By Rev. Stephen Baldwin
So I went to WalMart this week. Not a good decision. But that’s beside the point. I was back in the electronics section waiting in line. There was this big rack of DVDs beside me, which struck me, because…that many people still watch DVDs?
There was a whole row of Hallmark movies. A whole row! And they were all Christmas love stories! A beautiful woman beside a handsome man with snow and Christmas lights in the background. Different actors, but the same story. Which struck me, because…they make that many Hallmark Christmas movies…and people actually buy them?
Something else caught my attention as the line slowly moved forward. And after a few minutes I heard a woman say, “Looky there, honey! They have A Princess Christmas! And look, there’s A Christmas Secret!”
I had a bird’s eye view of her husband, who looked like someone had just stolen his puppy. He was deflated and defeated, realizing the TV would be taken up with these movies during March Madness.
“And would you believe it,” she continued, more excited this time, “they have The Christmas Train and Christmas Under Wraps!”
The husband never said a word. He just reached out, picked up all the DVDs his wife mentioned, and grimaced.
We all have story types we like. What do I mean by story types? Stories unfold in predictable, cultural patterns. For example, in Disney stories, the frog always turns into a prince. The beauty always falls in love with the beast. The wicked witch always fails. Right? In superhero stories, the hero always saves the people from the evil villain. Right? In scary movies, something is going to pop out and make you scream. In love stories, the couple always overcomes their trials and tribulations…before finally living happily ever after. In a wrestling match, my favorite type of story, the good buys battle the bad guys. Story types are as old as the hills. They help the listener or viewer know what to expect in a story.
In Jesus’ day, they also had story types. When people listened to a story being told (and indeed they did usually listen as very few people could read or write), they understood what kind of story it was. If it was a comedy, they were supposed to laugh. If it was a drama, they knew they might cry. The story of Jesus meeting the woman at the well is a specific type of story. But what kind? It’s not a comedy, not a comic, not a fairy tale, not a wrestling match. It’s a Hallmark movie.
Now, before I go any further I want to stop and make sure you are hearing me. I don’t want people going to Shoney’s saying, “Our minister tried to tell us that Jesus fell in love with the woman at the well!” That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that this story has almost all the elements of what we would call a Hallmark movie, or what the ancient world would’ve called an engagement story.
In ancient engagement stories, including three in the Old Testament, a predictable pattern occurs: 1) boy journeys to a foreign land, 2) boy meets girl at a well, 3) someone draws water from said well, 4) girl runs home to tell the town, and 5) boyfriend is invited over to meet the parents of girlfriend. Our story matches that, except for that one pesky detail—that Jesus and the woman aren’t an item. (Even though they do sound like an old married couple. Get me some water. Excuse me? Get your own water.)
No, that they are not an item is what makes this story interesting. It would be like a Hallmark Christmas movie where the couple breaks up. Forever. Or a comedy where someone ends up dying. That Jesus and the woman act like a couple about to be engaged but don’t take it to that level is the big surprise that makes this story fascinating.
It draws people in, making them ask, “If this isn’t really an engagement story, then what kind of story is it?” I think it’s a faith story, meant to inspire people to commit to Christ like they commit to one another in holy matrimony. While engagement is seen as a lifelong commitment, I’m not sure faith is. Let me tell you a story that I think makes the point.
An elderly man hurried to his 8:00am doctor appointment, he wanted to finish quickly so that he could get to another appointment. The doctor asked what it was, and the old man proudly said that every morning at 9:00am he would go to the nursing home and have breakfast with his wife.
The doctor asked what her condition was, and he replied that for the past 5 years his wife has had Alzheimer’s and hasn’t known who he is. The doctor asked the old man why he continued to visit her if she had no idea who he was…and the old man replied…“Because I still know who she is.”
Just like engagement and marriage are serious commitments made by two people who love each other, so is the life of faith.
Jesus and the woman at the well represent a new kind of engagement. They pledge themselves to one another, not in love and holy matrimony, but in faith. She believes in him—as her Savior. He believes in her—as his minister and messenger. They aren’t engaged in the typical sense, but they do pledge themselves to one another. And isn’t that what the walk of faith is all about for each one of us—pledging yourself to Christ and his cause in this world, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, forever and ever, Amen? Amen!