Touched by an Angel by Maya Angelou.
We, unaccustomed to courage exiles from delight live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple and comes into our sight to liberate us into life.
Love arrives and in its train come ecstasies old memories of pleasure ancient histories of pain. Yet if we are bold, love strikes away the chains of fear from our souls.
We are weaned from our timidity in the flush of love’s light we dare be brave
And suddenly we see that love costs all we are and will ever be.
Yet it is only love which sets us free.
As I began to think about the message for today, I came across the following TED talk, which I also posted on my Blog and on Facebook: It’s called The Danger of a Single Story by a Nigerian woman named Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Here’s her story. Growing up in Nigeria, she lived a comfortable, middle-class life on a university campus where her father was a professor and her mother was an administrator. This meant that her family, like many others of that social class in Nigeria, had “domestic help.” When she was eight-years-old, Adichie recalls that a new house boy named Fide came to work for them. Her mother told her only that he was from a poor family in a neighboring village. Now, Adichie was moved to pity by the boy’s poverty. All she know of his family is that her mother would send them extra food and old clothes. That was her “single story” of him. He was a poor boy.
So, when she visited Fide’s home one day, she was shocked to discover that this family was more than just the sum of their poverty. Fide’s brother showed her a beautiful patterned basket that he had made. That didn’t fit into the “single story” she had in her head about Fide’s family: she didn’t think they could do anything but “be poor.”
Her story continued, but in reverse this time. When Adichie came to school in America, she was dismayed that her roommate asked her how she learned to speak English so well. English is Nigeria’s official language. And when her roommate asked her to play some of her “tribal” music, her roommate was dismayed this time when Adichie played a Mariah Carey CD. She describes her roommate’s “default” position as “patronizing, well-meaning pity” because she had only one single story of Africa. And that single story, western culture tells us, is one of “beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.”
For her roommate, that single story was easy to understand, and she didn’t seem to know how to encounter and engage Adichie as an equal, as someone who was like her in many ways, as a complex person shaped by many different stories.
Of course, life would be so much simpler if everyone has a single story. A story that shows them as one thing, as only one thing, and then we would be able to tell that single story over and over, until they become that thing. This is about power, of course, when somebody else decides what your story is and, therefore, who you are because of it. That’s where stereotypes come from, and we all know how helpful stereotypes are, right? Adichie goes on to say that to engage a person properly we have to engage all the stories that have made that person who they are.
So, holding onto this idea of the danger of a single story, we come to our text about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.
Now, like most of you, I’ve heard and read this story many times; it’s one of my favorites. One of the reasons I like it so much is that it’s the longest conversation Jesus had with anyone in the Bible and who he has this “longest conversation” with. He chose to sit and talk with someone who was on the margins of society in many ways. First, she was a woman and a Samaritan woman at that, she was a person who’d had many husbands and was currently living with a man to whom she wasn’t married. So, many in her day would boil all these circumstances down to the single story, a dangerous single story. According to her culture she was an outsider and to Jesus’ culture she was an unclean sinner.
And we need I think to hit pause here for a second and consider contextual significance of this scene. Jesus, as a Jewish male, was not even supposed to talk to a woman who was not his wife, let alone accepting water from a sinful foreigner. Those were the rules, and life is simpler when the rules are clear, right? [i]
But, as we often see with Jesus, rules are made to be reinterpreted. Rules, or the Law, as the Bible calls it, was intended to lead people flourish, to be healthy, to find abundance. Too often the Law, however, both then and now, casts judgment, excludes the outsider and the most vulnerable in favor of those with the most power.
But Jesus doesn’t judge her or tell her that she’s only welcome to this Living Water if she repents and changes her sinful ways. No. Jesus doesn’t put any conditions on receiving the Living Water of God’s grace because God’s grace is a free gift available to all people. This is an understand of the Law as embedded in grace rather than judgment. Instead, Jesus, in this pivotal story in John’s Gospel, is just sitting there with her, sharing a cool drink in the hot noonday sun, listening to her, and treating her like a beloved child of God, because she was indeed a beloved child of God.
And speaking of sharing a cool drink of water, recently, Becky, Manny, and I watched a couple of seasons of a show called A Series of Unfortunate Events based on the popular Lemony Snicket book series by Daniel Handler. And all of these month later something that the main character Lemony Snicket said has stuck with me. He said, “Someone feeling wronged is like someone feeling thirsty. Don’t tell them they aren’t. Sit with them and have a drink.”
You know, this quote has special meaning today as we consider the fear surrounding this growing pandemic. Now, we’re NOT called to tell people, “don’t be afraid.” Of course, people are afraid. We’re afraid because we care about one another. We’re afraid because there are so many misleading rumors out there about what’s going on. We’re afraid because the security we’ve become accustomed to has been disrupted. We’re afraid because the road ahead is unclear, our immediate future is unknown. We’re afraid because quite frankly, there’s been a lack of responsible leadership or even a coherent message around this current pandemic. Of course, people are afraid.
However, our calling in this moment, I think, our calling as a people of faith and as citizens of this nation, is to figuratively sit with each other in our common fear, even if sitting together literally is unwise. But the challenge that we face is this: in these uncertain times we cannot let our fear eclipse our faith. Our faith, as you all know, is based on what the Apostle Paul called greatest among all the virtues: Love: love of God, love of neighbor, love for the least and the lost and the lonely, love for the marginalized and the oppressed and the poor in our society, love for the stranger and the enemy and the friend alike, love for the refugee and the immigrant, love for those who practice our faith but in a different way and love for those who practice another religion or none at all, love for all people and all of creation. Fear leaves love in the Holy Temple, as Maya Angelou so poignantly observed, rather than recognizing it’s liberating presence within and around us and among us.
My friends, God is that Love. This moment isn’t a time to succumb to our fear, rather, this is a moment in time to let the light of love and the courage of our faith illumine the path for those living “coiled in shells of loneliness” so they too might experience a love that comes into our sight to “liberate us into life.”
My friends, as go from this place today, as we go out-there, into the unknown, may we do so with a myriad of stories, with a wealth of courage, and may we do so in lock-step with a God who chose to restore a fallen, foreign woman, from a different religion, nation, and culture, a woman who in many respects, is a lot like you and me. And as we sit with each other in our common fear, over the course of the next days, weeks, and months, may we let our faith in God and each other be our hope.
May it be so for you and for me, Amen and the people of God said, Amen