Samaritan at the Well iconography happens to be one of the oldest images of Christianity, found in the catacombs. Our story begins at the “sixth hour”, at noon when the sun is the highest in the sky, symbolically at the zenith. The zenith is an imaginary point directly “above” a particular location, on the imaginary celestial sphere. The Samaritan woman has had five husbands. She finds herself exposed, being told by Jesus that her sixth relationship is an illegitimate relationship, and adulterous. She is if you will “at the bottom of her well”. The story revolves around never ending hope and symbolism in the number seven; Christ appears as her seventh and new spiritual husband, her Sabbath, her rest.
Her name is Photini.
The story is about St-Photini and her betrothing herself to Christ. She finds her new life begins in Him. The conversation between Christ and the Samaritan is told in a manner suggesting Christ might be in pursuit of “finding a wife”. (not in a carnal union but a spiritual one). As a Jew, modern thinkers imagine Jesus would have been expected to find a wife. Yet, in the encounter with the Samaritan woman is not just any woman, she is a “heretic”.
Samaritans were descendants of the northern tribes of Israel who had mingled with foreign pagans. They had merged with other religions and local gods. She is the “foreign woman” who does not even expect a Jew to talk to her. Yet, she shows no shame. Evidently she is as an independent and inquisitive women, offering him the “water” from her well. He answers her by offering her his own fountain of living “water”.
Proverbs 5 King Solomon warns us about the foreign/loose woman.
The early Israelite are constantly cautioned to refrain from joining themselves to foreign women. There relationships would have terrible consequences, leading to “prostituting oneself” to the foreign gods these women served. Because of the general warning about foreign women, the Samaritan’s story Christ is twisting traditional relationships outside of the tribe. The warning in Proverbs 5, King Solomon warns us about the foreign/loose woman. Jesus it would seem, even though Jewish, can “marry the foreign woman” without being ensnared by her. Instead he ends up leading her to salvation, (defined as: deliverance from harm, ruin, or loss).
The earliest versions of the well in the icon were round. Later versions of the well become round with curves, square and finally in the shape of a cross. In our most recent workshop we used this image from the fresco of the Samaritan Woman by Manuel Panselinos 1290 . Baptismal fonts still have many shapes, round, oval or even octagons. The cross shape unites the symbolism of the well to the idea of four rivers branching out from paradise.
The story of the Samaritan woman is related to baptism for new beginnings. Her well becomes an image of the baptismal font where our spiritaul death is sweetened by the teachings of Christ. The very person of St-Photini, the Samaritan woman is somehow bound up with the well itself. In her later story of martyrdom found in tradition, and is finally martyred by being thrown down into a well.
The gospel does not give any details as what the Samaritans conversation could have been.
She only said, “He told me all that I ever did” John 4 :39. Can you imagine the delight at meeting someone like Christ who could really see you and help you see yourself. The conversation above inspires the icon and highlights Christ‘s way of urging us to open our eyes to dissolution. Our actions and the condemnations we make potentially condemn others. The actual moment this encounter speaks of transforms Photini into a Disciple; she wakes up to the truth, she is informed and sent by Christ. Remarkably, she becomes an authoritative person because of this encounter.
She becomes disciple, partner and evangelist.
After their conversation, the longest on Jesus had with anyone in the new Testament, Photini is changed. Christ our the eyewitness reminding us that God is continually walking beside us. According to the Orthodox Bible, The Samaritan woman becomes the first woman to testify to the advent of Christ. She was given the name of Photini,”the enlightened one” . She went to Carthage with her two sons and 5 daughters to preach the His gospel and was later martyred. Apparently Photini was thrown down this same well.
AUTHOR and Iconographer
My latest book IN LIGHT OF WOMEN is available for purchase. The collection of icons represent women in the bible and all women who have an ongoing relationship with Christ. We were there at Pentecost, The past Supper and His Baptism.