Byzantine icons are portals to the divine presence. The depictions are heavenly—the gold backgrounds speak of divine truth. The serene, symmetrical faces invite us into the order of Heaven. Here is a peace that surpasses all understanding. We slow down before the icon and encounter the divine presence.
In this icon of the woman at the well, we see the encounter of Christ with the Samaritan woman, who in the Orthodox tradition has a name: St. Photini, the illuminated or enlightened one. She meets Jesus while he is seated by the well. She approaches with her vessel to get water. Their hands indicate for us that they are engaged in conversation. On Christ’s right hand, his third finger bends in, a subtle sign of his divine nature. The two mountains behind them recall their words, reflecting that they come from two different backgrounds.
Central to the icon are two architectural elements—the well, and the walled city in the distance.
The well has a peculiar shape; it’s low and shaped like a cross and is suggestive of a baptismal font. It invites us to enter into the death of Christ so as to rise with him in the Resurrection—the very essence of the Paschal Mystery. We are beckoned to the font to seek the living water that delivers us from death to eternal life.
Behind the font looms a walled city. It is Jerusalem, the scene of the Paschal Mystery. The dark, gaping gate is like a tomb. Red curtains hint of the passion and bloodshed that will soon occur there. Yet the curtains are drawn back. Like the font, these curtains are inviting us into the tomb but also showing us the way out.
The woman at the well enters the tomb as she acknowledges in truth the painful path of her life. Christ illuminates her heart. He invites her to move beyond her current life. She enters the tomb of this in truth and accepts the living water. She is transformed from an outcast to an evangelizer. She will bring her joy back to her community and compel them to follow her to Christ. Through meeting Christ, St. Photini finds light in her darkness, a light she will shine to others.
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, assistant professor of liturgy, catechesis, and evangelization at Loyola University New Orleans.