A week ago I read an article called My Virginity Mistake by Jessica Ciencin Henriquez. I was saddened by her description of the night she decided to wear a purity ring at an emotionally-charged youth rally, where the leaders worked several hundred kids up into a wholesome frenzy and where she drew a moral line in the sand of her young life. And lived to regret it. Conversations about right and wrong make me break out in hives. Even so, I’ve been wanting to write my own rebuttal to this article for days, imagining how I could delicately explain the wonders of waiting as they have unfolded in our own marriage and in our marriage bed. How waiting is right. How the trust and the freedom and the downright pleasure we’ve experienced for thirty-five years made the waiting worth it. And I’ve held back only because I can’t figure out how to say all this without embarrassing our children.
My friend, honorary niece, and honest-to-goodness writer, Caresse Spencer, who is braver than I will ever be, had an actual conversation with Ms. Henriquez on Huffpost Live. Live, as in an unscripted discussion with four other people, none of whom agreed with her, who stopped just short of ridicule. Live, as in a comment reel scrolling to the right of the screen, with comments by people who didn’t stop short. Throughout, Caresse was gracious. That niece of mine, I love her.
The raw, righteous courage of it all aside, this conversation left me unsettled. I chalked that up to the hives thing until today. Today, although I applaud Caresse’s rebuttal, I felt I still needed to write my own.
Today I read John 4.
Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well made me seriously question if most of our discussions about right and wrong miss the point. Is the point really making sure everyone knows what is right and what is wrong? Is the point really debating until everyone agrees with us?
Jesus walks up to this woman who, by every cultural and religious norm, is a bad woman. Sometimes I get frustrated with the gospel writers for the way they whittle down the action to the bare minimum, offering no emotional clues to help me see it, you know, cinematically. But I can safely assume that what emerges in these spare scenarios, given my view of what this book actually is, is true. Sometimes the bare bones of a story speak loud and clear.
So Jesus walks up to this woman and asks her for water. She is stunned because Jewish men do not talk to women like her, and she says so. He counters with this statement:
“If you knew the gift of God and who it is who is saying to you ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
If you knew what God has in his heart for you, to pour over and into you, and if you knew who I am, we would have a different conversation altogether. You’d ask a different question.
Jesus describes the reason he came, the reason he would die and rise again. To satisfy our thirst for heaven, to fill us from within so that heaven flows out from us. It’s an unprecedented, almost unbelievable proposition.
Not until the woman asks him for a drink of this water does Jesus make any reference at all to her moral behavior. And even then he simply coaxes her into admitting it. It’s beautiful, the way Jesus elicits raw honesty and drains the shame from her life all at once. Beautiful and, seemingly, ancillary.
Today I noticed a phrase in the story that—I think—gets closer to the main point of this conversation. A little detail I’d never seen before:
“So the woman left her water jar…”
When Jesus said “if you knew the gift of God,” he wasn’t kidding. This gift makes you forget everything else. It is more precious than the air you breathe. More valuable than sex or intimacy or security or friendship or whatever it is that drove you to choose one partner after another. It is a gift more satisfying than a drink of clear, cool water at high noon in the desert.
I want to tell Jessica Henriquez: This is the point.
Somewhere in all the moral haranguing and emotionalism of your experience with Christians, you missed the point. I grieve that you missed it, and I want to apologize for the misguided leaders who pointed you just enough askance from it that you didn’t see. I want to tell you that sometimes Christians can be like parents, saying almost anything in our fear that you’ll go and do something you shouldn’t. (Is life really about avoiding STDs? And what value is purity apart from pure water within?)
But I wonder if I miss the point, too. Am I so enthralled with Jesus that I become forgetful of everything else? Do I leave behind what others might deem essential, not in a deliberate disavowal, but in a careless disregard for anything but him? Do I understand that he can fill—over the top—my needs for intimacy and security and friendship? Am I ever so taken with him that I leave my own agenda and run into town to shout the news that he is here, he has brought us a gift? That it’s ours for the taking.
Do I ever leave my water jar?