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

  1. I actually love St. Mary of Egypt, for everything she did before and after her conversion— but not because I’m a lesbian, because I abandoned myself to compulsive, selfish and harmful behavior, and I am overcoming it through prayer and the intercession of the Theotokos.

    I do hear what you’re saying though, people should not tell you who your patroness should be. They should not decide that they know why you choose who you choose, either.

    St. Photini, pray for us!

    • Hi Alison. I also love St. Mary of Egypt. Her story is a powerful witness. I’m sure that it resonates with many people. I do believe it’s inappropriate for someone to command another person regarding who he or she should or should not choose as a patron saint, but I think there’s a larger issue too. Some Christians are resistant to recognizing any variety of LGBT experience other than that which includes promiscuity and an insatiable sexual appetite. There are LGBT people who experience these things, and perhaps a person with this kind of experience would find comfort in St. Mary of Egypt’s story. But in my opinion, there’s a desperate need for the Church to recognize that LGBT folks are just as diverse as all other people. The message, “You should choose so-and-so for your patron saint because you’re both repentant sexual sinners” has no appreciation for that diversity. -Sarah

  2. Interesting post, Sarah. I recently read a Huff Post article about the woman at the well. The writer said she may not have been in any sexual sin at all. We assume that, but her husbands could have died, and she could have been living with an uncle or other family member, which would have been the tradition. Whether or not she had sexual sin to repent of, it’s interesting that, first, we always seem to go there about other people’s sin (especially sexual), but, second, it reminds us that there is more than one interpretation of a story we read translated over centuries and culture and language. Thank you for sharing.

    • While I suppose it is within the realm of possibility that the woman at the well was a victim of misunderstanding as the Huff Post article hopes, don’t you have to ignore a lot of context (Jesus said, “Go and sin no more.”) and tradition to accept that possibility? The church has globally accepted the traditional explanation of her past, since it was recorded – is it wise to poo-poo 2,000 years of tradition because the Huff Post thought of a “nicer” answer?

      And doesn’t that kind of “undo” her sainthood? I don’t know anything about that, it’s just a question. I’m not of a tradition that sees things this way. I’m just asking …

    • Hi Susan. I’d be interested in seeing that article. I did a search, and I found one from 2011 on that topic available at HuffPost. Is that the one? I enjoy reading things about her. Even before I converted to my current Christian tradition, she was one of my favorite saints. Thanks for giving me something to add to my reading queue. 🙂 -Sarah

  3. I don’t know anything about St Photini or any other saints you mentioned. But one thought I had was that it is interesting that people can’t see past her label (the woman at the well blah blah blah) to what Christ actually ACCOMPLISHED through her, and how similar that might be for you, with a very sticky label of your own – celibate LGBT Christian.

    Like St. Photini, I trust you are much much more than your label, and I pray that you would, like St. Photini, be an effective member of the body of Christ, even though no one may ever see it or credit you with it.

    • Thanks for the prayers, Mike. I also pray that I can be an effective member of the Body of Christ and do whatever God would have me to do. Though I doubt I’ll ever live up to the example set by my patroness, I will keep trying and praying. -Sarah

  4. A beautiful reflection on the Gospel about the Samaritan woman can be found on Youtube Word Exposed March 23, 2014. That Sunday’s Readings (1st and 2nd Readings) are also all about conversion. Google: Word Exposed March 23, 2014 and you will find the 1st, 2nd Readings, Gospel, and Reflection. An additional reflection for that Sunday: Google: Catechism: Praying with the Psalms March 23, 2014.

    One realizes how we (in imitation of Jesus) should treat our brothers and sisters who need conversion. Conversion takes root when one harbors deep gratitude to God in his heart. With conversion, there comes an irresistible urge to tell others of our own wonderful experience of conversion.

    This Jesuit site publishes every Sunday’s reflections and readings.

    • Thanks once again for the recommendation, Kasoy. What a wealth of resources our readers keep sending our way! -Sarah

  5. This post came together in my head with a quote from a character in the Lord of the Rings:

    ‘Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill.’

    It seems like a lot of problems come from people being too eager to give advice.

  6. So late to comment here but I can’t resist chiming in to say 1) how sick and sorry I am that anyone defines LGBT people — celibate or otherwise–primarily as sinners and sexual sinners as if the rest of humanity was not. And 2) with the fact that there is zero evidence that either Photini or Magdalene were sexual sinners–the traditional picture of them is profoundly misogynistic as well as anachronistic. Scripture depicts Mary Magdalene as being healed by Jesus and then becoming one of his outstanding apostles and disciples. The seven devils he cast out didn’t mean that she was especially evil but, likely, a severe form of mental illness –very likely PTSD, even DID (formerly called multiple personality disorder) stemming from abuse. As a survivor myself and one who has ministered to other survivors in spiritual direction, sacramental confession, and healing prayer I find her a powerful role model. Likewise, Photini was most likely widowed and handed down to brother after brother according to the law–then seen, like Tamar in Genesis or Sarah in Tobit, seen as cursed/bad luck and refused to be married by the man she depended on for support. Alternately she could have been divorced and abandoned by some or all husbands–she had zero power herself to initiate divorce in that society (one reason Jesus spoke out against the practice) and no alternative but prostitution to support herself if the final partner refused to marry her. Sandra Schneiders and other biblical scholars have also pointed out that her meeting with Jesus at the well is powerfully resonant of so many transforming love stories in the Old Testament as well–she is seen as a sacred friend and partner in his mission by him as far as I can see.

  7. Pingback: Why Celibacy Isn’t the Point | Level Ground

  8. I also chose St. Photini as my Patron Saint after three horrid failed marriages.
    You might assume that my choice was obvious….but no, it wasn’t because of many husbands obvious sorrow and sin that I found comfort in St. Photini.
    I knew from my own experience that she had been seeking love and had failed over and over again. She never found real love (her hearts desire) until the encounter with Christ at the well.
    I have found that same love for Christ too and live happily by myself.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience taking St. Photini as your patron. May Christ continue to be your heart’s desire.

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