How Should Christians Talk About Sex and Sexuality? (Part 1 — Meeting Needs Before Moralizing: Jesus and the Woman at the Well)

Introduction: Valentine’s Day, The UMC, and The Umbrella Academy

It’s been a packed couple of weeks for me, philosophically and emotionally speaking. My Valentine’s Day article on church culture’s sexuality rhetoric hit a wider, more diverse readership than I had previously considered, and it became apparent that I needed to flesh out some points to make the conversation more invitational across the religious and philosophical spectrum.

Meanwhile, the United Methodist Church General Conference announced its affirmation of the Traditional Plan for the UMC–which states that LGBTQ+ members of the church cannot be installed as clergy if they are living in or pursuing same-sex relationships, and that the UMC will not perform gay weddings. This has been hard for the entire denomination–a denomination which, historically has worked very hard to integrate being considerate to culture and attentive to Scripture. Many across Christianity and beyond feel that the Church has failed to create an accessible language, a shared ethic, and a robust framework for engaging with sexual diversity.

In the arts world, actress and activist Ellen Page recently published an article on media response to the Jussie Smollett fallout, on her own LGBTQI+ activism, and on keeping the priority where it needs to be: keeping marginalized people safe; giving space to minorities to process their experiences in a healthy, constructive way.

Ellen Page portrays the character Vanya on The Umbrella Academy, a Netflix superhero series released February 15, 2019. Vanya is one of seven adopted siblings raised as super-powered fighters in a tough-love-bordering-on-emotionally-abusive environment, where saving the day is more important than protecting the kids from psychological trauma.

Outcomes over hearts. Results over people. This is something, I think, that we struggle with in American church culture.

One of Vanya’s brothers dies in adolescence, another disappears (time travel hijinks), and the rest grow up into their own versions of adult dysfunctionality. Vanya herself, as the only member of the team who never manifests powers, develops deep insecurities and struggles to find a place where she can shine. She yearns for connection, for acceptance, and for someone to tell her she is special.

There is something buried inside her waiting to break out; waiting to be known; waiting to be given its place.

For many reasons, Vanya’s character and Page’s performance were both deeply resonant to me. The Umbrella Academy engages the idea of recapturing the innocence of youth and redeeming the brokenness of adolescence that pursues us into adulthood.

I read several of Page’s interviews about how much of herself she drew on to play this character, and these, too, tugged profoundly at my heart.

From Independent, Page says of Vanya:

“Now she’s existing in her early 30s and really can barely cope. She is depressed, she is anxious, she barely even knows how to have a friendship, let alone an intimate relationship, and she’s struggling with these feelings of complete and utter worthlessness. That whole arc in general was like, ‘yes please’. I immediately related to Vanya.”

From IOL:

“In the beginning Vanya is engulfed in a sense of worthlessness and pain, and not knowing how to cope emotionally because she was never actually taught to, and instead had to deal with a constant inundation of negativity….”

And from Glamour, the quote I found the most identifiable of all:

“I immediately related to that feeling of folding in on yourself, struggling with depression and anxiety, barely feeling like you can take up any space in the room and what it took to get out of that, in my experience.”

How Does the Bible Model Conversations About Sexuality?

When I wrote “15 Changes to Make in How Christian Culture Sees Sexuality” I received a number of responses via Facebook or private message that expressed anger/disappointment over the article’s lack of any clear statement concerning the morality of extramarital sexual relationships. The article, instead, focused on how the Church’s way of talking about sexuality has been confusing and damaging to some.

For my first article in this follow-up series, I would like to address why I made the decision, in the original article, to focus on Christian language and rhetoric rather than on the specific instructions for sexuality laid out in Scripture.

In short, I believe what the Bible says about sex is clear to most. What many evangelicals have not focused on enough is how we communicate; how we engage with people’s journeys; how we understand people and meet them where they are.

Ministers will often say that it is not our job to make the Gospel palatable– that the path of Christ is inherently offensive. It is our job only to make the message clear and to challenge people to follow it.

It may often be the case that the Gospel is offensive. It says we are broken. It says we need someone to step in and forgive us. And then it calls us to lifelong, intensive self-sacrifice.

But brokenness, at least, is something that most of us deeply feel–whether we’re Christian or not. We feel the satisfaction-dissatisfaction dance in our sexuality, whether we’re married, celibate, or in non-permanent sexual relationships.

For many in Christian culture, self-discipline is akin to taking daily trips to the gym. You pump out a few reps each day, and you begin to see incremental results. You grow through perseverance. You feel the burn. Life’s challenges are “purging our weakness.”

But an increasing number of Americans experience an isolation and a loneliness so deep that it’s more akin to having a limb blown off than a trip to the gym. When you use workout language with someone who’s bleeding, you’re doing more damage than you are helping.

While it is true that we are called to obey no matter the hand we are dealt, those who are dealt a lighter burden have the energy and freedom to carry the lion’s share of the Cross. How? Not by saying to their brothers and sisters, “Be sure to obey dutifully,” and walking away.

We shoulder one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2) by creating language that is receptive to people. By developing philosophical and theological constructs that help people cognitively reframe their situations.

This is a part of our ministry to the Church and to the world: We help people frame the journey of obedience in a helpful, integrative way. We can do this without compromising biblical principles.

This doesn’t mean we aren’t prioritizing holiness. It means we are taking responsibility, as others pursue holiness, for paving the streets of their journey.

We anticipate the ways our children might struggle with insecurity in school, and we try to prepare them for it mentally. We teach our teens about ways their faith might be shaken, and we equip them with confidence and security to face peer pressure. We give premarital counseling to engaged couples.

Where is the robust, well-developed, pre-singleness counseling? Where is the counseling on how to be an LGBTQ+, Christian teen or adult? What resources do we have available for helping religious seekers think through questions about sexuality and Scripture?

We want people to make good choices. We don’t want them to be scared, isolated, and miserable.

We want them to make good choices. We want their needs to be met. We take responsibility for meeting their needs.

God cares about our holiness. He also cares about us being the Body of Christ by lifting each other up in a pursuit of holiness. And He cares that we give each other grace.

The Gospel of John provides a beautiful model for engaging in conversation about culture, religion, and sexual expression. A friend recently suggested the Woman at the Well passage as a picture of what loving conversation about sexuality can look like.

In John 4, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at the well near Sychar. Their encounter is as follows:

John 4:5-30

So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

“I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”

Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”


Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?”

They came out of the town and made their way toward him.

A Look At Jesus’ Response:
Meeting Needs Before Moral Conversations

I. Jesus Asked For Her Help

The very first thing that Jesus did in this interaction was ask for a drink of water. He had a physical need that He, whom Christians believe to be the incarnation of God, asked someone to meet.

How powerful is that? Philippians 2 tells us that our “attitude[s] should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who, being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant….”

So often we as Christians think of Christlike servanthood in terms of “living missionally” or “meeting needs” or how we can “minister to” someone. This language may sound beneficent to us, but to others, it may sound haughty. Our desire to see people know Christ more can sometimes take on a hierarchical bent.

But one of the things this passage demonstrates about Jesus is that He was not above relying on someone–someone who was socially marginalized–for help.

There are times Jesus taught with authority. There are times He healed. There are times He demonstrated power and leadership. But sometimes, He slept. Sometimes, He cried. Sometimes, He felt people’s grief–even when they weren’t feeling it themselves (Matthew 23:37).

To bear the image of Christ to people is to relate to them with empathy, as human beings.

Authentic, unconditional love is much more organic than a religious agenda. Love walks with people. Love asks questions. Love listens before it speaks.

And Christ-like love, as demonstrated here, leans deeply on how our needs are met in the humanity of others. Jesus didn’t use this woman or treat her like a servant. But he did rely on her; He did put his confidence in her; He did approach her from a position of equality.

He saw her as someone who had something to offer Him, even before He offered her something deeply, spiritually important. How much more should we, who are all in need of a Savior, see all people as having gifts that could enrich our relationships with them?

This is a part of Incarnation theology: God becomes human flesh–human pain; human temptation; human vulnerability.

And so Christians become all things to all people, as the apostle Paul says–embracing racial diversity, not demanding that it conform to suit us; putting on people’s suffering, not trying to avoid it; entering into people’s journeys, not cheering them on from afar.

Relevant passages:

1 Corinthians 9:22
1 Corinthians 12:15-26
Ephesians 5:20-21
Galatians 6:2-6

For a bit of nuance on this point, note 1 Corinthians 9:5-19. Paul does not request anything from those he ministers to, in order that it not distract from the message of the Gospel.

We could say that Scripture presents us with different models for different situations. Jesus also spoke to the religious leaders of his time differently than He spoke to the general body of his followers; He spoke differently to genuine religious seekers; He spoke differently to the Twelve disciples. Each person, each relationship requires a different kind of discernment.

But people are people. Not conversion agendas.

II. Jesus Addressed Her Deepest Need–And Offered a Way to Fulfill It

It’s significant that Jesus addressed the Samaritan woman’s emotional thirst first, before making any comments about her “lifestyle.”

Jesus saw that this woman, who had been married five times and was now living with a man who wasn’t her husband, had a kind of longing that went deeper than anything on the surface. Her current pursuit of a relationship may have been a manifestation of that inner need.

Jesus didn’t complain about her being a “consumer Christian.” He offered something for her to consume.

Not something superficial; not self-help or self-medication. But His emphasis was that she could come to Him “in spirit and truth,” with a genuine heart.

Notice that, in this encounter, Jesus didn’t say, “Follow me, and I will cover your sin, making you right in God’s sight.” He didn’t say, “Come to me as you are, and I won’t leave you the same–I’ll transform you into who God wants you to be.”

Those things would have been true statements. There are situations where Jesus said things to that effect. But here, Jesus addressed a woman’s felt need, in terms of her longing, in her territory.

Sometimes true statements can communicate non-truths without our realizing it, depending on the context of the life we’re speaking into. When we say, “Christ wants to transform you,” to someone who has been told their entire lives that what they feel, what they experience internally, without choice makes them dirty and broken, what else are we communicating (whether we’re talking about an attraction to the same sex or an attraction to the opposite sex when you’re not married)?

Are we striking a nerve that says, “You are not made in the image of God”? “You are not a being of value and worth”? Are we giving people hope of a change that may never happen, setting them up for heartache and disappointment?

It’s not that the statement, “Following Christ will transform you” isn’t true. But if we don’t put that statement in context, it might communicate a lot of things that aren’t true, like, “Waiting for marriage to have sex will be better for your mental health,” or “Following Christ will eventually make you stop being gay.” Those things are lies.

In order for “Following Christ will transform you” to communicate what a straight, married, privileged Christian intends for it to communicate, there would need to be a lot of qualifying statements. Those statements would also need time to settle in long before we talk about the particulars of morality.

The meaning of what we say depends as much on what subcultures we’re speaking into as on our intentions. But our intentions aren’t always as selfless as we think they are, either.

What has come to be known as “Purity Culture” is a subset of evangelicalism that often cares more about “keeping you righteous” than about your deeper needs. It cares more about “keeping you righteous” than about your understanding your sexuality and healthily navigating it.

Allegedly, that desire to see someone “live the right way” is out of care and concern for them. Ultimately, though, I don’ t think that’s always what comes across. I don’t even think that’s always what we really care about.

I think our desire to see other people as “right in God’s sight” is often born from our own need for comfort.

We want people to be holy–set apart for God–because it helps us feel okay about them. It helps us feel good that there’s “nothing wrong” in their hearts. We want to know that they’re where they’re supposed to be, in terms of their beliefs and their behavior. We long for the day when people are made right with God so we don’t have to think about their brokenness anymore; don’t have to grieve their inner pain. There’s a selfishness in that.

Holiness matters to God. Obedience matters to God.

Yet merely hoping for people to live righteously is an incomplete manifestation of the Gospel, just as merely hoping for people to be happy is an incomplete manifestation of the Gospel.

We as the Church should be working toward helping people to find joy in the calling of Christ–in a calling that is sometimes hard and painful, that asks much of us, but that can fulfill us in deeper places.

So where does the Gospel bring joy into the lives of people who are finding sexual expression through porn? For people swiping through Tinder looking for a hookup? For people who are trying to figure out how to reconcile their desire to follow God with their attraction to people of the same sex? For teens who sext with their friends? For millennials in semi-permanent sexual relationships?

What is the deep thirst? What is the deep, felt need?

To be safe.

To be known.

To have space to work out your sexual identity.

To find intimacy in relationship.

To know that I see you as a person. That I like you. That I want to be around you. That I don’t feel a need to change you in order to enjoy you.

If there are other things we could probe about the complexities of sexual desire and the challenges of committing to the Christian moral code–it can wait until after those deep needs are addressed. Or it can be an eventual part of an ongoing conversation about people’s needs–where sexual discipline becomes a part of growth; a part of deeper fulfillment.

How do you know what a person’s deep need is?

You get to know her. You ask him questions. Together, you search through the complexities of what sexuality is and how it operates.

How do you learn how to fill someone’s deepest need?

You walk together. You talk together. You process together. You come up with solutions together. Above all, you listen.

You forsake over-simplicities and you look for ways that the Gospel fills; fulfills; satisfies. You create ways to be happy in obedience together. And you pour out unconditional grace and love when someone says, “I don’t think I can do things the biblical way.”

You don’t have to say it isn’t sin. You do have to embrace without reservation and say, “I really, really love you. I’m not going to detach from how hard this is for you. Whatever you feel–I want to feel it with you.”

Sometimes the journey toward satisfaction in Christ’s way does involve self-discipline, loss, and hardship. There isn’t always a way to get around that. But hardship is more bearable with friends to support you, and most of the time, you can eventually develop ways of looking at things that allow you to feel fulfilled in the midst of the personal sacrifices you’re making out of submission to God.

It takes creativity. It takes work. It’s work that we do together.

As Christians, I believe that helping people construct satisfying meaning out of their lives is one of the most important ways we can manifest the Gospel for people who are lonely, people who are searching for self-understanding, and people who have unfulfilled desires.

Relevant passages:

1 Corinthians 13:1-8
Galatians 6:2
Galatians 6:8-10
Ephesians 5:1-2
Colossians 1:24-25
1 Corinthians 10:13 (Be the way out. Be the tangible Body of Christ for your brother or sister.)

III. Jesus Addressed Her Situation with Empathy and Pointed Her Toward Him

In the ancient Jewish and Roman culture, it would have been very difficult for a woman to be married five times. For her to pursue divorce herself, she would have needed the help of a male, legal advocate. For her to commit adultery, or if she were divorced for being unable to bear children, it would have been a major knock against her. It would have branded her as a poor prospect for eligible bachelors.

This means that her loss of five, subsequent marriages probably resulted from a rare combination of circumstances. She may have been divorced several times, abandoned, for a variety of reasons. She may have been widowed more than once.

Jesus’ drawing attention to the Samaritan woman’s current living situation probably wasn’t about sending her on a guilt trip. It was likely a recognition that he saw her situation–that he knew her.

In Chapter 12 of Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible (Dr. Sandra Glahn, editor), Dr. Lynn Cohick writes about the Samaritan woman:

It’s unlikely that she was divorced five times, each time for committing adultery. No man would dare marry a convicted adulteress with neither fortune nor fame. That she was a serial divorcée is also unlikely. She would have needed the repeated help of a male advocate to do so….

It is more likely that her five marriages and current arrangement were the result of unfortunate events that took the lives of several of her husbands. Perhaps one or two of them divorced her, or maybe she initiated divorce in one case. As for her current situation, maybe she had no dowry and thus no formal marriage, meaning her status was similar to a concubine’s. Perhaps the man she was currently with was old and needed care, but his children didn’t want to share their inheritance with her, so he gave her no dowry document [formalizing the marriage]. Perhaps he was already married, making her his second wife. While the ancient Jewish culture allowed it, such an arrangement went against Jesus’s definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman (Matt. 19:4–6). It makes sense, then, that Jesus would say she wasn’t married. Scripture doesn’t tell us why she had five husbands, but exploring first-century realities helps us imagine how her life might have unfolded.

We don’t know whether some of the Samaritan woman’s divorces were a result of her sin. But even if that were true, and even if her current cohabitation arrangement was in violation of Jewish religious law, Jesus is acknowledging a more complicated backdrop to her life.

He is acknowledging that he understands her need. That he understands her.

Jesus isn’t saying, “You’ve lived a pretty bad lifestyle; let’s talk about that.”

He is saying, “You’ve had it hard. Even with all of that hardship, I recognize you as a seeker of truth who wants a deeper kind of satisfaction than you have right now. Let’s talk about that.”

Maybe she had followed God faithfully for five straight marriages, was left widowed or betrayed in each one, and finally threw in the towel on the perfect, moral lifestyle.

Maybe she had accepted a less-than-optimal living situation that grated against her conscience, because she was running out of options, and she needed to survive.

Maybe she was desperately lonely, bouncing from relationship to relationship–although based on the historical context, that’s unlikely.

All of those things sound a lot like the experiences of 20-and-30-somethings I know. People whose church communities would rather talk to in terms of “lifestyle choices” than in terms of unmet needs.

None of this is a statement that sin doesn’t exist, or that it should never be addressed. But often, the things people struggle with morally are born out of needs that Christ can meet. And sometimes, Christ meets needs through community in the Body of Christ.

If there is sin in this woman’s life, Jesus doesn’t condone it. He also doesn’t point an accusatory finger. He embraces her as someone who is searching for truth. This is how early Christian interpreters understood the interaction.

Cohick continues:

Jesus knows the longing of our hearts, as we see in his desire to engage the Samaritan woman’s questions. For most early church and medieval interpreters, the Samaritan woman was a careful, polite seeker—a sinner who, once illumined, truthfully witnessed her new faith to others. But in the Reformation, she became a symbol of promiscuity. Whereas the church fathers believed Jesus was revealing himself to her, says historian Craig Farmer, the Reformers suggested that Jesus was revealing herself to her to get her to see her sin and repent.

Jesus respected the Samaritan woman. In fact–the whole town treated her testimony with respect.

He talked theology with her. He talked need with her. He offered her a solution in the mystery of Himself–which other places in Scripture put skin to: Mourning with those who mourn. Being the Body of Christ to each other through encouragement; through strengthening one another to continue in Christ’s way. Sharpening one another in community. Patience. Gentleness. Persevering together.

When Christians engage in conversations about sexual expression, we have to see people, in the fullness of their story. Moral systems don’t work if they’re not integrated with the deep needs and felt realities of life. That doesn’t mean we have to compromise what Christ calls us to. But it does mean that we understand and empathize when people do say, “I can’t follow the Christian way. It’s too hard. It’s too painful.” We walk with them, no matter what.

And we don’t give up on the day when the sacrifices of Christ’s way bring more joy than pain.

We journey. We process. We strive after obedience together. And we love.

Relevant passages:

Galatians 6:1
Galatians 6:8-10
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Ephesians 5:3-17
Colossians 1:9-14; 19-23; 28-29
1 Corinthians 10:13 (Be faithful, and trust for a way out.)

(I hope, by the way, you are able to see that passages about carrying one another’s burdens, striving and sacrificing for each other in ministry to each other’s needs, and admonishing one another to pursue holiness are often found in close proximity to each other. There is an integrative fullness to the Gospel whose depths we would be wise to plumb.)

Because I feel that it is so important that, in a blog series on sexuality, the LGBTQ+ voice is heard among my Christian readership, I’ll conclude this post with a statement Ellen Page makes in the Glamour article, which I think summarizes the message she and other LGBTQ+ activists want people to hear. I would honor that message without diluting it, filtering it, or imposing my own reflections on it. There are times when that is appropriate. I believe that, in light of this week’s events with the UMC, this is an appropriate time to enter in and rest with someone’s heart.

I hope that you will take take time to sit with this, without a filter for a while, without arbitration or introduction of all the “buts” that conservative Christian thought might like to attach as amendment. I hope you will let this settle into your heart as real, even before you begin to converse with it:

“I only feel like I am just, finally coming into my own – to be honest, in a real major way. I think alongside of what is happening in our world and what has been happening in our world for a long time, practically forever – especially after travelling the world for the show I made, Gaycation – that it’s life and death.

“These issues we are talking about are life and death. A lot of the issues we are talking about are debates in the media and they are NOT debates. I think at this point I am fed up, I am fed up with the pain and we need to be talking about it more and the realities of the impact it’s having on people’s lives. Especially LGBTQ people’s lives where we have so little representation whether it’s in film, television or news media.”

Here is Page’s guest article from the Hollywood Reporter, which I encourage you to read in its entirety:

“Hate Violence Is Not A Hoax”

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