Today we continue our summer series on Caring and Service, and once again, we hear a short snippet from the famous parable in Matthew Twenty-Five. It’s a story about a king whom we imagine is Jesus. All the people — the righteous and the unrighteous, the saints and the sinners, the sheep and the goats— all the people ask Jesus the same question: When did we see you in trouble? When were you sick, or incarcerated, or undocumented? When were you naked, or hungry, or thirsty…
O LORD have mercy.
There’s something frightening and embarrassing about seeing Jesus in these situations of suffering. He’s our Savior! He’s the Messiah who’s come to usher in the Reign of God. What business does Jesus have being so vulnerable! It’s frightening and embarrassing to see our Lord and Savior get arrested, and mocked, and killed.
If Jesus, himself, is standing in front of us, in need, asking for help, it shines a light on all the ways that we are in need and asking for help. Of course Jesus welcomes children, and heals the sick, and gives food to the hungry. Of course, the LORD is my shepherd. That much is fine. But how is Jesus supposed to save us when he is so thirsty. Look at him and see if you don’t feel thirsty yourself! His deep need exposes our own. His longing makes us get really honest about our own longing for mercy.
These days I am feeling this longing for grace deep in my being, and you might be too. On this Fourth of July weekend, our nation is reckoning with a legacy of slavery and racism. For a lot of my life, I believed that racism was something a person could choose or not. I knew that racism was wrong. I did not want to be racist. I grew up in the era encouraging colorblindness. (Just don’t see a person’s race; race shouldn’t matter!) That was well-intentioned, but it didn’t work.
As people of color have long understood, and as white people are beginning to understand, racism infects our nation to its core. It’s in every system from education to criminal justice, from housing and banking to health care. Racism is still in every institution including the church. It’s still in our music and in our hearts.
In this moment of the American story, the prophets and protestors are demanding that white people recognize our white privilege and work to make things more equitable for everyone. And this can be hard to hear. We didn’t mean to sign up to receive special benefits, but we get them anyway. This can be hard to hear because there’s a holy rising of rage that leaves us white people feel a little frightened, or embarrassed, or worse.
We might feel ourselves getting defensive. We might hear ourselves trying to insist, “But I’m not racist!” because we don’t want to be. We might decide that we’re tired of hearing about it, that the anger of the protestors is not our problem when it absolutely is.
As white people, our deep shame is being exposed and called out. It’s no wonder that our defenses rise up to protect our conscience from feeling guilty, to protect our hearts from getting broken. But what if we could make a different choice…
What if we could deliberately disarm our own soul…
If we try this, it’s going to make us get really honest about our own longing for mercy. But here’s the thing. There’s no way to look at the shame in your soul and not also see your own capacity for compassion. There’s no way to see our own shame and not see the grace of God.
In the scripture from the Gospel of John, Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Galilee when they stop in Samaria. It’s about noon, the disciples have gone to get lunch. Jesus is sitting beside the well when a woman comes to get water.
Consider the power dynamics. Jesus is a man, she’s a woman —we don’t even learn her name! He is Jewish; she’s Samaritan. He’s a religious leader with disciples; she might be an outcast in her community because of her marital status. Or her sorrow. Whatever is about to go down between them, it sure looks like he has all the power while she has none. Even so, there are reasons for each of them to be defensive. He’s a traveler in a strange land. Now he’s thirsty and he doesn’t even have a bucket or a cup. Here she’s being confronted by a strange man who’s asking her for water.
But instead of getting defensive, both Jesus and the woman allow their vulnerability and their power to come to light. Their whole exchange is breathtakingly brilliant! The best way I can describe it is a theological debate performed as a tango.
Jesus sees who she really is, then he calls out her deep wound: You’ve had five husbands and the man you’re with now is not your husband. When she hears this, her power rises up, she decides to find out what this prophet can tell her about the Jewish focus on Jerusalem. As the dance unfolds, she discovers who he really is. She goes back and tells the people: He couldn’t be the Messiah, could he?! And the people believe her! This encounter turned her into a prophet. Her prophecy resulted in Jesus and his disciples finding hospitality.
He asked her for water. She asked him for water. Jesus and this woman confess their own longing and recognize each other’s power. They see each other’s humanness and each other’s holiness. Through their interaction, these two show us what it looks like to disarm our own souls, to lay down our sword and shield and find our way back to the waters of new life.
In our Christian tradition, I know many of us protestants hold a healthy skepticism toward confession. And look, there are good reasons for this! If an authority figure is requiring our confession, this practice could easily become abusive. If we try confession and get stuck in the cycle of rehearsing our sin, it could eclipse the mercy of God and miss the whole point. There are good reasons to be skeptical about confession. It’s just…
What I’m wondering is whether there might be a creative opportunity for us to re-claim confession. Imagine if we could learn how to notice when our defenses get triggered, then choose to disarm our own inner being. Sin is any force that keeps us separate from God. Confession is the work of taking seriously our own sin. It’s looking right at it, acknowledging its presence, and discovering that we could repent. Our sin is not our destiny.
For those of us who identify as Christian, confession is important because it illuminates that taking seriously our own sin is precisely what can help us take seriously the mercy of God. Confession exposes our own grace that sits next to our deep shame. It induces our liberation.
For those of us who identify as white, confession is important because for generations in this country, we white people have been practicing denying our racism instead of feeling its shame. Imagine if the church could create a sanctuary where it is all right for white folks to feel ashamed because this is where the work of repenting begins.
Could be that some of you have seen the diagram of the learning zones that’s often used in education. Picture three concentric circles. The innermost circle is our comfort zone; we love that circle, everything is safe and easy. Now jump with me, the outermost circle is our panic zone; all our defenses are on full alert in that zone! But in between, in the middle ring, that is the brave zone. This is where we’ve got to be in order to learn.
Imagine if the church could help us find the honesty and courage to be okay in this brave zone. This is where we can stay at the table and listen to people with whom we disagree. This is where we could change our minds and turn away from sin.
You’ve heard me quote Father Gregory Boyle before. I love his observation that goes: “If you’re a stranger to your own wound, you’re going to be tempted to despise the wounded.”
He’s absolutely right. And it works the other way too! When we become able to see our own wound, our own sin, our own thirsting for grace, we become more loving toward others who are wounded. It’s as though confession exposes our compassion. And like it or not, compassion is part of your truth and mine, and everybody’s, and we didn’t put it there. It got left in our being when God was handcrafting us. Now we can’t even help it! But we can choose to notice it.
We can choose to trust our deep compassion that keeps flowing back to the power of God. Like Toni Morrison says, “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” Compassion keeps trying to get us back to the mercy of God, and you know what, we could let it. We could absolutely let it.
When Jesus was dying on the cross, he cried out to anybody who would listen: I am thirsty! And even though we know that, this is really hard for us to hear. There’s something frightening and embarrassing about seeing Jesus so openly suffering. He is our Savior! What business does he have being so vulnerable!
So we hear our own voices calling back, When O LORD? When did we see you thirsty? When did we hear you say I can’t breathe? I’m sure we would have helped you! Right? I mean, I think so? That’s when Jesus looks at us and sees us for who we really are. He says, I’m still thirsty. I still can’t breathe. You can still help.
LORD have mercy, Christ have mercy, LORD have mercy upon us.