The woman who anointed Jesus, the woman caught in adultery, the woman at the well, Mary Magdalene: all of these women are, for me, wrapped up in this image, an imagined moment after a significant encounter with Jesus. It happens to be the woman at Jacob’s well in Samaria, a scene that was easier to capture as an applique design on a stole, but to me it represents a personal identification with all of these women. I do not share their specific sins, but I have shared their shame, and I have experienced the mercy of Christ, as they did, and the healing that can only come from Him.
I have a friend who was trained as a social worker. Although she no longer officially works in that profession, she continues to use some of those skills as a mother, a missionary, and as a pastor’s wife, working in an area of rural decay. She often talks about helping people re-write their narratives -- to see themselves and their stories from a different perspective. I have been mulling this concept over for months.
Jesus does this with the woman (or women) who anoint his feet. In Matthew 26 and Mark 14, some of the guests at the dinner were offended by the woman’s wastefulness, and probably by her unorthodox way of showing her love for Jesus. But Jesus turns it around and says that “she has done a beautiful thing,” and that “what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” In Luke, the woman is described by the Pharisee as a sinner, but Jesus re-frames the act in terms of the forgiveness she received and the love that she brought.
In past blogs, I have referred to the abuse I suffered as a child. Abuse taught me that everything was my fault; I was the girl who was always in trouble. No matter how hard I tried to be good, the un-stated rules kept changing and I never knew what was going to trigger the wrath of my abuser. This caused frustration. Frustration caused anger; but because I did not have a safe place to express the frustration and anger from the abuse, I suppressed most of the emotion I should have had when the abuse that took place. The result was years of anger and rage compressed like steam in a pressure cooker that seemed to explode out of nowhere, screaming at the people I loved most, or I turned it on myself in destructive behaviors. I also learned to lie to avoid abuse, and continued to lie to people in authority into my adulthood, mostly about things that were not even important, because I was afraid of their disapproval.
Violent anger and dishonesty are sinful; Jesus does not overlook this. However, I would still be trapped in a cycle of shame and self-loathing if Jesus had not helped me re-write my narrative.
In order to deal with the anger, first Jesus had to show me the source: the injustice of the abuse I suffered. Am I to blame my abuser for my sin? It is tempting, but not helpful. My abuser will answer before God for the acts of abuse that became my stumbling blocks. By reading and re-reading accounts of how Jesus dealt with people trapped in sin, I am able to begin to have compassion for the child who bore that abuse, who did what she had to to survive. I have had to relive some of the worst moments over and over until I got in touch with the emotions buried deep inside to the point that I have been able to express the pain and anger in safer ways. I am learning to welcome that child inside me, embracing her with compassion and mercy, as Jesus would.
I have also had to answer for the sins I have committed in anger, and for the lies of self-protection I have hidden behind. But my sins, which are many, are forgiven. However, I cannot be forgiven for sins I did not commit. Learning the difference between the sin I must own and the effects of abuse, which are not my fault, will be a life-long process.
Last month, an acquaintance from my junior high and high school days came to preach a series of messages at our church. I had not seen him in 30 years, and the last time I saw him, I was not very nice; in fact, if you had asked me if anyone hated me as a teenager, his name would be my answer. The surprising thing was that what he remembered most clearly was an embarrassing episode that he described as a “tirade” that he launched against me when I had behaved badly at church camp. My response was, “I was an obnoxious child.”
Clearly I have not mastered the mercy and compassion thing.
Like a flood that has the power to unearth bodies from a cemetery, seeing this acquaintance from my childhood brought up many long-forgotten memories and deeply buried emotions; it was a rough week. This man, who was just a teenage boy when I knew him, represented much of the disdain and contempt I have had for myself as a child. He was so many things I was not: talented, from a good family (I was sure his parents looked down on mine), respected, never in trouble, and could type twice as fast as I could. He rapidly became successful and well-known after college, and everyone I knew in high school speaks of him with admiration. I was just the “obnoxious child,” a thorn in his side.
This was an experience that God has used to re-write a significant passage in my personal narrative. For one thing, I realize that this adolescent boy was probably too immersed in his own pain to give me much thought. Although he recognized me right away, he really only had a few clear memories of me. Both of those memories were shameful for me to hear him share, but in the tormented praying I did later, God wiped the fog from the lens and I saw myself clearly, in a way that I had not yet: as a child driven by pain and unmet needs, empty of the love and protection every child needs to thrive. I saw the flaw in the premise behind the label of “obnoxious child.” My assumption was that if someone treated me badly, I deserved it. Instead I saw that my bad behavior was screaming to be noticed in a way that pushed others away, but Jesus pulled me in close and held me all those years.
He is holding me still, loving me like one of those children his disciples tried to shoo away. He is whispering truth in my ear, gently showing me the difference between the sin for which I am responsible and the sin of which I was a victim, the shame of which is not mine to bear.
As is true of Mary Magdalene, Christ has cast from me all the demons of anger, and shame, and self-destruction.
As is true of the woman caught in adultery, Christ knows how I was "set up" to be caught in sin.
As is true of the woman who anointed Jesus’s feet, Christ forgives my many sins and calls my loving yet imperfect acts toward him beautiful.
As is true of the woman at the well, Jesus knows my story -- the whole story, much better than I do.