There are just some things that we don’t imagine Jesus doing.
Even though, technically, the church holds to the doctrine of what is called “incarnation” – that is, Jesus was completely and fully human – still, we don’t think, or even LIKE to think, of Jesus engaged in some activities that are just part of every day for the rest of us. There’s nothing particularly edifying, for instance, in imagining Jesus with a sore back! Or getting up in the morning and shaving.
But Jesus was fully human. And one area no one touches, if you’ll pardon the pun, is a part of being human that’s actually quite important: our sexual identities. IF Jesus was fully human, then he had a sexual identity and sexual feelings. They might have been very important in his life or less important, we don’t know. But every human has them. No theologian – and certainly no pastor who wants to keep his or her job – would ever discuss this. I’ve seen a couple of treatments, but mostly from fringe thinkers and crackpots.
So…I would like to say, right from the beginning, that I will, for the most part, be a coward on this subject too. My point is not to talk about Jesus as a fully sexual being. But it is to at least indicate something that perhaps has been missing from some discussions of the so-called “Woman at the well” story. According to John’s account, Jesus is traveling on his way to Galilee and goes through Samaria. He stops at Jacob’s well, and the disciples go off to find something to eat, leaving him alone. A woman comes, oddly enough at noon, to fetch water. It is a man and a woman alone, a Samaritan and a Jew. There are charged lines of ethnicity and politics and theology here, all at once, as the discussion soon points out. But there are also charged lines of gender.
Jesus is the first to cross the line. But then he seemed to be good at that. Instead of just ignoring her, he says: Give me a drink. Not so much as a “please”, either. To which the woman doesn’t just say “yes” or “no”, although she should have. Right from the beginning we see that this Samaritan is no ordinary individual. Now how is it, she asks – and you can almost see her one hand on her hip, her tone of voice slightly accusing – how is it that you, a Jew, can ask that of me, a Samaritan? “How dare you?” Like some people would say: “no respect at all”.
Jesus then says, “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. And the woman answered him back: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?”
I think what’s going on in the Gospel this morning is actually a flirtation of sorts. Maybe not overly sexual – although it is between a man and a woman. But at the very least a verbal flirtation, in the sense that each of them is gently teasing the other, and each enjoying the matching of wits. For all of the interesting people Jesus meets in John, I think this individual is the most interesting and that’s part of why this story is there in the Gospel. There’s a word game. A kind of “He said – She said”. The Samaritan woman starts by using the literal meaning of words and Jesus starts by using the symbolic meaning, and then, just when you realize what they’re doing, they both switch and do the opposite. It takes two people to do that, and to enjoy it. I can almost imagine Jesus smiling at the joke when the woman talks to him. And her smiling back.
In short, maybe these two liked each other.
Give me some water, says Jesus. Clear enough. He wants the wet liquid. You’re a Jew, she answers. Theological. She’s stalling. If only you knew, I’d give you living water, he says. Wait a minute – all of a sudden we’re not exactly talking about H2O anymore. Give me some of that living water that ends thirst, says the woman, and I won’t need to haul it up the hill. Making fun of Jesus and his flipping back and forth…just a little. Water, water, water, and water, but not the same meaning each time. Literal, figurative, symbolic, real – lots of the double entendres that are characteristic of flirting, and all in only a couple of verses!
Jesus and the woman at the well weren’t talking TO each other. They were, on purpose, talking past each other. Having a little fun in a really serious way. And I think that the Samaritan woman, so low on the status ladder that the disciples wouldn’t even talk to her, if she was dumb, was dumb like a fox – she wanted to misunderstand Jesus. But he also knew what he was up against, as did she, and that’s the reason that despite all the intentional misunderstanding, there’s also more real dialogue in this encounter than in many that Jesus had with supposedly more important people.
Flirting with Jesus is not something we would normally think of as what pious people should do. Good Christians pray, we worship, we learn from, we study – but flirt with Jesus?
Don’t we? In its purely negative sense, don’t we sometimes purposefully ignore the plain truth of what we hear, while pretending to understand? Like the woman at the well talking about water, when the Bible talks about justice, or about our attitudes to the outcast and the marginalized, sometimes it seems as if we’re only listening enough to hear the words and not get the real meaning behind them. We ignore what we don’t want to hear. We’re coquettish. We wink at the hard teachings too much.
But that’s the negative sense. I believe that the flirtation, if there was one, between Jesus and the Samaritan woman was much more good-natured than that. Quite natural. And perhaps here, too, we have something to learn.
Christians are so EARNEST. If God created a sense of humour in us, it’s to be used, and maybe especially in serious situations. We need, sometimes, to take what the Bible says with more of a sense of humour. We can look at the situations we get ourselves stuck in and say: now that’s funny. Or we can show by our own sense of self-irony that we know we’re just not as important as all that.
Eventually, at the end of the debate, or the flirtation, or whatever it is, Jesus himself brings home the point. And this is how he does it: he comes clean about who he really is.
In other words, how do we really finally know what words signify? We know in relationships. As soon as the Samaritan woman, smart as she was, gave up her defenses and really MET Jesus, and as soon as Jesus also gave up his word plays and revealed himself, that was it. Words take on meaning in relationships. The point of conversation that becomes serious is a testing of trust and intimacy.
People are funny. We can pretend to speak the whole truth to each other and miss the point completely. Or like Jesus and the woman at the well, we can barter with each other in half-expressions, while both knowing what is going on, and what is at stake. May you and I learn how to start with our relationships, to each other and to God, so that we can learn the truth, as Luther once said in a different context, in, with, and under what we hear. Maybe we should all be doing a little more of this kind of banter with the truth of the Spirit. And as we do, we might find that the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will then truly keep our hearts and minds in a joyful play of love with our maker and redeemer, and with the world God has made for us to walk through.
Did Jesus Flirt?
There are just some things that we don’t imagine Jesus doing.
Thanks for this. Yes, the sexuality of Jesus is taboo, as is his use of humour. All of this part and parcel of the earnestness you so aptly name. Here’s to loosening up!
I agree….we seem to have such a limited sense of what incarnation means (and thus perhaps little reason to import that divine presence into all of our lives in turn)
Hi! I’m so glad you wrote this. I was writing about the humanity of Jesus today, thinking through each characteristic and examples of them in scripture. One that occurred to me was flirtation. I thought of the gentile woman that Jesus called a ‘dog’, likely with a wink, in order to call out His followers near Him that would have judged her as unworthy of the messiah due to her birth as a non-Jew. However, I wanted more. Your article is just wonderful. Thank you so much.
Hi Robert, thanks so much for reading the piece, and for your comments! I had a lot of fun writing about the woman at the well (it sounds like you did as well in writing about the humanity of Jesus). We all have to keep hammering away at this, in small humorous ways at least, it seems. Thanks for the encouragement!