Jesus’s “living water” can help wash away the toxic masculinity of Christian Nationalism.
The reflection below is one I wrote for “Jesus and Justice in Public,” a study-action guide by the Wisconsin Council of Churches. They developed this guide to help the Church respond to the rising threats of White Christian Nationalism that have become increasingly violent and include attacks on our democracy. The guide offers hands-on ways that the Church has historically engaged in civic life and what these practices can look like in our modern context.
I was invited to write a series of homiletical helps so that preachers can connect these lessons to the readings in Lent from the Revised Common Lectionary for Year A. This reflection is for the Third Sunday of Lent focusing on John 4:5-42, the story of Jesus and the Woman at the Well. However, these essays can be used at any time of the year.
In October of 2016, a tape was released of presidential candidate Donald Trump bragging about the things he could do to women because of his stardom. The infamous “grab them by the pussy” line should have been enough to torpedo his election chances. Instead, it was barely a bump in the road to the presidency for him. Why?
In her book, Red State Christians, Angela Denker suggests that Evangelical Christian women who helped deliver Trump to the White House are conditioned by the “purity culture” of conservative patriarchal Christianity to see themselves as possessions of men rather than as human beings with their own rights. Women are vessels to be passed from father to husband. Further, they are to make themselves available to men as a sign of their purity before God. So, the idea of being sexually grabbed and used was not too far off from this distorted worldview.
Purity culture is part of the toxic masculinity of Christian Nationalism which “is a movement by, for, and in support of men,” Denker says (178). Carter Heyward adds that the sin of misogyny (hatred or disdain for women) feeds the culture of Christian Nationalism. Ambivalence, dislike, prejudice, hatred, and violence are all manifestations of misogyny which men direct toward women. And that women direct at each other — even themselves. “Misogyny teaches girls and women to disparage ourselves in relation to men,” Heyward says, (The Seven Deadly Sins of White Christian Nationalism, 91).
Jesus and the Woman at the Well
The story of Jesus’s encounter at the well with the woman from Samaria (John 4:5-42) stands in stark contrast to the misogyny and toxic masculinity displayed by Trump and other men of his ilk. There’s no grabbing of anything here. Jesus does not forcibly take anything from the woman. Instead, he asks her for water and engages her in respectful conversation. Ultimately, their encounter leads to her restoration in the community.
What about all those husbands?
Yet the misogyny and purity culture of their own time is the unmistakable context for their frank conversation about her lack of a husband. Some reading this passage assume her to be a woman with loose morals who has serially divorced and remarried like a Hollywood starlet. But this interpretation misses the fact that in her culture, women were the property of their husbands. She likely had no say in being married the first, second, third, fourth, or fifth time. And when she met Jesus, she was in a precarious situation living with someone who was not her husband.
Nevertheless, Jesus did not define her by the misogynistic standards of her culture. He spoke to her as a human being. He asked her for water and gave her the “living water” that became in her “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life,” (v. 14). As a result, her personhood was no longer defined by her “purity.” Instead, she testified about Jesus to her neighbors, and they listened to her. Jesus empowered her, affirmed her personhood, and trusted her to bring the message of his ministry to her community.
Preaching about Jesus and the Woman at the Well
A sermon about Jesus and the woman at the well can “push beyond misogyny into fluid experiences of gender and nondualistic images of our bodies and experiences of our sexualities,” as Heyward puts it (192). This, in turn, can open listeners to new experiences and expressions of spirituality. Over time, we might wash away the toxic masculinity of purity culture with “living water,” celebrating women and all genders as diverse expressions of the Divine.
Central Question, Central Claim, Central Purpose
(The Central Question, Central Claim, and Central Purpose statements are a way to organize and provide direction for a sermon that I developed in the book Introduction to Preaching: Scripture, Theology, and Sermon Preparation (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013). Here are possible Central Statements for a sermon countering Christian Nationalism based on John 4:5-42.)
Central Question. What does Jesus teach us about the value, worth, and dignity of women as we counter the misogyny of “purity culture” and toxic masculinity today?
Central Claim. Just as Jesus respected, empowered, affirmed, and trusted the proclamation of women, so the church can insist on the validity of women’s rights, equity, and justice.
Central Purpose. This sermon deconstructs the purity culture of Christian Nationalism and washes away toxic masculinity with the “living water” that celebrates women and all genders as diverse expressions of the Divine.
To see the full series of sermon helps, download “Jesus and Justice” here.
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The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade is the Associate Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky and ordained in the ELCA. Dr. Schade does not speak for LTS or the ELCA; her opinions are her own. She is the author of Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019) and Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is the co-editor of Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). Her newest book is Introduction to Preaching: Scripture, Theology, and Sermon Preparation, co-authored with Jerry L. Sumney and Emily Askew (Rowman & Littlefield, 2023).