The Tendencies of Faith
Faith tends to do one of two things. Either our faith closes down possibilities and says, “the world must NOT be this way” OR Faith opens out, asks us to widen the aperture, deepen our engagement. Now, of course I am simplifying, but I believe Christianity in this country is facing a crisis precisely because it has overemphasized the first tendency, to close down, to tightly define. We need more faith which helps us to open our minds, to live deeply, to engage fully with life as we find it.
Faith can make us grumble about how things ares supposed to be. Our Gospel today invites us to the sort of faith that opens us.
Story of the Samaritan Woman
The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is one of the longest we read in the church year. So long, our deacon took a vacation and left it to the rector to read. John’s Gospel works in the land of metaphor. If you slow down, there is more going on in this story than may initially meet the eye. Let me illustrate by way of contrast.
John’s Gospel wants us to see the contrast between Nicodemus in chapter 3 and the Samaritan woman in chapter 4. We read this story of Nicodemus last week. I shared that our presiding bishop calls him “Nick at Night,” because he comes under the cover of darkness. The Samaritan woman comes in the full light of day. Nicodemus goes away quietly. Nicodemus is the patron saint of covert Christianity. He doesn’t want anyone to know he’s met Jesus. The woman goes and tells the people “come and see Jesus!”
Don’t Miss the Social Contrasts
Among all these contrasts, don’t miss the social contrast. Nicodemus was the ultimate insider in Jesus’ society, a member of the Sanhedrin, a teacher of the law. Nicodemus was as connected as a Jewish citizen of Jerusalem could be. To Jesus’ hearers the Samaritan woman is exactly the opposite. She is an outcast among the outcast. The Samaritans were outsiders religiously and culturally. As a woman, her gender is also a reason she is excluded by her culture. Additionally, we learn, this woman has a certain reputation. Five husbands. And yet, and yet, the Samaritan woman engages with Jesus like no one else has. She listens, she laughs, and she goes forth to tell the good news.
The feminist scholar Elizabeth Shüssler Fiorenza calls the Samaritan woman “the first Evangelist.” This story is crucial, the theologian says, for understanding exactly the sort of future Jesus imagines. Jesus’ message destroys all of our hierarchies. Jesus invites us to a different kind of faith, a faith which can open us to possibilities beyond our usual binaries, beyond the usual ways of understanding, a faith which can open us to see beyond the usual arrangements of power.
Who Speaks and Who Doesn’t
This Gospel story is long, with so many metaphors, but Episcopalians are used to twelve minute sermons, so I’m just going to focus in on one set of details. I want to notice who speaks and who doesn’t. Let’s take those in the opposite order, shall we?
The disciples return from their errand understandably concerned. But they choose not to speak. Remember, these disciples come from a religious system that was very concerned about purity. Theirs was a culture and a faith that had strict rules about how women behaved around men. Add to that, this is Jacob’s well. Jacob met Rachel, his beloved at a well. Wells are often associated with marriages in the Bible. Jacob met his wife at a well. Moses met his wife at a well. Watch out for women you meet at the well.
The disciples are concerned. Every fibre of their being balks. John even tells us what they think to themselves, “what do you want? or “Why are you talking with her?” But they don’t speak up. They’ve learned, as followers of Jesus, sometimes it is better to pause, to listen, to watch. Because they quiet their own prejudices, hey are able to hear words that haven’t yet been spoken by any of them, “truly this one is the savior of the world.” That last word matters. Here in Samaria, Jesus is proclaimed Messiah, and not just the anointed one of the Jewish people. Jesus is the savior of the world, the cosmos, the whole of creation. The disciples chose not to speak, and so were able to hear God’s expansive vision of salvation.
The one who surprises us with speaking is the Samaritan woman. Scholars have noted, despite Jesus’ naming her marital troubles, the woman does not utter a word of shame. She pokes fun at Jesus, “sir, you have no bucket, where are you going to draw water?” She also asks him theologically, “our ancestors worshiped God on this mountain, you and your people say it is necessary to worship in Jerusalem (a place where Samaritans didn’t go.)” Jesus responds, “God is spirit” (which could also be read ‘wind’ or ‘breath’), “it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth.” Her speech surprises not only because it lacks shame and fear (though given her situation, the lack of shame is remarkable). Her words are playful, curious, and hopeful. She models a faithful openness. She invites God to be God for her.
What words characterize your experience of faith? Are they words like judgement, strictness, control? Or could your faith be characterized with words like “playful, inquisitive, curious, intentional?”
Personal Story about Gender Expansiveness
I’ve preached a great deal about policy lately. Here in Missouri, as in many places across our country, our faith is being used to justify dangerous policy. Our fellow Christians hold their faith in a way designed to shut people down. The laws seek to enforce a narrow vision of how life should be lived on our neighbors, our kids,
Today though, I don’t want to talk policy. I want to talk personally. I remember the first time I met someone who identified as transgender. I was working as a lay college chaplain, not long after graduating from university myself. I was the first openly gay person to serve in this role, even among the Episcopalians. The LGBTQ+ center invited me to facilitate a group on spirituality. The first night, a young woman came and it was clear to me that her identity as a woman was new. For weeks, I had to quiet a voice inside me that said, “no!” Our society’s lessons about gender are strong, so strong that at times I was fighting an emotion I will call revulsion. I am not proud of my reaction, but somehow by the grace of God I didn’t speak my internal words aloud.
Over the weeks, I heard her story. As she talked, I felt so many resonances of my own coming out. She spoke about her sense, even as a young kid, that her body, the way her parents cut her hair, the clothes she was asked to wear, the games she was invited to play, they didn’t match who she knew herself to be. She talked about the freedom and grace she encountered when she got to college, and she was able to make these choices for herself, even to be known by a new name. As I listened, something in me eventually softened and opened. Some hardness formed by religion and society was able to relax. Harden not your hearts says the psalm.
A Faith that Helps us Laugh
I think far more of us people of faith need to learn to listen and relax. When I was in seminary, I didn’t make it downstairs to breakfast very often, because it takes me a little while to become fully human in the morning. But one random Tuesday, I happened to be in the cafeteria, listening to some dry analysis of Episcopal tradition for which it was entirely too early in the morning, when I heard a laugh I will never forget.
The lounge is attached to the dining hall, and the cackle emanated from beyond the big doors and echoed on the hard floor and plaster walls. I knew that laugh. I had heard it from pulpits and in television interviews. I had already finished eating, so I quickly put up my plate and made my way through the door.
Right there in front of me, smiling, taking photos with students, standing all of five feet five inches tall was the archbishop emeritus of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu. Despite the seminarians blocking his path tot breakfast, he was talking, listening, and laughing.
If you ever need a pick-me-up, do yourself a favor, type “Desmond Tutu laughing” into Google. There are dozens of videos, and you can’t help but smile.
On Ash Wednesday, I shared the measurement of faith from one of the Episcopal Church’s great voices, the black lay woman theologian Verna Dozier. She said, “don’t tell me what you believe. Show me how the world is different because of your belief.” By that measure, there was perhaps no one of greater faith in the last 50 years than Desmond Tutu. His faith won the Nobel Prize for peace. His faith helped end apartheid. His faith helped bring truth and reconciliation to his country. Desmond Tutu survived awful persecution, constant death threats. And yet this man of great faith today is remembered as much for his laugh as for his strength.
Faith tends to do one of two things. It can close us down or it can open us up. Christians are known too often for being closed. When you read a Gospel like today’s, you have to wonder why we think it’s our job to shut people down. After all, ours is a faith with the capacity to bring light, and curiosity, and hope. Ours is a faith which can help us see people whom we might have excluded and instead treat them as a fellow traveler, as friend. Ours is a faith which can help us to laugh and to listen. May your Lenten journey help you this year to quiet down, to pay attention, and especially to transform shame into laughter. Amen.
One thought on “Transform Shame into Laughter”
Thank you, Mike, for this take on today’s Gospel. Bishop Mathes was our priest today (Janine was away and the original sub was ill) and he preached a lovely sermon based on how the woman was not afraid to ask Jesus some pointed questions and how he answered her. I had a chance to talk with him a bit beforehand. It was really good to see and talk to him again.
He also did a really good job of chanting some of the Communion service. When I had a chance after church to say how impressed I was with his singing, being a long-time choir person, he noted that a few years of choral training at seminary really helped.. It was good to see him again.