March 24, 2019: Giving Up Superiority – Lent 3 by Rev. Beth Hayward (John 4: 4-30)

“Us and them.” That is our biological inheritance. Our survival as a species was made possible by our fine-tuned ability to recognize threat and avoid it at all cost. Which is why it’s not the least bit surprising that the woman at that well is identified simply as Samaritan, different, other. We are wired to see the world as us and them, black and white AND Christ calls us to love anyway, to dare to press through this ingrained biology and live more deeply into a consciousness that transcends. The unnamed Samaritan woman reveals something about this transcendence.

When she returns to her village after the most extraordinary experience she says to the others “come and see.” Come and see someone who knows me inside and out, can he be the Messiah, she asks? It’s a strange paradox, this human need to be seen and known while at the same time, doing everything in our power to ensure we protect ourselves from really being seen. We want to be known, valued, and seen as unique and at the same time we go to great lengths to mitigate the risk of people seeing who we truly are.

One of the riskiest things I’ve ever done is keeping a journal. All through my teens and well into my twenties, I recorded my inmost thoughts and fears, my every success and regret. Though the volumes don’t contain anything that could convict me of a crime they do contain details that could blanket me under so many layers of shame I might never uncover. What if people knew, not just my inmost thoughts but my every action, the missteps, the bad choices, the betrayals, all of it. What would people think?

I am so glad that my journal writing has been replaced by social media posts, where I obligingly play by the unspoken rule of offering a polished version of myself to the world, not troubling anyone with the messy stuff below the surface. Likewise, I’d preach a sermon from a well-rehearsed text any day over having an unscripted conversation. Nicely protected behind my well-chosen words, no risk of people seeing the full complexity of the perfectly imperfect me. Please tell me you can relate!

The more we try to push down, hide, silence the missteps, the regrets the shame we’ve accumulated, the bigger it all becomes. It’s as if we take our bad deeds and poor choices, which are in and of themselves a tangled web of genetics, social circumstances, free will and external expectations, we take all of that and push it down until we become our deed. Think about it, what is the noun you fear most being used to describe you? If people really knew you, they’d understand why you can’t let go of the shame, why you aren’t truly worthy of your birthright identity as a child of God. Is it infidel? Traitor? Liar? Coward? Gossiper? Thief? Cheater? Imposter? Who is the you, that you’re hiding?

That day the Samaritan woman approached the well in the heat of the noonday sun; there were no pages, no screens, no masks to hide behind. She tried at first to protect herself by naming her otherness. She admits to being a Samaritan and a woman, two very good reasons for Jesus to not engage. Samaritans were seen as half Jews, half rate followers of the faith, to be loathed and feared. And being a woman, enough said. There was absolutely no social obligation for Jesus to acknowledge a woman in public. But he knows there’s more. He knows these are just the surface wounds, and he wastes no time going to her deepest wound. He reaches out and exposes the thing she has worked so hard to hide. “Go get your husband,” he says. He may as well have said: “I see you Whore.” Because that’s what she’d been named by her community, by biblical interpreters throughout time and most certainly by herself. 

Whether she is daughter, mother, friend it’s all overshadowed by this all-encompassing identity – Whore. We know she feels it. Why else would she go to fetch water in the heat of the day? The honourable women would have been long gone by then. To avoid their judging stares, she went to the well at noon. Jesus knew she had internalized the self-judgment and loathing. He knew too that she lived in a time when the system was set up for her to fail. Maybe she was married off young, maybe as each husband died her choices narrowed. Maybe it was a case of: be destitute of be whore. Shame is never simple, never black and white.

This is about so much more than a shamed-filled, unnamed woman confessing her sins. It is about being seen, truly seen, perhaps for the first time in her entire life. Being seen in the full complexity of her existence, physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually, seen as a person tied up in a system that shamed women and left her little choice, seen as one who had judged herself. In her own words he saw her inside and out.

As much as I love a good biblical story, the fact is this is nothing more than interesting narrative unless we uncover in it something relevant to our lives. Is there a truth here that can inform how our identity in the Christian tradition will be shaped? There are two things that matter here. The first is: we are not defined by what people say. You are not defined by your bad choices, your guilt, regret or failures. One negative noun can never define you. And the second thing that matters is community – we cannot be followers of Christ without community.

Let me explain. Something happens in this scene. This unnamed woman at the well has her heart broken open to the truth that she’s not defined by the labels imposed on her, not defined by what people say she is, or by what she’s done. When she realizes this about herself she knows it’s universally true. She sees that she is a child of God and if it’s true for her it must be true for others. From this place, an “us and them” mentality slips away, it’s transcended, it’s impossible to hold on to.

Think about how difficult it is for us to really embrace this sort of truth. Go back to your deepest secret, your “if they only knew” this thing about me. Can you entertain the idea that you are more than that noun? What about others? Can you get your head around the idea that no one is defined by one label? Our biological inheritance really wants to box people in. We want to categorize and determine where everyone fits in the scheme of things. It happened to my sister in law countless times in hospital before she died. The first thing people saw in her last years of life was alcoholic, not wife, sister, certainly not beloved child of God. And that noun, it impacted the care she received. We do it all the time: mentally ill, drug addict, racial minority. I appreciate that it’s easy enough for us to begin to see that these labels are too limiting. But some labels are harder to shake. What about murderer, terrorist, evil person? The temptation to explain much that happens in our world today is to label those who do terrible deeds as just evil, an aberration. But do we limit the capacity of humanity to evolve in our consciousness when we do this? I ask that with all seriousness knowing that we can’t answer that one easily.

As long as we keep labeling one another by our otherness or our worst deed, as long as we say she is whore, or he is adulterer, whatever it is, we strip people of their humanity and indeed their spirituality. Christ calls us to get real about who we are and to love anyway.

I want to move on to the second take away from this story: community. The moment it all comes together for her she drops her pail and goes running back to her community, to the people who no doubt named her whore in the first place. She invites them to come and see. I am not talking about returning to communities of abuse or violence. I’m talking about community being the place we test and practice being people see one another differently. Community is where we practice reminding one another that we are not defined by our shame our guilt, instead we are all expressions of divine love.

She brings back to her community this thing called living waters, and you don’t carry it in a bucket. The living waters of Christ flow when we are seen, fully known, flaws, regrets and all. Living waters enable us to loosen our grip on our evolutionary inheritance of us and them. Our oneness, begins to come into focus.

Living waters could also be named Christ consciousness, it’s like that thing that made Jesus the Messiah, that thing that made him fully human and fully divine, that thing that made him one with God, flowed right into the very heart of the woman. That thing that makes Jesus the Christ, is not stationary, it flows though us. She saw this and brought it back to her people. Living waters, Christ consciousness doesn’t offer us escape from the world, but entry into it, the whole mess of it. 

We gather in this way week in and week out to practice being people who are ever more open to the living waters of Christ in our midst. You might come to that awareness of the oneness of it all in the woods or through meditation, contemplation but it will always draw you back into the trenches of community where you see that the spiritual is not escape from the world but entry into it.

This following Jesus is risky business, and it does not provide immunity to the stuff that happens, to the labels that get thrown at us, but it does and it will and it can keep us in the noon day sun long enough to see a glimpse of the dazzling sparkle of living waters.

Will you dare to drop the bucket you’ve been using to carry around those shame filled nouns, to carry around the quick judgments you place on others? Will you dare to drop what you’ve been using to fill up that fear inside and run and tell the others that there is more, that we are more, that every one of us is an inheritor of the Christ’s living waters? When that starts to flow we lose our thirst to press others down so that we can feel buoyed up.

When you find yourself the recipient of living waters, you become a channel through which these waters flow. The world will call you crazy, say there isn’t enough living water to go ground, that you’ll run the well dry if you invite everyone to it. Invite them anyway. People will say you’re crazy, that there isn’t enough hope to go round in times like these, hope anyway. They’ll say the future is so uncertain you better stock pile your water and let the chips fall where they pay. Drop your pail anyway and run back to community to be reminded that living waters