A Nobody is Always a Somebody
A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent
Let us pray. God of Spirit and Truth, expand my mind, but even more, my heart to receive your great and universal Good News. I know that no change of heart happens without a change of mind, and no change of mind happens without a change of heart. Get me started in one place or the other! (Richard Rohr, Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent, p. 61). In the name of Jesus. AMEN.
"I'm a living example of what people . . . go through and survive. I'm not like anyone (else). I'm me." Those are the words of Elizabeth Taylor, one of the most famous actresses of our time. Winner of two Academy Awards, her breakthrough movies, which she made in her teen years, were "National Velvet" and "A Place in the Sun." She also starred in "Cleopatra," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," and her terrifying masterpiece, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," in which she worked with the only man she married twice, Richard Burton. In that movie, Taylor screams at Burton, "I'm loud, and I'm vulgar, and I wear the pants in the house. Somebody has to! But I'm not a monster! I'm not!"
Elizabeth Taylor stunned generations of moviegoers with both beauty and skill. Her very name defined Hollywood glamour. She remained a celebrity until her death - at the age of 79, earlier this week - partly because she was such a good friend to so many stars, including Michael Jackson. She "got it" about celebrity, knowing all too well what it was like to be subject to the relentless pressures of fame and fortune, evidence of which can be found in the drama of her eight marriages. Yet by all accounts, she was warm, humorous and tough. "Behind (her) seemingly scandalous behavior," one drama critic writes, "was a woman with a clear sense of morality: she habitually married her lovers" ("A Lustrous Pinnacle of Hollywood Glamour," New York Times, 3/23/11).
Drama is a way of making reality more interesting, of raising the stakes. Elizabeth Taylor certainly knew how to raise stakes. And so, I think, did the unnamed woman we've just heard about in today's drama from John's Gospel. Like Elizabeth Taylor, the Samaritan woman at the well might seem scandalous. Married five times, she was clearly everything Jesus and other Jewish leaders were not. She was uneducated, an outsider, perhaps an outcast, with a shameful past. Being a woman, like Taylor, she did not have the power that men did. Unlike the famous actress, we don't know even know this woman's name.
"I'm nobody!" That's how a poem written by another famous woman, Emily Dickinson, begins. "I'm nobody! Who are you? Are you - Nobody - too?" Few of us today could answer, "I'm a celebrity." But nobody really wants to be a nobody. Each of us wants to be recognized as someone who matters, someone who is cherished as somebody, by somebody. The woman at the well mattered to somebody. She was essentially treated like a nobody by just about everybody. Everybody, that is, but the somebody named Jesus.
There are lots of people in this world who can easily feel like nobodies. The divorced and the destitute. The homeless and the jobless. The elderly and the poor. The mentally ill and the addicted. People pushed to the margins of society, people made poor by systems of power, people like this woman of Samaria, even like a woman from Hollywood. People whom society marginalizes, putting them up on pedestals, or down in the dumps, or maybe both. There's Good News today for all of us who may feel or have felt like nobodies. The Good News? A nobody is always somebody in the eyes of Jesus.
This is indeed Good News for the nobodies of the world, but for some, this does not feel like good news at all. Somebodies, even some of us who are good church-going folk, some find Jesus' treatment of this woman, this outsider, to be challenging news, if not bad news altogether. They say, What? Jesus allows this outsider inside our religious world of welcome? He includes her in the faith community as a new believer? They don't like to see the Samaritan woman taking baby steps with Jesus. "Jesus is so patient with her!...Jesus does not make fun of (her), as he does with Nicodemus . . . " (Deborah Kapp, Feasting on the Word, p. 94).
Nicodemus (a/k/a "Nic at night"), you may remember, is the Pharisee we met in last week's Gospel drama. Nic is a Jewish insider, highly educated, someone who couldn't see beyond his own lifelong religious system. Nicodemus is so afraid of bucking that system that, in order to satisfy his religious curiosity, he has to sneak out in the middle of the night to see Jesus. When he listens to Jesus talk about spiritual re-birth, he says, "How can these things be?" and then, Nicodemus leaves. He doesn't "get it" about Jesus until much later. The woman at the well, however, gets it right away, little by little, taking baby steps with Jesus, steps toward Jesus. Jesus cares for her, warm but tough, nurturing her childlike faith, as she seeks to understand who this Spirit of the living God really is, who this man really is. Jesus is like a loving parent, with a beloved child.
Last week one of my granddaughters needed to show her grandmother and me how she had just learned to ride her bike . . . without training wheels! Her mother walked and jogged right alongside her. Like Jesus with the woman at the well, loving her six-year-old in ways both tender and tough, Abigail's mother insisted, "You can do this!" And I thought, my grandchildren and my children, all God's children need to know that, in Jesus' eyes, those divine eyes of compassion and love - those children, and we, too, are and always will be "somebody." Because sooner or later, all God's children will fall off their bicycles and into their problems, which will often seem impossible to solve. Sooner or later, all God's children will lead lives that sometimes seem downright unredeemable.
Some of God's children will even get pushed down and out to the edges of society, to the very margins of the kind of life we relatively privileged people of God will probably never know. And yet, as children of God and people of hope, we seek to believe that all God's children can grow into living examples of the things of life that can be survived, through all the seasons of life.
Sisters and brothers, at All Saints' Episcopal Church, our vision is to see and follow Jesus, to be more and more like him. Our mission is "reaching out, creating sacred space, welcoming all." How's that's working for us? In this season of Lent, are we willing to confess the ways in which our sins still get in the way of our outreach, our worship, our hospitality? How are we truly reaching out to the nobodies in our communities and in our church? How are we truly creating more sacred, even safer space for the people of God, here in this place, out there in our world? How are we truly welcoming and respecting and nurturing each child of God who happens to walk through our doors?
In this season of Lent we're also in a season called "Living Stones Capital Campaign." That image comes from today's second reading. Did you know that, in a Gospel lesson from Matthew, Jesus quotes the same words from the Old Testament that we hear quoted in I Peter today? "The stone the workmen threw out (or rejected) is now the chief foundation stone" (also Matthew 21:42). Sometimes, we reject what we don't understand, even when it's foundational to our faith. Sometimes, we take our rejection to extremes. Sometimes we even get caught up and overtaken by what has been called a "rejecting spirit." Some people don't even realize how they "just need to be antagonistic and oppositional about everything . . . ." Unfortunately, oppositional energy never (realizes) what it is for, it just knows what it is against" (Rohr, op. cit., p. 56). Like being against people who are different. Like being against those who seem like nobodies to us. Like rejecting other people, even when they are Christ-like, even when they follow Jesus, the church's one foundation.
What if, today, we decided not to oppose this "living stones" image, not to be against it, but to live into it? What if we really presented ourselves, in those words from I Peter, as "building stones for the construction of a sanctuary vibrant with life" (I Peter 2:5, The Message)? What if we dared, like the Samaritan woman, to believe in this Jesus, who offered her a drink from a spring of living water, "gushing up to eternal life"? What if Jesus is actually offering this living water to us - right here, right now? What if Jesus is giving us living water, so that the resistant, rejecting, hard and stony parts of our lives can be made smoother, and become, not dead stones, but living ones? What if we let that living water wash over our broken bodies, into our sin-sick souls - changing us, one baby step at a time, into the living, breathing stones of the 21st century church that I believe Jesus wants us to be? What if the living water we find both in our baptisms and in our church, were to make us, more and more, into the living examples of the beloved children of God we truly long to be? What if every single nobody who walked through our doors walked back out rejoicing, refreshed and renewed, feeling real, rare and precious - feeling like somebody?
A real, rare and precious person, Elizabeth Taylor, in her "second career," was as an activist for eradicating AIDS. She helped raise more than $100 million for those who live and die with that dread disease. I wonder: after today's Gospel drama, I wonder what that other real, rare and precious person, the woman at the well, actually did before she died. I wonder what we'll do while we're here this morning. I wonder what we'll do with that living water when we leave here today - and what the living water of Jesus will do with us.
Let us pray. Jesus, you are THE Living Stone, the chief foundation stone, the source of life. Give us, we beseech you, living water, so that God's Spirit might make us into living stones. And help us to remember that we are always precious in your sight, and that we are always somebody in your eyes. AMEN.