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Sermon for Sunday, March 9 / Lent 1

Lent: Giving Up Superiority
John 4:5-42

Jai Stone is a blogger and entrepreneur who has a passion for creating paths to authentic joy and healthy relationships, especially in the Black Community. Jai also writes about her decision to leave her parents church, along with the disappointment of her Southern-bred, church-going parents. She writes, “I don’t have a problem with the institution of church itself; it’s primarily the people at church that have always given me the Georgia Blues. That, coupled with the fact that I’ve never truly found healing in church environments, has led me to seek a relationship with God in other ways. I suppose I should slingshot back a few years to give you some background here. Initially when I distanced myself from church, it was because I had been plagued by emotional duress and other mistreatments by people affiliated with ‘the church.’ It didn’t matter what city I lived in or what denomination of church I attended, it always ended the same way—with me heartbroken and disappointed by members of the congregation. But as my spiritual intelligence evolved, I came to understand that there are broken, damaged people everywhere – especially in the church. The people became less of a factor, but the damage lingered. Eventually, what I came to understand was that I was in immense emotional pain, and I had no idea how to even begin to heal myself. I just knew that going to church didn’t seem to make the pain any less. I had survived a series of catastrophic events, and although I was physically intact, my spirit and emotions were damaged.” Jai went on to found her own organization that helps women move through emotional pain without fear, guilt or apologies.

I meet a lot of people like Jai Stone -- people who could be called "church-damaged," people who have had some of their most painful experiences of shame and humiliation in churches, often in God's name. I've also met a lot of Christians who call themselves evangelists, whose major concern is to make sure that sinners know just how shameful their behavior is and disgrace people into accepting the Reign of God.

Some people, including a few in churches, are skilled at tapping into another person’s sense of shame. We humans have developed a number of responses to shame. Some people deal with shame through avoidance or withdrawal: “I will stay away from the people who trigger these feelings in me. If I can create physical distance, I can at least protect my emotions and not open myself up to the judgmental remarks of another.” Withdrawal and avoidance can be accompanied by feelings of depression and self-centered protectiveness. This is Jai Stone’s story, right? Even if she did not feel shamed by the church, the church did not make her pain any less. So she left.

Some people feel shame and attack the Self, either psychologically or physically: “I will put up with it and bear the marks of shame in my soul and on my body because I don’t want to live without you.”

The most primal and destructive shame response is to attack the other: “You hurt me, so now I’m going to hurt you back. I feel so endangered by you, my self-esteem feels so reduced when you are around, I need to respond in a drastic way to get you to stop looking at me.” In this scenario, the victim becomes the victimizer and can start a cycle of escalating revenge.

I imagine most of us can think of times when we have felt ashamed. Today, as part of our Lenten journey, I want us to turn our attention to the other side of shame – the times we have acted as “the shamer” – the times we have been inappropriately judgmental, smugly self-righteous, and snobbily superior. It can be satisfying to sit in judgment on others.  In a penetrating essay on the “put-down,” Joseph Epstein says that judging others is “malice formulated in tranquility.”

If you are willing to go there with me, I want to be honest about the times when we, as a religious community, have contributed to heartbreak and disappointment of others. Have we ever failed to be a place of healing because of a sense of superiority? If so, can we get to a place where church-damaged people –  life-damaged people – can feel the welcome embrace of equal faith partnership when they come to CCC? To use the words of another Joseph Epstein essay, “Is there a snob-free zone, a place where one is outside all snobbish concerns, neither wanting to get in anywhere one isn't, nor needing to keep anyone else out for fear that one's own position will somehow seem eroded or otherwise devalued?” Although Epstein’s path to the snob-free zone is different than what I would suggest, the idea is the same: Can we come to a place where we can all value one another, outside of the madness of superiority?

Today we heard a Gospel story about the ability to give up and get over superiority.  It’s a story about a woman at a well. A Samaritan woman. Tens of thousands of Christians are going to hear sermons about her this lent, and they are likely to hear their preacher describe her as a prostitute. 

Here’s what you need to know about this story. First, Jews and Samaritans don't get along. Second, women and men in this culture generally keep a safe social distance from each other. Third, the woman is at the well at noon, in the heat of the day. It is not the time of the day for drawing water or making long travels. So the Samaritan woman at the well is quite surprised when Jesus, a Jewish man walking around in Samaritan territory at noon, asks her for a drink. When she makes a remark to that effect, he offers her living water. She is confused. And intrigued. She asks about the miraculous water. At this point, Jesus has all kinds of opportunities to act superior to this woman. He’s a Jew, one of God’s chosen people. She is a half-breed Samaritan. Jesus is a male and therefore has more privilege than she has as a woman. He is God’s only-begotten, and she is a wayward worshipper.

Jesus knows her past and could take the opportunity to judge her. Did you get that part where Jesus invites the woman to call her husband?  When she replies that she has no husband, he agrees: "You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband" (4:18). And there it is – that one sentence has branded her as a prostitute.

Conservative preacher John Piper describes the woman as "a worldly, sensually-minded, unspiritual harlot from Samaria." At another point in a sermon he calls her a "whore." Talk about “church-damaged”! Talk about shame! The Samaritan woman has been trash-talked by preachers for centuries.

Let’s just get something straight. There are a number of ways that we might imagine this woman's story as tragic rather than scandalous. Is she a prostitute, or has her family had a sorrowful string of terrible deaths? Jesus never calls her a woman of loose morals. Male theologians did that later on.  Jesus never lords his status over her or manipulates her. Centuries of sexist biblical interpretation have done that. Jesus rises above misogyny and moralism. The woman has been shamed in the past. She has been shamed by centuries of chauvinist sermons. Scripture doesn’t even give her a name, for goodness sake. I wonder if she ever withdrew. I wonder if she ever took the same to heart. I wonder if she ever lashed out and tried to deflect the gaze of those who were shaming her.

Today, the woman from Samaria gets love and understanding. She looks at Jesus and she sees good news.  Jesus receives the Samaritan woman with so much love and grace, she transforms. She hears God’s love. She gets a taste of living water. Soon, she's rushing into the very center of the village, demanding to be heard by those who were once her tormentors. And she IS heard; many believe in Jesus because of the woman's bold testimony. In the process, she finds the path to authentic joy and healthy relationships.

Giving up superiority is transformative. It’s something I’m working on during this season of preparation, especially as I focus on spiritual practices. Jesus warns us even our prayers and fasting can be used to draw attention to how wonderful we are, instead of the goodness of God. What if, this Lent, we gave up superiority?!

I want to expose self- superior prejudices that keep me from encountering others with genuine joy.

I want to say goodbye to self- superior prayer that seeks my wellbeing without also seeking the wellbeing of others.

I’m skeptical about self-superior silence that does not include deep listening to others.

I’m doubtful about self- superior solitude that doesn’t make me crave immersion back into my community.

I’m questioning self- superior charity that keeps me at arm’s length from the poor.

I’m done with self-superior meditation that doesn’t make me one with my neighbor.

I’m through with self-superior simplicity that does not lead to more complexity in my relationships.

I’m tired of self-superior worship that encourages me to consume God rather than being consumed by God.

Here’s what I think: God doesn't care about any of the artificial lines we draw to make ourselves feel superior to others. If we let go of our status symbols and judgmental attitudes, we too can hear Jesus’ call more clearly and respond more faithfully. What transformed this woman could transform our world.  God spreads Good News through those who are considered “damaged goods.” If you are on the judgdy side of the question, it is time for us to get over it and learn some new behaviors. If you are on the “damaged goods” side of the equation, please know that your pain can be used to spread the Gospel.

Sources:
http://thecrookedmouth.com/saying-goodbye-spiritual-formation/
http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/intense-emotions-and-strong-feelings/201212/violence-and-shame-the-attack-other-response
http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2005/02/third_sunday_in.html
http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3194
http://emotionalnudity.com/enl-founder-jai-stone/#sthash.J5mUN1P7.dpuf I
http://www.essence.com/2013/06/27/emotional-nudity-church-isnt-me-god/
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-lose/misogyny-moralism-and-the_b_836753.html
http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2001/0206.epstein.html

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