Drawn into Community

Pastor Amy Starr Redwine, a pastor in Richmond, Virginia, tells a story about a class she took while a student at the seminary.  The class was called: Confession and Forgiveness from a Pastoral Perspective

Pastor Redwine wrote that the class was incredibly popular, and the 45 slots filled up as soon as registration opened.

On the first day of class, the professor began by asking his students, “What do you think this class is about?”  The most eager students quickly gave their answers: 

  • It’s about the importance of forgiveness for everyday people. 
  • It’s about God’s love for us.
  • It’s God’s grace given to us.
  • It’s about God’s assurance of forgiveness. 

The professor nodded at all the answers, and then walked to the chalkboard and wrote the word “shame.” 

Well, this was unexpected.  But the students were on board, that is, until the end of that first class, when the professor dropped a bombshell. The final exam would be something different, he told them.

Instead of a standard exam, each student would have to write a twenty-page, autobiographical essay about a personal experience of shame

The room was silent.  The professor dismissed class…and the students exited…without saying a word.  The next week, when the class met again, 1/3rd of the students had dropped the class.

That’s actually, not surprising.

What would you do if, right now, I asked you to turn to your neighbor and share a personal experience you’ve had with shame?  I’m guessing that if I did this (and I won’t), the room would get really tense, and you’d get really uncomfortable.

Shame is a hard emotion.  Shame is the feeling that “I am a mistake,” that something is fundamentally wrong with me, that I am deeply flawed in some unfixable way. Shame is what happens, when those feelings are exposed.

Why is it so hard for us to talk about our experiences of shame?  Well, maybe it’s because when we do…we are admitting our own imperfection; we admit that maybe we don’t feel worthy of being valued…of being loved…of being given the gift of grace.  

The Gospel story that is a part of our Lenten journey to the cross today/tonight is the story of the woman at the well.  Jesus approaches her and asks for water…in the process, breaking several social and religious taboos.  And then Jesus reveals that he knows her…in fact, he knows all about her…everything there is to know; the good, the bad, and the ugly.

We make a lot of assumptions about this woman when we hear this story.  Jesus identifies that she is has had several husbands…and the man she is with now is not her husband…which breaks a whole set of cultural norms and rules.  

So, we assume that she has made bad choices… we assume that her morals and ethics are questionable…and we assume that this woman must be ashamed…that this woman carries her shame as surely as she carries her water jar. And…maybe she does.  But is that really what the story about? 

Well, perhaps.  But it also may be about something else.  Maybe this story isn’t so much about the shame the woman carries.  Maybe instead, this story is really about how Jesus connects with her.  Maybe the primary storyline isn’t about her history, about what she has done…but rather is about what Jesus does.  Maybe it’s not about shame…maybe it’s about redemption…and community.

Today, as we navigate a time of profound division, politically, racially, socioeconomically, religiously, this story exposes the deeply human tendency to pass judgment and create boundaries that divide us from those we think of…as different

And this story teaches us how those judgements and divisions and boundaries might unravel if we see each other, the way that Jesus sees this woman…in fact, the way Jesus sees all of us…as human beings created by God, in God’s image, inherently valuable and worthy of love and respect. 

That is, I know, hard. Even a seemingly trivial difference can create major boundaries and mistrust between people. We see it every day.

Fortunately for us, Jesus fails to follow the culturally acceptable script. Instead of refusing to interact with the woman simply because she is a Samaritan and a woman, he engages her.  He speaks to her, he listens to her, he sees her as more than her labels. 

All of which allows her to see beyond the assumptions that she maybe had about Jesus, as both being Jewish, and a man.  As they talk, this Samaritan woman discovers that this tired and thirsty Jew is not just hanging out by a well waiting for someone to give him water. He is there to see her.

  • He knows her story, and her heart. 
  • He offers her water, but not the usual kind. 
  • He speaks about God in ways she has never heard before. 
  • Most remarkably, he is unafraid to talk with her, utterly unashamed by their encounter.

He welcomes the opportunity to engage her, to converse with her, in spite of the things that should divide them from each other. In the end, their conversation is the longest recorded conversation between Jesus and any other person in the New Testament. The woman goes home transformed, and inspired to share the good news of this strange encounter with her neighbors:

  • The news that there is more to this Jesus than meets the eye
  • The news that God might just be bigger than they thought, big enough, in fact, to hold together Jews and Samaritans and Gentiles and Romans and Methodists and  Lutherans and Baptists and Catholics and Muslims and Buddhists and black and white and native and immigrant and white collar, and blue collar, and even Democrat and Republican! 

Jesus demonstrates here that God can hold us togetherand if we are willing to engage one another beyond all that divides us, as Jesus did; as the Samaritan woman did, we will be transformed by God’s Spirit.

In her book Inspired, author Rachel Held Evans writes about understanding these Biblical stories as the Spirit-infused Word of God.  Evans writes: “With scripture, we’ve not been invited to an academic fraternity; we’ve been invited to a wrestling match. We’ve been invited to a dynamic, centuries-long conversation with God and God’s people that has been unfolding ever since, one story at a time.”

Near the end of the book, Evans retells the story of Jesus and the woman at the well.  Evans imagines the two of them, this unlikely pair, delighting in one another. Their conversation is playful, intelligent, and peppered with laughter.  And the woman leaves, refreshedrestored, and renewed by something more quenching and more life-giving than the usual water from a well.

The woman leaves inspired to go back to her city, to round up all the people whose differences have divided them from one another, to set a table and with bread and wine and flowers, and to draw them together.

And we can learn from this story as well.  Christianity is not a solo activity.  Jesus intends us to journey to the cross…but to do it together.  God created us for community.  And the things that divide us are not so huge, that Jesus cannot draw us into relationship.  Jesus does so out of love.  

Jesus is reminding us today, that to make our journey, we should let go of shame and judgment…we should see ourselves and each other as Jesus does…we should listen to each other…talk with each other…engage each other…and trust that God will hold us together…and when God does…like for the Samaritan woman…we trust that transformation will happen for us.  

Thanks be to God!


* Thanks to Pastor Amy Starr Redwine, of First Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, whose work influenced the direction and the content of this sermon.

One thought on “Drawn into Community

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s