All of us have probably done things in our lives that we would prefer other people didn’t know about. They might be things we have done, or things that have been done to us. Whatever these secrets might be, we tend to keep them will hidden. The only times we might confide in another person about what we have done is when we trust that person won’t use our secrets against us, think less of us, or reject us because of what has happened.
The Samaritan woman in this story was experiencing a lot of shame. Jesus gets to the source of her disgrace when he asked her to get her husband (v16). Her reply, that she didn’t have a husband, was only the tip of the iceberg. Having had five husbands, and living with a man who wasn’t her husband, meant that this woman was outside of how ‘respectable’ women lived in that time and place. She had to come to the well in the hottest part of the day because her shame prevented her from mixing with the other women of the village. Her relationships with men had made her an outcast from her community.
When Jesus reveals her shame, though, something happens to her. Whenever I read this story, I am always surprised about the message she takes back to the village to tell people about Jesus. In verse 29 we read that she returned to the village saying, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did!” This doesn’t sound like good news for a person whose life resulted in her experiencing social shame. However, in the presence of Jesus, her shame was changed to joy because Jesus knew everything about her, but he still valued her enough to talk with her, to give her time, and to value her as a person. Jesus knew everything about her, but instead of experiencing shame, this woman found grace in the presence of Jesus.
In a lot of ways, we still live in a culture of shame. People are regularly shamed on social media for the ways in which they break the rules and expectations of our media-driven culture. Even if we are not on social media, people experience shame for a whole range of reasons. We all tend to keep secrets from others because we can be afraid that if people really knew who we are or what we have done, then they might not want to know us anymore. I regularly talk with people who are reluctant to tell me things about their past because they worry that if I knew, then I would see them differently, or judge them, or condemn them, or reject them.
What the story of the Samaritan woman at the well says to me, though, is that Jesus already knows. He knows the wrongs we have done, the wrongs that have been done to us, our wounds, our grief, or mistakes and regrets. He knows everything, and like the Samaritan woman at the well, he doesn’t judge us, condemn us or reject us. Instead, like the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus gives us his time, talks with us, embraces us in a relationship and gives us a value that overcomes all sense of shame or embarrassment. As we continue to journey to the cross during this season of Lent, this story is a reminder that Jesus embraces our shame as he suffers shame like we could never imagine. When Jesus was beaten, mocked, stripped naked and hung on a cross for all to see and laugh at, he knows our shame. In his resurrection, however, Jesus raises us out of our shame as he gives us a new life as honoured, loved children of God. In his suffering and death, Jesus takes our shame and then raises us to a shame-free life in his resurrection. Like the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus knows everything we have ever done, but in his love for us, he speaks grace and love into our lives.
The challenge and opportunity we have as Christian community, then, is to give people an experience of grace in the same way that Samaritan woman at the well experienced grace. When we reveal what shames us to other people, when we confess the cause of our shame to others, and when we embody the grace of God in Jesus to each other by forgiving sin and embracing each other in relationship, then we become the means by which the grace of Jesus is made real in the lives of people around us. Imagine what it would be like to have such trusting relationships with others in our congregation that you could be honest about your deepest, darkest secrets, your most hidden cause of shame, and only experience grace, forgiveness and love? This is the path to healing and a shame-free life – being vulnerable enough to allow trusted Christian brothers or sisters into the shame we experience so we can experience grace in our relationship with each other.
This would mean that we could think of discipleship as …
… finding freedom from shame in our relationship with Jesus
and then extending that same grace to others.
Jesus gives us the opportunity to free others from their shame by accepting them in the same way that Jesus has accepted us (Romans 15:7) and the way he accepted the Samaritan woman at the well. He knew everything she had ever done, and all he gave her is grace. In the same way, Jesus knows everything we have ever done, even those things which cause us shame and we would prefer others didn’t know about. He knows, and still he accepts us, loves us, and embraces us in a shame-free relationship with himself. Jesus knows, and he still loves us enough to give us grace.
It changed the Samaritan woman’s’ life, and it can change our lives, too.
More to think about:
Putting this into practice can be difficult & risky. On the one hand, we can find a lot of freedom by confessing things that we carry & try hard to keep hidden to another person. However, we need to be sure that the person we confide in can be trusted & will respond with grace.
If you are carrying something you don’t want to share with another person, maybe consider beginning by writing a letter to Jesus about what you’re carrying, and then give it to him by burning it. As the paper is destroyed in the flames, so our shame is destroyed in Jesus’ death & resurrection for us.
Another way to find freedom from shame is to consider confessing what you’re carrying to your pastor or priest. The practice of private confession is a time-honoured way of giving what we’re carrying over to Jesus and hearing words of forgiveness & healing for that specific sin or wound. That’s what Jesus authorised his followers to do, so it makes sense to receive what he gives us (see John 20:19-23). It would be good to discuss how your pastor or priest views confidentiality before you talk with them if there are legal issues connected with what you want to discuss. Sometimes clergy understand what happens in confession differently (eg the need for mandatory reporting to police or other authorities).
In the end, I believe the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 points to the way Jesus wants to restore us by removing our shame. This takes trusted & grace-filled relationships which take time to grow. I hope & pray that you will find these relationships in Christian community, and you will be able to provide these kind of relationships for others…