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Monday, March 20, 2017
Through Honesty and Vulnerability
A Sermon on John 4:5-42 and Romans 5:1-11
By Griff Martin
On the Third Sunday of Lent
For the People of First Austin: a baptist community of faith
March 19, 2017
Incarnate God, we ask that you once again take the Word and transform it into a living and breathing reality we can all together experience. Be present here in this space and in these words God for if you are present here then nothing else will matter, but if you are not present here then nothing else will matter. In the name of the Creator, the Christ and the Comforter.
Reading the text this week I immediately thought I knew where the sermon would go and I believed it would write itself… I mean look at the ingredients: Jesus crossing geographical borders, erasing religious barrariers, breaking cultural norms, paying no attention to gender binaries and risking racial lines. This sermon is our phrase, all people- all people- all people. And God knows the world needs this message today.
But I could not make that sermon land, it had all the right ingredients but it was still missing something. And then I had to confess something I have been feeling here for the last few weeks, each time I have uttered our sacred confession of all people- all people- all people, our sacred calling. I keep thinking: we are almost there, but not yet.
And there is a question that plagues me: as a people who welcome all people, who say that everyone belongs, who fight for all to have a seat at the table, are we ourselves bringing all of us to the table? Because that might be a privilege we need to face: in welcoming all to the table and yet refusing to bring all of ourself to the same table.
And my soul would not rest, it kept searching and then on another short, catchy phrase (although this one far from sacred): “Secrets, secrets are no funny…. Secrets, secrets hurt someone.” It’s a rhyme most of us were taught as children when we were caught telling secrets about one of our friends, however while we were being taught that, we were also receiving another important lesson: you don’t tell your friends secrets and you don’t tell your own secrets either. As children the world readily teaches us that there are things about us that don’t quite fit in, that are not normal, that don’t look like everyone else and the world tells us that those things are supposed to be hidden away, those are your secrets.
You don’t tell someone else’s secrets and you don’t tell your own secrets.
And the latter part about not telling our own secrets is a lie and it is destroying us. Our secrets cause division in our relationships with friends and family and even in our own souls. Our secrets cause us distrust because we are constantly thinking, “yeah but would that person love me if they knew….” Our secrets create powerful miscommunications in our own soul, largely resulting in guilt and doubt. Our secrets freeze us at crucial moments in our development, we start hiding things and we stop growing.
And the worst part about it is that keeping our secrets simply does not work. It’s formal name is the Ironic Processing Theory but it’s widely known as the white bear problem. It’s Foyder Dostoevsky who wrote, “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, do so and you will see that cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” When we are actively trying not to think of something, say something that causes us anxiety or turmoil, the truth is by trying not to think of it, we actually think of it more often. In other words our secrets don’t let go of us not matter how hard we try to hide them.
The artist Frank Warren understood this well, which is why in 2004 he decided to host an art exhibit where at several local coffee shops he left postcards with instructions that people could use the postcard to write a secret they were keeping and have never told a soul, he was going to create an art exhibit using these secrets. He was shocked by the results, not only did he receive many more postcards than he anticipated, the postcards themselves were art. Folks spent time decorating and creating a piece that told their truth, their secrets. And the postcards kept coming, this is still an ongoing collection with new secrets published weekly on his blog, postcards that read like this:
I wish transgender was something understood and discussed 50 years ago. I’m pretty sure I’d be much happier today.
I’ve become the person I hated in high school.
I don’t believe in God anymore.
I remember each time someone called me fat.
Today I realized that I had to stop hoping you were in love with me. It hurts like hell.
I post nude photos online because it affirms my confidence about my body.
I wish I had a person to talk to, to calm me down and tell me it’s going to be okay instead of sprinting to the medicine cabinet and taking a Xanax.
I had an affair, we stopped before we got caught and I miss her.
When things go well for me, I wreck my life.
I want to be an artist.
I almost killed myself four year ago.
I feel like a hostage to the decision I made.
I know the truth to the lie my parents tell me….
No one really knows me…
This week I’ve been wondering what the Samaritan woman at the well’s postcard would have read.
I am pretty sure I know what it would not have read. I don’t think it would have said “I am a Samaritan woman.” For starters I think that was obvious, that is no secret for her. She is a Samaritan living in Samaritan territory and she knows that for some people this makes her detestable. And she knows that she is a woman and for her entire life she has heard that women have a lower status than men. This is not news to her, this is the unfair reality she lives in every day. I hear it in her voice when Jesus speaks to her the first time and she turns to him and boldly asks, “Why are you a Jewish man talking to me a Samaritan woman?” Being a Samaritan woman is not her secret.
And I am pretty sure her secret has nothing to do with her having a questionable reputation, even though we love to put that label on her. Just listen to how one popular pastor describes her in his sermon on the Samaritan woman, “a worldly and sensually minded, unspiritual harlot” and then later on in that sermon he will simply call her a whore… and just to clear none of this has any biblical foundation, it’s pure male hierarchy and misogyny, to just assume this woman is a prostitute or immoral in any way. This is not her secret and the fact we love to label her as so probably has way more to do with our secret than hers.
So if her secret has nothing to do with her sexuality or her ethnicity or her gender, what is her secret?
My guess is that her secret has something to do with the fact that she is walking to the well in the middle of the day when everyone else is at home resting. My guess is her secret has something to do with the fact she has found a way to be alone at the well. My guess is that her secret has to do with the fact that at least five times in her life she has had her heart broken, maybe through divorce or betrayal or maybe through death, but five times she has been in a relationship that did not end in happily ever after. My guess is that her secret has to do with the fact that the man she is living with right now is probably someone she is related to, someone who took her in when no one else would and she is treated like property. My guess is that her secret has to do with the fact that no one else in town wants anything to do with her.
So I think her secret would read something like:
I have to go to the well alone every day because it’s easier to be alone than to have people whispering about me in front of me.
I would rather be lonely than pitied or mocked.
No one gets me.
I am unlucky in love, five times it has not worked and currently I live with a man who treats me like a servant.
My heart is so broken I don’t think it can ever be fixed again.
No one even knows my name, I am just that woman at the well.
Her secrets are real and they hurt. This is a woman who has been wounded by life. This is a woman who no one understands and she carries all her secrets inside because the last thing she needs in life is one more person to let her down.
And then she encounters Jesus at the well. This man who must be a prophet because he not only sees her, he knows her. He can tell her things about her life that he should not know, but yet it does. And somehow in knowing her secrets, he loves her. There is something freeing about him. There is something true. There is something that she wants more of in her life.
She is finally known and in being known, she is loved. Her whole story is finally told and once that happens she is finally free.
Brene Brown has done some incredible work about this issue of secrets and shame, honesty and vulnerability. She points out that everything we believe about perfection and fitting a mold is a lie. There is no mold and the concept of perfection is manmade and not an accurate standard. After years of brilliant research she says we all suffer from insecurity issues and feeling unworthy and being unable to measure up to the standards of success our world have falsely created, in other words, we all carry secrets. After studying people she has found those who live most fully, those who live whole heartedly are those who believe this, “Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and afraid, but that does not change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.” Those who live the best lives, she says, are those who hold nothing back.
Brene Brown has discovered the key to living life well is to have the courage “to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.” To tell the whole story and not hold anything back.
Which brings me to my favorite line in this text, which is hard to pick because this text is so amazingly rich and everything we need to know about Jesus is contained in this text. However my favorite line is this: “Many Samaritans from the city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’” Don’t miss that line, this woman who begins the story by walking to the well at noon so that she is alone and does not have to be seen is suddenly running back to the village, to the crowded places and telling everyone everything, shouting at the top of her lungs: “Come and see…”
There are no more secrets… “Come and see this man who told me everything I have ever done and he loved me anyway...” “Come and see this man who knows the darkest corners of your heart and loves you anyway…” “Come and see this man who will know your whole story and in doing so will make you whole once again…”
She has finally found that place that Paul later describes in the lectionary text from the Epistle today: “We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand—out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.”
You see once she is freed from her secrets she can finally be who God intended her to be. Once she tells her whole story she can move into the greater story. Her secrets are exposed and what she finds is not shame, but instead acceptance, healing, grace, mercy, forgiveness and love (most of all love).
You see there is a deep truth: your very scars might be your very salvation and telling your secrets might be the only way to freedom and your scars might be my salvation and your secrets might help me find freedom. Sharing our brokenness might lead us to healing because God knows that our keeping it hidden is not healing us.
To use Anita’s words from her testimony earlier this morning: “it’s not simply feeling vulnerable, it’s choosing vulnerability by choosing to share all of the journey.”
Leonard Bernstein wrote a beautiful opera simply titled, Mass. It was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy and was one of the first works featured in the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The narrative of the work largely follows a Catholic mass and allows all the performers to explain their own faith story, struggles and doubts. The climax of the opera features a human pyramid with a priest on top dressed in clerical best and holding a chalice and loaf of bread. The human pyramid slowly crumbles and in doing so the priest’s robe is ripped off to reveal a man in blue jeans and a t-shirt, the bread is torn and the chalice falls to the floor breaking into pieces.
The opera concludes with the priest holding up a piece of the broken glass and simply saying: “I never realized that broken glass could shine so brightly.”
That may be our journey as well.
The light breaks in when we begin refusing to hide ourselves anymore, but instead allow ourselves to be fully seen and to share all of us, telling our story with our whole heart, being known and being loved and going running into crowds of people shouting, “This is me and let me tell you my story because as I tell you my story I am going to introduce you to the one who can save you.”
You see all people mean bringing al of ourself to the table.
The light gets in through honesty.
“Come and see…”
_ _ _
We lost a brilliant soul this week, Derek Walcott, one of the world’s great poets. Yesterday I was reading through one of his collections and I came across one of my favorite, and one of his most well known. It seems so fitting for this Sunday. It’s “Love After Love” and it could very well be the words of the Woman who lead us to the Well this morning. May these words be our benediction:
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
*artwork: Broken Vessel, by Dan Christopher, danchristopher.deviantart.com