defy and define the darkness

Today’s story is one that has been recorded before, told and retold within certain faith traditions, and yet one that is also personally significant in my own life and relevant to issues in today’s world. I realize that my audience is spiritually diverse, and while this story is about the Christian faith, I challenge people of all backgrounds to take what value they can from it.

The Orthodox Christian Church celebrates Pascha, or Orthodox Easter, this coming Sunday, and my family will be making our membership in the Church official on Saturday along with our daughter’s baptism. With my entrance into the Church, I’ve decided to take on St. Photini as my patron saint. Not only does her story resonate with my values, but her name actually translates directly to my birth name, Clara, both meaning “enlightened.” In honor of this event, my story today is about this woman, most commonly known as “the woman at the well.” Photini is a powerful example of the role of female influence in the early Christian world, a force against political oppression, and a symbol against race discrimination of the time. If this is not a story with universal reach, then I don’t know what is.

Photini — a Samaritan and a woman — has been going about her daily work of getting water from Jacob’s Well, when Jesus — a Jewish Rabbi, a man, the Messiah — begins to speak with her. A pause for clarification: in this culture, it is not acceptable for men to speak to women in public, and it is not common for a Jew to speak with a Samaritan at all. And so we have here a Jewish Rabbi, engaging this Samaritan woman in conversation. Jesus has stopped at the well to rest. He is tired and thirsty from his journey, and asks her for a drink of water.

What follows is a dialogue wherein the woman, at first confused, is brought to the realization that she is speaking to the Messiah, for he knows all about her life. He knows about her difficulties, the failed relationships, the heartbreak, the battles she faces as a woman in her situation, in her culture. He offers her love. He offers her grace. She leaves the jar of water she had come to fill and goes into the city to share the living water that she has been blessed with.

Photini then becomes one of the first bearers of the message of Christ’s love in the world. She is zealous, she is strong, and she, among the many unfortunate Christians of her time, is noticed by the emperor, Nero. In a reaction of fear and hate towards Christians, Nero proceeds to pressure Photini and other Christians to renounce their faith. In response, she spits in his face and laughs: “O most impious of the blind, you profligate and stupid man! Do you think me so deluded that I would consent to renounce my Lord Christ and instead offer sacrifice to idols as blind as you?”

Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.
Anne Frank

From a material perspective, Nero won the fight that day, and had Photini thrown into a well, where she died. Her children were also brutally killed. But St. Photini and her story live on to inspire change in the world. The lives she touched went on to touch other lives, and soon the message of love and grace was spread throughout her part of the world.

The term “saint” often evokes stained-glass phrases like “perfect,” “unattainable,” and “holier than thou.” But the more I read the stories of the Saints, I don’t get this impression. Instead, I see mostly people who come from very difficult backgrounds in terms of moral struggles, race and gender bias, and status immobility. Through some transformation of love and compassion, they choose use their voices, their minds, and their bodies to fight injustice and to protest against discrimination, at all costs. They are not “the unattainable,” but rather an image of what each of us could be if we put passion and action behind those things we claim to value.

There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.
Elie Wiesel

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“St. Photini, the Samaritan Woman,” Antichian. The Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. 26 April 2016

The Holy Bible: The Orthodox Study Bible, John 4. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Print.

Originally published at on April 27, 2016.