No Shame in Our Stories


A sermon on John 4:5-42

[for an audio recording of this sermon, please click here.]

Please (mentally) raise your hand if you have heard the story of the Woman at the Well before today.

OK. Please keep your hand up if you have ever heard her story told as a story of shame – the story of a woman “with a past,” or of a “fallen woman,” or if you have been taught that this story teaches us about God’s grace, because Jesus could forgive even her.

(You can put your hands down now)

Whether or not you have ever heard this woman’s character maligned, it is unfortunately true that reading shame into this woman’s story is a dangerously common preaching move. Traditionally, preachers have looked at one biographical detail of this woman life: the fact of her having had 5 husbands, and now “having” someone who is not her husband (whatever that means), and they have labeled her a scarlet woman.

And, from one perspective, it makes sense. It’s such an easy way to find a simple, clear gospel message in the story: Jesus shares a message of eternal life with a sinner, so we – who are sinners – can find hope as well.

But there are some big problems with this reading.

The first is its unfairness.

A woman in the given context had very little power when it came to marriage. Men could divorce their wives, but not the opposite. So, whether she lost her husbands to death or to divorce, the end of her various marriages would have been out of her hands. And if she was divorced multiple times, the most likely reason would be that she was barren – and that would have been out of her hands too.

Once bereft of her husband, she would have no other economic choices but to marry again, or to live with a man as a concubine. This was the economic reality of women in a society that treated women as property (not as carriers of the divine image).[1] Even if the morality of her relationships were an issue (and I’m not saying it was), this woman had no agency to do anything different.

So, to define this woman’s character as tainted by circumstances over which she had no control is clearly problematic. The people of her time might very well have shamed her, but that doesn’t mean we should.

The second reason to question the “shame” reading of the text is even more compelling: Jesus never calls the woman a sinner!

He never confronts her with any behavior she needs to change. Nor does he tell her to “go and sin no more.”

He asks her for water, and then engages her in an extended conversation (his longest recorded conversation with anyone in any of the gospels, by the way).[2]

In that conversation, he tells her that she and her people are NOT excluded from God’s saving work. And then – for the first time in John’s gospel – he reveals to her his identity as the Messiah.

In other words, Jesus treats her as a woman worthy of respect and inclusion. Not accepted or forgiven “in spite” of her past… just worthy, valued.

The reason this all matters – the reason we need to “de-bunk” the shame story reading of this narrative – is because the Woman at the Well is not the only story we hear through the filter of shame. We get political and media narratives all the time that promote shaming over compassion for those we see as “other.” But I think the pattern also happens on a much more personal level… the level of our own stories. We look at our own personal parallels to this woman’s five husbands – we look at the evidence of broken relationships, or failure, or pain, or even victimization in our own lives… and we feel ashamed. We think that our stories are evidence that we don’t belong… that we are tainted…that we are not worthy.

Ironically, that’s why the “shame reading” of this woman’s story is so popular, because it offers us the reassurance that if “even she” can be forgiven then so can we. Our stories DON’T have to mean we are a lost cause.

Unfortunately, that reading doesn’t do anything about the shame itself. In fact, it reinforces the shame – interpreting it as a real barrier that has to be overcome.

The problem is, that kind of shame-based reading does violence the story we actually have. Because what we actually have is NOT a story of Jesus overcoming the woman’s shame. NO, what we actually have is a story of Jesus offering her an open welcome! It is a story that promises life that transcends the normal limits.

Once we get past the woman’s five husbands, we can pay attention to the actual focus of Jesus’s conversation with her: It starts with an offer of living water – water that requires no bucket or well, water that never runs out, water that becomes “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14).

This is a water that does not conform to the normal limits. It is impossibly generous – and yet this is where Jesus STARTS the conversation with a person who is supposed to be his enemy. He starts with the offer to meet her deepest needs. He starts with eternal life.

Naturally, the woman is a little skeptical, but he doesn’t fault her for that.

He leans in. He reveals that he knows the pain of her story, and then he keeps engaging.

When she asks a question about the things that divide them (their ethnic and religious barriers), he announces the end of the divisions. “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. (John 4:24).

There had always been limits on who gets to worship God, and when, and where, but Jesus refuses to bind worship by these limits. Wherever, whoever – just worship God is spirit and in truth. Let your worship be true worship (whether in a sanctuary or at home on your computer), and don’t worry about the human divisions.

And then, when the disciples return, a little confused about what exactly is going on, Jesus exhorts them to “look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting” (John 4:35).

In other words, Jesus is calling them to notice what God is doing that transcends the expected limits. God is gathering people into the work and the promise that Jesus has come to fulfill. And the people are ready, they are ready to hear God’s welcome.

In fact, one of them is already getting to work as a harvester. Did you notice that? As Jesus is talking to the disciples about the harvest, the woman is already doing it – calling her townspeople into the welcome of God.

And notice how: by telling her story. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!”

The woman at the well has a story – a life story with all the complications, and pains, and imperfections of any of our life stories. And this story is the way that she witnesses to Jesus, to God’s message of welcome. She tells the people “he knows my story! My whole story! He talked with me about it. He didn’t push me away, or call me unworthy, because of the details of my story. He told me my own story as an invitation to trust him. Could that be what the Messiah does? How wonderful would it be, if that is what the Messiah does?”

Her imperfect, painful, shame-shadowed story is her witness. And because of her witness, many people believed. She told a story of how Jesus welcomed her, in all the truth of her whole story. And because of her story, the people welcomed Jesus to stay in the village, and talk to them… and maybe to hear their stories too. Without shame. But rather with healing and hope.

And this is an invitation for our community as well. As we continue to explore the path of forgiveness this lent, this gospel invites us into the power of telling our stories in all of their fullness. To not be afraid of the pain in our past, but to remember that Jesus knows this pain and invites us to trust him with it.

The world out there… the world often tells us to hide our stories, to see the broken relationships, or mistakes, or even the damage done to us by others as sources of shame. But that is NOT the message of Jesus.

The message of Jesus is that he knows our stories, and he wants us to join him in his work. Far from our stories being something to hide, our stories can be our witness to the power and the welcome that Jesus brings.

Thanks be the God.

[1] See discussion of divorce, concubines, and Levirate marriage as relevant to this story at: http://pastormandi.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Study-guide-The-woman-at-the-well.pdf

[2] Source: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2561

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