Setting the Table for Grace (3): Drowning Shame
By Rev. Dr. Stan Jewell
Two weeks ago I attended the performance of the one act chamber opera presented by Opera Colorado entitled “As One”. It is an interesting story of the of the life of a transgendered person. It is performed by two singer one male and one female playing the same person as they move from their physical birth as male, through the journey of awareness of their true gender, and on to personal acceptance and living it out. It begins with a scene where the individual is delivering papers on their bicycle at age 11-12. The story reveals that they have stolen a woman’s silky blouse off of a clothesline and they are wearing it under their outer boys clothing. They celebrate the exhilarating feeling of the cloth next to their skin and how it feels so right, and yet there is the underlying fear of being discovered and sense of shame at being out of sync with the norms of their world. Even after they discover through books in the library that they are not alone and that there are others who are transgendered. They work very hard to hide the reality. One scene shows the individual working very hard to be the perfect boy, being the star athlete, the football quarterback, the baseball pitcher, not because it was what they wanted, but to cover who they were.
It was a powerful one act opera, but I was surprised during the talk back, when I heard that it is the most often performed of all modern operas. Most new operas are lucky if they get another production after the first. Why this one? It’s subject seemed like it would limit the appeal. Yet that is not the case. I think the reason is because all of us keep some secrets. We all have parts of our life we keep secret because the culture that we inhabit would not be accepting of us if it were to be revealed. Maybe not in society as a whole, like the protagonist in the opera, but at least in very specific cultures and situations.
I remember a friend in my fraternity days at Iowa State. His room walls were always covered with centerfolds. He was the one member of the fraternity that had regular subscriptions to playboy and penthouse. In the fraternity culture that was acceptable…. yet I discovered years later that he had come out of the closet as gay. Such secrets are not just sexual. I know there was a time when the moral majority was so strong on the political scene. The press would speak of their positions as if that was the position of all Christians and I hid the fact in certain groups that I was a Christian, because I did not want to be painted with the same brush as the moral majority. In that sub-culture. I would have been rejected. We keep these secrets because we don’t want to be seen as out of sync with the culture in which we find ourselves.
That is what shame is all about. It is not guilt about our action or behavior. But it is shame for who we are. Guilt says “I did something bad.” While shame says, “I am bad.” In our society right now it seems to be acceptable to shame others, for their race, religion, politics, physical appearance or disability. In a group of political liberals there can be shaming and name calling of those on the conservative end of the political spectrum and in a group of conservatives there can be shaming and name calling of liberals. It seems acceptable to shame and verbally put down those who we consider the outsider or the “other” from our perspective or cultural group. This is very unhealthy for individuals and society. Shame has been found to play a central role in depression, addiction, and eating disorders and can lead to violence, aggression, narcissism, suicide, and bullying. We need to live setting the captives free of shame. So what do we do with shame?
In our scripture lesson this morning we find a woman who is living with secrets and shame who
encounters Jesus. Listen as we read it with three voices and see how Jesus deals with the shame and shaming of others.
Read scripture: John 4:3-30
She had come to the well to get water and nothing else. All of the other women had come earlier in the day to avoid the heat, and to enjoy the company of the other women. They would bring their empty jars balanced on their heads. As each drew water at their turn, they would share the latest news of the day. But she had come only for water, at noon, during the heat of the day. That way she would not have to face their icy stares and whispers of contempt that were intended to be overheard. But as she approached the well there was a man resting there. So much for privacy she thought. But as she gets closer she sees that he is a stranger, he will not know her. She can relax and let her guard down. Besides she can tell from his clothing that he is a Jew. A Jewish male would not speak to her. If you were a Jewish male you would not speak to any woman in public—even if you were walking down the street and you met your wife walking in the other direction. You just wouldn’t bend your dignity to speak to her, even to say hello. It just wasn’t done. No, he would not speak to her. She sighed and accepted the reality of this inferior role, she accepted the shame of being a women.
But that wasn’t the only thing, she was a Samaritan. No Jew would have anything to do with the mixed race Samaritans. He would know as she did the rabbinic saying: “Better to eat the flesh of a swine than to eat Samaritan bread.” A flash of anger coursed through her at the thought of that Jewish attitude. But at the same time there was the shame at the impurity of her ancestry and again she sighed and accepted the shame of being a Samaritan.
But the silence was broken. “Give Me a Drink.” She was shocked. Jesus surprised her in her shame. This shame of being a woman, this shame of being a Samaritan, shame that had been laid on her by the dominate culture. But this shame was unimportant to Jesus, even when she reminded him of it. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Jesus refuses to respond to her through that lens of shame. He treats her as an equal and even offers her living water, a term used for the Law of Judaism. Surely, he knew the Jewish proverbs, “better to bury the torah than to entrust it to a woman, or better to teach your daughter lasciviousness than to teach her the law.” Jesus surprises her in that shame and refuses to treat as one unworthy, instead he treats he an equal. As the dialogue continues she becomes more and more comfortable. More and more confident and at ease with herself and with him.
But just about the time the woman feels comfortable with Jesus, what does he do? He confronts her with the secret that has brought her the deepest shame. “Go, call your husband, and come back.” She must have been taken aback. She may have looked away in shame as she said, “I have no husband.” But Jesus let her know there is nothing hidden. “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” But he does not join in shaming her. In that culture having five husbands was not necessarily seen as promiscuous or difficult. If that had been the case she probably would have been stoned long before this. No, it probably was because she could not have children. Infertility was considered a legitimate reason for divorce and the man she was with now was probably a relative. The man’s wife was probably still in the picture and may have been this woman’s relative. But as a single woman in this culture she would have to be connected to and supported by a man. Her shame was probably her being childless.
Jesus does not shame her. Instead he continues the dialogue with her treating her as an intelligent worthy human being. He engages her in a theological discussion that is the most detailed conversation that Jesus has with anyone in the Gospels. Not only that, in the Gospel of John he honors her by revealing to her, even before the disciples, that he is the Messiah. He sees her as she is. He sees her with no secrets. He dismisses shame and accepts her as she is.
That acceptance he gives her, even as he knows all there was to know about her, freed her from her shame. What does she do? She goes back to the Samaritan community. The very men and women she had been avoiding and hiding from in her shame. She goes back to say “I may have met the Messiah. He told me everything I had ever done and I was still accepted.” His empathy, acceptance and yes grace freed her from her shame. The living waters of God’s grace drowned her shame.
Experts in the study of shame affirm this reality. Shame can only survive in secrecy. When it is exposed to empathy, acceptance, love and yes grace it is overcome. It happens when we know that we have been truly seen, understood and yet accepted.
In a sense that is what happens when we are washed with the living waters in our Baptism. In our Baptism God claims and calls beloved. We are adopted as a brother or sister of Jesus Christ and made a part of the family. In baptism Paul tells us that we are buried with Christ, the past is buried and gone and we are raised as a new creation. Our bondage to shame drowned and we are set free. All because there is nothing that God does not know about us. Every secret is known and we are still loved and accepted. That is grace.
When we realize that for ourselves. When we claim the reality of that Grace. We are able to share that reality with others. Seeing the real person as an individual, not as. some category of race, religion, or orientation. When we see, and accept people for who they are and not what we want them to be or what society expects them to be, we have set the table of grace for them as well. It is part of living the Jesus Creed of loving God and loving others.
Remember the Opera, “As One” I told you about at the beginning of the sermon? In a later scene the transgendered individual was living as a male on one side of a bridge and would travel across a bridge to another community and dress and live there as a female, their preferred gender identity. On one of those trips to the side where they dressed and lived as female, there came a turning point. She was on public transportation and a man was getting on and bumped into her. He turns to her and smiles into her face said excuse me miss. “Excuse me miss!” The thrill of being seen as she saw herself and being accepted brought such release, joy and celebration. From that point forward she knew she no longer had to hide who she was. Her shame was drowned in the living waters of grace and acceptance.