Here’s my Lenten sermon on John 4.
After nearly 15 years of ministry, God finally saw fit to give me a snow day last week. I was as stoked as my fifth grader this week that the Almighty looked down upon my sweatshop-labor-lot and threw me a bone.
And gave me a snow day.
Like many of you, I’m certain, I spent the snow day in my boxers binge-watching Netflix, working my through my Netflix queue. In case you don’t know, queue is the word you use for line if you spend most of your time in drawstring pants eating ice cream and hot pockets.
I spent the day working my way through my Netflix queue until I got to a show I’d saved a month ago but then had forgotten was in my line up. I mean, my queue.
You all probably watched the show weeks ago when it premiered on Netflix, Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special.
I know our organist, Liz Miller, watched it 3 times in 1 night, and Dennis who just started another of his sabbaticals is probably watching it right now.
I’m probably the last person to have watched Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special. But just in case Karli hasn’t seen it… here’s the premise. Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special begins with Christmas.
It turns out- St. Nick’s little indentured servants made too many toys this year. Supply outpaced demand. Santa’s stuck with more inventory than nice or naughty kids.
So, to get rid of this overage emergency, like Leia to Obi Wan, Santa turns to his only hope.
That’s right, Michael Bolton.
Even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve already guessed what comes next in the story. You can anticipate what comes next. Because this is Michael Bolton we’re talking about! The man who combines the skullet hairstyle of Kenny G with a voice that’s practically an audible erogenous zone.
In the story, as soon as Santa calls upon the Soul Provider to provide the North Pole with emergency help, you know how the story will unfold.
Sure, the character Mike Bolton in Office Space calls Michael Bolton a “no talent ass clown” but we know that’s not true.
Michael Bolton’s 1,000 thread-count bedroom voice has scored 9 #1 Billboard hits. His 1991 album Time, Love, and Tenderness won a Grammy as did his cover of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
I know firsthand from my experience as a teenage lifeguard in the 1990’s- nothing got my friend’s moms to flirt with shirtless me faster than Michael Bolton’s single “Love is a Wonderful Thing” in rotation over the PA system.
Michael Bolton is like strawberries and champagne, raw oysters and bitter chocolate. He’s like lace and rose petals on silk sheets. He’s an aphrodisiac.
Michael Bolton can arouse the female species the way block grants and entitlement cuts get Paul Ryan horny.
But I digress.
My point is-
In Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special, as soon as Santa calls upon Michael Bolton you know what to expect.
You know Santa is going to call upon Michael Bolton to host a Valentine’s Day Special on TV that will inspire couples all over the world to make sweet love and conceive 100,000 new babies; thereby, solving Santa’s elf- induced extra inventory problem.
I mean, how cliched is that? You’ve seen that story arc a million times before, right?!
As soon as Santa calls upon Michael Bolton you know how the story will unfold because Michael Bolton’s bedroom baritone is so cliched it’s a storytelling convention.
It’s a trope.
A type. An archetype.
Admit it. We see story types like Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special all the time.
So we know what comes next.
It’s like how in every romantic comedy, unless he’s in a coma, Bill Pullman will get dumped by his fiance for a stranger she meets on the Empire State Building. And maybe, that’s only in Sleepless in Seattle but you know it feels like every romantic comedy you’ve ever seen.
Just like you know in every romantic comedy, at some point, a heartbroken girl will be comforted by her emotionally intelligent gay friend. It’s a storytelling convention. It’s never a dumb gay friend.
It’s never a gay friend who always says the absolute wrong thing. It’s always a sensitive, empathetic gay friend. Every time.
It’s like how in every disaster movie there are politicians who ignore and even deny the dire warnings coming from the consensus of the scientific community- not that that would ever happen in real life, it’s a type, a cliche.
A storytelling convention.
Like, how in every outdoorsy adventure movie you know it’s going to be the sidekick of color who gets eaten by the bear first.
It’s a storytelling convention.
Like opposites attract, like beauty on the inside.
Like, obviously, the gawky middle school friend you didn’t appreciate will grow up to be smoking hot (see: 13 Going on 30).
Like Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special.
They’re all rely upon cliches. Tropes. Archetypes.
Without scenery or spoken word these storytelling conventions advance the plot. They hint and foreshadow what’s to come.
The first time farm-boy Wesley says to Buttercup “As you wish” you know how it’s going to end. And because you know how it will end, you know Wesley the farm boy is not dead. You know he’s really the Dread Pirate Roberts.
And even when he’s mostly dead you know he’s not gonna die because you know that’s not how true love
And when John tells you that Jesus meets a woman at a well, all the stories of scripture, all the Old Testament reruns, they all lead you to expect…a wedding.
Just as surely as you know how its going to go as soon as Billy Crystal ride shares his way back to NY with Meg Ryan, all the storytelling conventions of scripture tell you what to expect when John tells you that Jesus meets a woman at a well.
Abraham’s son, Isaac, he went to a foreign land and there at a well he met a woman who was filling her jar.
And guess what Isaac said to her? “May I have some water from your jar?” And Rebekah said to him, “Yes, and I’ll draw water for you camels too.”
And just like that, before you know it, they’re getting married.
Their son, Jacob, he went east to a foreign land, and in the middle of a field surrounded by sheep he comes to a large, stone well. And there approaching the well, Jacob sees a shepherdess, coming to water her sheep, Rachel.
And this time Jacob doesn’t ask the woman for water, he goes directly to her father and asks to marry her. And before you know, well after laboring for her father for 7 years, they’re getting married.
When Moses fled Pharaoh of Egypt, he goes to a foreign land and sits down by a well. And there, says the Book of Exodus, a priest of Midian comes to the well with his 7 daughters and their flock of sheep.
A group of shepherds gather at the well too and they start to harass the priest’s daughters. Moses steps in to defend them and quicker than ‘You had me at hello” Moses is getting married to one of the priest’s daughters, Zipporah.
Ditto King Saul. Ditto the lovers in the Song of Songs. And on and on.
It’s a type scene, a cliche, a contrivance, a storytelling convention.
Isaac, Jacob, Moses and all the rest- they all meet their prospective wives at wells in a foreign land.
Meeting at a well in a foreign land- in scripture it’s like match.com or the Central Perk. You’ve seen this story before.
A man comes to a foreign land and there he finds a maiden at a well. He asks her for a drink. She obliges and more so, and then, faster than Faye Dunaway falls for Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor, the maiden runs back to get her people to witness and bless their union.
That’s how the story always goes.
So when John tells you that Jesus goes to a foreign country, Samaria, and meets a woman at a well and asks her for a drink-
You might as well cue up the jazz flute baby-making music because all the scenes of scripture have prepared you for what to expect.
Meeting a woman at a well- it’s as reliable a clue as when Jim first talks to Pam at the front desk of Dunder Mifflin. You know they’re going to get married!
And, by the way, don’t forget the first miracle, sign, Jesus performs in John’s Gospel in chapter 2 is in Cana where Jesus is a wedding guest. And how, right before this passage, in John 3, Jesus refers to himself, cryptically so, as the bridegroom. And now here in chapter 4 he’s in a foreign land, at a well, asking a woman for a drink of water.
So, if this scene is as cliched as Michael Bolton’s sex appeal, if a man meeting a maiden at a well is as contrived a storytelling convention as the sensitive gay friend, if what John wants to cue up is a wedding, then why doesn’t Jesus follow the script?
I mean, it’s not hard. It’s like swiping right on Tinder.
In scripture all you have to do is ask a girl at a well for a drink of water and someone’s practically already shouting mazel tov.
If that’s what John has cued up for us, then why does Jesus go from asking for a drink of water to talking about Living Water?
And why does this woman, who according to the convention is supposed to be a maiden, instead seem to have more baggage than Princess Vivian in Pretty Woman?
The answer? Is in the numbers.
The thing about storytelling conventions- every song uses more than one.
In every comic book movie, it’s not just that the superhero gets orphaned in front of his eyes as a kid, it’s that you know you’re going to find out later the bad guy had something to do with his parents’ murder.
The thing about storytelling conventions- every story uses more than one. In Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special, the story doesn’t just turn on Michael Bolton’s siren call sex appeal. That would be too simple of a story. The story would just be Michael Bolton helping Santa fill the world with more babies with his bedroom voice. That would be ridiculous.
No, even Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special requires another storytelling convention to advance the story; in this case, a villain, the owner of a no questions asked money back guarantee mattress company, who vows to kill Michael Bolton after he’s deluged with calls from customers wanting their money back because Michael Bolton has inspired them to reach such bed-destroying heights of ecstasy they want their money back.
The thing about storytelling conventions every story uses more than one. Even the Gospel of John.
Here in John 4, it’s not just the well scene and it’s the numbers.
You need both conventions, the well and the numbers, to mine the meaning of this story.
Numbers in scripture always convey meaning.
Jesus dies at the 6th hour.
12 disciples. 12 tribes of Israel.
Joshua marched around Jericho 7 times on the 7th day.
The menorah has 7 candlesticks.
And God completed creation and rested on the 7th day.
In scripture, numbers always convey meaning. It’s a storytelling convention. And in scripture, the number 7 always connotes completeness. Perfection. Fulfillment.
And if the number 7 conveys completeness, the number 6 is 7’s ugly opposite, a blemish. The number 6 is painful reminder of coming up short, of imperfection, of incompleteness.
So when John tells you this woman has had 5 husbands and she’s shacked up with 1 more (6) and now she’s meeting a 7th suitor at a well, he’s not simply telling you she has baggage. He’s giving you a clue that the tension in this story is between incompleteness and completeness.
The numbers are the other storytelling convention and the most important number to know in this story isn’t even explicit in the story.
John just expects you, the audience, to know it.
The number 3.
3- that’s the number of husbands a woman was allowed under the Jewish Law.
3- that’s it. Not 5. Not 6-ish.
And it’s true Samaritans weren’t Jews, but- you can tell just from her conversation with Jesus- the Pentateuch was their scripture. The shared the same bible. They followed the Torah too.
She’s only allowed under the Law 3 husbands.
So what’s up with John telling us that she’s had 5, 6-ish, husbands?
This is where this hackneyed courtship scene from scripture becomes like a Jane Austen movie where everything turns on language and word play and misunderstanding.
The word husband in Hebrew, ba’al, means literally lord. It’s the same word Hebrew uses for a pagan deity. She’s had 5 ba’lim and now a sort of 6th.
She’s had 5 gods, 5 idols, and now a sort of 6th.
So often preachers want to make this story about Jesus crossing boundaries, gender and ethnic, to show hospitality to this unclean outsider, or they want to make it about Jesus showing grace to this woman with a profligate past.
The problems with preaching this passage that way-
On the one hand, Jesus is in Samaria not the other way around. If anyone here is crossing ethnic and gender boundaries to show hospitality to an outsider, it’s her.
On the other hand, this passage might be about grace and no doubt she’s a sinner but the ba’lim they’re talking about aren’t husbands. They’re idols.
It’s right there in scripture, in 2 Kings 17, where it describes the Assyrian invasion of Israel and how the Assyrians brought with them to Samaria from 5 different Assyrian cities their 5 different gods, 5 different idols, 5 ba’lim, husbands.
Her baggage is different than Princess Vivian in Pretty Woman. She hasn’t broken the 6th commandment. She’s broken the first.
She’s not an adulteress. She’s an idolatress.
So who’s this 6-ish husband?
This is where John 4 is like a western or a war movie. You have to know the geography to follow the story.
John expects you to know that near Sychar Herod the Great had turned the capital city of Samaria into a Roman city and named it after Caesar and filled the city with thousands of Roman colonists, settlers with whom the Samaritans did not intermarry as they had with the Assyrians.
Hence Jesus’ line “…and the one you have now is not your husband.” He’s not looking into her heart. What Jesus knows about her is what every Jew knew about her. People.
You see, it’s another storytelling convention.
This woman- she’s a stand in. A symbol.
She represents all of her people.
It’s a different kind of wedding scene because they’re not talking about her checkered past. They’re talking about her people’s worshiping 5 false gods and now they’re under the thumb of Caesar who required his subjects to worship him as a god, as a ba’al.
That’s why she calls him a prophet.
Prophets don’t look into sinners’ hearts for their secrets.
Prophets call out people’s idolatry.
That’s why their conversation so quickly turns to worship. If they’re talking about husbands husbands then it sounds like she’s changing the subject. But if they’re talking about husbands, ba’lim, as in gods, then worship is the next logical topic.
Because the Samaritans believed the presence of the true God was found atop Mt. Gerizim and the Jews believed the presence of the true God was found in the Temple in Jerusalem.
They’re talking about God.
The presence of God. Where God is to be found in spirit and truth.
Not the 5 false gods who can’t nourish, can’t quench but can give only stale water as though out of a cracked cistern, not Caesar who presumed to be a god and humiliated his subjects and forced them to tote water like slaves, but the true and living God who can give light and life like an ever flowing stream, like Living Water.
And that’s why this seventh suitor, this Mr. Perfect who embodies Michael Bolton’s first chart topping hit “How am I Supposed to Live Without You,” this would-be husband who promises to complete her like Rene does for Jerry Maguire.
He turns to her at the well.
Jesus turns to her at the well and he says to her the very same thing God said to Moses at the Burning Bush. Exactly what God said when he first revealed his name to his People. What God first said when he vowed to be their ba’al.
“I am” Jesus says to her. I am who I am. I will be who I will be.
He’s all that is.
And then she drops her bucket, the symbol of how her previous 5 husbands have left her parched and wanting- because they’re not real. She drops her bucket, the symbol of her 6th husband’s subjugation and abuse.
She drops her bucket.
And then she continues the storytelling convention by running off to fetch her people to witness and bless a union.
No one fetches the chuppah. No one shouts mazel tov. No one kills the fatted calf and kicks on the Michael Bolton music.
John continues the storytelling convention of the wedding at the well. She runs off to fetch her people to witness and bless a union just like all the women of scripture before her have done. Come and see, she says.
But then, there’s no wedding, no marriage, no exchange of vows.
It’s like John chooses right here to use another storytelling convention.
A cliffhanger. A season-ending ambiguity.
To Be Continued…
Because, remember, it’s a convention.
She’s just a stand-in, a symbol. She represents her people. All people.
The union is supposed to be with you.
You’re the one- because of you he can’t keep his mind on nothing else. He’d trade everything- power and divinity, his life- for the good he finds in you.
Sure, you’re bad. Sure, you’re a sinner. But his love for you is such…he can’t see it.
I doubt he’d ever turn his back on his best friend, but to him- you can deny him, betray him, run away from him; you can mock him, spit upon him, hang him out to dry on a cross- you can do no wrong.
He’d give up everything for you. Empty himself. Put on flesh. Take the form of a slave. Sleep out in the rain. He’d give you everything he’s got, even his life.
He’d come back from the grave just to hold onto your precious love.
And sure, I’m just cheesily quoting “When a Man Loves a Woman” right now, but the point couldn’t be more serious.
Of all the other suitors in the world, of all the idols vying for your love and affection, he’s the seventh. He’s the light to your darkness, the shepherd to little lamb you.
He’s your Mr. Darcy. The Alvy to your Annie Hall. The Tracy to your Hepburn.
Only he can complete you.
John stops the storytelling convention right here.
There’s no chuppah, no DJ, no mazel to.
There’s no exchange of vows.
Because John’s waiting for you to say “I do.”