From Woman at the Well to well woman
Rhodes’ testimony takes readers from hurt to wholeness in Christ
By Jessica Brodie
EASLEY—To spend time with her now, one would never imagine the kind of horrors Donna Rhodes once lived every day.
Today, Rhodes is a woman embracing wellness, from healthy cancer-free living to a thriving marriage and a deep, connected relationship with Jesus. An author, Christian speaker and Bible study teacher at United Methodist and other churches in the Upstate, Rhodes lives her life to help others see the light and hope of Christ alone, our risen and only savior. Poised and well dressed with a gentle smile, she exudes an immediate willingness to share her heart and her Lord with strangers and friends alike, inviting the sort of trust and kindness you’d expect from a woman who has always been at peace with God.
But it was not so long ago that Rhodes was not well at all. In fact, when she read the account of the Woman at the Well in the Gospel of John—a woman floundering in a life of sin and pain, who’d been married five times and was currently living with a man not her husband—Rhodes instantly recognized herself.
“I’d had a child out of wedlock, four kids from three different fathers, and was in poverty. I’d walked the streets; I was alone,” Rhodes said, ticking off the stings of her past.
The conversation between Jesus and the woman is the longest Jesus has in the Bible, and as Rhodes read it, tears rolled down her face. Jesus knew everything the woman had done, yet He was ready to offer her grace and a new life in Him. If Jesus would do that for the Woman at the Well, Rhodes thought maybe He could do that for her, too.
Reading that passage was a turning point in her life, one Rhodes said ignited a spark within her. And later, when Rhodes set out to write her testimony and offer that same kind of transformative hope for others, she knew her story needed to reflect the truth she read in the Gospel.
Her testimony, “How the Woman at the Well Became the Well Woman: A Memoir of an Extraordinary Ordinary Life,” is now a book launched this spring and making its way into the hands of men and woman alike through book signings, speaking engagements and other author events across the nation.
“It’s just been a journey,” Rhodes said. “God has placed people in my life, encouragement, health, finances, all of it, to get out the message of hope.
“That’s my ministry.”
A long road
But the journey has been a long one, and for many years, Rhodes didn’t think she’d ever make it out whole, healed and happy, let alone become the kind of person who could offer others a new life in Christ.
The daughter of an alcoholic, Rhodes spent years in a difficult foster home beginning at the age of 7, desperately craving a return to the mother she idolized and dreamed about. But when she finally returned home to her mother at the age of 16, reality was nothing like she’d expected. Instead, her dream became a nightmare. Her mother was so consumed with the disease of alcoholism that she couldn’t give Rhodes the love she needed. In an off-kilter home complicated by an abusive stepfather, Rhodes got out as quickly as she could.
She catapulted headfirst into marriage with a broken man. While her daughter was still an infant, they split and she fell into her next failed relationship—and the birth of her son. When that relationship also failed, she was swept up in a third relationship. Poverty was a constant thread, forcing Rhodes to make choices out of hunger and despair. Hard times and brokenness teamed with the birth of two more children, another daughter and son, left Rhodes alone, penniless and more than susceptible to the next nightmare, which came in the form of a wolf in sheep’s clothing—a twisted, manipulative, abusive man who almost took her life even as he provided financial support and a seemingly stable home for her children.
“It was really, really hard to survive,” Rhodes said.
Her way out—religion—proved to be yet another test. While she’d turned her life around and focused her heart, mind and soul on the Lord, it turned out her new church family was actually a cult. But the cult was family, and it was far better than the poverty and horrors she’d experienced prior. She spent 17 years in the cult making over her life, eventually falling in love with and marrying the man who has been her husband for the past 30 years.
When the cult dissolved, Rhodes and her husband slowly began their journey toward spiritual freedom, finding Christ and biblical truth for the first time. Their hunger for Jesus and Rhodes’ desire to leave a legacy of hope and light for her grandchildren led her to her next quest: writing the story of her life.
Encouragement and hard work
“How the Woman at the Well Became the Well Woman” was a 15-year process spurred on by plenty of encouragement from just the right people at the right time, Rhodes said. Back in the early 2000s, her daughter was the head of women’s ministry at a church, and she hosted an event featuring Debbie Stack as speaker. During that weekend, Rhodes spent some time with Stack and shared her story, and Stack urged her to write it. But Rhodes wasn’t ready.
“I told her, ‘I dropped out of high school. How can someone like me write?’”
But God nudged her, and she attended a CLASSeminars event to help her take next steps as a Christian author, speaker and leader. She felt incredibly out of place; to her, everyone else seemed so polished and professional, and she felt like an amateur. But to her surprise, she was met with strong reassurance—and a suggestion to get needed practice through her local Toastmasters group.
She took all the advice she got. Toastmasters led to joining a writers group, which led to taking a writing class, which led to more conferences. Over time, her work began getting accepted for publication, and she slowly started to freelance. She took an intensive mentoring session with CLASSeminars founder Florence Littauer. For Rhodes, who’d spent nearly her whole life in desperation scrounging for the next way out and up, Littauer’s words gave her the final boost she needed.
“(Littauer) said, ‘I believe this is what God has planned for you, so go home and write your book,” Rhodes said, smiling.
From dream to reality
But Rhodes had another milestone she needed to achieve first: finally achieving her high school diploma. At age 64, she went back to school and took six months of intense adult education classes, and she was at the top of the first graduating class at the new high school in Easley.
“In my speech, I said there are two things that cannot be taken away from you: your faith and your education,” Rhodes said. “All of us on that stage could never, ever be known again as quitters.”
She continued to write, taking a long break for a time when she was hit with a cancer diagnosis. But with the return of her health came the return of her drive to write the story of God at work in her life. And the encouragement of others continued to motivate her.
One of those moments turned into an invitation from speaker and writer Latan Roland Murphy that would change her life: giving her testimony at a Christian women’s conference in Virginia. Not only was that conference helpful in itself, but she also met two other women there who would also change her life: Cynthia Fralin and her mother, Joan Bowers, who were so inspired by Rhodes that they offered to put her up in their home for three weeks so she could finally finish her book.
Fralin then invited Rhodes to launch her book at Fralin’s Hope Floats 2016 conference in April. Rhodes did, and that’s when her dream became reality.
God has always been there
Since then, Rhodes has been busy speaking and doing book signings. Local readers will have the chance to meet her Aug. 6 during a signing at the K-Mart in Anderson. As for what’s next, Rhodes is exploring themes of Christian life by design, particularly how to gain access into the various rooms of our heart, reconstruct them and rearrange them in a way that pleases God.
Today, she’s in a good place, and she thanks God daily for always loving her and always being there for her.
“There are lots of reasons to keep me on my knees, and so much hope,” Rhodes said. “Always hope. I pray every single day. We don’t do this by ourselves.”
She pointed to a Bible she received when she was a little girl in foster care, when she went through confirmation at Trinity UMC in Windsor, Connecticut, and opened it to Psalm 23, which was a passage she was required to memorize in order to be confirmed in the church. Somehow, that Bible remained with her through foster care and when she returned to her mother’s home, but it was left behind and lost in the shuffle of her life.
A few years ago, when she reconciled with her sober mother, her mother went to her closet and pulled it out, presenting it to Rhodes. The pages were marred and decayed with age, and in places she could tell the edges had been nibbled upon by rats. But the marker still held the place at Psalm 23 and the words she’d recited so long ago: “He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
Reading those words again years later hit her hard.
“It was an affirmation—God has always been there,” Rhodes said. “The Lord is my shepherd, and you go through the valley. You go through it. It floored me! I could hear God say, ‘I have been with you through it all.’”
All these years later, Rhodes finally believes those words and God’s promise—and His invitation—for her and for all people. We are loved because Christ loved us. It’s not about us. It’s all about Him.
And she’s going to do everything she can to make sure she tells that story.
Rhodes’ book is available on Kindle, Amazon, Barnes and Noble and her website, www.onewellwoman.com.