Gospel of John

Did Jesus Flirt?

Baby Jesus Grapes Cranach

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.

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The Fourth Question

map in a cup

Last fall, when I was at the pilgrimage conference in Virginia, one presentation in particular caught my eye. The title of the paper was: The Fourth Question. It was a perfect hook. Of course I immediately wanted to go to hear that paper. I didn’t even know what the first three questions were. That didn’t matter. All I REALLY wanted to know was what the “fourth” question might be.

When we got to the session, the presenter turned out to be a scholar who had walked to Santiago in Spain back in 1979, when there were not as many people walking it as today. She’d walked it again recently, so she is a Camino veteran. And she said that in her experience, when you’re a pilgrim walking the trail, and you meet someone new, there are, almost inevitably, three questions that come up quickly in conversation, and one question you try to avoid.

The three questions that automatically come up are …… (want to guess?!)

The first question: where are you from?

That makes sense, I guess. It helps situate you. It establishes relations. “Oh, you’re from Canada. I have a sister in law who moved to Toronto….maybe you know her?” That kind of thing.

The second question has to do more with the trail. “Where did you start?” This is a bit more subtle. But having been on the Camino, many of us there knew what she meant. There’s a kind of pecking order among pilgrims, even if there shouldn’t be. If you started at St Jean Pied de Port, you’re doing the long haul. If you started way back in France somewhere, or up in Germany or the Netherlands, and have walked the whole way, then you’re really hard-core. And if you started out from a taxi that morning five kilometres down the road, well then you’re a beginner. So that’s the second question. It helps establish status, I guess. Although maybe that’s not such a good thing, it’s human nature.

So where are you from, and where did you start? The third question, the one that follows, is a bit like the second: “how far are you going?”

This question, she explained, is a bit exploratory as well. Because now you know where the other person is from and how serious they are, you also want to get an idea of where they’re headed. Given the fact that the trail can take over a month to walk, if the other person is going all the way to Santiago as well, then there’s a good chance you’ll bump into each other again. Maybe that would be nice. Maybe after a few minutes of walking together you already know you don’t really want to share days and days more time. Either way, it’s good to know where they’re headed.

And that, she said, is the list of the USUAL questions one pilgrim will ask of another in the first few minutes of polite conversation.

Of course, by that point all of us in the session are waiting on her every word. So? So? What about that fourth question?

“Now. The fourth question we pilgrims normally try to avoid asking each other…” she said, “begins with the word “why“….”

Jesus never ever asks the word why when he meets the disciples of John. It’s interesting. But I think it’s worth noting that he actually DOES ask almost the same thing in other words. When Andrew and the other young man start walking after Jesus, Jesus DOESN’T ask them where they’re from, or how far they’re going. According to John, he says this: what are you looking for?

In other words, why are you walking, here with me?

The WHY ARE YOU HERE question isn’t one that only pilgrims avoid. Sometimes it feels like it’s the one question that we, as a society, are keeping ourselves away from more than anything. Our too-too-busy lives, our 60-inch flat screens, our constantly being plugged into one form of distraction or another, our fixation on celebrities and sports….all of it adds up to an uncomfortable conclusion. If an alien from outer space, or someone from the distant past, were to walk into our world and look around, they might well ask themselves “well it’s clear that these people are trying to avoid something, but what is it?”

Perhaps at least one of the things we’re trying to avoid is this: things didn’t quite turn out like we expected them to. Most of us have been taught that if we try to be good people, and if we make money – a fair bit of money, we hope, and if we have children and buy a house and get a job and take a couple of vacations every year and do well, we’ll be, if not happy, at least content.

And some of us are. But if that script were generally true, then we wouldn’t be drinking too much, and watching an average of four hours of TV a day, and becoming overweight by eating when we’re not hungry, and taking pills for every twinge of depression and anxiety. We’re an overmedicated, underslept, over-stimulated, under-engaged and under-exercised, apathetic, wilfully ignorant and sick society. And because of where we live and how much we make, we’re suffering all this while actually being the most privileged general population in the history of the planet.

For us, the fourth question crosses the polite social fences we set up to protect ourselves. Why are you here? The fourth question represents the moment of risk, which is scary. But it’s also the moment of promise. Why? Because the fourth question is an invitation to relationship. “Why are you here?” (whether to a pilgrim or a friend or neighbor) means, or at least it should mean “I’m asking you this question because I care enough to hear the response. And I will honour it. And I may challenge it. BUT. Asking it will mean that we will walk away from this encounter, at the very least, having made real, human, community in this moment with each other.”

By asking the question “why”, Jesus invites Andrew and the other to contact. And they pick it up by asking Jesus another question. That’s how conversations go. They ask “where are you staying?” But this time Jesus cuts to the chase. It’s no more polite conversation but as Messiah and Lord, an invitation to community: “Come and see”.

Why are we here? is one of those big, existential questions. Maybe it doesn’t have an easy answer. But if we don’t even ask it, we’re avoiding one of the main reasons for being conscious (what they used to call ‘having a soul’).  We could do worse than to hear the words of Isaiah: It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob…I will give you as a light to the nations…”

The fourth question is one that, pilgrims or not, we should be asking ourselves and each other more often. Why are you walking this way, this lifestyle, this dream, this job, this home, this retirement, this path? Is there another way to walk? The Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, has chosen you. As Jesus says, Come and see. May we hear the question, and the invitation, and follow the fourth question to whatever blessed and challenging places it may lead us.