"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, February 24, 2008

How many husbands have we had?

In view of today's Gospel reading, I mean that question for every adult, human soul. For as the Bible's nuptial imagery and a good deal of mysticism suggest, men and women are collectively "female" in relation to God. God wants to marry us. That's why the Second Person of the Trinity called himself "Son," incarnated himself as a male, and also called himself the Bridegroom. All people are called to be members of his Bride, the Church. But we are unfaithful, as the ancient Hebrews often were by paying attention to other gods. They committed adultery against their husband, the only God. So do we, even when our language professes otherwise. It is a truism that every sin is an act of infidelity to the Lord; what believers often fail to recognize, however, is that while married to him in name, and meant to be married to him in reality, they often marry others.

To the Jewish members of John's audience for his Gospel, his ascription of five husbands to the Samaritan woman at the well would have been well understood as an historical allusion to the five pagan gods, baals (lords), that the Samaritans had worshiped. As the late Raymond Brown pointed out in his commentary on this gospel, and as the Ignatius Bible also recognizes, the Samaritans were a mixed breed both ethnically and religiously. After the northern kingdom—"Israel" as distinct from the southern, "Judah"—had been vanquished and exiled by the Assyrians in the late 8th century BC, foreigners from five different districts were forcibly resettled among the Hebrew remnant. Intermarriage and religious syncretism produced what came to be known as the Samaritans, from the district in Palestine where they eventually concentrated. Relations between Jews and Samaritans had been execrable ever since Nehemiah expelled them from common worship when the returned Jewish exiles began reconstituting Israel. But common elements remained, especially the expectation of an anointed prophet, what the Jews called the Messiah. Jesus' conversation with the woman at the well, the same well where Jacob had met one of his wives, indicated not only that he was claiming to be the Messiah but was also the true Bridegroom of unfaithful humanity. Yet few of us love him as such, at least most of the time.

Most of the time, we trust more in other things: money, power, prestige, sex, science and technology, institutions—or, most seductively of all, people who actually do love us, such as parents or spouses. People who lack all such things are deemed pitiable; the prospect of having none of the above terrifies most of us; that's why trusting false gods comes more easily to us than faith in the true God. But when we trust more in what is not God than in God, we worship another god and are thus married adulterously. Spiritually speaking, we are bound to end up like the Samaritan woman—not even married to the latest "man," returning to the well over and over for the water of life. Temporal goods fail to satisfy our deepest longings. None of us will take them to the grave, even those fortunate enough to take some of them to the threshold thereof. Only Jesus satisfies our thirst; only Jesus is our true husband.

Yet his first words to the woman were: "Give me a drink." The difference between the Son of God and the false gods is that he thirsts for us, who can find him in those who thirst and meet him in slaking that thirst. We must see others like that. To do so, we must start with seeing ourselves like that. Only then can we get our marital status straightened out.
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