From Woman at the Well to well woman
To spend time with her now, no one would ever 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 South Carolina, Rhodes lives her life to help others see the light and hope of Christ.
But it was not so long ago that Rhodes was not well at all. When she first read the biblical account of the woman at the well (John 4:14-26) — a woman floundering in a life of sin and pain, who had been married five times and was living with a man not her husband — Rhodes 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.
As Rhodes read that passage, tears rolled down her face, igniting a spark. Jesus knew everything the woman had done, yet he was ready to offer her grace and new life in him. If Jesus would do that for the woman at the well, maybe he would also do it for Rhodes.
He did. And today, Rhodes' testimony, How the Woman at the Well Became the Well Woman: A Memoir of an Extraordinary Ordinary Life, is a book.
"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 long. For many years, Rhodes didn't think she'd make it out whole, healed and happy, let alone become the kind of person who could offer others Christ.
The daughter of an alcoholic, Rhodes spent years in a difficult foster home beginning at age 7, desperately craving a return to the mother she idolized. When she finally returned home at 16, her dream turned out to be a nightmare. Her mother was so consumed with alcohol 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 an infant, they split and she fell into her next 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. Hard times and brokenness, plus the birth of another daughter and son, left Rhodes alone, penniless and 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.
"It was really, really hard to survive," Rhodes said.
Her way out — religion — proved to be another challenge. She turned her life around and focused heart, mind and soul on the Lord, but it turned out her new church was actually a cult.
Still, the cult was family and far better than the poverty and horrors she'd experienced. She spent the next 17 years in the cult remaking her life, eventually marrying the man who has been her husband for 30 years.
When the cult dissolved, Rhodes and her husband slowly began their journey toward spiritual freedom, finding biblical truth for the first time. Their hunger for Jesus and Rhodes' desire to leave a legacy of hope for her grandchildren led to her next quest: writing her life story.
Encouragement and hard work
Rhodes' book was a 15-year process spurred on by plenty of encouragement from the right people at the right time, she said. In the early 2000s, her daughter organized a women's event featuring Debbie Stack as speaker. Rhodes spent 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?'"
Nevertheless, God nudged her, and she attended a CLASSeminars event to help her take next steps as a Christian author and speaker. She felt like an amateur, but she kept at it and took all the advice she got. CLASSeminars led to Toastmasters, which led to a writers group, which led to a writing class, which led to more conferences. Over time, her work was accepted for publication, and she started to freelance. She did an intensive mentorship with CLASSeminars founder Florence Littauer, whose words gave her the final boost she needed: "‘I believe this is what God has planned for you, so go home and write your book," Rhodes said.
She got started.
From dream to reality
However, Rhodes had another milestone to achieve first: earning her high school diploma. At age 64, she went back to school — and graduated at the top of her class.
She took a break from writing when she was hit with a cancer diagnosis. But with the return of her health came the return of her drive to write.
The encouragement of others continued to motivate her. The encouragement included an invitation from speaker-writer La-Tan Murphy that would change her life: giving her testimony at a Christian women's conference in Virginia. There Rhodes met two other women who would also change her life: Cynthia Fralin and Fralin's mother, Joan Bowers. They were so inspired by Rhodes that they offered to host her in their home for three weeks so she could finish her book.
Rhodes launched her book at Fralin's Hope Floats 2016 conference, and her dream became reality.
God has always been there
Today, Rhodes is in a good place, and she thanks God daily for always loving her.
"There are lots of reasons to keep me on my knees and so much hope. Always hope. I pray every single day. We don't do this by ourselves."
She pointed to a Bible she received as a girl in foster care, when she went through confirmation at Trinity United Methodist Church in Windsor, Connecticut. She opened it to Psalm 23, a passage she'd been required to memorize. Somehow, that Bible had remained with her through foster care and when she returned to her mother's home, but had been left behind in the shuffle of life.
A few years ago, when she reconciled with her sober mother, her mother went to her closet, pulled the Bible out and presented it to Rhodes. The pages were marred, decayed with age, and in places, she could tell rats had nibbled upon the edges. But the marker still held the place at Psalm 23 and the words she'd recited 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. 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.'"
Rhodes finally believes those words and God's promise — and his invitation — for her and 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 tell that story.
Jessica Brodie is editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, a publication of the South Carolina Conference. This story first appeared in the November 2016 edition.
Donna Rhodes' book is available on Kindle, Amazon, Barnes and Noble and her website, www.onewellwoman.com.