Seen. Known. Loved.
The sacred story this week comes from John 4:1-30 - Read the full story of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well here
This is perhaps one of the most well-known stories of the bible and yet also one of the most misunderstood. The irony is that one of the things that keep us from understanding it, is a belief that we already know it so well. We piece together bits from here and there to make a full picture of these people and places, but inevitably there are still gaps. Our brain will automatically do its best fill in the gaps, but we may not end up with a true picture and we hardly ever go back later to revisit these ideas.
We do this often with people when we first meet them. We make idle chit chat to discover a few key details about them and then we kind of assume the rest, label them as this or that, and put them in a tidy box stored away in our minds. Democrat, republican, religious, non-religious, immigrant, racist, alcoholic, comedian, intellectual….We create stories that we think fits their whole being into a few lines - Oh, that person is the yoga-pants wearing diva who posts a lot of selfies, which we either view positively or negatively. Oh, that guy is a real estate agent who cares mostly about money and his fancy dog. That woman is of Samaria, and Jews have a stereotype of Samaritan women as sexually immoral.
Ultimately, our knowledge, even as we learn more and more about people and places, is limited.
Preachers and teachers will often highlight that in the eyes of a Jew, this Samaritan Woman is a racial and ethnic outcast, but they are really more like estranged family. Samaritans and Jews are both descendants of the tribes of Israel, they come from the same family, the same tradition - but one settled in the north, the other in the south, and then centuries of history were geographically separated and would become ideologically separated, left to scapegoat one another and argue as to who is the most “true” or “right.”
These divisions among people festered until winning the argument became more important than the humanity of a neighbor. Sound familiar? Or maybe you’re not on facebook?
I wonder….were they more motivated by passionate belief or by the fear that if they speak or act against the ”norm” or the company line, then they might find themselves cast out and alienated too?
We are prone to see people as one-dimensional caricatures and develop a story of character flaws that justify our fear and ostracism. When Jesus reveals the knowledge that this woman has had multiple husbands, the story in our heads that say Samaritans are the bad ones, the “others” comes to life and suggests that this woman must be sexually immoral, and therefore Jesus is gracious to overlook her depravity and still welcome her.
BUT, in a historical world where women would not have been free to divorce their husbands and an adulterer probably would have been stoned long before husband #5...the more likely scenario is that this woman was abandoned by her husbands...possibly because of infertility. The stigma leaves her outside the regular rhythms of mainstream society, where the women would go together to get water in the cool of the morning hours, leaving her to come alone in the heat of midday. She is reduced by society to this caricature of a person who is not welcome.
This separation is created not by the soul, but by culture - by the world we create.
But...liberation is coming. A fuller story is being unearthed as Jesus and the woman go back and forth, seeking to understand the other. Libration arrives as the woman comes out to share how this Jesus truly knows her - not as a one-dimensional character, but everything she has ever done, all that she has ever been, with all her flaws and triumphs. It comes when she realizes that she is known, fully and completely by God, and that God loves her and invites her to drink of the well of life exactly as she is.
I’ve seen the power in this proclamation just this past weekend. As my bishop and I and several other colleagues went to the Houston Pride Festival grounds to offer a blessing for anyone who wanted. We stood there, somewhat awkwardly in our black clerical shirts, hoping someone would talk to us. Some people stood at a distance, looking at us suspiciously. What kind of blessing were we offering exactly? One person asked and I said we were simply there to remind people that they are beautiful and beloved by God. Some people declined a blessing but rushed up to hug us just for being there. Others excitedly took pictures with us. But when someone expressed a desire for blessing we looked into their eyes and said something like this:
“The church has often rejected, shamed, vilified, and demonized the LGBTQI community and its allies, and has actively worked to deny you God’s all encompassing love. As a representative of the church, I apologize for the pain and harm that have been caused by the church, its people, or any of its expressions. And I lament that with you.
Beautiful child of God, created in God’s image, always remember that you are loved, affirmed, and celebrated by God for the amazing fabulous person you are! I’m so glad you’re here. Have a fantastic Pride!”
This expression of being known and loved by God (and the church) made people’s chins quiver with emotion and brought tears to the eyes of those being blessed and those offering the blessing. It was powerful.
God transcends the walls we build between each other, transcends even the walls we build between ourselves and the world. God sees behind the masks we wear as a means to survive and get by.
This way of life, of being misunderstood, mislabeled, misgendered, misrepresented, of rejection and fighting, of trying to carry the weight of the world with a brave face...is spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, and physically...exhausting. It leaves us thirsty, hungry. Jesus releases us from our hiding places and quenches the longing of our soul. Since this is Pride weekend, I can’t help but notice the connection between Pride and this sacred liberation. Pride is a time when children of God who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex are especially free to be out in the open, unhidden, seen and known, and loved, and celebrated for who they are. It is like a holy day of jubilee for the LGBTQI community.
This is not the story of a sordid outsider being graciously tolerated. It is not a story of Jesus stooping low to welcome someone who is somehow more unworthy than others. It is a story of the good news of being seen, of not having to hide, of being known, invited to participate with God, being divinely loved, and then sent to share your sacred story.
Jesus shuts down the binary that leaves us chasing our tails about who’s in or out. While there is an inevitable limit to what we can know and understand of ourselves, each other, and the world... there is no limit to God’s knowledge of us. And with that knowledge, God still loves us, cherishes us, nourishes us, and invites us in. Amen.