A reflection on the readings for Lent 3A: John 4:5-42, the woman at the well…
A couple of weeks ago I spoke about my mischievous brothers and in contrast my effort to be the perfect child. Then, I really believed that if I tried hard enough I could be perfect. I mentioned how much therapy I needed as an adult to understand my motives and accept my imperfect self. So it’s no wonder that I am drawn to Brene Brown’s book, “The Gift of Imperfection.” Brene Brown is a researcher and TED recipient and a widely popular author.
Brown’s premise is that everyone feels shame. She defines shame as feeling bad about who we are. Guilt is feeling bad about something we have done; shame is how we see ourselves. Shame is foundational and universal, every human being feels shame. It turns out that efforts to be perfect are a mask covering up the areas of our lives for which we feel shameful. Perfectionism is an effort to deny the story of our lives and our authentic selves.
Embracing our story and being willing to share that story with some, not all but some key people, is the way we learn to see our shame for what it is and move past it, embracing a sense of self that is bigger, fuller, more authentic, less broken, more loving, and more compassionate. We all have broken pieces of our selves, and sharing the how and where of our brokenness with people who are good listeners and compassionate, helps to heal us and make us more whole.
I was raised by a mother who was physically and psychologically abused as a child. As a result she struggled all her life with depression. Between the time I was in fourth and sixth grade I remember her sleeping a lot, spending most of every day and night in bed. Eventually she got help and rallied forth and became a relatively high functioning parent, but she remained challenged by depression and mental illness her entire life. My mother was beautiful, incredibly intelligent and funny, and sadly, badly broken.
My father is an alcoholic, who now that his disease has progressed as far as it has, makes little effort to be in relationship with his kids. He still manages his properties in Utah but otherwise lives a low key life. When I am in Salt Lake City we have great conversations and enjoy one another’s company. Although we know he loves us, it is clear to my brothers and I that his primary relationship is with alcohol.
This reality of my family life, dysfunctional and broken as it was, filled me with shame. Brene Brown writes that shame is the swampland of the soul. Shame bogs us down. Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. Shame is that prickly warm feeling that washes over us, making us feel small, flawed, and never good enough. Shame is the fear of being unlovable.
I pretended for years that my parents and my family were different that they were. But as I became a wife and mother and raised kids of my own I had to face the reality of my childhood family in order that I could become a healthier person, wife, and mother to my own family. It has taken me years, and much hard work, but learning how to own my story has eased my burden of shame. Learning how to own my story has enabled me to love my broken parents, despite my own grief that they were not and are not the kind of parents I wish they were. I still get caught by shame, but I am better equipped to move through it. Now, I rarely counter shame by trying to be perfect, although I still have to work at balancing this.
In a similar way the Samaritan woman in the story from the Gospel of John this morning gives us a portrait of a woman who lives with shame. In the text she has no name, she’s a nobody. Over the years preachers have described this woman as sinful because of the reference to five husbands and a now one who is not her husband. But the text does not actually use the word sin. Jesus does not address her as sinful. Instead Jesus exposes her true self and invites her to look deeper into who she is so she can own her story.
Her shame comes from the reality that her life did not turn out as she had hoped. As a woman in that day and time she had no choice regarding who her husband was. If one husband died a brother or another male family member of that husband was obligated to take her as his wife, but sometimes no one would do that and the woman was left alone and marginalized, left to starve and die.
This is not a story about a sinful woman, but a woman who has been beaten down by life circumstances, vulnerable, and yet she has survived. Her ability to enter into a debate with Jesus speaks to her strength that has come from having nothing else to lose.
Brene Brown writes that embracing our vulnerability is risky and takes courage. “The root of the word courage is cor—the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.”’
And so this woman and Jesus have a heart to heart conversation. This is the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the Bible.
This story takes place at Jacob’s well which is an ancient spiritual place in the book of Genesis. That this story takes place at Jacob’s well points us to some deep truths conveyed in the Biblical stories of the human struggle with life and faith. Many of the stories about God and people contain images of water, symbolizing God’s love. Likewise, this water, bubbling up through the rocks in our baptismal font symbolizes God’s love bubbling up in our lives. The image of water conveys God’s desire to quench our thirst and alleviate the dry barren state of our souls. Free flowing water restores the swamp land of our souls.
Perhaps the most important detail of this story is that the woman leaves her water jar at the well when she runs off to tell the townspeople about her encounter with Jesus. She no longer needs to carry that burden, that heavy jar of shame. Now she is the vessel of living water, she is bearer of God’s love. Being heard and seen by Jesus she in now able to authentically carry within her the fullness of her story, knowing that she is loved for being who she is.
In the context of this profound conversation Jesus reveals that God’s love, freely offered to her, is also intended for everyone.
We are loved exactly as we are, in all our brokenness, in and through the secret areas of our own personal shame, in and through the ways we fail to see ourselves as loveable.
I am loved. You are loved.
And, not only are we loved. But we are worthy of this love.
Embrace who you are, as the vessel that carries God’s love into the world.
You are worthy of God’s love.
I am worthy.
We are loved.