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In the second act of the musical Chicago, Amos Hart sings “Mr. Cellophane Man.” as he laments his being invisible to the world. According to his song, being the poor, undereducated, and the neglected husband of Roxie Hart made him a nonperson in the eyes of the Chicago Tribune and Billy Flynn his wife’s lawyer.
How many of us have felt the same? Invisible, insignificant and of no value to the world. This is how the Samaritan Woman at the well felt in today’s Gospel. In a time and place where women were considered the property of their husbands, with no rights, or the ability to support oneself and her children on her own, the Samaritan Woman was dependent on having a husband to take care of her. It is not clear in today’s Gospel why this woman had had so many husbands. Perhaps she was the Black Widow of her day, having been unfortunate enough to have never married a man with longevity. Or, it is possible, she did not stick with convention and found herself never marrying but playing the mistress to a parade of men. Again, the story is unclear and what it means that the man she is currently with is not her husband is never fully explained.
What we do know, is, as a woman, and as a Samaritan Woman, she was among the lowest of the low in the eyes of Israel and treated as an untouchable by the members of the Ancient Jewish world. This is why she was surprised when Jesus spoke to her, let alone ask for a drink from the water she had drawn from the well. As far as she knew, everything she touched was tainted according to the Jews she encountered. And if you think she was surprised by Jesus’ actions, the disciples were even more surprised to find their Rabbi speaking with this non-person, actually, they were not only surprised, but angry that Jesus would even think to waste his time on this woman. But he does, despite the social mores of his day, Jesus deliberately chooses to recognize this woman’s humanity and to honor her as the child of God she is. It is no accident that John tells this story right after Jesus declares, “ God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that all who believe in him may not parish, but have everlasting life.” This beloved verse, John 3:16 is wedged between Jesus’ first encounter with the great Pharisee Nicodemus, and the Samaritan woman. For the early Christian audience, the message was clear. Jesus was redefining who the children of God are. Yes the great Pharisee is perhaps the no brainer. God’s love and salvation is certainly available to him, but it is also freely offered to those we would least expect, to those who are born outside the lines of convention and even to those whose lives we deem as impure. In our Gospel readings these first weeks of Lent, Jesus not only tells us he has come for the whole world, he also demonstrates what he means by living it.
I find it interesting, we live in a country where John 3:16 is often made the center of graffiti art and printed on banners flown at major sporting events, and yet, as a people we have been missing the point. I make this statement thinking about a young woman named Kimberly who was a parishioner at my former parish. It just so happened when I was called to St. Luke’s, Kimberly was being treated for Pulmonary Hypertension at Brigham and Women’s in Boston. My visitation was initiated by the Senior Warden in Syracuse worried that Kimberly was disenfranchised from the church.
Disenfranchised was a diplomatic way of saying that Kimberly had felt kicked out by the very church she had grown up in, been an active part in and a youth leader. No Kimberly was not kicked out of the parish, but literally out of the Diocesan Youth ministry because the youth missioner at the time was uncomfortable when she came out as gay. The scars of the rejection Kimberly encountered ran so deep that at 27 and battling a life threatening illness she felt she could no longer turn to God for help. The first time I entered Kimberly’s hospital room the greeting I received from both her and her mother was chilly at best. When I visited the second time, they had figured out that I was the new rector and not just a friend of the Sr Warden so they were a bit more open but still reserved. On my third visit, I visited with Kimberly alone. At this point she must have figured that I was not going to give up easily so hoping to scare me away she point blank declared, “I am gay you know!” Thank God the Holy Spirit in that moment blessed me with a quick wit and a sharp tongue because without missing a beat I responded, “I am straight you know, I hope that is not a problem for you but I have to admit, I am far more concerned for your soul because you’re a a Yankees fan!” Kimberly was speechless, and after a good while of silence, she just started laugh and to trust that I was safe and the church could be her home once again. Kimberly’s and my journey did not end there, with my arrival at St. Luke’s she became an active in the choir and met with me on a regular basis for spiritual direction. As the trust between Kimberly and me grew, Kimberly began to challenge me in terms of where I stood on issues of gay rights. In my office we talked about where I stood on issues of sexuality, my support of same sex marriage, this she did not doubt. What bothered her was that in public I remained neutral.
When questioned on this, my answer was simple, the issues of sexuality were divisive and if I, as the Rector were to pick one side over the other I feared I would divide the parish, a parish already struggling with the then recent consecration of Gene Robinson.
Kimberly was never pleased with this answer. She constantly challenged me to come clean with the congregation and to be the advocate she felt I should be. It was not until the morning of Kimberly’s funeral, as my gift to her memory that I openly discussed from the pulpit what she asked me to discuss for so long. With the story of the Woman at the Well as my text, I shared Kimberly’s struggle with me and the church and about the countless gay teens I had met along the way, all of which shared similar tales of rejection by their parents and the churches they grew up in. Then I challenged the congregation to honor Kimberly’s memory by allowing St. Luke’s to become a place of advocacy and support for the LGBTQ community.
Several years later Kimberly’s lament would come back to me. In the course of reading Dr. Martin Luther King’s, Letter From The Birmingham Jail,” I came across this passage. “First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season. ”As I read these words I now understood Kimberly concerns, that by remaining quiet on LGBTQ issues, I continued to be complicit with a system which oppressed her and the many others who did not share the same privileges I have.
At baptism we promise to respect the dignity of every human being and to strive for justice and peace among all people. Sometimes it is easy to work for justice, but more often than not, it is hard as we must choose to stand alone and fear isolating ourselves from those we identify with most. In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus took a stand against the prejudice the Jews of his day held towards the Samaritans when he sought to drink from the Samaritan Woman’s cup. Then when he offers her a drink of living water, salvation he shocks his disciples who would have preferred to condemn her than accept a drink from her. St. John tells us, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that all who believe in him may not parish, but have everlasting life.” It is Jesus who demonstrated what loving the world looked like, it is we who are called to take the risk of living his love in this world.
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