Between the Samaritan woman’s five husbands and the unnamed man’s blindness, sin and shame bounce around, defining these people. The woman was pushed to the margins of her community either by her neighbors or by her own inclination to avoid explanations. The man also was marginalized because his blindness was thought to be a punishment for sin, his or his parents’. They were set apart from the rest of their communities, not for holiness, but as the result of perceived sin and the shame associated with it.
I have a vivid memory of myself at 16 sitting on a hospital bed in Boston Children’s Hospital’s adolescent psych unit. Something had happened and I was upset to the point of tears which was unusual for me at that time. The mental health worker talking with me tried to tell me that things would work out. I would have none of it. I said, “No! You don’t understand! This is going to be all anyone knows about me forever!” The funny part is, I have no idea what that was about. I simply don’t remember. But in that moment, whatever thing had happened, I was sure it was going to be a part of my identity for the rest of my life.
Of course, this is not atypical thinking for an adolescent. But it is deeper than that, too. Shame often has a powerful voice in our lives. There have been many times when I’ve felt compelled to keep things in my life a secret, partly from shame and partly to avoid judgement. At 16 I thought I’d be defined by having an eating disorder or something related. At 19 when I was diagnosed with a learning disability, I felt the same way; it would define me forever. Then again when I was raped by someone I knew, I didn’t want to tell anyone (and didn’t for several years) because I didn’t want to be known as the “girl who’d been raped.” When I got divorced, I was sure that people would only think about me being the pastor who was divorced. Later, when I came out, I felt like that was all anyone would ever think about me when they found out. And the list goes on. But never on this list of “defining attributes” was there a single positive thing.
Why is that? The Samaritan woman could have been a fabulous cook or a healer or a mother or someone’s best friend or a singer. Instead she was known as the woman who had had five husbands and one more who wasn’t her husband; she was a sinner through and through. The man who had been born blind could have been a musician or a poet or a father or a brother or a mentor. Instead he was known as the blind man who sat begging in a particular place every day; he was marked by sin. I wonder how they thought of themselves. Did they hold the judgments of society against themselves? Were they burdened by shame?
As for myself, I have been the recipient of social judgments. I’ve heard the whispers and the not so quiet voices naming me as undesirable because I’ve been divorced twice. Because I’m a woman who is an ordained minister. Because I am bisexual. Because I have a history that includes treatment for an eating disorder and depression. I’ve been ignored and dismissed because of who I am and where I’ve come from. It’s painful and it’s ugly. As a result, I so identify with the marginalized folks of scripture – the Samaritan woman and the man born blind, especially.
I can easily get lost in the powerful grip of shame that has dominated my sense of self in the past. However, there’s more to these stories. We can’t forget that sin wasn’t the point. We can’t forget that Jesus met these people in the midst of their sin and shame. Not only did he meet them right where they were, he redefined them. The Samaritan woman went from outcast to evangelist as Living Water restored her. The man born blind went from blind beggar to sighted worshiper as he washed away the mud Jesus used to open his eyes. Both moved from the margins of society into the center of community. No shame can hide from the light of Christ and sin doesn’t stand a chance when Living Water is drawn up out of the well.
When I think of my own brokenness in the context of these stories I can’t help but see the transformation Christ has worked in my life. These things that I felt shame over, that I feared defined me in my own eyes or in the eyes of others, haven’t had power in my life for a long time. I’ve gone from a shy, fearful child into an outspoken, fearless adult. While I still struggle from time to time with the wounds from my childhood, they do not define me. On good days, I believe the Love that transformed the Samaritan woman and the man born blind, flows through me. On hard days, I ask God to meet me where I am and let Love be evident in my life. I know I am not the only one who has encountered Christ and been changed.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we stop defining ourselves and each other by sin and shame and the judgement of others and started defining ourselves and everyone else by Love? Maybe then we would see with the eyes of Christ…
RCL – Year A – Fourth Sunday of Lent – March 26, 2017
1 Samuel 16:1-13