No room for shame in Christ (Lent 3A, 23 March 2014)

John 4.5–42

I think it was my first day at school. If not, it must have been the first week.

We had been asked to draw a picture. I drew a picture with my crayons, in blue, green and black. I did my best.

I looked at the boy sitting next to me, who also lived next door. Gary was drawing a nicely-ruled picture of houses. I could see it was very good, and so much better than mine. I had no idea he could draw like that. I looked from his picture to mine and back again. I had thought mine was ok, but I began to think maybe it wasn’t. My heart sunk.

Then the teacher announced that we had to line up and show her our pictures. I hadn’t known that would happen! My heart sank further still. I was behind Gary in the line. When he showed his picture, the teacher couldn’t praise him enough. It was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Then with a bowed head, I showed her my picture. She was dismissive. She called it ‘scribble’, and asked why I couldn’t draw better at my age. I knew it wasn’t as good as Gary’s, but I also knew I had tried. I was ashamed; I was officially Bad At Drawing; Gary and I never talked about it.

This is what my picture looked like: 

My first school picture

Of course, you can all see that it’s a drawing of a car going over some hills. To be precise, it’s a car driving over the Yorkshire moors.

I became ashamed of the picture that I had enjoyed creating. I became ashamed because I saw it through my teacher’s eyes. It was scribble, and I decided that scribble was all I was capable of. But much more than that, I began to feel that my teacher saw me that way, not just my work. I’m sure she didn’t, but that was how I felt at five years of age.

I began to know something of shame.

I could have just felt that my friend Gary could draw better than me, which was true. But I went one further: I began to feel I wasn’t as good as him. That’s shame.

Now, I know that this is a pretty small example of shame. So why am I telling you this? For one thing, the woman whom Jesus met at the well was a woman who had been shamed by her community.

That’s why she came to the village well in the middle of the day, in the heat of the noonday sun—to escape condemning looks and cruel gossip and backs turned towards her. Or because she had been actively discouraged from coming for water in the morning with the other women, before the day go too hot.

Shame is a very cruel thing. It isolates people. Sometimes, people turn their backs on those they consider to be full of shame. A daughter tells her parents that she’s gay. They tell her to leave, and break off contact. A son goes to jail. The family never visit, not once.

More often, when we feel shame, we ourselves keep it hidden from others. We don’t talk about it, we turn away. We smile, we put on a brave front, we act as though nothing is wrong. It may take a great deal of psychological energy to keep it all hidden, but we do it as if our very survival depended on it.

Because we are ashamed. Of something. Or perhaps it’s nothing, really.

And here is the second reason I talked about my first work of art today. The Samaritan woman had been shamed, but: we all know what shame is. And some of us carry that shame around inside, like a hidden wound. Some of us carry around that sense that we are not worthy, that if others truly knew us, they would turn their backs. So, even though we’re in plain sight, we hide ourselves.

What is the way through? To stop hiding. To come out into the light. To hear the voice of Jesus saying, ‘Come to me, all you who labour and are heavy-burdened, and I will give you rest’.

Or to put it another way—to receive the Living Water from Jesus, water that flows into us and through us and gives life to us and to others.

That’s what happened to the Samaritan woman.

Jesus came into her life, he knew all about her, and he accepted her. Her shame meant nothing to him. Because of this, she could speak. She could engage him in conversation, spend time with him. She could learn from him despite being a woman, a Samaritan woman, and a woman with a shamed status.

Living Water began to bubble within her. And Living Water flows! It must flow, it must go somewhere and enrich the earth. So she had to go and tell her village, the village that had turned away from her. She had to share this with her people. The Living Water within her had to go somewhere.

That’s what can happen when our shame is dealt with. We are silent no longer, we can hold our heads high, we have dignity.

In the end, that’s why I shared my picture. I know it was a long time ago, I know a drawing is a small thing, but it helped to set my course for years. Yet in Christ, there is no need for shame. Jesus Christ took our shame from us and took it to the cross.

And there’s no room for treating people as though they deserve to be shamed. Do you know, there are people who hesitate to step into our church today because they feel they will be ignored and shunned? I tell them not to worry, that this is the friendliest church I’ve come across. But shame, or the fear of being treated as shameworthy, holds people back.

So: when new people come, the role of those who are regular here is twofold.

Firstly, let Jesus Christ deal with your shame. Talk to him in prayer, and talk to a trusted friend. Speak up, there is no need to hide.

Second: let that Living Water flow. Speak, welcome people who come here. Show that in Christ, there is no room and no need for shame. Amen.

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