This is a sermon I used for both Coastal Plains Are and Bluebonnet Area Assemblies–May 2018.
Walking the Aisle
On August 6, 2016, I walked my daughter down the aisle of the First Christian Church in Arlington, Texas. After completing the duties of the Bride’s father, I exited the sanctuary, put on a robe, returned and performed the ceremony. Lest you think that I had manipulated the situation to make myself the center of attention let me stress that I did all of this as I had been instructed to do by my daughter herself.
I had learned in seminary that the tradition of a father walking a daughter down an aisle to meet her soon-to-be-husband had its roots in incredibly misogynistic and patriarchal traditions from a time when women were considered property. As a young pastor conducting the first few weddings, I tried explaining this—we might even say that I tried mansplaining this—to the brides as they planned their ceremony. It became clear to me very quickly that this history did not matter. Each couple had a vision of what that day would entail and if the bride wanted her father, mother, or no one at all to walk her down the aisle, she likely had had that vision for a very long time. I learned that for some, the choice about who to have by one’s side, in the ceremony, in the room even, was agonizingly difficult. It often involved forgiveness, reconciliation, or on the flip-side determination to maintain necessary boundaries.
Of course, that was mostly theoretical and occasionally pastoral for me. It hadn’t mattered to me in hundred or so weddings that preceded that moment I would defend the Bride’s decision. But on August 6, 2016, it stopped being theoretical. After everyone was in place, I took the shortest, longest, and most beautiful walk of my life and answered the question I had asked a hundred times but would only answer once. “Who presents this woman.”
I came to understand that what an act meant and what it means are two very different things. For us, in that moment it had many meanings: but I knew that as good as our relationship had been, it meant forgiveness on the part of my daughter. That walk meant that despite all the mistakes and missteps and the times of neglect, my daughter and I had reached that point with our relationship intact. It meant that after all had been said and done, she wanted me to stand by side her and to take her hand and willingly place it in the hand of the one with whom she intends to spend the rest of her life. That act required forgiveness and there’s nothing quite as humbling as the grace one receives from one’s children.
Of Wells and Weddings
A well might seem like an odd place to talk about weddings and marriages. Yet, Wells and Weddings relate in the Bible. Rebekkah received a proposal to marry Isaac at the well of Nahor. Jacob met Rachel at the well of Haran. Moses married Zipporah at the well in Midian.
There at a well in Samaria Jesus met a woman and they talked about Marriage. She was not married. In fact she had been married five times and the man she was living with was not her husband. Jesus knew that without asking.
We can all retrieve the patriarchal commentaries and point to the suggestions that this marriage record revealed her impurity and sexual proclivity. Even Adele Reinhartz in Women in the Bible said, “it may be natural to read this as a reflection of the stereotype that Samaritan women are impure and immoral” (p. 454). Yet, we must keep in mind that Jesus lived at a time when Saduccees could realistically pose the scenario of a woman whose seven husbands had died in succession. It’s possible that instead of shacking up with a man, she was now relying on a sixth kinsman redeemer after five previous husbands had died. It’s possible he would provide shelter but not matrimony.
Sandra M. Schneiders, in that highly commendable work on the fourth Gospel, Written That You May Believe, offers a much more compelling assessment. The Samaritan woman would not have expected a Messiah in the form of David. She would have expected a Messiah in the form of a new Moses. By revealing his knowledge of her personal life, her marriage history, Jesus met the criteria of speaking the truth to her. That made him a prophet like Moses.
She argues that the role of John 4 in the Gospel of John is similar to the role of conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10. Both are moments when the Gospel crosses a boundary—it’s interesting that tomorrow at the North Texas Area Assembly we will look at Acts 10. Both of these texts represent the Gospel moving out of its insular community of Judeans and into a large context.
There was a long-standing feud between the people of Samaria and the People of Judea. It went back to that time when the Northern Kingdom of Israel—with its capital in Samaria and the Southern Kingdom of Judah with its capital in Jerusalem divided from each other. Israel was eventually overtaken by the Assyrian Empire and a mingling of nations that followed.
Jesus intended the Gospel to reach Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and then to the ends of the earth. This story reflects the importance of the Early Church’s acceptance of the Samaritan Christians. Schneiders wrote, “The basic purpose of the story of the Samaritan Woman in the Gospel itself is to legitimate the Samaritan mission and to establish the full equality in the community between Samaritan Christians and Jewish Christians” (p. 135).
According to Schneiders the woman is both symbolic representative of the Samaritan people and the first missionary witness to the Samaritan people. The woman interrogates Jesus as to the major points of Samaritan theology and realizing that indeed he is the Messiah, she joyfully goes back to her village and says, “Come and See.”
From this lens, her five husbands should not be read as an isolated personal history but collectively read in relation to the historic five points of idolatry for ancient Israel as detailed in 2 Kings 17—The Assyrians put representatives of five different Nations in place in this land that bore the name of its capital, Samaria—Ancient Israel.
Each brought their own idolatry and the ancient Israelites found themselves in unholy, arranged marriages— 2 Kings 17:29-30 reads, “Every nation made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the people of Samaria had made, every nation in the cities in which they lived; the people of Babylon made Succoth-benoth, the people of Cuth made Nergal, the people of Hamath made Ashima; the Avvites made Nibhaz and Tartak; the Sepharvites burned their children in the fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim.” Five husbands—five idols. I think Schneiders is right. This woman is the symbolic embodiment of the whole Samaritan people.
Five Husbands of the Disciples of Christ
I wonder if she’s not also for us the symbolic embodiment of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). We too—it seems to me—have assimilated into five idolatrous marriages over the course of our history.
Optimism: We were married to Optimism at first. Especially with Alexander Campbell. We naively married the idea that we could through evangelism and social progress usher in the millennium, the reign of Christ here on earth. That optimism rushed like an innocent groom into the Civil War where his spirit was crushed and his naivete dispelled.
Cooperative Structures: We replaced that husband with Cooperative Structures—the son of Reconstruction and Urbanization. With the formation of Missionary Societies abroad and Benevolent Ministries at home we thought to organize ourselves into the Kingdom of God.
MarketplaceChristianity:We were seduced away by the allure of mainstream legitimacy. Walking the aisle with what Jim Duke has called, “a wild capitalist-style competitive marketplace” that is “Christianity in the USA.”
Evangelism and Ecumenism: We’ve married two good boys—Evangelism and Ecumenism. Both are necessary calls of the Gospel, but there are times we treat them as the ultimate end and aim of faith.
The one we’re living with: And today, Disciples, I think we are living man who will never legitimize our presence, will not make us a partner in any real sense. Will use us, but not respect us. That man would Partisan Politics.
Five marriages—optimism, structure, capitalism, evangelism, ecumenism—oh yeah—and our boyfriend, partisan politics. Five husbands who seem to revisit us in and out of a rotating door. Five husbands. Five idols. No, they are not all bad. They are just finite.
The thing about idols that makes them inadequate is that they generate tribes. They alienate groups of people from one another. People generate partitions between us the and them –and each side has its preferred idol and its chosen groom. We attach moral significance to our idol/husband in much the same way Samaritans and Judeans made their historic feud a matter of theological purity. This is not the way God desires to unite with us.
The marriage proposal
Marriage in the Bible is one of many metaphors scripture uses to talk about the reconciliation of God and humanity. It is an especially poignant image when the Bible speaks of repentance and the need for forgiveness. The marriage is offered to all humanity, all creation. Not one after another after another, like some crazy episode of the bachelor, but as a whole—for God so loved the cosmos—the whole as whole—that God gave—who gives this savior to be married? As Sondra Schneiders writes, “The implication of Jesus’s “proposal” at this well is clear: Jesus as Israel’s Bridegroom claims that the marriage is not complete unless Samaria is included.” Samaria and Judea, Republicans and Democrats, Progressives and Conservatives. The marriage isn’t going to happen in bits and pieces; it involves the uniting together of all that God loves.
Standing with Her
Well where does that leave us? Can we stand with her at that well? Can we put these five marriages in our rear-view mirror? Could we let her represent us to Jesus and allow her to bear witness us? I’d like that. I like her. Sometimes people say she’s there in the middle of the day because that’s when the day is hottest and she would go to the well then so she didn’t have to deal with the neighbors’ scornful looks. I think she’s there in the middle of the day because there’s a stranger who needs water and lacks a bucket. She’s there in the middle of the day because she can stand the heat—we need someone like that on our side. I think she’s there in the middle of the day because that’s when the light is brightest and the light reveals to truth. And I think more than that we need to follow her example of taking our experience encountering Jesus Christ and find ways to say to our neighbors—I need to tell you about this one whom I have met.
In that vein, I’ve been asking congregations within the Southwest Region to have congregation-wide conversation around two questions, (1) Who is the Jesus people encounter when they encounter your church? (more stories; fewer adjectives). And (2) What does it look like when people start following that Jesus within your congregation?
Evangelism becomes abusive when it is seen as the attempt to woo someone to Jesus. Evangelism is most honest when it is the intentional effort to retell the Christ story in such a way that those who have felt alienated and cut off—as the Samaritan felt at the time—know that they are invited to come to the living water and drink. It is a problem when we treat Jesus as something we have that someone else needs. It is a blessing whenever we recognize that the marriage Jesus offers us brings us to a place of reconciliation with others—all others. It’s not we have something you need; it’s that we need each other—and Jesus is offering to quench our thirst in such a way that we will never need again.
I love the Jesus we encounter when we encounter John 4. I love this woman who represents us there. I too want to drink from the water—to be married. And I must tell you that I struggle with the implications of that that means. What has become clear to me in this week’s study of this text is that our reconciliation and relationship with Christ cannot be reduced to a private personal relationships. Weddings require forgiveness. They require reconciliation. Not just the intimate forgiveness of a daughter of her frequently failing Dad, but the reconciliation of all those present—and all those not present. Reconciliation is with all those who will come to the well, come to the alter, come to the savior—and receive living water—come and see.