“Unraveling Shame”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
2 August, 2020
Sermon 8 of 12 in the “Unraveled” Series
John 4:1-29

People have asked why I waited until noontime to fetch my water for the day, when the custom for sensible people was to go in the first hours of the morning?  It’s not that I loved walking in the driving heat, with the sun directly overhead.  It’s just that that was less uncomfortable than being avoided by the other women, who always go in the cooler waking hours of the day.  I simply couldn’t take the awkward way they avoided my gaze and my very presence—either speeding up or slowing down just enough to make it impossible to have to acknowledge me, much less have an actual conversation.

I know that some of them feared “catching” whatever it was that I had, that made me somehow incapable of keeping a husband for long.  As the Messiah said that day, I’d had five husbands, and the man I was living with when Jesus spoke to me was not my husband.

Small imaginations, scandal-loving storytellers, and many male preachers have not been very charitable to me over the years, assuming the only reason I’d have had that many husbands was because I was obviously the problem.  Why is it that women are so easily assumed to be temptresses and the relationship troublemakers?  To listen to some preachers even in the 21st century, they’d have you convinced I was a harlot, an unfaithful adulteress, or at best, a “challenging personality.”

It couldn’t possibly be the case that I just had an unfortunate habit of trusting cruel, selfish men, could it?  Men who got rid of me when I didn’t conceive quickly?  Men who used me for what they wanted, and then—because it was only the men who were legally allowed to divorce, and for any little reason they pleased—they abandoned me to my own defenselessness?

Or, did anyone ever think it might be possible that I’d have married older men because I’m a natural care-giver—and the only way for me to appropriately provide live-in care for the sickly gentlemen was to marry them, even for the short time they had left?  Or, did it occur to anyone that maybe something about the way I looked, or something a man in my family had done, meant that the only way I had any hope of gaining any sort of security for my own life with that burden was to wed an older man who needed my willingness and nursing abilities?  Imagine nursing and loving a series of men with hopes of restoring them to health, and each of them dying despite my best efforts.  And then being blamed and despised for it.  Tell me: why aren’t any of these possibilities that immediately occur to the people who are so quick to judge me?

Forgive me.  It’s hard not to get defensive, and sometimes a little bit snarky.  Shame does that to a person.  It also makes us do weird things like going into a state of denial—creating endless distractions for ourselves (and, we hope, others), pretending like certain things aren’t true, even insisting some things never happened, when everyone around you knows they did or they are.  But it’s how we protect our ego, our psyche; if we’re not acting out violently or blaming others for every last thing in our world that goes wrong, denial is a pretty common survival technique for those of us who live with shame.

All of that is to say, it’s easier to rearrange one’s schedule and go for water in the noonday heat, pretending there were many other essential things keeping us from fetching it earlier, than it is to deal with the shame head-on.

I certainly didn’t expect to meet anyone there that day.  Absolutely didn’t expect a chat of any sort.  And never, in a million years, would I have dreamt that a Jewish man—a rabbi, no less—would speak to me!  After all, I am a Samaritan.  What is a Jew doing in Samaria apart from trying to get through this territory as fast as possible?  I mean, we are related—we’re all children of Abraham and Sarah, descendants of Jacob.  But we believe different things about the Scriptures.  I’m not actually sure I understand all the reasons for the hatred between us … I just know that it’s generations deep, and the scorn is mutual.  So, imagine my surprise when this confounding man asks me—a woman, a Samaritan woman, doubly unclean by their rulebook—for a drink!

But, like I said, I’m a caretaker.  He was thirsty, it was hot, he’d obviously been traveling, the well was deep, and he didn’t have anything to scoop the water with.  He’d obviously been there a while and no one else was in sight.  I couldn’t just ignore him like a lot of other, more powerful or self-possessed women in the village would have done.

He asked me for a drink.  I pointed out that he was asking a favor of a cultural and religious enemy.  At which point, he suggested that if I knew God, and if I knew who he was, I would have requested his living water.  Livingwater!?  Well, I never . . . what was this living water, and if he was asking me to fetch him a drink from Jacob’s well, how on earth did he think he was going to give me a drink from some other source when I was the only one nearby with a vessel?

Well, let me tell you: living water is the best, most mysterious, most miraculous thirst quencher ever!!  It’s not liquid, though believe you me, you can be thoroughly baptized in it.  And the only vessel you need to receive it is your heart.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let me tell you what else happened.

I need to back up a step.  You see, when Jesus first asked me for a drink, that was the foretaste of his living water.  I didn’t know it or see it or understand it just then.  But in his very act of speaking to me in spite of all the social taboos, he was sharing a bit of the eternal life he alluded to.  And the faucet began to flow when I answered him and he didn’t rebuff me or rebuke me for speaking back to him instead of silently obeying him: he saw me, engaged me as a fellow human being, worthy of equal dignity and respect.  He treated me as one with a mind and a heart that was capable of comprehending things, even mysterious things.  He told me about this living water he wanted me to try.  “Everyone who drinks of this water,” he said, gesturing toward Jacob’s well, “they will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”[1]

He was completely unraveling all my assumptions about Jewish men.  And about life, and about water!  Of courseI wanted some of this living water!  “Sir, please, I’d love some…” I said to him.

What he did next floored me.  Talk about unraveling.  He effectively shredded the whole carefully-constructed veil I’d established like a wall between me and the rest of the world.  “Go,” he instructed me, “call your husband, and come back.”

You’ve heard it said that water always finds the lowest point?  Well, it turns out, living water finds its way to yourlowest point.  The living water offered by Jesus will find your lowest point—it’ll flow right to the source of your deepest shame, that all-consuming wound you keep trying to hide from yourself and the rest of the world.  That thing you spend so much energy trying to heal through insufficient means: relationships, religiosity, job promotions, more graduate degrees, more possessions, more therapy, more exercise, trying to get your parents to notice or love you more…there are a bazillion things and ways we try to substitute for God, a million ways we try to make sure our damage isn’t seen by others.[2]

But, friend, I’m here to tell you: Jesus saw my damage, and he loved me anyways.  He wanted me to have that living water—and he wants you to, too!

“Go call your husband,” Jesus told me, “and come back.”  There was no way to hide.  “I don’t have a husband,” I told him, feeling my defenses fly up as I moved away and began to turn without my jar and without any water, living or otherwise.

“You’re right, you don’t,” this miracle-worker said as my thirst-quenching started happening; “What you say is true.”  And he continued to speak to me without judgment, but instead with pure love for who I am—with all my pains, all my failures, all my good choices, habits, and activities, and all my bad ones.  He truly saw me, and accepted me for all that I am.  He understood me, he knew me, and loved me as I truly am.  And in a way I hadn’t ever seen myself before!  It was divine.  He helped me to see myself as a whole being—with vulnerabilities, and with amazing potential.  And, as I continued to spend time with him, I suddenly recognized what he already knew: that my greatest wound, that source of my deep shame, is one of my greatest gifts, my greatest teacher.[3]  I’d spent so many years and so much time desperately trying to hide that vulnerability from myself and from the rest of the world.  But I don’t have to anymore!  He saw it, saw me, and loved me nonetheless!

I never realized how spiritually thirsty I had become in my anxious hiding and searching and denying and rearranging.  I never realized how thirsty my shame—my deep, unshakable fear of being disconnected, rejected, not good enough, unloved, unlovable—I never realized how thirsty my shame made me for living water.  But, praise Jesus, it found me.  It saved me.  That living water made its way to my depths, and quenched my thirst in a way no amount of money or esteem or romance or noble endeavors in this world ever can.

This is how seen you are by God, good people—how loved and understood, how known and accepted you are: Whatever the lowest point of you is, whatever is your deep shame, your most damaged part, or your vilest sin … whatever part of you you’ve been trying to hide from yourself, or from the rest of the world because you’re so afraid it will completely unravel you and the world’s impression of you: the living water of Christ’s compassion will find it … has already found it[4] —and has redeemed it.  As Jesus loved to say, don’t be afraid.  Believe in him, and in God’s infinite love for you.

And as evidence of this, you—your whole self, not just the tidy parts—are invited by Christ Jesus himself, to join in the celebration of holy communion with all of us who are broken, but made whole by the gift of Christ’s living water.  Let’s all drink deeply of this living water as we gather round the welcome table of forgiveness and release.[5]  Hallelujah!  Amen.

[1] John 4:13-14.

[2] Thanks to Nadia Bolz-Weber for this illustration and interpretation in: “Wounds and Wells; A Sermon on the Samaritan Woman.” Nadia Bolz-Weber. Published on Patheos. March 21, 2017.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Thanks again, Nadia Bolz-Weber, for your excellent sermon! (Ibid.)

[5] An allusion to Michael Card’s song, “Come to the Table”.

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC