In the name of God, who knows us by name. Amen.
Michael and I always, at any given time, have a few television shows going in our streaming life. A few weeks ago I told you about Game of Thrones, but it’s pretty heavy, so we sometimes need to punctuate it with something lighter – either through sheer exhaustion from the rigors of that particular show, or just because we need a break from the occasional heaviness of real life. One of those “retreat” shows for us right now is RuPaul’s Drag Race, All Stars. It’s the most recent season in the All Stars series, but one of the things that makes it really special is that the entire contestant pool this time is made up of winners from other seasons. And, perhaps in deference to their status as winners, one of the twists of this season is that no one gets sent home as the competition advances.
Earlier this week, Michael and I were talking about how delightfully refreshing we find this format. For one thing, each of the contestants is just a lot more relaxed than in any other season we’ve ever watched. Part of that is because they don’t have to worry about being sent home if they falter, but also – and I think it may be the bigger part – part of it is because these are seasoned, successful, professional performers. They have been thoroughly validated: by the show in years past, by their financial success and consistently by their hordes of appreciative fans. They know who they are. They know what they’re good at, and what they’re not so good at. So they really have nothing left to prove. But even so, the challenges presented in each episode, and their relationships with their peers in the show keep helping them all to grow. Not into new people, but into more clearly realized expressions of who they already are.
I think one of the big mistakes that we human beings are prone to making is that we sometimes imagine that there will be some point at which our identities and everything that is true and honest about ourselves and the people borne of our experiences becomes fully set. There will be some point when we are, at last, defined. When I graduate from this degree program… When I get this job… When I get married… When I become a parent… When I retire… Whatever it may be. We imagine that there will be some point where everything about us is fixed - static. Where our identity as individuals has, at last, reached its goal.
But of course that’s not true – and very often when we’ve surpassed these milestones and still find ourselves growing, it can lead to a sort of personal crisis. But, in truth, growth should always be one of our goals. Whether we’re nine or ninety, there is always more to know, always new ways to grow, always new ways to live more deeply into the unique individuals God is creating us to be.
One of the mistakes that can come from thinking this way about identity and personal growth is that we can assume that it’s true about others, too. We take what we know about “them” and label their identity on the basis of some limiting characteristic. Soccer mom. Transgender person. Wall Street type. Hippie. Asian. Whatever identifier we’ve noticed can too easily become the sole aspect we can see of that other person. And, it’s almost never fair. We’re all more complex that any single characteristic or experience.
I thought of that this week because this story of the woman at the well is such a pivotal one in the broader story of our faith. We hear the story in our liturgical cycle on the heels of the story of Nicodemus – the Pharisee, the insider in the dominant culture of his time and place because of his gender, his ethnicity, his faith, and his station in the community. This ideal expression of an insider seeks out Jesus, albeit under the cover of darkness, to learn more about this way of knowing God that he’d been teaching about.
Then, the next story we hear is the story of the woman at the well. A woman of such little significance to the writer of the Gospel that she isn’t even given a name. Just a woman of Samaria. She is about as far from Nicodemus as anyone could be. She is a woman. She is one looked on by most Jews of the time as being a foreigner and a heretic. According the cultural norms of the day, she’s often assumed to have been a sexual deviant. And she doesn’t seek out Jesus. They meet because he seeks her – he reaches out to her. The assumption is that everyone has put her in that little identity box, but Jesus sees past all that and wants to know her – the actual “her” that includes all those things that set her apart, but that isn’t limited by any of them.
Sometimes, we, in the Episcopal Church, are accused of letting our love of social justice eclipse our faith in Jesus. And maybe that’s true for some of us. But for most of us, that striving for social leveling isn’t something that gets in the way of Jesus, but is a means for us to live into the lives we believe Jesus has led us to live. Stories like this one, the story of Jesus with the woman at the well, held up against stories like the one we read last week about Nicodemus, show us that part of the point of the Jesus story is that God not only can, but that God actively wants to use all kinds of people and things. They show us that God isn’t limited by the little identifiers that we use to sort ourselves and others into neat little piles.
Yes, it’s true, that in our little corner of the Christian experience, we champion tearing down the structures of racism and sexism and heterosexism and ableism and all the other advocacy causes that we hold so dearly. But it would be a mistake to believe that we do this for its own sake. We believe in always striving more for inclusion not just because we think inclusion is so important, but because we believe it’s part of how we can more faithfully follow Christ. The same way that Lent is about stripping away all that isn’t of God so that we can more clearly see God, justice is about tearing down those social structures that are not of God so that the love of God can shine through our lives and experiences more purely. It’s easy for human-made structures to suffer from human-made shortcomings. Our faithfulness in Lent and our seeking the justice of God all the time is about trying to identify and repair the ways that our shortcomings get baked in.
Because none of us are done. None of us are fully developed and in our final form. We all have not only room to grow, but a responsibility and a calling to keep growing. Like these crocuses and early spring flowers that have already started breaking through the hard, winter earth, we, too, have to keep pushing ourselves to grow even when the world doesn’t seem quite as hospitable as we might wish. Whenever we do, we’ll be closer to God. Amen.