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Our culture tends to conceive of marriage either as a means of self-improvement, as a means of fulfilling deep desires, or as a restrictive familial and sexual contract. What does Christian marriage really look like? What about Christian singleness? Spirit, please come, convict us, if we’ve built our marriages on something other than you.
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Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of John, chapter 4.
I’m excited this morning to begin a series we’ve been talking about and planning now for about a year. Between now and the start of the lenten season, we’re going to be talking about the meaning and myth of marriage and singleness.
And I want to be clear from the outset, and define some terms. When I say myth, I don’t mean the true kind of myth. For the purposes of this sermon series I mean the worst kind of myth, the kind that misleads and has no real historical basis.
And when I say marriage, what I mean is the Christian sacrament of marriage. I’m aware that other kinds of marriage and civil union exist, but I have nothing really at all to say about marriage outside of Christianity, except that in my mind, marriage without Christianity involved is kind of like cheeseless pizza or decaffeinated coffee, in that really you’ve done a lot of work to exclude the one piece that made the thing worthwhile in the first place.
And when I say singleness, you might hear me saying a person who lacks a spouse or romantic involvement. That’s not what I mean at all. I don’t see singleness as any kind of lack, but a glorious gift of God. I’m not thinking of sad old maids and untamable bachelors—that’s worldly singleness. I’m thinking of Christian singleness. I’m thinking of the apostle Paul in his travels and Christ in his martyrdom. I’m thinking of the slew of singles who have supported our family through fostering and adoption, who have been our friends and come over to our house after we put the kids to bed. I’m thinking of my grandmother pouring her time into her family and church after the death of my grandfather, and the centuries of church orders dedicated to live their lives entirely in service to Christ.
Together, these two estates, Christian marriage and Christian singleness, form two complementary pieces of a single gift, the gift being a life of devotion and fullness. But too often, we have despised these gifts of our Father.
Marriage and singleness are both topics which have weighed heavily on my mind throughout my ministerial work for a number of reasons. One reason being, Anne-Elise and I have gotten a lot of bad advice through our thirteen years of being together, and before that as singles—I imagine some of you have as well, and I would hope to correct those misunderstandings.
Also, a surprising amount of ministry surrounds marriage and singleness, a lot of counseling especially. A lot hangs on how we steward the gifts God gives us as Christians, and the more powerful the gift, the more damage it’s able to do when yielded poorly. I’ve watched marriages fall apart and wreck whole families and communities, and I’ve watched them thrive with love overflowing to everyone around them, the very image of Christ and his church. I’ve seen single people waste their gift in selfish living, or pointless longings and hookups, and I’ve seen singles thrive to the benefit of the whole church and community.
Another reason marriage and singleness have weighed heavily on my mind throughout these years working for churches is that, this is one area where the church has begun to look very much like our culture. We’ve adopted cultural norms as gospel truths, and in many ways we’ve distorted Christian marriage and Christian singleness into something that looks and feels and operates very much like the decaffeinated estates I was talking about earlier. You can see the tiredness in faces of people who have been in such estates for a while, the unfulfilled longing. We need to work as individuals and as a Church universal to recover what we’ve forgotten about Christian marriage and singleness, and to learn, as Peter writes, to “use our gifts to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”
Each week we’re going to base the sermon on a passage related to marriage, but each week as well there will be a topic at hand to discuss. This week, I’m going to go talk mainly about our cultural myths of marriage, because if you’ve been told the same story about love and longing over and over for your entire life, usually you start to believe it. Even if that story is a lie, you begin to believe it.
And I want to tell you, this first sermon is a broad overview of the rest of the series. If you listen to this and say—wait! Explain yourself! Don’t worry, we’re going to be going deeper into each one of these myths and then for every week after this, we’re going to be diving into the truth of God spoken to us, like a quiet voice of wisdom beside us in the midst of a raucous crowd.
Read with me, in the book of John, chapter 4, v.1-30. . This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
I’v already taught on this passage twice this week, and we should probably spend another two weeks on it, just to touch the surface of meaning here, deep like the well which serves as it’s setting. For today, though, I’ll call your attention only to a few things.
One, I want you to see Jesus’s compassion on this woman, and I want Christ’s compassion to be our compassion as we interact with people who are struggling with marriage or singleness. The woman is at the well in the evening, which is unusual—normally young women would be drawing water in the morning for use throughout the day in the household. The well was like the water cooler at an office—it was a social place, but this woman comes after everyone else has gone. And she doesn’t seem happy that Jesus is talking to her. She never gives him that drink he asks for, and her responses to him are insulting. But every time she insults him and shuts down the conversation, Christ opens it up again. He puts himself in the place to be insulted again and again so that the very person insulting him might be saved and have abundant life.
I recognize the interaction in this text because, to be a bit confessional, this is Jesus’ way of speaking to me as well; my typical response. He calls me to something like ministry, or marriage, or parenting, and I tell him go away. I don’t want what you have to offer me, I’m getting along just fine, myself, thanks. Then Christ calls to me again, and tells me what he has to give is better than anything I’ve got, more than I’ve even thought possible, and I respond with an eye-roll and disbelief. And he calls my name again and again until I remember that his way is the only way that leads to wholeness, his water is the only water I can drink and actually be satisfied. This is Christlike compassion: the willingness to enter into insult if only to save the very people insulting you. May we be willing at our church to bear insult and shame if only to save those who insult us.
Another thing you should know about this woman is that with her sexual history, in Jewish culture she would bear great shame, to the point of being outcast. We understand that easily reading this passage, because it’s in the Bible, and Jesus is there—it’s kind of like when you talk up a movie at lunch with your parents, and then somehow you end up watching the movie later with your mom there, and all the sudden you’re noticing every sexual joke and scene and cringing. Because Jesus is in this scene, we’re expecting everyone in the Bible to think sleeping around is bad. We imagine this woman drawing water with a big scarlet letter on her dress.
But only one part of her society would have looked down on her. Samaria was a diverse society. They’re part Jewish, but they had intermarried and intertwined with Greece and Rome—and in Rome, there were three kinds of marriage. You could get married in a religious ceremony, and this was considered the most formal ceremony—that’s what the higher classes would do. You could also buy a wife, mail-order style, and that was less honorable, for people who failed to make a good match. But what was more typical, especially among the poor who didn’t have dowries or inheritances, is just that you would live with a person and after a year or so you were generally considered married by the Roman authority. Sometimes there would be a ceremony or a party, but sometimes not. The word for that kind of marriage in Rome was usus, which literally just means custom. That was the custom.
So this woman may have been ashamed among the young moms’, dutiful wife, water-drawing crowd, but I’m sure she was well-appreciated among the pub-goers, in the city, among the Roman set, the kind who were looking for a good time, who would have told her their love didn’t need ceremonies and formalities to be real. She may have rolled her eyes at her small town and their backwards ways. She was more enlightened than that, she might say.
In America today, we can understand this pretty well—it depends on who you’re talking to whether it will seem offensive or enlightened that you’ve not conducted your romantic relationships in the traditional way. We’re again polarized in our society on our expectations of marriage and family. We have the more traditional, more religious pole of our culture, and we have a more progressive, more cultured pole.
And then there’s Jesus, who, as always, is in a culture and a class of his own. If this side of the room is more progressive, and this side of the room is more traditional, Jesus is probably sitting outside, talking to the person who walked off, tired of our arguments, trying to tell her how to be saved. Throughout his life, Jesus offends the religious traditionalists of his day almost as much as he offends the cultured progressives. Neither the Pilates of the world nor the Pharisees were comfortable in the presence of Christ.
When his more traditional disciples walk up, for example, at the end of the passage, they can’t believe he’s even talking to this woman. V.27 says they marveled—and the word means kind of a mixture of amazement and offense. They were offended that he would speak to this woman, this Samaritan. Samaritans were the other political party. If the Jews were republicans, the Samaritans were democrats—and this lady, they could somehow tell—I don’t know if it was her face or her dress, piercings maybe, tattoos—this woman was the worst kind of Samaritan in their mind. And Jesus is telling her she is able to be saved, to receive the Spirit of God, and worship in Spirit and in truth alongside these men, her brothers. And he’s doing this before he asks her for any kind of change in her thought or life.
I chose this story for this Sunday because it so perfectly relates to our situation today with marriage and singleness. Both sides of our culture, usually in reaction to the other side, have developed mythologies about marriage and singleness that are like two sides of the same coin. And, listen, if these conceptions of marriage were actually printed on two sides of a coin, Jesus’s face would not be the face on the coin.
The first marital myth of our culture I’ll discuss I’ve called marriage as improvement. Marriage as improvement. Now immediately, I’m imagining someone in the room is going, “Now wait a second, God has used my wife over and over again to sanctify me and make me more like Christ.” But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about what God can do through marriage, I’m talking about how people try to use marriage for the purpose of self-improvement, or advise marriage as a means of improving some other person.
The traditional side of the marriage as improvement coin usually looks like people asking single people over and over again when they are going to settle down and get married and really begin their life—as if life before or after marriage is useless. It looks like dating constantly and getting married way too young because you feel incomplete as a single person. It looks like people assuming you are irresponsible if you don’t have a wife, house, kids, and a dog. It looks like married couples doing whatever they can to seem perfect, complete, arrived, their best selves, a finished product.
The traditional side of the marriage as improvement coin completely disregards biblical teaching about singleness also being a blessed estate, a gift of God, to be cherished and used to the glory of God the Father. We forget our savior in this: because, if it were true that marriage is able to improve a life, then the life of Christ is incomplete, imperfect.
The progressive side of the marriage as improvement coin looks like marriage as a partnership toward self-actualization. Or in short, as Keller relates in his book on The Meaning of Marriage, this kind of marriage is called a me-marriage. The advice given to young people in this vane is to wait until you know yourself and you’ve got a career built to go into a marriage, so you can be sure to marry someone only if they will fit into the life you’ve built. This marriage is going to help me achieve my goals. My partner is meant to support me and aid me toward a fuller actualization of my best self, and if he does not then I am totally within my rights to find someone who will.
The myth at the heart of the marriage as improvement coin is essentially that marriage is about you and what you can get out of the relationship. And that myth, that sin, when full-grown, looks like the marriage falling apart or going cold with an enormous bitterness on both sides, because he didn’t give me the kind of life I deserved, or she held me back from really succeeding and flourishing and being happy. Constant comparison with the perceived success of other couples, and imaginings of life if only you had chosen a better man, a better life for yourself.
But friends, in truth, marriage isn’t for you, and it’s not about you. Marriage is for and about the Lord and his Church, It’s not a means of self-improvement, and it’s not better than singleness—both are gifts of God.
The second marital myth I want to point out in our culture is one I’ll call marriage as fulfillment of longing. Marriage as fulfillment of longing.
The traditional side of the marriage as fulfillment coin looks like rom coms and Disney. The idea of soul mates and fairy-tale romance. Marriage as the fulfillment of longing is the kind of myth that has people making lists of what they want in their ideal spouse and telling themselves they’ll never settle for anything but the perfect match, and he’s out there, and we’ll find each other. This is the idea of “it was meant to be,” and they lived happily ever after, and I’ve married my best friend. It looks like passion and excitement at first. And of course love is thrilling, but anyone who has been in love for any length of time will be able to tell you that every person changes throughout the course of a relationship—so even if you find “the one,” that one will change into a different one over the course of three years or so—and truth is, one person, no matter who he or she is, cannot fulfill your every longing and desire.
The traditional side of the marriage as fulfillment of longing coin completely disregards biblical teaching about the sinfulness of every person, and God, himself, being the fulfillment of our deepest longings. When you try to put the weight of perfection and fulfillment of your own longing on a person instead of on God, himself, suddenly that person is extremely inadequate. No one could ever live up to that expectation, no matter how much they exhaust themselves trying.
The progressive side of the marriage as fulfillment of longing coin looks like having insanely high standards for a spouse, which is paired with self-loathing and a belief that the whole idea of marriage is foolishly optimistic. If you’ve ever seen How I Met Your Mother, that. That’s what this myth of marriage looks like. You don’t believe you’re ever going to find that perfect girl, so in the meantime you can entertain yourself with the available girl, or the guy who will have you. This is the kind of view of marriage in which either settling or trophy wives exist, because they got closest to your idea of what a woman should be. If you ever do somehow wind up in a committed relationship, you keep all the finances separate and sign prenups and when it ends you take a kind of pleasure in knowing that you were right all along not to trust fully. You don’t believe anyone is really happy in love, everyone’s just putting on a good face, and the movie ends with a wedding because actually building a life together would spoil the story.
Marriage as fulfillment of longing is made worse in our culture by our addictions to entertainment and pornography. Your expectations of who you’ll finally end up with—their physical attractiveness, how much they will want you and respond to your every desire—are created in these fantasy worlds, where as soon as a person ages or gains weight, they disappear, but don’t worry, you can always go back and watch the episode when she’s still 25.
And everyone is always fulfilling their every desire and living happily ever after, and “every problem can be solved within twenty minutes plus commercials.” And then when your life isn’t like that you feel cheated. This is also how many people in our culture begin feeling entirely inadequate. They don’t look like the magazine, and they aren’t a successful theoretical physicist/model with money to blow who works out four hours every day and still somehow had time to bake you muffins before you woke up this morning.
The myth at the heart of understanding marriage as the fulfillment of longing is believing that a single person will be able to be your best friend, your spouse, your coach, and your god. And ultimately, this myth springs out of a desire to be worshipped, yourself. You want to be treated like a god, a queen, king of your own domain, God’s gift to your spouse, when really marriage is meant to be mutual service of each other in humility. Far from being worshipped, you’re meant to be giving yourself away to each other.
The third martial myth I want to point out this morning is something I’ll call marriage as contract. Marriage as contract. The traditional side of marriage as contract looks like treating your marriage as though it is a duty you must perform, and as though marriage is a solution to sexual sin in a person’s life. Because this form of marriage will pass as acceptable in many religious circles, I would say this is the most common myth I’ve seen in churches. Under this myth, marital issues which could be addressed early on are either not discussed or denied because they are seen as possible breaches of contract, sin issues, or shameful failures of duty.
The progressive side of the marriage as contract coin treats marriage as though it is a backwards, restrictive kind of practice to be avoided just as one avoids paying too much for cable or being duped into signing a contract for a phone when you could have gotten an unlimited plan. People who do get married are seen as foolish, like they didn’t do enough research to know there were other options. This is the idea of the ball and chain, marriage as the end of freedom. Or, circling back a bit to the woman at the well, people who misunderstand marriage as contract would ask, why would you need to formalize a relationship and go through some sort of ceremony? Why not just let it be what it is?
The myth at the heart of marriage as contract is ultimately a misunderstanding of the nature of freedom and bondage of the will. Yes, in marriage you intentionally bind yourself to a single person, but marriage is a bond that provides freedom. Freedom to trust totally in another person and their commitment to you. Freedom to share yourself entirely with another person, sin and all, without losing their love or respect. Unashamed sexual freedom within the marriage. Freedom to raise a family knowing you won’t be doing that alone.
All of these myths, the two poles of our culture like two sides of the same coin, some of them you or others close to you may have believed, and then there’s Jesus. Calling to you in the midst of misunderstanding, in the midst of shame, on neither pole of these myths inviting you to worship him in Spirit and in truth.
I love how, in this passage, the woman at the well asks Jesus a question about what is the right place to worship God, but Jesus doesn’t fully answer her question. Instead he kind of dismisses her question and begins to speak to her real need. He tells her truth about who he is, and how she can be forgiven her sins.
Our culture is filled with myth and misleading questions, from every pole and every side. Our role as Christians is to sit with Christ, and in the face of myth speak truth. Truth about people’s true desires and their true needs. Truth about our own sinfulness, no matter how enlightened we seem, and our need of forgiveness in him.
I would invite you this morning into humility, to pray to the Holy Spirit for conviction. Whether you consider yourself enlightened beyond these ancient morals, or whether in your mind you’ve adhered to the law since your youth. Be humble. Be prayerful, and allow the Spirit to change your heart. You can come pray with me, or the person next to you, or you can pray where you’re at, but God this morning is wanting to speak truth to you in the midst of myth and misunderstanding. Pray with me now.