Do you know the best thing about the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman from John 4?
That it has almost nothing to do with the verse everyone thinks it’s about: 4:24, where Jesus talks about worshipping in spirit and in truth.
Nope. That’s not the heart of the story at all. It’s window dressing. The heart of the story is instead much more profound, more epic, more theological, and more cleansing.
Which is why I got such an adrenaline rush out of researching, preparing, and then delivering the sermon below: The Shame Wash.
It’s a message that’s ultimately all about the land between two commas. Enjoy. And don’t miss the picture at the end which shows how we closed worship together.
Man, I can’t wait to tell you what I’m going to tell you today. We get to look at a story today, a story I’ve read dozens of times before, a story I’ve preached on before, yet a story that contains a small phrase tucked away in the land between two commas, a phrase I’d never seen before, and that phrase changes EVERYTHING. So I can’t wait to get where we are going today because what happens in between those two commas is EXACTLY what I want to have happen to lives here.
So here’s the situation. It’s John 4, and Jesus is early on in his ministry. He decides to go through a place called Samaria – which in those days was really enemy territory (the phrase “Good Samaritan” was more ironic than anything else), it was full of sketchy people, and it was also home to one very famous well. Look at 4:5-6:
5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
Jacob’s Well. Sorta like, I don’t know, Mac’s Speed Shop, The Penguin, The River Rat. A landmark. And a well-known meeting place, almost a honkey-tonk. And that’s where Jesus sits to rest & to drink & notice the time: noon.
Look what happens next in 4:7:
7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?”
Now: that one sentence tells us a couple of things: 1) this unnamed woman is carrying a heavy jar, like this (HAVE ONE!) and 2) that she had no friends. Women did not come by themselves to wells in the middle of the day. Respectable women didn’t, anyway. Respectable women came in groups, at dawn. Ostracized women came by themselves at noon. And as we’re going to find out, her past is checkered, her record is shot, and that heavy, cumbersome jar represents every bit of shame she feels towards herself and in the Samaritan community.
I say that because she & Jesus next engage in this back & forth where he asks her for water, she expresses surprise that he is talking to her at all (woman + Samaritan), he talks to her about living water, she thinks that sounds like an awfully good idea because it means she’ll never have to carry the jar again, on & on, yada yada, til at 4:16 EVERYTHING CHANGES:
He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
17 “I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
BOOM! She’s caught. Exposed. Raw. Vulnerable. And now we know why she has to come to the well at noon by herself rather than at dawn in a group: the other women in town won’t be seen with her. Her reputationprecedes her and isolates her. Perhaps she was a prostitute, perhaps not. Maybe she was a quintuple widow, probably don’not. We don’t know whether she was a volunteer for or a victim of all these men & all this shady behavior. Maybe both. We just know that she was scorned, abandoned, shamed. And that shame was so heavy on her, in terms of both isolation from others & hatred of herself.
I doubt she’s the only one haunted by things she’s done, not the only one who has to carry out the awkwardly heavy weight of shame. I suspect there are people here who wrestle with the reputation that you have, the shame that you embody. Someone here has a mug shot out there somewhere and you hope to God no one sees it. Someone else here had that secret weekend with that guy or that girl and though the weekend is over the memory lingers. Others cheated your way through school, maneuvered your way past the IRS, or even lost a job once and it was performance related. These are shames that by & large you volunteered for, decisions you made, actions you took, and you have this heavy, unwieldy, water weight. More than a few of you, however, are weighted down by events that you didn’t volunteer for; you’re a victim of the. You didn’t volunteer when that older relative touched you, when that parent beat you, when that guy date raped you, when those folks insisted you grow up too fast. Nope you didn’t volunteer for any of that but you still feel the weight. It’s shame & it’s heavy.
And you know why shame is so heavy? Why shame is different than guilt? Because guilt says I committed that sin. Shame says I AM sin. Whether sin I did or sin done to me. I am that thing. It overwhelms me and now I wasn’t just involved in it; I AM it. That’s why people who carry their shame around keep doing the things about which they are so ashamed. Ashamed of what you do on the computer … so you do it more to cope! Sad cycle. Shame is I AM that affair, I AM that addiction, I AM that divorce, I AM that abuse. And shame has an uncanny ability to render you motionless; make you stuck. Because you ARE the infraction, you stay rooted, immobile, unable to move beyond that thing of 5,10,15 years ago. Whether still hidden or exposed like the Sam woman, shame makes us stuck or alone or both.
So I think we know why this Sam woman in John 4 was there alone at noon rather than in a crowd at dawn. And yet her world and her isolation is about to be upended. Because do you remember how Jesus exposed her in 4:;17-18? She has probably both volunteered for and been a victim of those serial relationships. But the conversation between her and Jesus gets really interesting at this stage, especially in how she addresses him. 4:19:
4:9: You are a Jew So: “Jew” is how she first addresses him.
4:19: “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. “Sir,” then “prophet.”
4:25 “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” “Messiah,” then “Christ.”
Higher & higher, more profound each time! Jew, Sir, Prophet, Messiah, Christ! One designation piled on top of each other and you get the sense that story is not so much about her all of a sudden; it’s about him. And then by design it all builds to the moment in 4:26 when, after she called him “Christ,” Jesus answers back, I AM HE.
This is a breathtaking, monumental proclamation that’s easy to overlook in the English. But when Jesus says I AM, he is consciously using the same language that God used in speaking to Moses at the burning bush. I AM the great I AM (hey, a song!). So Jesus takes this moment to declare for the first time in John – though it will be followed by “door,” “bread of life,” “good shepherd,” and many more I AMs – that I am God, Savior, Rescuer, Deliverer. The whole point of naming her shame was so that she could claim her Savior.
Your shame no longer defines you, Jesus is saying to her, your Savior does. It’s incredible stuff! He takes a woman at her rawest, most vulnerable and chooses that time to give her the revelation of revelations. And then – just when it couldn’t get better or more breathtaking – the story becomes even more beautiful. Now that the beauty of the Messiah has conquered the ugliness of shame, look at 4:28, and notice the land between the commas: READ. Then, leaving her water jar . . . I love it! Weight dropped! Awkward burden left behind. Shame forsaken & healing accepted. And what does she do next after leaving that shame jar behind? Look at 4:28-29: READ. The woman who is stuck & isolated & by herself at noon instead in a group at dawn now re-enters the community. She has something to tell; she has someone to represent. Shame has been left behind and purpose has been embraced.
So here’s the deal. My prayer is that Jesus today is using my words so that he will empower you to name your shame so you can claim your Savior. That’s when the shame wash, the great leaving behind, happens! And what’s the evidence? What do I pray happens to you in the same way it happened to her? That you move from I AM SIN to I AM SENT. From I AM what I’ve done (whether secret sin or public failure) to I AM this new, better, other centered purpose. And notice how when you understand who is THE I AM, you so much better understand your own I AM. You know represent the one who sees your shame, loves you in the middle of you shame, and when you are willing to wash my shame and my scandal away. You don’t have to earn that shame wash; you merely get to receive it. The ugliness of your shame is powerless in the face of his all-consuming beauty. You leave that behind so you can be sent ahead.
And please: don’t wait until you are all better before you respond to being “sent.” As you go along the way, sent back into community or to a new task or ministry . . . well, that’s a vital part of the whole washing process. If you wait until you are all cleaned up or better before you “go,” you’ll never go! Going is cleansing in and of itself. Hear me: You are sent! All you adulterers, cheaters, liars, and misfits. Volunteers for shame and victims of it. Even a few of you who specialize in shaming others. I AM SIN to I AM SENT.
And just “where” are you sent? Well, look at the woman in John 4. Where did she go? Back to town. She re-entered the community from which she had been exiled. Some of you who had identified yourself – knowingly or not – by your shame, that’s your calling as well. You’ve isolated yourself, exiled your friends, and that alienation is what you’re invited to leave behind. That intentional community is why we have LifeGroups here (encourage lobby sign up). They are a marvelous way to get I AM SIN holdouts SENT into community. And you know what? Ministry happens within LifeGroups! It’s not on a ministry card, we can’t quantify it, but you get groups of people following Jesus together and there is encouragement, patient, advice, & prayer. That’s ministry & every shame-stuck person here can be in it. I AM SIN to I AM SENT.
Or sent on a mission trip. News flash: some messed up people go on mission trips! I go! In the going, there is healing. If not a GS mission trip, there are ministries you can connect with – my gosh, if you’ve ever been victimized in any way, what better group of children to minister to than kids here at GSUMC. You can volunteer for SummerServe in the lobby today. Others of you might need to start a blog, write a book, begin a business. I can’t tell you exactly where you are sent, but I can say for sure that God declares to you: “I’ve got more important things for you to do than to stay in your shame shelter, weighed down by your water jar, obsessing over your shame. To wash it away, ACKNOWLEDGE ME & then REPRESENT ME. You’re not SIN. You are SENT.”
You might have heard of that church where the pastor’s son started dating a woman of some reputation. For all practical purposes, he started dating the woman in John 4 – on his way to being #6. Except she’d had a legitimate conversion; he was dating a new person. But folks in that church couldn’t let the “old person” go. So they raised a stink . . . as only church folk can do. Finally, they had a church meeting (about who the son dating!). Towards the end of the gathering, the son spoke: “You’re not putting me or my gf on trial today. What you are really putting on trial is the blood of Jesus. So tell me: can the blood of Jesus forgive sin and clean shame or not? That’s what’s on trial.” Don’t you know that meeting ended real fast?! Because you don’t, I don’t, want to put the blood of Jesus – the blood of Sir, Prophet, Messiah, Christ, I AM – on trial. Ever. It forgives sin and heals shame.
It changes the woman in John 4, the man with the mug shot, the woman with the abortion, the guy with the faulty transcript and ever shame filled water carrier in here from I AM SIN to I AM SENT.
(Closing exercise – sheet of paper with water jar outline on it; write a shame, take it up to altar, and leave it behind.)
And here’s what that exercise looked like: