February 28, 2016—Nancy Bancroft
First Reading: Psalm 139
Second Reading: Skit – Woman at the Well, adapted from a story by John Shae
I’ve heard and read the story of the Woman at the Well numerous times, but it wasn’t until I read John Shae’s presentation of it, from which our actors and I developed the script for this morning’s skit, that I noticed the words of the woman, “He told me all I have ever done.” I thought that it was something that John Shae put in, like it being so hot “that it could fry a lizard’s tongue”, but no, when I checked it out in the Bible, there it was; “He told me all I have ever done.”
This is a beautiful and rich scripture story and there is much that we can draw from it. But today I want to focus on the woman and her suffering, and how Jesus, the Living Water, cleansed her of her negative self-image and loved her into a person with self-esteem.
Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston who has been studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame for the last thirteen years, rose to some prominence after she gave a TED Talk in 2010 called The Power of Vulnerability. Her books include Daring Greatly and, more recently, Rising Strong. Brown asserts that people who are willing to be vulnerable, who are willing to suffer the consequences of being who they truly are, and not what the rest of the world thinks they should be, are people who are courageous, and that in the end they are the ones who are able to live life wholeheartedly – with courage, with heart. We live from the heart when we are willing to be our true selves.
Too often shame, guilt, insecurity, and self-doubt move us to put up a front, a public façade. Perhaps our upbringing was too strict or we had parents or teachers who were perfectionistic or too critical, maybe there was something about our looks or some lack of ability that led us to feel unacceptable, maybe we made some bad choices in our lives, or were in abusive relationships, or suffered from neglect or addiction. Any of these or other painful events can lead to doubting our worth as persons. To present ourselves as worthwhile we may feel the need to boast about our accomplishments, or our possessions, or show how much we know, or who we know, or what we can do. We may find ourselves hungry for the approval of others, no amount of which quiets our insecurity. By just being ourselves we may fear that we are not enough.
And yet, if we continually present ourselves with an outer shell, we can never feel loved for who we really are. When we have experiences of approval we judge that it is our public self that is seen as acceptable. “If they really knew me”, we may think. It’s a vicious circle, because it is only when we experience being loved for ourselves that we grow in self-esteem. We are truly nurtured when we are loved, valued and wanted by someone who truly knows us.
Perhaps reflecting on a new-born infant can give us insight into human worth. Imagine for a moment an infant whom you have known; maybe your own child just born, still slick and unwashed, maybe your grandchild, niece or nephew, or the tiny infant of a friend. Conjure up a memory of that little one for a moment.
Human infants are good for nothing. Unlike colts, or even dumb lambs, they can’t get up on their feet right after birth and scamper off. Unlike new-born puppies or kittens they can’t crawl to a nipple and start nursing. No. They need to be picked up, brought to the breast, have the nipple inserted into their mouths, and many need to practice sucking for a while before they are even able to take in the amount of nutrition that they need. Human babies need to be dressed properly because their thermostats aren’t fully developed, so they can easily get too hot or too cold to survive. They can barely see. Their communication is so poor that even the most sensitive and attentive mother has difficulty figuring if their cry means, “I’m hungry” or “I’m tired”, or simply, “I want attention.”
Human infants are totally dependent. They’ll roll off a changing table if you give them half a chance, and not land on their feet. They show no talent for anything. They haven’t accomplished anything. They are totally useless. And yet, they are totally precious. Nothing that they ever accomplish; degrees, position, financial success, artistic triumph will add anything to the preciousness that they have at the moment of their birth. If you are picturing that infant that I invited you to, you know the truth of this. And, nothing bad that they do, no wrong choices will take away that preciousness. They are totally worthwhile. They have immeasurable value. That’s them, and that’s you and me. But we have a very hard time accepting this about ourselves.
We live in a meritocracy. Our culture shows favoritism to the successful. And so somewhere along the line we learn that we need to be perfect to be acceptable and we may develop a public persona that hides our true self.
The woman at the well, having had five husbands, no doubt had had many painful experiences. Her self-worth was so low that putting on a front was not enough. She went to fetch the water that she needed in the heat of the day, in order to completely avoid the other women who went to the well in the morning. But when she got there she did not have the privacy that she had sought. Jesus was waiting for her. She thought about going back, but she needed the water. And what I good thing that was! In their interaction Jesus lets her know that he sees the real her, and that he knows all that she has done, and at the same time he shows her that he values her, that he cares for her. Through the experience of being seen for herself and loved she is healed, she gains enough self-worth, that this woman who that same day chose significant discomfort in order to avoid others, now goes from house to house, a disciple, spreading the good news. And the part of the gospel story that was not in our skit, what follows, is that because the woman who returned from the well was herself, courageously herself, spoke from her heart, the townspeople were so moved that they went out and sought Jesus for themselves.
We need courage to find and live out our calling, to put ourselves out there and be love in the world that needs love so much. People in need of our care, our love, our respect, will not experience it through a façade. We need to dare to be ourselves. We need to trust in our valuableness, in our preciousness.
It can be hard to live life with our whole hearts. It takes courage to truly live the life God has given us to live; to be ourselves, to use our talents. It takes courage and requires a willingness to be vulnerable.
John Shae states, “The journey of faith is walking through life with courage, humility, and humor in the company of God.” He continues, “Humility is not a put-down of the human person but a proper placing, an act of truth not an obsequious gesture. Humble people delight in the power which pulses through them and which they channel; but they never regret that they are not all power. They delight in the love that pulses through them, and which they reflect; but they never regret that they are not all love. Humility has the same prejudices as comedy and so cannot abide ‘the person who will not consent to be simply a person, who cannot tolerate himself as an incomplete and conditioned creature, of a particular time and particular space.’ That is why over the long haul humility remains humility only through humor.”
As I thought about this quote it occurred to me that the opposite of humor is shame. Shame is that miserable experience we have when someone or something shines the light on something about ourselves that we find unacceptable. Shame is stronger than embarrassment. It triggers a flight or fight response.
We experience it as an attack and we flee by leaving or escaping into ourselves or attacking; lashing out.
I’m a terrible speller, and much of my life I felt stupid because of it. The worst school days for me were ones when we had a spelling bee. Try as I might, I never made it through the first round. I’ve taught and lectured throughout the country and am respected by my peers in several fields. But whenever I use a flip chart or chalk board, I inevitably misspell words. In the past whenever someone pointed out my error, I used to have a shame attack. I became off balance, insecure, and had to make a real effort to refocus on my subject. After a lot of inner work, I can truly accept that I’m a poor speller and I’m still acceptable. Sometimes I can even laugh about it. We know that we have healed from what has shamed us when we can laugh at ourselves about it.
Humility is simply truth. It’s recognizing and accepting that only God is perfect and we are not God.
We can grow in courage, in our willingness to be vulnerable by contemplating on the insight of the author of Psalm 139; the psalm that we sang this morning:
“O LORD, you have examined my heart and know everything about me.
You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.
You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do.
You know what I am going to say even before I say it, LORD .
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand!
I can never escape from your Spirit! I can never get away from your presence!
You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb.
Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.
How precious are your thoughts about me, O God. They cannot be numbered!
Letting ourselves take in God’s total and undying love for us, allowing that awareness to enter us helps to make us whole. But truly experiencing God’s unconditional love for us can be overwhelming. It may require short but frequent meditation for healing and growth to occur.
Another gift that we share that can help raise our self-worth is this gracious faith community. It provides the web of connection, genuine warmth, and acceptance that can help us dare to be vulnerable, to learn to be courageous.
Using one of AA’s famous slogans can help. It is, “Act as if”. Act as if you believed that you were worthwhile, that you were precious, and have the courage to be yourself. You will be rewarded with acceptance and caring that will eventually help you heal from any self-doubt about your valuableness. You will be refreshed by Living Water. You will experience new life.
The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas quotes Jesus saying, “The Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the children of the living God. But if you will not know yourselves, then you dwell in poverty, and it is you who are that poverty”.
Someone once told me that God doesn’t make junk. We are made in the image of God. Let us pray that we can all sincerely sing with the psalmist,
“It was you who created my inmost self,
And put me together in my mother’s womb;
For these mysteries I thank you:
I thank you for the wonder of myself, for the wonder of your works.” Amen