What We Think We See

When I served a congregation in a near suburb of Detroit, I drove several times a day down a stretch of Woodward Avenue.  Woodward is the main thoroughfare between downtown Detroit and the upscale suburbs like Birmingham.  My stretch of it was neither the war zone of Detroit or the upscale glamour further north.    I frequently saw a particular man, rather shabbily dressed, walking along the side of the road.  Sometimes he would have a child walking with him, and I would pass them on my way to church.  In the afternoon I drove home for lunch, and I would pass him again, often with a different child.  Eventually I started wondering about what I was seeing.  I asked a member who lived in the same neighborhood as the church.  She knew of the man, but did not know him, and assumed he was walking children to and from school.  I wasn’t so sure.  

One day he came to the doors of the church.  He was looking for financial help in a rather pushy manner.   I got that feeling I sometimes get crawling up my spine.   I told him I had no help to offer him, but I did tell him where he could find a meal.  He was not interested and stormed off mumbling obscenities.   A few nights later he called me on the phone at home.  He was beligerent.  I guessed that he was drunk or high.  I wondered about the children I saw him with.   I didn’t feel afraid until I cut off the phone conversation and realized that he probably knew where I lived and saw me drive past him as often I saw him.   He was known as “Munchie,” I discovered when I asked around about him.  He was a “frequent flyer” between the churches’ charities and had worn out his welcome at all of them.  

I decided to report his phone calls (yes, there was more than one) to the police.  Turned out he was a frequent flyer with them too.  I couldn’t get those children out of my mind.  I asked the officer who took my call, “Those children–is he, ah…;”  “Pimping them?” the officer finished my sentence.  “That’s what we think. They get younger and younger all the time.”

I was shaking when I got off the phone.  

When I asked members of the congregation about this man, they only saw a man they presumed was walking his children to school. They had to. This was their neighborhood, and no one wanted to see anything else. Too much was at sake: property values, sense of personal safety, and even, even status and standing in the world.

I wonder what the disciples saw when they returned from their afternoon shopping trip and from a distance beheld Jesus well 3sitting at the well talking to a woman. A Samaritan woman. One of those people. And not just any well. Jacob’s well.
Know what happened at Jacob’s well? A love story, that’s what. Jacob met a cute shepherd girl and lost his heart, hook line and sinker. He gave his heart to winning his beloved Rachel for 14 years. And I thought it took Jim and I a long time to tie the knot. Love stories begin at wells. Moses and Zipporah the Midianite woman. So can we be so surprised that the disciples had to rub their eyes in wonder at what they thought they might be seeing?
We should probably rub our eyes more and question whether we are seeing what we think we are seeing, then question what it is that makes us believe we have seen it.
For, well, forever, people have read this story through a lens of moral judgment. FIVE MEN!! That gal turned them over pretty quickly. The gossips must have had a field day, just as they have ever since when they see a few too many men go in and out of a woman’s life. The scholars tell us that the five men represent the five occupying nations that governed over Samaria, leaving their ill-begotten and half-bred progeny behind when they left. We are prepared to see this woman as a sinner, and a sexual one at that.
eyes3>Go rub your eyes some more. Maybe….just maybe….there’s more to see. What a tragedy this woman’s life has been. How does a woman turn over five husbands, and the one she lives with now will not give her his name? Was she a victim of leviratic marriage? Maybe the first husband died and she had no male heir. So she was passed on from one relative to the next, and still no male heir. And the last one will not give her his name and keeps her out of convenience. What a desperate tragic tale if she has been divorced five times. It was easy to divorce a woman. Three slaps of a sandal at the city gate and you’re done. Maybe she was infertile. Maybe she had first one miscarriage after another. But five times? And the last one uses her. Whose sin are we seeing here?
Go rub your eyes, which maybe have collected a few tears by now. Maybe you find yourself somewhere in her story. Go rub your eyes and look again. If this woman were such a sinner. how is it that Jesus never speaks a word of forgiveness to her? Jesus forgives sinners. Over and over again. But– Jesus never forgives her. Can it be that FIVE men are too many for even Jesus to forgive? Maybe, just maybe, Jesus never forgives her because there is nothing to forgive.
Just maybe, this is a love story after all. Jesus doesn’t forgive her, but he does set her free. He tells her all about herself, and then she tells her scornful village all about him. That’s what it feels like to be healed of shame. The unspeakable thing becomes speakable. What kind of power releases shame? Love. That’s it. Love.
There are things we go out of our way to not have to speak of. My grandmother could never directly speak about her father’s abuse. As she drifted into aging, she spoke more about the deprivations and terrors of her childhood. She told about her father beating her sister until she lost his baby. She told about the extreme poverty and humiliation of being white and picking tobacco and cotton as a young girl, of being taken under wing by the black women who worked with her and looked out after her. No white person looked after her. No white person would have looked after the children of those black women as much as they looked after her. She could talk about how the men in the processing plant would assault other women. But she couldn’t talk about what happened to her. These were the memories that became vivid in her old age, while the sweet memories of being married to a good man and being a good mother faded from her. It was a cruel trick her mind played on her. She spent so much energy not seeing what she saw, just in order to continue on. Where does that kind of power come from? Shame. That’s it. Shame.
Shame can’t be forgiven because there is nothing to forgive. That would be called guilt. Jesus reframes how the woman sees the world. Neither Gerazim or Jerusalem. God will be worshipped in truth and in spirit. God is greater than all the boxes they try to keep you in, dear one.
Shame is binding and confining. More on that coming soon. Why could those good people who lived in good neighborhoods up and down the same street I drove every day, why could they not see what I saw? They had property values to protect. They had their sense of safety and security to protect. They couldn’t see what I saw. They just have too much at risk if they see differently. Mountains could fall. Temples could crumble. Society’s fabric could fray. One will never feel as safe again if one chooses to see what love sees. A dry well is a safe well, almost.

well 2What kind of power releases shame? Love. In meeting the one who sees through all our covers, and loves us still. In meeting the one who sees us fully as we are, and doesn’t distort what that one sees out of his or her own motivations or horror. Who sees me as I am, and all I have ever been, and doesn’t flinch.
That’s when, like the woman of Samaria, all that I could ever be is released to the future. The water flows freely from the well. And I can finally tell my story to anyone who can listen and hear, anyone who might be healed as I have been, and set free from their shame too. Finally, it becomes my story to tell, not Their story to tell about me. Finally, I can choose to tell my story for the healing of many others. Finally, I can choose to NOT tell my story, and experience no harm or shame in my silence. water well 1
That’s what Love can do.


About Pastor Betsy Williams

I am a mom. And a wife. And a Friend. And a homeowner. And a dog ...uh....owner? Actually make that two dogs. Two kids. One husband. I'm an ELCA Lutheran pastor of a beautiful downtown church. I am the third senior pastor in a century, so my 10-12 years here may feel like an interim to some of the folks here. Recently I have had no spare time. In my spare time in the future, my imagination inhabits a novel I am writing, The Funeral Preacher. My primary blog is a personal reflection on the Revised Common Lectionary...mostly: "Not All Who Wander are Lost." A few years ago I was on a team of writers who produced a little book for Augsburg Fortress in the Washed and Welcome series called "Living the Promises." It's 101 ideas for helping parents and godparents nurture their children in the faith of their baptism. I am developing another blog, more about worship at St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Newark, Ohio and including a summary of the past week's preaching. Otherwise, I imagine myself to be a musician, liturgical artist, cook in a five star restaurant where the patrons keep ordering chicken nuggets, but never a bottle washer. I know how to delegate and share.
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