The Main Thing (Pt.3)

Do we imagine Jesus as the Bridegroom proposing marriage to the Samaritan woman at the well? Augustine did.

Quoting Augustine has become quite popular these days. But my sense is few Christians have actually read much Augustine. For example, few seem to know he saw the Samaritan woman at the well representing the people of God, Jesus’s bride.[1] Few seem to know Augustine referred to the crucifixion of Christ as “the marriage bed of the cross.”[2]

“I would venture to guess that this is not how most people think about the crucifixion of Jesus,” writes Brant Pitre in Jesus the Bridegroom: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told. I agree. Before reading Pitre’s book, I didn’t see the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman as the Bridegroom proposing marriage to his bride.

That’s partly because I didn’t see the many times scripture depicts a male foreigner, a woman, and a well as a setting for betrothal. But Moses meets his future bride at a well (Ex.2:15-17, 21). Abraham’s servant, sent to find a bride for his son Isaac, meets Isaac’s future bride Rebekah at a well (Gen.24:14, 15-16). Jacob meets Rachel, his future bride, at a well—the very well that Jesus is sitting beside when he meets the Samaritan woman.

And just as Moses, Abraham’s servant, and Jacob are male foreigners in a strange land, so too Jesus is a foreigner on Samaritan soil (Jn.4:4-6). And just as Abraham’s servant asks Rebekah for a drink of water to find out if she is the bride (Gen.24:14-21), so too Jesus asks the Samaritan woman for a drink of water (Jn.4:7). And just Jacob encounters Rachel at the well at “high day” or “midday” (Gen.29:7), so too Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at “the sixth hour,” right around noon (Jn.4:6). Small wonder scholars say the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman “contains the initial elements of a betrothal type-scene.”[3]

And small wonder the disciples are shocked to find Jesus talking to a half-breed—half Israelite, half Gentile—whose religion is an adulterous mixture of Jewish and pagan beliefs. But Jesus is not the first prophet to marry an adulterous woman. The prophet Hosea marries a prostitute, Gomer, as a sign of Israel’s harlotry. These are prophetic signs designed to be shocking in order to catch our attention. Sure got the disciples’ attention.

And the Samaritan woman’s attention. She admits she’s adulterous, having had five husbands. And the man she currently lives with is not her husband. Jesus commends the woman for her honesty. She recognizes Jesus is a prophet. He is—but there’s more going on here.

Scholars say the Samaritans had five male gods, called “Baals”—the Canaanite word for “husbands” or “lords” (c.f., Hos.2:16)—one for each of the five peoples of Samaria (Josephus emphasizes the number five when he refers to the cults of the Samaritans[4]). In addition to the five male gods, the Samaritans also worshipped a sixth deity: the God of Israel. So Jesus’ statement to the woman, “the one you now have is not your husband” (4:18), takes on a whole new meaning. The God of Israel is not the true husband of the Samaritan people because their worship is tainted by the worship of “false gods.”[5]

This makes Jesus’ prophetic encounter with the Samaritan woman the initiation of an age when the people of Samaria will be incorporated into the new Israel by being united to the true Bridegroom: YHWH, the living God of Israel. But there’s more.

Just as Zipporah and her sisters went home to their pagan father, Jethro, and told him about Moses, so that Moses came to stay with them and be wed to Zipporah (Ex.2:19-21), so too the woman at the well tells the Samaritans about Jesus and many come to faith. And just as Rachel ran home to tell her father and family that Jacob was her father’s kinsman, so that they might invite Jacob to stay with them (Gen.29:12), so too the Samaritan woman goes home to her kinsmen and tells them about Jesus the bridegroom, and they then invite him to stay with them. Through this encounter with Jesus the non–Jewish peoples of the world begin to be betrothed to God as husband.

And there’s still more to see in the conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well. For instance, Jesus offers the woman “living water.” This too is a picture of betrothal. This water will be poured out of Jesus’ side on the cross. We’ll consider this next week.

This week, I close with a caution and a comment. My wife Kathy recently cautioned me that this series on The Main Thing can sound like Now I see it all. That would be bad, as I don’t see it all. No one can (I Cor.13:12). I’m trying to say I’m seeing more than I saw in the past. And I hope to keep seeing more as I stand on the shoulders of giants like Brant Pitre.

Second, a comment. I graduated from a leading evangelical seminary. Back then, a faculty debate raged over what is the Main Point of John 4 (Jesus and the Samaritan women at the well). Some said evangelism. Others said redemption. While both are partly true, it seems we missed The Main Thing, myself included. The debate cooled after the leading proponent of evangelism left, becoming president of a leading evangelical college. But neither side ever considered whether they had missed the Main Thing. No one ever repented. That’s partly due to missing the Main Thing about Lent (and Advent): penitence and preparation. It’s difficult for repentance to become routine without bi-annual seasons of penitence.

 

[1] Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 15:10.

[2] Augustine of Hippo, Sermo Suppositus 120:3

[3] Adeline Fehribach, The WOMEN in the Life of the Bridegroom (Liturgical Press, 1998), 50.

[4] Josephus, Antiquities 9.14.3.

[5] Fehribach, WOMEN, 67.

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3 Comments

  1. Mike, I’m enjoying your discussion of us being the bride of Christ. Interestingly I’ve read a few devotionals from Brian Simmons where he addresses the same topic using the Song of Songs. I know some folk, including close friends, are wary of the Passion Translation for various reasons, but what can’t be denied is Brian’s passion for Jesus and it shows through in his devotionals like this one: https://us10.campaign-archive.com/?u=8c3eb957a5ad87253d475a511&id=d8a04dac79

  2. Thank you, Andrew. I too have many friends who are reluctant to go very far into a theology of why we have a physical (sexual) body. You might find the following quote encouraging.

    I’ll leave out the author’s name and background and simply highlight a small part of his excellent book: “The love of God for us, in perhaps the boldest of all metaphors (and one with which the church has been perennially uneasy), is like the passionate love between man and woman. God lurks in aroused human love and reveals Himself to us (the two humans first of all) through it. Eventually, the church came to see human love was indeed a sacrament (a metaphor par excellence) which discloses God’s grace and makes it present to us.”

    This author goes on to note that in more recent traditions, “there is considerable reluctance to go so far as to equate human love with divine. Marriage, while good and holy, has never become a sacrament.” If someone says in this tradition that human sexual union is like the union between God and Her people, there is a great hesitancy to go this far. I’m not in this camp (obviously). I lean more toward Christopher West, who notes that the problem is we don’t go far enough in to equating human love with the divine.

  3. Yikes! Brilliant! Indisputably brilliant. I’m now at a liturgical church and I follow your “No one ever repented. That’s partly due to missing the Main Thing about Lent (and Advent): penitence and preparation. It’s difficult for repentance to become routine without bi-annual seasons of penitence.” I’m going to appreciate that more – thank you!
    Ruth & Boaz fit anywhere? Anything a sign of corruption and “not Christ-like” in the Queen of Sheba and Solomon? Just flinging things against the wall. “Ye are Gods” is a phrase not to be taken lightly – a description of earthly priests & prophets in Israel, the bride of Christ.

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