By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, September 25, 2022
Reading: John 4:7-30 & 39
I got to hear one of the world’s great intellects speak in person. Daniel Boyarin is a rabbi, a renowned scholar, but what I remember, is the drink of water. Before he sipped, he mumbled a prayer in Hebrew. The mic picked it up loud and clear: Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Haolam Shehakol Nihiya Bidvaro. “Blessed are you, O Lord God, king of the universe, by whose Word all things came to be.” And I wanted to pray like that. Imagine giving thanks before every sip of water? In the language God speaks?!
Our story today involves two things: water and marriage. We’re used to giving thanks before a wedding. One of the things our post-Christian culture still thinks the church is good for, is weddings. Of course, you can get “ordained” on the web in five minutes and do a wedding, so we’re even losing that. That’s okay, the church can do without being recognized or sought out in the broader culture. The wedding industry is only a few decades old—I could marry you up here this morning for free. Judaism has done without positive recognition or favour in broader cultures forever and is still there blessing the world. Many wise observers think Christianity’s future is going to be more like Judaism: we’ll teach faith at kitchen tables and not in public venues, thanking God for sips of water and not for strangers’ or customers’ over-priced weddings.
Jesus is at a well when a woman approaches. If you know your scripture, you know what’s coming: wedding bells. The well is where you go to find a spouse in the Bible. Everyone needs water to live, so wells are treasured, fought over, they take on deeper meaning (as it were). This well is special. Its where the great Jacob and his twelve sons and their families and flocks drank. The well of all twelve tribes of Israel.
And Jesus shouldn’t be here.
Jesus is Jewish. In this passage, he says, “Salvation is from the Jews.” No Judaism, no Christianity, no salvation, and no God. As ever, with us religious types, there is rivalry. There is an old schism among the Israelites, a family feud, and there are no fiercer feuds than family feuds. When the northern tribes of Israel were destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BC and ten of the twelve tribes vanished from the earth, a few folks were left. They built a temple in Gerazim in Samaria and claimed to be the only authentic heir of Jacob’s faith. There are still Samaritans out there today, around 1000 of them on the planet, and they still sacrifice at that temple. Jewish people at the time of Jesus and today come from the two remaining southern tribes of Judah (where we get the word “Jew”) and Benjamin—they’re the only legitimate heirs of the faith of Jacob. When the disciples turn up, they find Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman at a well. And they think whoa. This whole following Jesus thing is going to turn out different than we thought. Always does. She’s a Samaritan. A false Israelite. One who’s doing it wrong. And he seems to want to drink after her. Gross. This story is overflowing with religious and ethnic and gender-based friction.
And it’s Jesus causing all the trouble. Like he always does.
He asks for a drink. The woman corrects him: you’re male, you’re Jewish, and you’re weird. Jesus proceeds to prove she’s completely correct, only he’s much weirder than she thought. Actually, you’d like a drink from me. You have no bucket. If you drink my water, you become a spring, not just a well. I’d like that.
These two demonstrate what Rabbi Dr. Boyarin showed me: what water is for. A reason to rejoice. Every sip. Imagine thanking God every time we sip anything? We’d be thanking God dozens of times a day. And that’s the point. Jesus takes that point—thank God all day—and multiples it. You can become water for others, a Niagara of water, gushing. You won’t need a bucket. You’ll be a bucket. A spring, a geyser.
Yes, I want that. Don’t you?
Jesus has a new disciple signed up. But he can’t take yes for an answer. Go bring your husband. I have no husband. Now, careful here. Lots of preachers like me go too far at this point. She’s at the well in the heat of the day, we infer, because she’s ashamed. There is no obvious evidence for this, we male preachers read it in. Jesus says, you have had five husbands and the man you have now is not your husband. He’s not shaming her. We husbands do drop dead with alarming regularity. In that day, a husband could divorce a wife if she bore no children—they figured it could only be her fault. She gives no evidence of shame, and he offers none. And remember this all happens at a well, where you go to find a husband. There is love in the air as these two flirt, but it’s weird. The disciples find it awkward. Only Jesus does not; but maybe he should.
A friend of mine was contemplating becoming a nun. She told an older nun, “I think I could give up sex, but not flirting.”
The older nun said, “Oh honey, you don’t have to give up flirting. As a nun you can flirt with everyone more. They trust you and you’re trying to lure them into life with God. The biggest flirts are old nuns. Just never betray that trust.” Jesus woos us all, as he does this multiply married woman.
One of the chief commandments in Judaism is to go forth and multiply. The Jewish people are the means by which God blesses and renews the whole world. So, you should fill the Earth with more Jews. Extra credit for more kids. The Samaritans would have agreed. Every child is a blessing, have more of them. And Judaism aside, it’s a good thing God gave us hormones. None of us would exist without them.
One of the strangest things Jesus does as a Jew and a rabbi . . . is he never marries. No children. Commentators are quick to say this woman is doing marriage wrong. But Jesus is also doing marriage wrong. The last two centuries in the church have been a chaotic Babel of arguments over these things. Can women pastor? Can gay people marry? You’re doing it wrong, no, you’re doing it wrong. I’ve got to tell y’all, the first one who does marriage and gender wrong is . . . Jesus. Every time the church tries to tell someone they’re the wrong sort of person for this or that, we have to remember, the first wrong sort of person: Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews, saviour of the world . . . with no wife or children.
What is marriage really for? Because it’s a weird thing. To tell a person not just, “I love you” but I’ll stay with you in sickness and health, for richer or poorer. . . I mean, you don’t have to get married to have children. Fewer in our culture are bothering. Many other cultures practice polygamy, including our Bible’s own patriarchs. Modern western culture seems attracted either to sexual “freedom,” which turns out to be terrible news for women or children or men with less wealth—false freedom, that is. Or we’re attracted to serial monogamy: I’ll stay with this person until I find someone better. That’s a ticket to loneliness. There are bad reasons to get married: to think this other person will make you happy. Don’t do it. It’s a trap. If you can’t be happy on your own, marriage won’t fix it. Of course, being happy is a bad goal anyway but that’s another sermon. One non-religious author points out that in our non-religious age, we have shifted our expectation for unending happiness from God to our romantic partner. But no romantic partner can make you unendingly blissful. That’s a crushing expectation and it destroys relationships. To believe in God doesn’t make you unendingly happy either, not in this life. We have a cross at the centre of our faith. Jesus says follow me and you can get one of these crosses for yourself too.
Here’s what marriage is really for. Here’s why Jews and Christians think marriage is a good idea. It tells the truth about God. God marries us in Jesus Christ. And God will never forsake us. Ever. So, those who never marry show something true: we don’t have to marry another person to be fully human. Marrying Jesus is quite enough. And those who do marry another person show something true: every single marriage reflects God’s marriage to Israel, Christ’s faithfulness to the church.
GK Chesterton said, “Any marriage is more interesting than any romance.” Marriage includes promise making and longevity and old jokes and long-running feuds and in-laws and pizza nights. Marriage is a delight, but it’s not easy or always fun. It is good. Really good. It won’t always make you happy. Sometimes it makes you miserable. And it doesn’t always work out. My mentor in ministry has a mother who married seven times, twice to the same man, my friend’s father. That’s Elizabeth Taylor, Zsa Zsa Gabor level stuff. It’s beyond excessive, it’s almost sweet and romantic: Aw, she really wants to be happily married, so she keeps trying. It’s just a little expensive.
Jesus doesn’t do it. Never marries. Not once (and don’t believe quote-unquote “scholars” who claim otherwise, they’re not scholars at all). Jesus is perfectly happy to be married to the church, his only bride.
I told you he was weird.
This Samaritan woman is also a quick study. She shifts out of talk of her love life into a little theology. So, you’re a prophet. Uh huh. You Jews say to worship in Jerusalem. We Samaritans have our temple here. Who’s right? This is when Jesus says salvation is from the Jews. Then, he says, soon there’ll be no temples. The times have changed. I’m here now. The Bible says in heaven there are no temples. No churches. Everything will be holy. The church is temporary. We only need churches for now, to direct life toward God. A day is coming, Jesus says its here, when we won’t need that anymore. This is bad news for me in my line of work, no church and I’m out of a job, but it seems Jesus is still coming back “soon” today, in 2022, so I’m good for now, at least until “soon” arrives. Interesting we build churches to look like this, massive, immovable. Goodness, I love this building. And . . . it’s as temporary as a canvas tent. When Jesus returns, we won’t need it anymore.
Now, here’s the part of the passage I’ve been trying to get to. Water exists to show us God is good and satisfies our every thirst. Marriage exists to show God is faithful, and is absolutely still in love with us, and would say, “I do” again in a hot second. Here’s what this Samaritan woman exists for. Listen again: “`Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’” As if she weren’t clear the first time, the Gospel repeats it: “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done’.”
Now, I can imagine her neighbours saying, uh, lady, everyone knows everything you’ve ever done. I mean, what are neighbours for other than gossip? But hear what she’s saying more deeply. Jesus knows what she has done. All of it. No detail left out. He’s harder to fool than we men usually are. And Jesus offers her . . . no judgment at all. Incites no shame at all. He doesn’t even bother to forgive her. He could have. He does that sort of thing. In this case it seems not to be necessary. Instead, it’s like he admits her to the weird club. “Oh, you’ve done marriage “wrong”? Well, cool, so have I. You’re the wrong sort of Jew? Honey, you’ve got nothing on me being the wrong sort of Jew—try being a crucified Messiah.” I said water exists to show God’s goodness. Marriage exists to show God’s goodness. In this story, water exists to show Jesus’ goodness. Marriage exists to show Jesus’ goodness. You’re getting the point, right? Jesus is God. His new disciple asks her neighbours, “He can’t be the Messiah, can he?” He sure is. And not just the Messiah, the deliverer of Israel. He is also the Son of God and God himself.
And he is absolutely crushing on you.
And they believe her. These small-town gossipy wrong-kinds-of-Jews leave their city and go out to hear Jesus themselves. Many, we’re told, believe, because of her. This Samaritan woman is the first evangelist. The first preacher. The first one to tell her neighbours, “Hey, stop what you’re doing right now and come with me and listen to this man. You’ll want to hear him.” And they do. Many believe because of her, the Bible says explicitly.
There are, of course, Christian denominations that don’t ordain women. Don’t feel proud my fellow liberals, we only started ordaining women 75 years ago or so, in the span of biblical time that’s nothing, and women pastors still have it harder in our denominations than we men do. Trust me, I’m married to one. When we defend women’s ordination, we point out that if women weren’t allowed to speak, Mary Magdalene never would’ve told the boys about the resurrection and there’d be no church at all. The first preacher of the empty tomb is a woman. Here’s the mistake we make. . . Who cares about ordination? I mean, we church nerds do, and that’s fine. But the saviour, the defeater of death, that’s important to all humanity. The Samaritan woman isn’t seeking ordination, neither is Mary Magdalene. They’re telling everyone they can find, “Hey, you’re thirsty like me? Here’s water. You find relationships difficult like I do? Here’s the only one who can actually complete you. Jesus is water. He’s the only good husband. He is God. All people, not just Samaritans, not just Jews, but all people, can find life in him. In fact, he’s the only way any of us can find life.”
I met the Samaritan woman once. I was in Durham in the north of England and learned of a church of homeless people that gathered in a barber shop. This barber would cook up a big pot of something hearty and filling and show Alpha videos. When the videos ran out, the guys all said, “See you next week.”
He said, “That’s it, there are no more videos.”
They said, “Oh, you thought we were here for the videos. We were here for the food!” They kept coming and a church was born of Jesus’ best friends: the poor and the homeless. Soon it grew from 15 people to 35 to 100. How? Well, the barber told me, it wasn’t just the food, it was this woman.
She was the most renowned felon in County Durham. More than 100 convictions to her name. Her photo was in the media: avoid this woman, she’s dangerous. The authorities took her children away for their safety. Contemplating suicide in a prison cell, Jesus appeared to her, changed her life, like the first Samaritan woman. She got out, got sober, found the homeless church in the barber shop, and supercharged it. She went around knocking on doors at the estate (that’s Brit speak for social housing) saying come and see the most amazing thing I’ve ever found. It’s like water. It’s like a husband only better.
You do know the only reason people ever come to church is a personal invitation, right? Forget ordination. No one ordained her to do that, just like no one ordained the Samaritan woman or Mary Magdalene. Forget that criminal or marriage record, Jesus wipes it all clean. Jesus is water. Jesus is a good husband. Jesus is all the life there is. Come and see the most amazing thing. Stay and eat and drink something hardy. And give thanks. In Hebrew. Or in any old language at all. Amen.