Did your parents used to say anything to you when you left the house? My mom used to say to us before we went out, “Remember whose kid you are.” Tough thing to hear when you’re a teenager, but I was determined not to let it ruin my plans.
I couldn’t get away from that kind of admonishment either. For years, when Susan and I were getting ready to leave the house, Samuel would intone: “Make good choices.”
I remember my freshman year of college. My roommate was getting married in Pennsylvania, and he asked me to sing in his wedding. I said, “Yes.” Because, road trip!
But the problem was, I didn’t have a car that I trusted to make the journey (the irony of which, I suspect, you’ll see shortly). Anyway, I and a couple of friends decided to rent a car. But we were 18 and we didn’t have much money between us. So, we talked one of our older friends who was 25 to rent the car for us. But being destitute, the only place we could find a car we could afford was from Ugly Duckling Rent-a-Car.
With the benefit of hindsight, it probably should have occurred to us that the name was meant to be descriptive and more than just a clever marketing ploy. But, I mean, we were young, poor, and determined to make it to Pittsburgh. So, our capacity for prudential judgment was less focused than our parents might otherwise have hoped.
Anyway, the fine folks at Ugly Duckling Rent-a-Car blessed us with the enviable privilege of driving a sea foam green 1978 Chevette. As fine a piece of American engineering as ever rolled off a Detroit assembly line. It purred like a kitten … admittedly an asthmatic kitten with rickets and a smoker’s cough, but a kitten nonetheless.
But the enthusiasm of youth makes worrying about such trivialities seem boorish and bourgeois, and so we headed out in the second week of January from central Michigan in our newly rented chariot, intent on reaching Pittsburgh by sundown.
January isn’t typically a good time to make travel plans from Michigan to Pennsylvania, but the trip out went off without a hitch.
At the reception, my friends and I were congratulating ourselves on our keen financial aptitude. Three cheers for Ugly Duckling Rent-a-Car! Who knew middle class teenagers could make such good choices?
Things didn’t really start to deteriorate until the drive back. To be fair, since we didn’t watch the news back then, there really wasn’t any way for us to have seen the travel advisory about the blizzard sweeping along the lower edge of the Great Lakes.
And frankly, I think the criticism that we should have looked the car over better before driving it off the lot was a lot of Monday Morning Quarterbacking. Because really, who actually checks to see if the tires on the rental car are bald?
And, in our defense, we had no idea that the floor mat covered a huge hole in the driver’s side floor board until the snow started coming up through the floor board, making it difficult to depress the brake pedal or the accelerator.
But more than anything else, I don’t think we should’ve been held responsible for the alternator going bad in Erie, Pennsylvania. I’m putting the blame for that little two day fiasco—in which a local church put us up and fed us for two days while they paid to have the alternator for our little green machine of love fixed … I’m putting that on the swindlers at Ugly Duckling.
Turns out, Ugly Duckling Rent-a-Car (and this is really important if you’re ever tempted to rent from them) didn’t have a roadside assistance program. And we had like thirteen dollars between us.
So, this is a case where I think we can all agree that my friends and I made totally good and defensible choices, and the blame should be placed squarely on someone else. Obviously Ugly Duckling Rent-a-Car. Somebody else. Anyone else, really.
It’s tough growing up. Doing, saying things that probably aren’t the wisest choices.
One of the most important things about growing up is learning how to make good choices. According to modern neuroscience, we now know that the area of the brain that handles executive function—things like planning, organization, mood modulation, judgment, checking for bald tires, and not renting a green Chevette from a bunch of amoral fly-by-night reprobates … that area of the brain is undergoing great change in adolescents as their brains develop.
So, oftentimes, making good choices is precisely what teenagers are incapable of doing. It’s the way things are. Sleeping in until noon, mood swings, unfortunate tattoos, and driving a Chevette on bald tires with a hole in the floorboard in a blizzard—it’s the way teenagers are built.
Part of how we define adulthood, in fact, is reaching that point in life where the prefrontal cortex finally crosses the threshold where making good choices is the norm, and not just an occasional lucky occurrence.
So, you’d think Jesus—now in his thirties in our text—would be better at it than he apparently is. I’m sure people have told him his whole life who he’s supposed to hang out with, and who he’s supposed to avoid. But he’s just not very adept at making good choices.
I mean, take a look at our Gospel for today. First bad choice: On his way back to Galilee, Jesus takes a shortcut into Samaria.
Now, he knows better than this. Samaritans aren’t the kind of people Jesus was raised to pal around with. Common knowledge. Everybody knows that. Samaritans are the distant cousins that nobody brings up at the family reunions—the ones who watch the wrong cable news channel, go to the wrong church, and vote for the wrong party in every election.
Ah, I see you have them too.
The Samaritans had been written out of the will a long time ago because of their ill-mannered behavior. If one should happen by the house, you’re not supposed to let them in—and if, God forbid, they do get in, you’d better keep an eye on the silverware. Otherwise, they might try to rent you a Chevette or something.
But, Jesus is bad at following directions, so he detours into Samaria.
Second bad choice: He starts a conversation with a woman at the well.
Now, this is before Teen Vogue and third-wave feminism, ok? He knows better than to enter into social interactions with women who were not family members … especially in public.
Women, like children, were supposed to be seen and not heard. Not a lot of gray area on this one. No long discussions necessary to interpret the circumstances. Easy—just don’t do it.
So, just to recap, now Jesus has not only taken a shortcut through the wrong side of town, he’s struck up a conversation with a woman—which is expressly forbidden in his culture by the general rules of good etiquette. But, as if to pour salted lime juice on the festering social scab, she’s not only a woman … she’s a Samaritan woman.
I mean, come on! It seems altogether appropriate to question Jesus’ own prudential judgment at this point.
Look at how his disciples respond. The text says, “They were astonished that he was speaking to a woman.”
I’ll bet “astonished” was the kind way of saying it. They’re mortified. Reflexively, they start looking around seeing if anybody has a phone out, chronicling this social fiasco for YouTube, hoping against hope that this little social impropriety won’t make Jesus Internet famous.
Shooting each other furious glances, saying under their breath, “Man, you literally cannot take this guy anywhere!”
Make good choices. Just about everybody with any common sense is part of the consensus—Jesus seems incapable of it.
Now, let me pause here for a second to make another comment about this story—just what you were hoping I’d do, right? A little more editorializing. If you read the commentators, the temptation is to paint this woman as loose. Am I right?
Jesus says, “Go call your husband.”
She says, “Um, I don’t have a husband at the moment.”
Jesus says, “Well, that’s true; you don’t have a husband. Turns out you’ve had five husbands, and at the moment you happen to be living with another guy.”
Now, to many commentators this woman’s supposed immorality is the final piece of the puzzle, proving what a horrible human being she is. Loose. Questionable morals. You know all the colorful ways of talking about women who’ve had five husbands.
And playing up her immorality is supposed to make Jesus look even more super-heroically merciful in talking to her.
But the thing of it is, her morality doesn’t come into the story at all—at least not through Jesus. Notice, Jesus doesn’t scold her, doesn’t call her out as a serial monogamist, doesn’t say go and sin no more.
Traditionally, people have assumed that the reason this woman has had so many husbands is because she’s got a wandering eye. It’s her fault. She’s brought her situation on herself—yet another way that patriarchal systems have formed us to assume that it’s somehow got to be the woman’s fault. I wish I could tell you that we’re beyond all that now.
But what if the fact that this woman has had five husbands, and at least one steady boyfriend, has nothing to do with her moral deficiencies?
What if it’s the husbands who’ve all been deadbeats and lechers?
It certainly doesn’t make her a more acceptable conversation partner for Jesus—at least from the standpoint of social etiquette. But it does help us to see Jesus’ choice to speak with her in a different light, doesn’t it?
If the husband thing isn’t her fault, then Jesus isn’t just taking pity on a poor sinner. His decision to engage with this woman is about setting the tone for the kind of people the reign of God is meant to look out for—even if to most people’s way of thinking, it continues Jesus’ string of bad choices. This is Jesus living out the resistance.
Think about it: Jesus goes to a place no respectable Jew is supposed to go, to talk to a Samaritan woman that no respectable Jew is supposed to talk to.
And this isn’t just any unsavory Samaritan woman either. She’s at the very bottom of the social heap—a Samaritan woman whose domestic life has been epically, unthinkably, impossibly unstable. John wants us to know that she’s the first century Guinness Book of World Records-holder for powerlessness. Social status doesn’t get any worse than this poor woman.
Jesus, incapable of making good choices, goes out of his way to have an encounter with the last person on the earth he should be talking to.
But that’s Jesus, isn’t it? You can’t take him anywhere, because he’s got really bad social instincts. He spends all his time talking to the wrong people.
He could play it safe—suck up to the religious bigwigs, make friends with the influential political muckity-mucks. But instead, he seeks out the last, the least, and the lost—because he’s not interested in starting some kind of stable empire, where, because he’s so important, everybody has to come to him, kiss his ring. Instead, he drops any ambitions he might have had about being a big shot, walks down the first dark alley he sees, and starts having theological discussions with the invisible folks everybody else would just as soon forget.
But when Jesus ventures down dark alleys looking for those who creep around the edges, he redefines the edges, so that the margins are set in the center; and it’s the folks who usually occupy the center who risk finding themselves on the margins.
Once again, Jesus turns the world on its head. The last shall be first, and the first shall be last. The one who wants to find life, must first lose it. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. The one who wants to gain the world, must forfeit everything.
“But Jesus, that doesn’t make sense; you’ve got to make good choices. You need to put your money on a winner, get a good return on your investment, ride the middle of the road.”
And Jesus says, “Life’s much more interesting out here with the folks on the edges.”
Ask them. Ask those folks who, because society’s told them repeatedly that they’re not worth the effort, what it means for Jesus to go out of his way to reach out a hand, to risk the bad opinion of the VIPs who occupy the center of power. Ask those people out on the margins whether somebody finally willing to go looking for them means anything.
I’m going to be honest with you: You start making bad choices like Jesus, and it’s going to cost you—your time, your money, your reputation. Heck, it might cost you your job, your family, or even your life.
But there’s a woman on the wrong side of town, down a dark alley, passing the time by a well. She’s waiting for someone finally, after all these years, to go out of their way for her.
Who knows? Maybe she’s waiting for you.