“The woman said to Him, ‘I know that the Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When He comes, He will tell us all things.’” (John 4:25) What does it mean that St. Photini (the woman at the well) knew about the Messiah, knew that He would come, and knew that He would tell them everything? This continues our theme of Election found throughout the Gospel of John.
St. Cyril of Alexandria has this to say on St. Photini:
“Upon Christ teaching that the hour and season will come, rather is already present, wherein the true worshippers shall offer to God the Father the worship in spirit; forthwith the woman is winged to thoughts above her wont unto the hope spoken of by the Jews. She confesses that she knows that the Messiah will come in His own time, and to whom He will come, she does not exactly say, receiving (as is like) the common reports of Him without any investigation, as being a laughter-loving and carnal-minded woman; yet is she not wholly ignorant that He will be manifested to Israel as a bringer in of better teaching, finding most certainly this information too in the reports about Him.”
Unpacking this quote is the bulk of our task as it highlights a tale of two very different personalities within St. Photini, and two distinct ways to interpret her five husbands. At the outset we must admit that St. Photini is in fact sleeping with multiple men and an adulterous. However, they are not only literal, but her previous five husbands are also symbolically the five senses of fallen man. St. Cyril says this above, “as being a laughter-loving and carnal-minded woman.” St. Augustine also says this:
“It is a confirmation of discerning minds that the five senses were what were signified by the five husbands, to find the woman making five carnal answers, and then mentioning the name of Christ.”
She gives these five carnal answers as part of the interplay between her and our Lord, finally ending with, “I don’t have a husband.” This is where our Lord turns her carnal mind towards spiritual things. Because Christ is the Light of Life, He fills her carnal mind with Divine Light, and moves her towards that which is better. Hence why she is St. Photini, “the enlightened one.”
This theme of using our carnal minds to show us the better, this theme of Election runs throughout John’s Gospel account as I wrote about already. St. John writes about this here:
“Then Jesus turned, and seeing them following, said to them, ‘What do you seek?’ They said to Him, ‘Rabbi’ (which is to say, when translated, Teacher), ‘where are You staying?’” (John 1:38)
“Hence we are taught, that God does not prevent our wills by His gifts, but that when we begin, when we provide the being willing, then He gives us many opportunities of salvation. What do you seek? How is this? He who knows the hearts of men, who dwells in our thoughts, does He ask? He does; not that He may be informed; how could that be? But that by the question He may make them more familiar, and impart to them greater boldness, and show them that they are worthy to hear Him.” ~St. John Chrysostom
St. Photini provided the willingness to be honest in her answer to our Lord. She admits to her previous carnal life, revealing how Christ uses our carnal fallen senses to lead us to that which is higher. At every opportunity He affords us salvation if we will but turn and prove ourselves to be willing (at the very heart of ‘being elect’). This, in turn, shows us another meaning to the five husbands.
As St. Cyril says, “forthwith the woman is winged to thoughts above her wont unto the hope spoken of by the Jews.” What was spoken of by the Jews? The Scriptures which foretold of the Messiah. But this shows another meaning to the label adulterous, for she is truly an adulterous to salvation. She is a Samaritan, and as such only accepted the Torah as authoritative, relegating the prophets to lesser stature. As our Lord says, “salvation is of the Jews.” (John 4:22)
So, if salvation is of the Jews, how is it that St. Photini knows these things about the Messiah? Because she is an adulterous to five husbands, or rather, the five books of the Law, the Torah. This, of course, means the man she is living with now, her “6th” man, are the Prophets. Now the Samaritans did not accept the prophets, furthering the label of “adulterer.”
“How did the woman know that the Messiah was coming, Who is called Christ? From the writings of Moses, since, as we have already said, the Samaritans accepted the five books of Moses. From these they knew the prophecies about Christ, and that He is the Son of God… If He had said right from the start, “I am the Christ,” He would not have persuaded the woman, and would have appeared overbearing and arrogant. But now that He has brought her step by step to remember the expectation of the Messiah, suddenly He reveals Himself. Why did He not reveal Himself to those Jews who continuously asked Him, “Tell us if Thou art the Christ,” but did so to this woman? He said nothing to those others because they did not inquire for the purpose of learning, but with the intent to slander Him all the more.” ~St. Theophylact of Ochrid.
Here, Blessed Theophylact supports both causes, that she knows of the Messiah from the Torah, and that Christ reveals Himself to her as the Messiah because she is ready to learn, i.e. she is elect.
Above I have mentioned that Christ is the Light of Life, and He fills St. Photini with Light, her namesake. Christ not only recognizes her passion, that is her lust and sexual promiscuity, but He frees her from it, allowing her to fly to new heights, as St. Cyril says above, “forthwith the woman is winged to thoughts above her wont…”
“For when the soul has been raised on the wings of divine love by the Holy Spirit and has been freed from the bonds of the passions, it strives to fly to that higher realm before death, seeking to separate itself from its burden.This is also known as a stirring of the Spirit.” ~St. Gregory of Sinai. This being raised, this stirring of the Spirit, Christ already spoke of to St. Photini: “Jesus answered and said to her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, “Give Me a drink,” you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.’” (John 4:10) “Living water” here is the very stirring of the Spirit spoken of by St. Gregory of Sinai and the “winged to thoughts above her wont” spoken of by St. Cyril.
So we see in the story of St. Photini the stages articulated by St. Paul in Romans: “Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.” (Romans 8:30)
Christ first calls St. Photini, and by her answering correctly, she proves herself elect. He justifies her for her correct answer, and leads her to glorification, first purifying her soul and flesh of its carnal burden, and lifting her above the things of this world to the things of Heaven. There are still left more things to discuss on the symbolic understanding of St. Photini’s previous five husbands and the man she currently is living with, as well as the symbolic understanding of the well spring of life giving water that springs up into eternal life, which we will explore in more detail in my next article.