In Which the Woman at the Well Appears in My Dreams (or, When Armchair Spiritual Direction Fails)

A reflection by Sarah


She encountered Christ personally during his ministry. The Gospel of John tells us about his meeting her at the well. During this encounter, Christ gently called her out for sexual sin: living with a man who was not her husband, and having five husbands before. She experienced an immediate conversion upon speaking with Christ and went back to her village to tell everyone about this particular trip to the well.

My patroness, St. Photini, is a familiar figure across all Christian traditions, though most know her simply as the woman at the well. When I was in the process of converting to my current Christian tradition, I felt her pulling me like a magnet. She appeared to me in my dreams, and clearly as I can now see Lindsey on the other side of the living room, I saw St. Photini sitting at the well with her jar waiting for Christ, or perhaps waiting for me. She was beckoning me to draw near. When I made the decision that she would be my saint, I felt as though I was answering an unexpected phone call from a not-so-close-yet-still-friend sort of person from my high school days. She hadn’t even made the short list of saints I’d been considering. As I shared all this with friends and acquaintances who were part of my soon-to-be-new Christian tradition, few were surprised that I had chosen St. Photini. However, I think many would be surprised to learn what did motivate and what did not motivate me to take her as my saint.

At the time I had transitioned from exploring this faith tradition into beginning the formal conversion process, people were full of suggestions as to which saint I should choose as my next patroness. Because keeping my patroness from my previous tradition was not an option, I was at a loss for whom to select. I felt strongly connected to St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Mary Magdalene, and St. Monica, but I didn’t get an especially strong impression that I should choose one in particular. I listened intently as other people offered their thoughts, hoping that in a moment of epiphany I would realize something profound about myself, or about one of these great women of faith. That moment never came, but after about the fourth person I talked to I began to notice a troubling repetition. Everyone seemed stuck on St. Mary of Egypt, who hadn’t even crossed my mind because little in her story seemed relatable to my experience of life. And those who actually asked me which saints I had been considering would stop me mid-list at St. Mary Magdalene, proclaiming triumphantly, “That’s the one for you, Sarah!”

After hearing the names of these two saints repeated one after the other for weeks, I finally asked someone, “Why do you think so many people are advising that I take either St. Mary of Egypt or St. Mary Magdalene as my patroness?”

Seemingly puzzled by my lack of insight, he replied, “Because they’re both women who repented of serious sin.”

Having spent years reading and learning about the lives of the saints, I pressed further, “That’s true for many holy men and women the Church recognizes. What’s so special about St. Mary of Egypt and St. Mary Magdalene in that regard?”

He took a moment to stare at his shoes. Then, in a muted tone he spoke, “They repented and overcame their passions. They asked God to rid them of lustful desires…something like what you’re doing with celibacy.”

I walked away from this interaction without saying much more. Many people in Christian traditions feel qualified to offer armchair spiritual direction to others who identify as LGBT, and this advice tends to focus on helping LGBT people overcome sexual temptation. Most of these folks genuinely mean well and may even think they are complimenting a celibate LGBT person by comparing him or her to saints who once struggled with lust. Others might think they are performing a work of mercy by offering unsolicited warnings to LGBT Christians about inappropriate sexual behavior. But intentions notwithstanding, frequently these bits of guidance do more to induce feelings of shame than to help in any real way. In my experience, they give Christians and non-Christians alike a reason to believe that, “Don’t have sex!” is the only bit of wisdom and “love” the Church is willing to offer LGBT people.

Of all things I wish straight people within my Christian tradition knew about LGBT people, the fact that we aren’t just loose cannons full of insatiable sexual desire tops the list. Some weeks at my own parish when I hear bombastic claims at coffee hour about how gay people are “sexually perverting and destroying everything that’s good about America,” I ache for the opportunity to share that one’s sexual orientation is not an indicator of political views, level of sexual activity, or morality in general. I want to help people understand that for LGBT Christians, identifying with one or more of those letters does not necessarily have anything to do with what’s happening between the bedsheets—rather, it involves how one relates to others, to the world, and even to God.

I question the appropriateness of assuming that an LGBT person struggles primarily—or at all—with sexual temptation. To be sure, living up to the examples set by any of the saints is an extraordinary challenge, and having a deep sense of connectedness with these holy men and women is a great privilege. But this doesn’t change the fact that I find it painful (not to mention unhelpful) to receive counsel again and again that the best role model for taming with my own passions is a woman who was once so licentious that she wouldn’t even accept payment for prostitution.

Eventually when I did decide upon St. Photini as my patroness, the well-meaning folks who had been giving me feedback reacted positively. I think it’s likely that many who affirmed my selection felt comfortable knowing that I had chosen a saint who had repented of sexual sin. In the weeks leading up to my reception, I heard a lot of, “Ah, yes, St. Photini…the woman at the well who lived with a man she had not married, and had married five men before him.” What I didn’t hear much about was the incredible life she lived as an evangelist—the very reason I had begun to feel drawn to her after she had appeared in my dreams. My straight brothers and sisters did not have much to say about how she was baptized “the enlightened one” by the apostles, converted seven members of her family, and led all of them in spreading the good news of Christ. No one mentioned that she preached and led many others to know Christ, spat in Emperor Nero’s face when he asked her to renounce her faith, and died a martyr after being thrown down a well.

Everyone seemed glad for my awareness of St. Photini’s life pre-conversion and experience of repentance, but to this day, only two other people in my Christian tradition have ever asked me, “Why did you choose her?” I’m still learning the full answer to that question—I believe that in many cases, the saints call out to us rather than the other way around. But I hope the next time somebody inquires, it will open the door for a long, meaningful conversation about something other than lustful desires.

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