why do you beat us? Because your husbands are dead? Then why not join them! May we never see a son or daughter of yours!” (Tobit 3:7-9: New American Bible).

It’s very likely, then, that Photina of Samaria wasn’t an adulteress at all, but a widow, a serial widow. In the context of that time, a patriarchal desert culture in which women could easily be blamed for anything wrong that happened in her household, and especially to her husband. One need only look at the kind of honour killings that happen in the Middle East today, or the long and sad history of women being accused at scheming to betray or kill their husband. It’s not at all unlikely that Photina had been accused, unfairly, of the same sort of faithlessness that Sarah had been accused of, and was viewed as a woman set apart and accursed, if not actually a schemer and a murderess. This would provide a good reason that Jesus refused to explicitly condemn her: it tells us both why he brought up her sad family history (to prove his divine clairvoyance) and why he refused to judge her as guilty. It’s quite possible that, like Sarah, she was guilty of nothing but bad luck: something that would make her a sinner in the eyes of the town of Sychar, but certainly not in the eyes of the God that sees the heart.

All this, of course, still leaves the second aspect of her sexual history that she would have been criticized for: living in a (presumably sexual) relationship outside of marriage. There’s much to say about that: regarding what scripture and church tradition have said about sexuality, why they said what they did, what Jesus actually said (which is actually not a whole lot), what underlying principles are meant to guide sexual behavior, and underlying it all, what reason and intuition, illuminated by scripture and tradition, tell us about what sex is for. There’s a lot to say about that. But that’s another story, for another time. Hopefully I will get to it later this week. In the meantime:

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.


Siarlys Jenkins said...

Greetings Hector. I didn't know you had your own site, and I never would have thought to look for you under Bolivariana... I can't imagine you are a fan of Hugo Chavez, but that is the first thought that leaps to mind, and I can't find a spiritual context for the title.

This is also the first time I've heard that the woman at the well had a name, or was a saint -- and I had a good iconoclastic Presbyterian Sunday School upbringing. There may be "a lot we are told," but it certainly isn't in the Gospels. I think you are correct that there is some significance to Jesus not dwelling on the woman's sexual history, but it seems from the plain text that it simply wasn't important to him. This leads me to wonder why so many over the centuries have tried to lend some significance to it, as you do also. If it wasn't important to Jesus, why should generations of Christians speculate, especially when we can never know?

It was not hard for a man to divorce his wife, as the Mosaic law makes clear -- although it was much harder for a woman to divorce her husband. There may have been some shame attached to the assumption that he must have had good reason, but it was not in the least unlawful for another man to marry her. And, as the tradition cited by the Saducees makes obvious, it was virtually required that a woman whose husband died, before they had any children, must have children, even if his own brothers had to impregnate her. Clearly, it was not uncommon for a man to die while his wife was still fertile, and perhaps desirable as well.

"It's not at all unlikely" is a useful way to approach history or biography, if we have nothing better to go by, but it is hardly a reliable guide to salvation.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I have no other place to put this message. Feel free to delete after reading. I have responded to your Alexandria post, as requested. Looking forward to seeing what you have to say in response.

Siarlys Jenkins said...
This comment has been removed by the author.