Dignity of the Office

President Obama has been taking some pretty serious hits for his appearance on Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis to promote enrollment of young people in the Affordable Care Act.

(For those who are as out of touch with popular culture as I am, this internet comedy production, hosted by Zach Galifianakis, mocks the typical TV celebrity interview with impertinent, sometimes hostile, and often irreverent questions to prominent guests.)

No one questions, so far as I can tell, the need for the President to reach a young adult audience: beyond the rationale that Americans of all ages need health care insurance coverage, it is crucial that young people sign-up for the Affordable Care Act to work economically. The insurance premiums young people pay for their relatively low need for health services offsets the more expensive treatment of older enrollees.

But critics fault the President for demeaning his office with his appearance on such a show.

The politically conservative talk show host Bill O’Reilly intoned that Abraham Lincoln would never have stooped so low. (Some of the President’s defenders might, in turn, question Mr. Obama on similar grounds for agreeing to be interviewed for a second time by Mr. O’Reilly before a Super Bowl game.)

Other opponents of the President, whether on substance or style, were not reluctant to voice similar criticisms about not upholding the “dignity of the office.”

And there’s divided opinion among the general population. The Huffington Post reports that 28% favored the President’s decision to appear, 33% opposed, and 38% weren’t sure. Another poll indicated that 39% of the public thought the President’s appearance was a “waste of time,” 25% thought it was an effective way to promote the health care website to young people,” and 36% weren’t sure.

Evidently it’s too early to determine if Mr. Obama’s appearance on the show accomplished the goal of having young adults actually sign-up for the ACA. But who can doubt that it succeeded in giving broad and intense visibility to the issue the President was (and is) promoting?

Jesus probably took similar heat and got similar visibility when he promoted his health plan in an unusual setting with a surprising interviewer. (see John 4: 1-42)

Jesus and his disciples were on their way back from Judea to Galilee but had to pass through the hostile territory of Samaria. They stopped in the city of Sychar for rest and nourishment. And while the disciples were off to buy food, Jesus sat by a well that had historic significance. It was the well associated, by name and tradition, with the patriarchs (father) Jacob and (son) Joseph.

During the period when the disciples were absent, a Samaritan woman came to that well for water. To her surprise, Jesus asked her for a drink of the water she was drawing. “How is that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” she asks. And the text tells us, parenthetically, that “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.”

What then occurs is an extended interview (the longest dialogue, in fact, between Jesus and another individual in all of the Gospels), in which Jesus not only displays his mysterious capacity to discern the actual condition of another person (the woman has had five husbands and she’s currently living with a man without the benefit of marriage) but also discusses how he, as more than a prophet but as the promised Messiah, is the source of a kind of water that never runs dry and from which one never again thirsts – a living water that gushes up to life eternal.

The Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well told Jesus that she wanted to sign up for his eternal health care plan.

When the disciples returned from their shopping excursion, they saw Jesus with the Samaritan woman and were astonished (although they kept their judgments to themselves).

The woman left – went back to the city – and excitedly told everyone she could find in that Samaritan city about what had happened to her and what she had learned about the living water that was available to them as the source of eternal life.

The Gospel tells us that, “They (everyone she told, we presume) left the city and were on their way to Jesus.” In the meantime, the disciples were trying to get Jesus to eat something, but he tells them that he has a food that they, his disciples, don’t know about, which has to do with feeding on the will and work of God. And, sure enough, the crowds came from the city to sign up.

Imagine the flack Jesus took for what he did and how he did it. Having an interview with a woman! A Samaritan woman at that! Out in public view! Promoting a health care plan for eternal life with everyone – even the enemies.

Surely, he was not upholding the dignity of his office.

President Obama, we’ve all learned, is no Messiah. And the health care plan for universal coverage he is promoting in unusual ways with weird interviewers pales in comparison with the genuine Messiah.

But if precedent is any guide, I don’t think we have to worry that he isn’t upholding the dignity of the office.

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