Speaking of Sin: Repentance
Fred Phelps died this week. As you may know, Fred was the founding pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, a small independent church in Topeka, Kansas. Fred put his church on the map by staging protests at any number of events, waving signs printed with hateful, hurtful theological words. And folks like Fred are the ones who have caused some of us to surrender our theological language for sin—just throw our hands up in disgust and walk away from words like sin, hell, penance, salvation.
It’s understandable, really.
But in our surrender, we often find ourselves speechless in the face of a painful human reality. We need a theological language of sin to give us words to talk about our pain, the broken places in our lives and our world.
So, this morning we continue our Lenten project of reclaiming a theological language for sin. Fred Phelps, whom I hope is now finally free of the hatred that directed his life on earth, cannot have our theological language anymore. We’re taking it back! We need to be able to talk about sin, remember, so that we can finally begin to talk…about grace. (Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin)
Today’s word is repentance.
You’ve probably heard the Greek word for repentance before; it’s metanoia. Throughout the New Testament it’s used to convey a turning, a change of mind, a new direction.
Think of the concept of repentance like this: imagine that you’re heading out on a hike. It’s a beautiful day, like today, and you begin at the trailhead, map in hand, you’re in charge of navigation. So you go along, enjoying the sun on your face, a soft breeze, good conversation with your friends. Maybe you’re not paying attention, or you take a turn on the path when you’re unsure, or even recklessly set the group off in an unmarked direction, just because it looked interesting.
Whatever the reason, a few hours in, after valiantly trying to deny the fact, you realize that somewhere along the way you got lost. And where you are now is so far not on the path, that you’re headed for trouble. If you keep going the way you’re going, you’re going to get very, very lost, and, so far off the path, who will be there to help if there’s an accident?
Eventually you have to stop, turn to your friends (map in hand) and say: “I think we’re lost. Somehow we’ve gotten off the path. We need to go a different way.”
There, in the process of changing course, is the essence of our word for today: repentance. Repentance isn’t apologizing. It’s not tracing your way back to the beginning of the trailhead and starting over. It’s not even picking up the tab for dinner afterwards because you feel bad. Repentance is changing course; shifting direction; going forward a new way.
Interestingly, guiding our discussion of repentance this morning is a familiar story from John’s gospel, the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. For your reference, go ahead and turn in the black pew bibles to page 864 as we examine the text together.
Here’s a quick summary: Jesus finds himself in the region of Samaria, near Jacob’s well in the middle of the day, looking for a drink of water. And, seeing a woman drawing water, Jesus initiates conversation with her. In this, the longest recorded conversation of Jesus with anyone, Jesus is, per usual, breaking the rules, behaving in radical ways that cross boundaries and invite relationship.
If you’re like me, you’ve heard this story presented—maybe since childhood—with a bit of a risqué tone. Even the way the story starts sounds a bit like it should be set in a smoke-filled bar.
Jesus approaches a woman—whom we somehow know is not the kind of girl you want to bring home to mom. We imagine her, skirt a little too short, heavy on the mascara, defiant in her posture.
And then Jesus opens with what sounds like a pretty bad pick-up line: “Give me a drink.”
Seriously, Jesus? Savior of the world and you couldn’t do better than that?
With that shady start, the conversation unfolds and we learn that we may have been right to believe this woman was a bit, well, loose. Her manner with Jesus is defensive, stiff. It sounds like she’s used to getting dismissed, and she’s tough enough to handle it. Then we learn she’s had five husbands—five! And the man she’s living with now isn’t her husband at all.
Well, that seals it, doesn’t it? When she leaves her water jar and runs into town to tell everyone about Jesus and his offer of living water, we sit back, relieved. This story has turned out with a happy ending after all. The fallen woman sees the error of her ways and repents, then goes off to live a life in which she starts living morally. She was a woman who made some bad choices. But no more! From here on out, she was going to be good.
Sinful behavior—>encounter with Jesus—>seeing the error of her ways—>becoming an upstanding citizen once again. Repentance.
Or, maybe not.
There’s a turning here, for sure, a change in course, repentance. But it doesn’t have much to do with being bad then becoming good. It has, instead, to do with carrying shame-filled secrets…and becoming real. Vulnerable. Seen for who you really are.
And loved anyway.
If you look closely at the passage you can see that it may be thousands of years of cultural projection that lead us to assume this woman is morally corrupt. That may not have been the case. Jesus tells her the truth about her life—that she’s had five husbands and the man she’s living with now is not her husband. But in Middle Eastern culture, a woman couldn’t survive without the protection of a man. It’s plausible that this woman could have been a widow several times over; or she could have been traded or sold as one would a piece of property; and, if she wasn’t fit for marriage, she could have been acquired by a brother in law, kept as a servant, not as a wife.
There are so many possible scenarios, enough to make us step back and look again at our assumptions. But whatever the specifics of her life experience, this we know for sure: she was shame-filled. The acceptable cultural contructs for life just didn’t work out for her; she carried regret and pain that left her excluded from her community. She bore guilt and fear that shackled her. She couldn’t appear at the well with the other women, or maybe even raise her eyes to engage a friend, because her secrets kept her enslaved.
And Jesus told her everything, the text says. Jesus told her everything she’d ever done. He saw her. He named the shame she carried, clutched tight to her chest, weighing her down. He just laid it out there on the table, no more secrets. And what did the woman do? She laid her water jar down, turned and went another way, obviously freed from so much more than that, and ran into town saying to the people who had reinforced her shame and exclusion all these years: “He told me everything I have ever done! He told me everything I have ever done! He said it out loud.”
Here’s exactly what made her do it: not Jesus pointing out her failings and telling her to start behaving, but Jesus looking at her, seeing everything she was, and loving her.
Repentance, changing course before we get totally and completely lost, is not about bad becoming good or immoral becoming moral. Repentance is about being real, about somebody looking at me and seeing me—in all my pain and loveliness and brokenness and possibility—and saying I love you.
When I am fully and wholly known and completely loved as well, that’s when the real change happens.
In February of 2005, Frank Warren decided to try his hand at a community art project. Frank was an entrepreneur in the Maryland suburbs very near our city, living a pretty normal, 9-5 kind of life. Who knows what inspired him—the memory of a high school art class, a commitment to lifelong learning, a mid-life crisis? Whatever it was, Frank had the idea for an art project he called Post Secret.
He printed 3,000 postcards with his address and the short instruction to anonymously share a 100% truthful secret about yourself you have never shared before, then drop the postcard in the mail to Frank. He didn’t know if his project would work, but he set out, hitting local libraries and stuffing random books with the cards, leaving them in coffee shops and on community bulletin boards, passing them out to people he met in the course of his day, many of them at Metro stops here in DC. He waited to see what would happen.
And then, it started. Little by little postcards came trickling in. Everyday the mail would bring more, postcards filled with secrets people had never told anyone about themselves. Some were silly, some heartbreaking. The postcards were short sentences scribbled in broken pencil. They were elaborate collages, detailed drawings, family pictures, watercolor paintings, and they kept coming, hundreds everyday.
“I like my smart students better than my dumb ones.”
“I became a psychologist so I could diagnose my own problems.”
“I stole the dog you kept chained in your backyard and found him a home.”
“Sometimes when I’m driving I pretend there’s a famous person in the passenger seat having a great time with me.”
“I’m not sorry I’ve met the most amazing person with whom I have the most incredible connection and to whom I feel closer than I ever have to anybody. I am sorry he’s married to someone else.”
“I didn’t really graduate last summer. I dropped out. Sorry, Mom.”
“It’s my birthday next week. I hope he calls me so I can tell him about his beautiful daughter.”
“I used to seek meaningful relationships. Now I drink.”
Almost 10 years later, Frank Warren still gets about 200 postcards in the mail every single day. He has a popular blog where he posts secrets that come in. He’s published five books and displayed art installations of the secrets in art museums everywhere, including the National Portrait Gallery, our neighbor. There is now a Post Secret France and Post Secret Germany and cards that come in from around the world every single day.
Millions of secrets have shown up in Frank Warren’s mailbox since 2005.
Why? I wonder why? Here’s why.
It’s because you and I are desperate to be seen and known, fully, even the parts of us that we hope nobody will notice. And that shame we carry—that inability to be known for who we really are—keeps us from full engagement with life, with each other; it keeps us from the clarity and courage we need to change course, to repent, to set out on a different way.
At the well in the sweltering sun that day, Jesus didn’t tell the Samaritan woman she needed to shape up or ship out, change her moral decay into rule-following, be good enough for God to love her.
No, he told her everything she had ever done.
And then, he offered her living water, grace, healing, acceptance, hope.
Today’s word is a good, powerful sin word: repentance. Repentance, setting out on a new course, confident that we are loved and forgiven, invited into new life again and again, is a process filled to overflowing with grace.
Because when you and I finally figure out we are loved and welcomed by God, we can then turn in repentance to look at each other through that same wide and welcoming lens.
Repentance holds the possibility and promise of restored relationship that ripples out from your healed and changed life…to yours…and yours…and mine, out into a world dying to be known and loved and invited to live into all the promise and possibility we can be, together.
God knows everything you have ever done.
What a relief!
With that burden lifted we begin now the work of repentance, because if we live into the promise of everything repentance can offer, it’s more than one life that will change. It could even be the whole world.