Sunday, August 20, 2023

Paula Stoltzfus: Scattered, broken, known, and loved

Journey toward wholeness
John 4:4-26, 39-41; Genesis 32:24-30

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The last several years I have done some work on my genogram, looking back on my family’s history, seeking understanding on the kinds of relationships and stories held there. In the process I’ve come to understand there have been stories of mental health challenges, a death by suicide, stillborn infants, unresolved grief, difference in treatment of sons and daughters, unhealthy use of silencing, and passive aggressive communication.  Some of these stories I have known but others were new to me.  

I was more familiar with the stories of my family of deep faith, hard work, hospitality, and tight knit communities where love of each other, music, mission, and God were valued.  I had come to value the knowledge passed down through the agrarian roots that taught me how to grow a garden and preserve food. To see beauty in the wild wonder of creation. To value hard work and steadfast courage forged from a deep well of faith.

I’m grateful to know of all these stories.  And slowly these stories are becoming integrated into my story.  It’s so easy to talk about the positive, uplifting stories of our lives and push down the difficult and painful ones. But the truth is, if we are human, and last time I checked, I believe we all are human, every one of us has stories of complexity, interwoven with pain and joy, questions and answers, certitudes and uncertainty.

Jacob certainly carried complexity in his story.  Grandson of Abraham and Sarah. Second twin son of Isaac and Rebecca. The younger twin to Esau, his brother.  From the time they were born there seemed to be competition.  It couldn’t have helped that Esau was Isaac’s favorite and Jacob was Rebecca’s. Esau loved the outdoors, hunting and wild game.  Jacob liked being around home, learning to cook.

There were also the social practices and norms at the time to give the honor of the birthright, property, and favoritism to the oldest son.  But in this story, Jacob pressured Esau to give his birthright to Jacob and then ultimately Rebecca orchestrated Jacob to fool Isaac into giving Jacob his blessing reserved for the oldest before he died.  Favoritism, jealousy, hate, manipulation, were all in Jacob’s growing up years. All intertwined in a family that was seeking to be faithful to God.

Once Jacob received Isaac’s blessing, he left his family upon his parents' encouragement to escape Esau’s rage. He was also told to seek out a wife from Rebecca’s family. Thus began his story in Laban’s household where manipulation, lying, and trickery met him. And yet, he also encountered love, family, and prosperity.

After around 20 years, Jacob wanted to return to his family and in fact heard a message from God saying as much to do so. Once he was able to negotiate Laban, his father in law, into letting him go, he began staging his reunification with Esau.  Jacob was hoping to win back Esau’s favor through extravagant gifts, assuming Esau continued to hold resentment against him.

The night before Jacob was to meet Esau, Jacob wrestled with a man, declaring him God and demanding from him a blessing before he would let him go. It was as if Jacob finally was trying to come to peace with the different pieces of his past. As dawn was breaking, Jacob received his blessing and a new name, Israel.  He then continued on to see Esau. He was surprised when, instead of rage, Jacob was met with love and forgiveness through Esau’s embrace.

Michelle Van Loon in her book, Translating Your Past: Finding Meaning in Family Ancestry, Genetic Clues, and Generational Trauma, she says, “each time we connect what may seem at first to be disconnected puzzle pieces, we are moving toward wholeness and growing in understanding of who we are and who God is.”

I liken Jacob’s wrestling as a pivotal moment, a puzzle piece, in his life where he grew in understanding of who he was.  It was in this new space of blessing from the Holy One that he was fully ready to meet Esau where he was surprised by love, freeing them both from the past rage and hate that lead them apart.

We also have complex relationships in our families. And not only in our families of origin but also in our religious and non religious culture.  This was a dynamic at play in the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well in Samaria.  

Samaritans and Jews had a complex historical relationship.  Pat McCloskey, a Fransiscan, states it like this, “Imagine the hatred between Serbs and Muslims in modern Bosnia, the enmity between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland or the feuding between street gangs in Los Angeles or New York, and you have some idea of the feeling and its causes between Jews and Samaritans in the time of Jesus. Both politics and religion were involved.”

So it was incredibly significant that Jesus and his disciples were traveling through Samaria instead of around it, as often Jewish travelers did in order to avoid the people of Samaria.

It was also significant that this Samaritan woman arrived at the well at around noon, nearing the heat of the day.  Maybe she couldn’t get there until then. Or more likely based on the history Jesus shares, she was on the social outcast list and wanted to avoid people as much as possible for the shame and guilt that  met her in other people’s gazes and actions towards her.

Shame is a manipulating force that finds its way into everyone.  No one is immune.  It has the power to influence relationships and patterns of behavior. Dr. Curt Thompson, a psychiatrist in Northern VA who also worships at Washington Community Fellowship, in his book The Soul of Shame, says, “To be human is to be infected with this phenomenon we call shame…We work hard to cover it up. And our coping strategies have become so automatic that we may be completely unaware of its presence and activity…Its power lies in its subtlety and silence.”  Shame gives us the message that we don’t measure up, we aren’t cool enough, smart enough, successful enough, good looking enough, experienced enough.  It is the message that we are not enough.

If you can identify with this sentiment and all the emotions that can be drawn to the surface, then you have a little taste into what the Samaritan woman may have been living with.

And so Jesus encounters this woman at the well. He doesn’t operate from the cultural pressures and requests a drink from her. She understandably questions him, for all she knew, it could have been a trap to take advantage of her.  Instead, their conversation becomes one in which Jesus speaks about living water that will quench all thirst. He divulges the woman’s relational history.  Then concludes with the vision of worship occurring not in just the sacred places (the mountain and Jerusalem) they knew but anywhere people worship in spirit and truth, insinuating that Samaritans and Jews may worship together. Once the Samaritan woman acknowledges her belief in the coming Messiah, Jesus then does the ultimate confession by saying that he is the One.

Needless to say, her encounter with Jesus was transformative! Jesus saw her; knew her history; was vulnerable, disclosing who he was. This act of vulnerability on Jesus’ part, leaning into the relationship, sheds light on the shame she showed up with.

The Samaritan woman comes face to face with an act of vulnerability filled with love instead of judgment. It is as if the power of shame disintegrated. Freed, hopeful, and joy filled, she leaves and becomes the bearer of good news to her community, where Jesus spends a couple of days teaching, bridging and perhaps being a pivotal part of healing the gap that had been there for centuries.

Jacob and the Samaritan woman both carried complex histories. Their scattered and broken lives encountered vulnerable spaces where wrestling and revealing occurred, stripping the shame of its power, where being known, seen and loved continued a path of healing and wholeness.

We are similar, holding complex stories, histories, and pasts. We also have been created for relationships.  These relationships are complex and difficult at times and yet also bring us much joy.  The same is so with our Creator.  We long for deeper knowing and acceptance, love and grace, beauty and belonging. When we truly live from a well of these elements, we know what living water tastes like.  It is what leads us on a journey towards wholeness.

I realize that sharing of ourselves is vulnerable and can be scary. I would like to encourage us to see it as Dr. Thompson puts it, “vulnerability provides the opportunity for discovery and creation, for the emergence of beauty and goodness.” Vulnerability, done in a safe relational or communal setting, creates space “for God to bring us to greater places of integration and resilience…creating within us undivided hearts…and where joy is the byproduct.”

It is a challenge to find those spaces where we are cared for to be courageous, vulnerable, and open to transformation.  In our scattered and individualistic society, we have a healthier acknowledgement of our need for counselors, spiritual companions, mentors, where we can find a presence to accompany us on our journey.  Every once in a while we find a group of people that we can journey closely together.  If you find yourself longing for a small community of support and sharing, let one of the pastors know.  We hope to nurture belonging whether it is in the form of a small group, Faith Formation class, Gestalt Pastoral Care Circle, Guess Who’s Coming events, or perhaps you have an idea yourself.

Our longings are real.  Our stories need care and a place to belong.

I offer a closing poem as a prayer for all our longings, written by John O’Donohue, entitled “For Longing.”

I invite you to take in these words with your eyes closed, noticing words or phrases, or perhaps a sensation you have in your body that you offer to God in prayer.

blessed be the longing that brought you here
and quickens your soul with wonder.
may you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
that disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.
may you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease
to discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.
may the forms of your belonging – in love, creativity, and friendship –
be equal to the grandeur and the call of your soul.
may the one you long for long for you.
may your dreams gradually reveal the destination of your desire.
may a secret providence guide your thought and nurture your feeling.
may your mind inhabit your life with the sureness
with which your body inhabits the world.
may your heart never be haunted by ghost-structures of old damage.
may you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.
may you know the urgency with which God longs for you.


I invite you to join me in reading together the Confession.
all    God of wholehearted living,
            we wrestle with the realities of our scattered lives,
            striving to fulfill dreams and hopes.
            We feel the cracks within us,
            leaving us broken and confused, numb and fearful.
            We long for your streams of living water to flow within us,
            but confess we often get distracted.
            Forgive us when we allow our emptiness to lead us
            instead of your Spirit.
            Forgive us when our fear drives us more than love.
       one    We open ourselves, step by step,
            to forgiveness,
            to the stream of life,
            to the power that transforms our fear,
            to the love that heals our wounds.
            Breathe in God's radiant peace that is for all.

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