Third Sunday of Lent March 19, 2017
Exodus 17, 3-7 + Psalm 95 + Roman 5, 1-2, 5-8 + John 4, 5-42
St Peter and St William Churches in Naples, FL
The woman in this story we know so well is suffering, and the suffering she experiences is shame. I believe that is why she comes to that well at mid-day. She needs to avoid the other women who would be coming there in the early morning or evening to avoid the mid-day heat. She’s there at the hottest time of the day. We have no details about why she has lived with so many men, but the cultural historians would tell us that she was probably a concubine which today we would describe as a sex slave. She is an object used for pleasure. Among women she would have been scorned and despised never knowing any respect or real human intimacy. Then one day, she meets Jesus Christ.
Shame is a sad and ugly secret that eats away at the human heart. It is different from guilt. Shame is a focus on self. Guilt is a focus on behavior. Guilt will say: “I’m sorry. I made a mistake.” Shame will say, “I am a mistake.” Left to itself, shame leads to narcissism, that constant unending effort to look good because you don’t think you are good. Shame is an epidemic in our culture. It keeps us apart, makes relationships shallow and temporary. Commitment is impossible because it inevitably means being vulnerable and transparent. It means someone will know about my shame. Then one day, she met Jesus Christ.
Shame needs three things to grow: secrecy, silence, and judgement. Given any amount of these three things, it will thrive and destroy. There is an antidote which this story tells us about. It is empathy. What will break through the secrecy, silence, and judgement is two powerful words: “Me too.” She met Jesus because she came to the well thirsty. He said to her: “Me too.” “Give me a drink.”
At that well, the secret of her life was laid bare. There was someone who knew everything she ever did. He did not call her names. He did not seem ashamed to be talking with her, and he spoke gently and with great respect. At that well, the silence was broken; the silence between God and a sinner living in shame and the Creator who had made that sinner good. At that well, there was not a hint of judgement. On the contrary, there was understanding and respect. Suddenly she was treated as a person with feelings, hopes, needs, and perhaps a future that was free of shame. Someone wanted something from her that did not leave her feeling like a toy or something to be tossed around, used, and abused. He wanted her faith. He wanted her trust in exchange for living water which in John’s Gospel is always a reminder of Baptism. He would take her shame upon himself and die naked on a cross so that she could go free and finally knowing that in God’s heart she was good.
In all of that conversation at the well, there are two words spoken that get to the heart of the matter: “If only.” Perhaps this weekend we need to hear them again and let them sink more deeply into our souls. If only we knew how much God cares for us and thirsts for us. If only we knew how the judgement of God is guided by mercy. If only we could believe that we are good we could begin to live daringly and boldly, joyfully and confidently in the sure hope that God knows there is more to us than how we look, how we dress, how smart we are, or how successful in business we have become.
At that well, someone was able to see into her secret being, into that part of her which longed for true love, which was pure and innocent, thirsting to be seen as a person and not as an object. She, like all of us is deeply wounded by broken relationships, broken promises, and broken dreams. It does not do us much good to be loved for being perfect. We need to be loved and accepted precisely as sinners. Only the person who has experienced this kind of love can know what it is. Being loved like that gives one surprising energy and courage. It puts us in touch with our true nature, and to touch our true nature is a kind of homecoming that brings us peace.