June 14, 2004
The woman at the well

Hugo Schwyzer has been posting about rape and the politics of consent, which in the comments to this post turned into a debate about premarital sex. Hugo isn't convinced that it's actually forbidden:

Joe, where does Christ uphold marriage as the only appropriate locus of sexual expression? It's implied in many places, but it is often vague. Jesus doesn't tell the woman at the well to go and leave the man with whom she is living without benefit of marriage, or to marry him -- he simply says "go and sin no more". There are many things that could plainly mean. Years with the bible have not convinced me that all genital sexuality outside of heterosexual marriage is against the will of our Lord.

We've been reading the Gospel of John in my Bible study group, and recently we discussed that story. It's an odd one. Jesus runs into the woman at a well in Samaria, and starts telling her about the "living water" that brings eternal life. She asks for some of this water, and Jesus answers:
‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘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!’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet.'

That is a strange response, to put it mildly. It may have been through divine clairvoyance that he knew that, but it seems impossible that this woman's domestic arrangements could have been a secret. Given that this was premodern village life, Jesus could no doubt have heard it all at the local tavern. My pastor also said that the fact that the woman was drawing water alone at midday showed that she had a bad reputation, because most women would have gone to the well in the early morning.

When we were discussing this story, I noticed for the first time what this conversation follows. She had just asked Jesus to give her some of this "living water" that he was talking about. He seems to be changing the subject, but maybe he isn't. He responds by giving her the truth about herself. Not just any fact -- not where she lives or what she ate for breakfast or anything -- but a truth so important that dislodging it shocks her into recognition.

Jesus simply states the facts. He does not scold her, so if you're looking for a fire-and-brimstone denunciation of premarital sex, this isn't it. But clearly he's needling at something in her, and not just making idle chit-chat. There is some reason he brings it up, and some reason she responds so violently.

Lurking behind this is the running metaphor in the Bible comparing God's relationship with humanity to a marriage, and infidelity to God to marital infidelity. The marriage of the prophet Hosea to a prostitute is an extended riff on this metaphor. Since the Samaritans were fallen-away and intermarried Jews, the Samaritan woman with her series of husbands represents the ultimate inconstancy. The approach to her by Jesus, the Bridegroom, seems to illustrate how God faithfully seeks out even the most unfaithful humans.

In his piece on premarital sex a while back, Telford argued that the metaphor goes both ways, and so humans should image that faithfulness in their own marriages. I would add to that, however, that Christians are supposed to image that love and faithfulness in all their relationships, not just marriage. Baptism itself is a sort of metaphorical wedding.

So I think that both Hugo and his commenter are being a bit too legalistic here. The question shouldn't be, is there a rule against premarital sex in the New Testament or isn't there. It's, can a premarital sexual relationship image the love and faithfulness of Christ?

Part of the problem, I think, is that the current definition of marriage is itself so legalistic. Nowadays you're not married until you get a marriage licenses and witnesses and yada yada, but in many societies it doesn't work that way. In fact, for the first thousand years of Christendom nothing more than a private vow could make a marriage binding. So by that standard, for instance, my aunt and the man she's lived with for 20 years would be married, even though legally they're both single. At the same time, the easy availability of divorce, especially for the wealthy, means that legally marrying doesn't entail much more of a commitment than shacking up. So you have folks like this lot, who get legally married but are really just having whirlwind romances.

So if the question is can people image Christ in sexual relationships outside our legal definition of marriage, I think the answer is yes. But let's face it, that's really not the norm. The norm for premarital sex in our society looks more like the Samaritan woman's series of affairs than it looks like my aunt and uncle. For that matter, a lot of post-marital relationships look more like that. That's the real cause for concern, to my mind.

Posted by Camassia at June 14, 2004 01:53 PM | TrackBack

Oh, what a post! Amen, sister, amen amen amen. Terrific stuff -- I wish I could have heard all that your group had to say -- and my goodness, I do completely agree with this:

"The question shouldn't be, is there a rule against premarital sex in the New Testament or isn't there. It's, can a premarital sexual relationship image the love and faithfulness of Christ?"

That would indeed be the question. And yes, I do think the answer can be yes.

Posted by: Hugo on June 14, 2004 02:59 PM

As much as I would like to agree with Hugo, I believe, deep down, that discipleship is required to be a bit more ascetic than that. It may be better to marry than to burn, but I don't know that it follows that it's better to fornicate than to rust.

Posted by: Rob on June 14, 2004 07:34 PM

Hugo: Thanks!

Rob: Well, I can't speak for what Hugo meant, but that's not what I meant. Imaging God's standard of faithfulness is very hard. After all, God told Hosea he had to stick with his wife even after he found her out hooking again! I just meant that laws about exactly when and how a marriage begins were created by men, not God, so they may not align perfectly with God's opinion.

Consider the interracial couple in Loving vs. Virginia, for instance. They married in D.C., and when they moved back to Virginia their marriage was illegal. Should they have stopped having sex while they were in Virginia? Did God not recognize the marriage there until the Supreme Court ruling? That seems silly.

Those are pretty unusual circumstances, so I think most Christians would do best to wait until legal marriage. I just don't like the legalistic direction these discussions tend to take, as they seem to lose touch with why this matters to begin with.

Posted by: Camassia on June 14, 2004 09:07 PM

Perhaps we can make a distinction between marriage as a sacrament, a covenant between two people, made in the presence of God, and marriage as a legal contract, made in the presence of the state, entailing certain social obligations?

Posted by: Rob on June 15, 2004 02:41 AM

I think that's a good distinction, Rob. But the instances of a real covenant relationship, like the one Camassia describes between her aunt and uncle, are rare. Pre-marital sexual relationships, as we most commonly see them, are an excuse to enjoy the benefits of a marital relationship with none of the hard work that commitment implies. Covenant relationship also implies some kind of public declaration, at least to my family and friends, that I am making a lifetime commitment to this person and I ask them (the community of family, friends, church) to hold me accountable for my faithfulness to my covenant with my husband.

Spirituality and kingdom living don't call us to a lower standard than the legal requirements of our society. They call us to a higher standard. They call us to die to self. That's the kind of faithfulness that mirrors Jesus' relationship to the church. Yeah, that can happen without the legal contract, but not much.

Posted by: Lee Anne Millinger on June 15, 2004 08:53 AM

I doubt Jesus would have been welcomed at the local tavern, to the point where village gossip would have been shared, since He was a Jew and the townsfolk were Samaritan.

Extending the marriage covenant typology, the woman at the well could herself represent Samaria, which claimed to still worship the LORD. If that claim were true, it could satisfy Jesus' request, "Go, call your [H]usband."

But, as Jesus tells the woman (and, perhaps, all of Samaria), "the one you have now is not your husband," and "you people worship what you do not understand."

Posted by: Tom on June 15, 2004 09:11 AM

Can you imagine what a profitable business you could create if only people were as concerned about their navels as they are about their genitals?

There would be commerce abounding for the glorification and the concealment of the navel. There would be sexy navelware and probably Mormon holy navelware.

We managed, in our Northern European acculturization of the rest of the world, to get everybody to have hangups over their excretory and sexual organs. Reports from those who were fortunate enough to encounter native persons from other parts of the world, only to succeed in screwing them up just like us, describe people who were innocent, trusting, naked, and without sexuality hangups.

If we believe that God "made no junk," why do we spend so much effort in hiding the not-junk parts of our persons? Why is sex such a taboo? Jesus had very little to say about sex, as witnessed by your posts and those you cite. Shall we allow Paul and his end-times cronies to rule our lives?

Posted by: Jim Sturges, Sr. on June 15, 2004 01:52 PM

Wow! What a great name for a band: Paul and the End-time Cronies!

The short answer is yes. A longer answer would be something about the apostolic faith leading us closer to God in Christ through the Holy Spirit and being conformed to Christ and not to this world.

I agree with you about the Northern European inculturation; separating what's cultural and what's faith is the issue. Telling African natives or whoever to cover up isn't Christian.

Jesus did have a lot more to say about the rich and the poor than about sex, but I don't really buy the "Jesus didn't say much about it, so it must be okay" (or conversely, not okay) argument in regards to anything. It's what he said and did, and through his death and resurrected I have been incorporated into the body of Christ. I do not live according to rules or to the law, but my life is shaped by the values of the kingdom of God. So how do I use my body in service of the kingdom and to witness to Christ's love, without embracing some sort of rigid legalism that becomes almost idolatrous?

Posted by: Jennifer on June 15, 2004 02:30 PM
Reports from those who were fortunate enough to encounter native persons from other parts of the world, only to succeed in screwing them up just like us, describe people who were innocent, trusting, naked, and without sexuality hangups.
Um, you must have taken different anthropology courses than I did. That doesn't describe anybody except the Tasaday, and they were almost certainly a hoax.

Seriously, every culture that I've ever heard of has sexuality 'hangups,' if you want to call them that. It's not that sex is evil, it's that it's powerful. It creates children, it forges bonds between people, it brings out strong emotions. That's why it should be dealt with carefully. I have known people who think we could be in an edenic free-love paradise if we just got over our 'hangups,' and frankly I think they're blowing smoke.

Posted by: Camassia on June 15, 2004 02:31 PM

Perhaps I can share a few paragraphs from a lecture by Archbishop Rowan Williams on "The Body's Grace":

"All this means, crucially, that in sexual relations I am no longer in charge of what I am. Any genuine experience of desire leaves me in something like this position: I cannot of myself satisfy my wants without distorting or trivialising them. But here we have a particularly intense case of the helplessness of the ego alone. For my body to be the cause of joy, the end of homecoming, for me, it must be there for someone else, be perceived, accepted, nurtured; and that means being given over to the creation of joy in that other, because only as directed to the enjoyment, the happiness, of the other does it become unreservedly lovable. To desire my joy is to desire the joy of the one I desire: my search for enjoyment through the bodily presence of another is a longing to be enjoyed in my body. As Blake put it, sexual partners 'admire' in each other 'the lineaments of gratified desire.' We are pleased because we are pleasing. It is in this perspective that we can understand the need for a language of sexual failure, immaturity, even 'perversion'. Solitary sexual activity works at the level of release of tension and a particular localised physical pleasure; but insofar as it has nothing much to do with being perceived from beyond myself in a way that changes my self-awareness, it isn't of much interest for a discussion of sexuality as process and relation, and says little about grace." ...

"I can only fully discover the body's grace in taking time, the time needed for a mutual recognition that my partner and I are not simply passive instruments to each other. Such things are learned in the fabric of a whole relation of converse and cooperation; yet of course the more time taken the longer a kind of risk endures. There is more to expose, and a sustaining of the will to let oneself be formed by the perceptions of another. Properly understood, sexual faithfulness is not an avoidance of risk, but the creation of a context in which grace can abound because there is a commitment not to run away from the perception of another."

I would suggest that, based on these criteria, pre-marital relationships seem intrinsically problematic because:

1. One is not completely "given over to the creation of joy in the other" and has not truly "let (himself or herself) be formed by the perceptions of another" if he or she retains the right to terminate or restrict the relationship - to "run away," if you will.

2. Without being blessed and introduced into the "relation of converse and cooperation" of the Church, the relationship will probably lack a reality beyond "the contingent thoughts and feelings of the people involved," and the couple will consequently lack the necessary context to "take time" to really let themselves be shaped by one another.

Thus, while I don't want to speak absolutely or legalistically, it does seem difficult to imagine a resolutely pre-marital relationship as truly caught up in the mutual love of the Holy Trinity. Thus, Catechism of the Catholic Church #2391* does sound rather harsh, but it seems to me to be nevertheless apt.



Posted by: Neil Dhingra on June 15, 2004 09:41 PM

"Does this relationship/action truly image God's love" is definitely the right question.

For an eye-opening answer, I'd recommend taking 15 minutes to check out John Paul II's Theology of the Body as unpacked by Christopher West at http://www.christopherwest.com/works.htm (the first two articles in particular: "What is the Theology of the Body...?" and "A Basic Theology of Marriage).

"Since a prophet is one who proclaims God’s love, John Paul II describes the body and sexual union as “prophetic.” But, he adds, we must be careful to distinguish between true and false prophets. If we can speak the truth with our bodies, we can also speak lies. Ultimately all questions of sexual morality come down to one simple question: Does this truly image God’s free, total, faithful, fruitful love or does it not?" - Christopher West

Posted by: Fr. Terry Donahue, CC on June 17, 2004 08:31 AM
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