* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

John 4:1-42 Conquering Shame with Truth and Inspiring Others

In John 4, we proceed with what may be a familiar story about Jesus' encounter with a Samaritan woman at Jacob's Well. A seemingly editorial feature can be seen in the parenthetical explanations about various details in the story. Some things apparently required more explanation than others, but we can imagine that the original audience would have known that needing to go through Samaria was culturally distasteful. If the Jesus character speaks freely to people who are culturally unclean, or "less than" people, then either this behavior is unique to the Jesus character or it serves as a model for human behavior.

The text itself paints a picture of Jesus as a fairly unique individual. He apparently has some psychic ability, to be able to know specifics about the woman's life that she had not shared, and the authors imply that he does not require physical food but is rather sustained by spiritually-motivated action. In the text, the Jesus character claims a unique identity for himself as the Messiah. If we were to leave things there, however, there would be little value in our lives. If we adopt the perspective that Jesus is used here as an exemplar of human behavior, we must get past the obviously unique characteristics the authors grant him. So, we should not try to emulate psychic powers, and we should not claim a unique position for ourselves in a spiritual hierarchy.

What human behaviors can we see at work in the story, then? To start, there is the blatant issue of prejudice. Samaritans are obviously undesirables, based on the context of the story. There are complex historical reasons for Jewish animosity toward Samaritans. To begin with, Samaritans were not of pure Jewish lineage, but had intermarried with people of various ethnicities, which made them inferior people in the eyes of the Jews. The Samaritans had their own temple and their own religious tradition that had branched away from "proper" Judaism, influenced no doubt by the Samaritan propensity for being conquered by foreign powers. Samaria was synonymous with impurity and sacrilege in the eyes of many ancient Jews.

The Jesus character cares nothing for these prejudices. Human beings are human beings. There is no judgment for the lineage or the religious practices of Samaritans (suggesting that the authors had a more virtuous position as well). Yes, Jesus does make a snide comment about salvation coming from the Jews, but his general demeanor is not judgmental. Instead, the Jesus character looks ahead to a time in which spiritual identity will not be connected to geographic location. Indeed, the book of John was written after the Roman destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, and apparently the authors interpreted this upheaval as an opportunity to redefine the center of spiritual identity. One need not go to a particular mountain to find divinity; one need only look within oneself.

There are essentially two things taught in this passage. The first has to do with spiritual identity. Whatever you call divine, divinity is not a physical thing. Personal identity is first and foremost about honesty. Identifying with a particular tradition frivolously is of no real value. To connect your identity thoughtlessly to a particular place or even a particular culture is to give away some of your personal responsibility. Taking appropriate responsibility in your life requires telling the truth about who you are. You cannot bring your authentic self forward if you are pretending to be someone you aren't.

For the Samaritan woman, there were plenty of untrue things that she could have believed about herself -- things that others most likely had claimed about her. As a Samaritan, she was "impure" and potentially "blasphemous." She also had a string of relationships that had the potential to imbue her with shame. What is wrong with me that I have had five husbands and am now in a relationship with someone else? After things went badly in my first relationship, I'm 'damaged goods.' No one will want me now. I am lucky with whatever I get at this point. In fact, the profound shame with which she lives is implied by her late-morning trip to the well, after all the "respectable" women have already come and gone. There are plenty of lies she could be telling about herself, plenty of things on which she could base her identity that would not reflect her authentic self.

We do very similar things. Sometimes we adopt identities that are handed to us by society, and sometimes we just make things up about ourselves. We feel shame because of the things that have gone differently than we would have liked, and we often blame ourselves for things that were not entirely ours to control. This is not a true reflection of who we are. Shame does not create anything worthwhile; it only keeps us from bringing ourselves forward fully.

The message here is that you know better. You know that there is more to you than a failed relationship, or a whole series of failed relationships. You know that there is more to you than getting fired from a job. You know that there is more to you than what other people say about your ethnicity or religion. You might know what it would be like if you showed up as a best possible version of yourself. It's wise to acknowledge the circumstances of your life honestly, but they don't have to define you. When you are willing to be honest, the truth about you is that you are enough. You are capable of being your authentic self without all the false pieces of identity you've accumulated over the years.

Here is the second thing taught in this passage: If you look around you, you'll see an awful lot of people wrestling with the same things you wrestle with. You'll see a sea of people who are living with shame and anxiety rather than honestly showing up as themselves. It's good to feed yourself -- to develop your own integrity and intentionality. When we enter into other people's lives with the ability to tell the truth about ourselves, we can influence others toward greater well-being. When we are willing to stop allowing shame to govern how we see ourselves, we can influence others to do the same. Not everyone will get it. Not everyone will be willing to tell the truth about themselves, because sometimes it's easier to give up personal responsibility to a false identity. Some people will see your way of being and take notice, though. Some people will recognize that they could be engaging in life differently -- defining themselves by their values and guiding principles rather than the labels other people put on them.

So, spirit and truth. We can look within ourselves to define our deep values and guiding principles, and we can be honest about our authentic selves. We are not restricted to identities derived from shame. And we are influencers. How we show up has an influence on other people's lives. What we do for ourselves cannot be just about us, because human beings are relational by nature. Because of our connection with others, what we create in spirit and truth will have meaning for people beyond just ourselves.

There are three things that are exemplified in Jesus' behavior here that can offer some guidance about how we can be living water -- or manifest a best possible version of ourselves more often. First, he is non-judgmental. He is unwilling to allow shame to be a part of how he sees others, just as he does not allow shame to define himself. Even as he is honest about the Samaritan woman's home life, he does not deem her unworthy as a result. He engages with her as a human being of worth and dignity. It doesn't matter what color people's skin is, what ethnic or cultural background they demonstrate, what religious identity they embrace, or what sexuality they embody. No human being deserves our derision or shame. When we judge other people, we reinforce our own self-judgment. When we are willing to see the inherent worth and dignity in others, it is easier to see our own.

Second, the Jesus of this story is willing to engage. He does not simply look kindly upon the woman and smile. He engages with her about her life and suggests some possibility about her identity. He offers her hope. Likewise, we can express what we see of value in other people, not to force on them a positive false identity to replace a negative one, but to open the door of possibility. We can sincerely express what we appreciate in others. In this story, Jesus does not demand that the woman see things the way he does; he states his perspective and allows her the freedom to define herself.

Third, the Jesus of this story speaks about what is important to him. When he is offered food by the disciples, he seizes on the opportunity to express what he cares about most -- his values and his passions. It is as if he is saying, "This is what feeds my soul." Of course, Jesus is made to suggest that the disciples should care about what he cares about, but this is a characteristic of their relationship. We don't have to insist that other people be passionate about the things that feed our souls. When we are willing to let people know what we value, though, it has the potential to bolster our own commitment, inspire others, and perhaps even find collaborators in building the kind of world that we most want to live in.

We see two layers of possibility in this tale, then. First layer: Use introspection to define your deep values and guiding principles, and let these things define the truth about your identity. Be aware of the multitude of people around you, wrestling with the same issues of shame that you wrestle with and just as in need of hope as you. Second layer: All of those human beings have inherent worth and dignity. It doesn't matter what their lives or circumstances have been like. If you are willing to engage, you can grow in connection and live into your authentic self more easily. When you engage, speak about the things that matter most to you -- your values and guiding principles, your vision for yourself, your creative purpose and personal life dream. This is how we build a better world.

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A Little Experiment: Be aware of your shame. Notice the next time you find yourself thinking or saying something prejudiced about a person based on skin color, ethnicity, sexuality, or religion. Consider, to what fear is that prejudice connected? What judgment about yourself is connected to your judgment of that person? What would it take for you to see the inherent worth and dignity of that person?

Another Little Experiment: Be more aware of your shame. Notice the next time you limit yourself or pass judgment on yourself. On what is this self-critique based? Are you being honest? How does your personal shame prevent you from living out your deepest values (or how does it prevent you from being a best possible version of yourself)? Are you OK with that?

One More Little Experiment: Be living water. What feeds your soul? What is it that nourishes you emotionally or psychologically? How does this nourishment reflect your guiding principles? Tell someone in your life. Ask them what nourishes them.

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