I am a strategically self-protective person. I hide my faults and weaknesses. I weigh my words. I hedge my bets.
Because of this, there’s a side to Jesus that I find particularly disturbing. It’s a side to him that doesn’t just show up once or twice in the gospels. It is an essential part of who he is, showing up regularly.
Jesus is not afraid of my pain. And he’s not afraid of disturbing it or of confronting my shame.
Most of us are as afraid of each other’s pain as we are of our own, maybe even more so. We turn our eyes away from arguing couples and weeping adults, the handicapped and the homeless. We tiptoe around a co-worker’s divorce, a neighbor’s drunkenness, a church member’s bankruptcy, an old friend’s suicide, a cousin’s cancer. We don’t know what to say. We don’t know what to do. And our happiness feels inappropriate in the midst of their heaviness.
To enter into their pain would mean asking tough questions and listening to tough answers, weighty answers, long-winded answers. It’s awkward. It’s time-consuming. It’s a downer. Making a joke and talking about the weather or sports or politics or anything else feels like side-stepping a catastrophe.
But that’s not the Jesus way. Jesus homes in on the pain and deals with the shame.
In one of my favorite stories, he meets a woman at a well at the wrong time of day. All the other women got their water at the same time in the morning when it was cool and when they could share the gossip of the previous day. But this woman has come at noon, when the sun is highest and hottest, to avoid the crowd, to get her water in silence and peace, knowing the gossip will probably be about her. She’s avoiding the pain, avoiding her shame.
Jesus starts softly, meekly. He has all of the cultural advantages on his side, but he puts himself in the place of need, the vulnerable place where he can be denied. He asks for a drink of water.
It’s a simple request. A very human request. But it’s a masterful one. In just a few words, he has started a conversation that crosses all kinds of social boundaries and he has elevated the woman while humbling himself. And so they talk.
Soon, the woman is asking him for water. Roles has reversed. And Jesus looks like he’s about to give away something almost magical: an internal, eternal spring of living water. But instead, Jesus makes another request.
“Go get your husband and come back.”
After the humility and generosity, Jesus now engages in brutality. His request has touched on the most painful, most shameful part of this woman’s life. It is the open wound. It is the scarlet letter. It is the reason she endures the discomfort of the noonday sun and avoids the scornful glares of the morning crowd.
“I don’t have a husband.”
“No. You don’t. You’ve had five. And the man you’re with now isn’t your husband. You spoke truly.”
Ouch. Jesus has exposed the one thing the woman has committed to keep hidden, even if everyone around her knows the truth of the matter. She hasn’t been able to keep concealed her pain, but she’s kept others from disturbing it. But here comes Jesus, poking and disturbing.
What’s amazing about this story from John 4 is that Jesus has the chutzpah to prod where the woman is most self-protective. But not only that, I find it amazing that he offers no other words about the woman’s marital mess. He offers no consolation about how these previous husbands have used her (which is probably the case, since men did the majority of divorcing back then because it was economic suicide for a woman to divorce her husband). He offers no judgment, no blame. He offers no suggestions. (“You really ought to marry the guy you’re with or dump him. Living together is a sin, you know.”) He simply never brings it up again.
After a brief theological discussion, she runs off in such haste that she leaves her water jar behind — the importance of her encounter with Jesus eclipsing the basic human need for water. She has to get back to town to tell people about him. And what does she say when she gets there? We’re told twice: “He told me everything I’ve ever done.”
He knew her. He knew her pain. He knew her shame. And yet he approached her. And yet he asked her from a drink. And yet he offered her living water. He knew and he cared — he cared for her.
He didn’t ignore the problems. And he didn’t ignore that they were truly problematic. But he didn’t let the problems define the relationship he was establishing with her.
We are never told that Jesus was kind or compassionate or gentle or nice in any way. If anything, he seems witty and playful on one hand and intense on the other. The word “love” is never mentioned in the passage, but what we see on display in Jesus is the definition of love. He’s humble, yet confrontational. He’s generous, yet truthful. In him, there is no tension between any of these. It’s obvious that everything he says is for her benefit, all emerging from his love for her.
We see the same at play when Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” When he asks a handicapped man, “Do you want to get well?” When he tells a woman caught in the act of adultery, “Go and sin no more.” When he tells his disciples, “All of you will abandon me.” When he tells the short-statured tax collector Zacchaeus, “Come down from the tree. I’m eating at your house today.” When he calls the religious leaders “white washed tombs filled with dead men’s bones.”
In each and every case, Jesus puts his finger on the painful place. No ignoring. No avoiding. He lances the infected place, opening up the wound that it might get on with the healing.
And so, I ask myself: Am I willing to engage with the tough love of Jesus? Am I willing to have my shame exposed? Am I willing to feel the pain of love? What makes me afraid? What makes me resist?
Ad so, I pray: “Lord, love me in this way. Let’s have this conversation. I want this living water that you are offering. I know that there are things we need to deal with as I take it in, but I have a hunch that the pain of dealing with them will be less than the pain of living with them. So, let’s talk.”
[This post was inspired by observations on John 4 by my son and subsequent conversations over dinner at The Table.]