Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Sexual Tension at the Well




John 4:5-42


Jesus’ meeting with the woman at the well is a well known gospel story. It has often been depicted in art and in song; one of my favorites is Sam Cooke’s, “Jesus Gave Me Water.” The story is often told as an object lesson in evangelism and sometimes even racial reconciliation. It is a very rich story, and it’s quite long. We had trouble fitting it all into the bulletin! This morning, however, I want to focus on a subtext of the story that might not be immediately apparent. I want to talk about the underlying sexual tension between Jesus and this woman and how he uses it to lead her to God.

Have I got your attention? Some of you might be shifting awkwardly in your pew now. I know, we aren’t supposed to talk about sex in church except maybe to say, “thou shalt not.” Why is that? Sexuality is a pretty huge part of who we are. It is a major preoccupation of our inner lives, and yet we compartmentalize our sexuality from our spirituality. Why is it that even the suggestion of Jesus as a sexual being seems radical to us? He’s God! He isn’t supposed to be involved in that sort of thing! And yet he is also a man, a human being like us, and so—like us he too was very much a sexual being.

Was Jesus married? Despite what you may have heard on the History Channel, there is no compelling reason to think that he was. Could Jesus have been a fully sexual being without being sexually active? I think so. I have a friend who is committed to celibacy, and yet he is perhaps more in tune and connected with his sexuality than anyone else I know.  Being celibate or abstinent does not mean putting that part of your self on a shelf and ignoring it. If you do that, you will only run into trouble! Part of having a healthy sexuality—and indeed a healthy spirituality—is recognizing and owning that part of who we are and allowing God to use it for his purposes.

So let’s look at the text. It is the heat of the day in the Middle East. Jesus has been traveling quite a while and so he takes a load off and rests in the shade by a well while his disciples are running errands. Suddenly a woman shows up. This is a culture where men and women would have been segregated in almost every situation outside of the home, but here Jesus and this woman are, alone together. More than that, Jews don’t talk to Samaritans and rabbis never talk to women in the streets, especially if they are alone together, and yet Jesus addresses her. 

This is a worldly woman, not exactly a sheltered young girl. She has been around. She has known a lot of men. In fact she has a reputation, which is probably why she chose to come to the well alone in the afternoon, when most people would be resting indoors. She is used to getting comments from other women and unwanted attention from men. When Jesus begins to speak to her, we can almost picture her roll her eyes, “Oh boy, here we go, I knew this was coming.” She gets a little saucy with him, “You want a drink huh? Oh I bet. Don’t you know you’re not supposed to be talking to me?”

Jesus’ response is somewhat cryptic, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” He tells her if she were to drink the water he can give her she would never be thirsty again. I imagine her thinking, “He’s coming on to me. He’s a bit cocky calling himself ‘the gift of God’ and I’m not exactly sure what he is getting at with this ‘living water’ nonsense, but he’s got my attention. I’ll play along.”

Jesus must have realized what she was thinking, because he gets playful right back at her! He says, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” I imagine she smirked and drew a bit closer when she said, “I have no husband.”

She is completely disarmed and blown back by Jesus’ response, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” This really strikes a nerve with her. Suddenly she realizes that this is no ordinary man that she is speaking to. “I see you are a prophet,” she says. Jesus isn’t just one more man looking to use her, but someone sent from God to speak into her life. He really sees her and his only agenda is to lead her to God. He is the one she has been waiting for all her life. Can he be the messiah?

What do his words mean? This woman had been with many men, all of which used her sexually and left her. They were “husbands” in the sense that whether we intend it or not, our hearts and bodies make a promise to those who we give ourselves to sexually. None of these men honored that promise however. They were not truly husbands.

 What was she looking for in these relationships? Love, companionship, security, happiness, satisfaction…all of the things that anyone looks for in a relationship… All of these relationships, however, had left her empty, unsatisfied, and deeply disappointed. She still had not found what she was looking for even with the man she was currently with. This was the secret story of her life that she hid behind the mask of her alluring sexuality.

Jesus mentions six men, five in her past and one in her present. None of these are the one she was searching for. What about the seventh? These numbers have a significance beyond the literal one. In Hebrew thought, seven is the number of perfection, completion, and rest. Seven is the Sabbath, the day that God rested from his labor. This woman had not found rest in the first five, she did not find it in number six either, but Jesus is the seventh. He is the one that her heart truly longs for, the gift of God, the one who can give her living water that will satisfy her thirst once and for all.

Sexuality is about so much more than just a naked biological urge. This well is deep! It is emotional, psychological, and yes—spiritual.

I once read that our word sex is related to the Latin, secare, which means, “to cut off, sever, disconnect from the whole.” Weird isn’t it? What that means is that our sexuality comes from the awareness of our incompleteness. It is all the ways we seek to reconnect to the whole, to find true intimacy. God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” This longing is not a bad thing; it is the way God made us. We were made for relationship. It is part of what it means to be created in God’s image.

God made us for himself. As the Jewish theologian Martin Buber said, God is the eternal “Thou” behind every truly authentic relationship between persons. When relationships are good and wholesome, they help us to find God in the other person.

Unfortunately this all can go horribly wrong. There is a famous quote often attributed to G.K. Chesterton, “Every man who rings the bell of a brothel is really looking for God.”  Instead of letting our sexuality lead us to the deeper fulfillment that comes from having a relationship with God, we make it an idol. We look for satisfaction in the gift rather than the gift-giver, but anyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again. 

We sometimes think those who are the most sexually promiscuous are the most in tune and knowledgeable about sexuality, but is this the case? In a deeper sense, they are actually pretty naive about sex!


Jesus Christ wants to give us living water, the Holy Spirit, which is the source of all true joy and intimacy with God. Jesus enjoys this perfect connection all the time. Even though he was celibate, he was more in tune with his sexuality than anyone else, and he has a lot to teach us about this part of ourselves.