May 21, 2023

The Still Small Voice

Rev. Chelsea Page

Thank you for being part of this Mental Health Sunday worship today. It is important for us to periodically acknowledge the deep urgency of death by suicide in our community, and the grief of those who experience suicide loss. But I want to share the upside of some statistics. Did you know that 90 percent of all Americans have had suicidal thoughts at least once in their lives? Of those who have attempted suicide without the use of firearms, at least 90% have survived. Furthermore, 90% of people who attempt suicide and survive will NOT go on to die by suicide at a later date. 

What this means, as the trainer at our recent suicide prevention workshop emphasized, is that we are, all the time, surrounded by survivors. We are always surrounded by people who lived through their lowest point and are living as beacons of hope. This is true out in the community, and it is true right now, here in this sanctuary. 

I was surprised to hear such a hopeful voice on this serious topic! And in our gospel story today, we get another example of how to affirm people’s strength and resilience amidst the messiness of life.

You see, the woman at the well has made a bit of a mess of her life. Our story picks up right after Jesus offers her living water. As the encounter between them unfolds, Jesus points out that she has had multiple marital and non-marital relationships, a situation that might tempt her to shame, and certainly others to judgment. Although mortality rates for men were high, and both divorce and widows common back then, this woman really has had an especially rocky time of it. I mean, five husbands and now a sixth she is not married to?

It’s like if Jesus were to walk up to me, and make a point of mentioning right off the bat that I have insomnia and anger problems. Sure Jesus – but are you pointing out problems that need to be addressed before I can follow you? Or maybe are you just saying “welcome to the human club”? What exactly are you driving at mister?

The woman could certainly be tempted to shame. But she doesn’t even get defensive! For in Jesus, she manages to hear a different voice, a gentler voice. A voice that matter of factly names the truth of her experience without covering it over in shame or silence, while using it as an opening to invite her into theological conversation. How, you say? 

Well, this Samaritan woman recognized immediately that Jesus was speaking to her in symbolic language as well as literal. Back at that time, the Samaritans were known to have had five husbands, AKA five pagan gods who are described in the Hebrew scroll which we know as Second Kings, Chapter 17. “The king of Assyria had brought people from Babylon, Kuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim and settled them in the towns of Samaria to replace the Israelites. They took over Samaria and lived in its towns. Each national group made its own gods in the several towns where they settled, and set them up in the shrines the people of Samaria had made at the high places.” 

This is why the woman seemingly ignores Jesus’s personal question and counters with a question of her own – a theological challenge about where to worship, the mountain or in Jerusalem. And from there unfolds a rich spiritual conversation about true worship, which Jesus says she WILL do. 

This is the opposite of disrespect – this is an intellectual encounter that even Jesus says deeply feeds him, and the woman rejoices in being engaged as an equal. Nothing in her history is disowned or used to disqualify her as a prophetic conversation partner. Jesus sees her life, mistakes and all, as a source of wisdom and strength, and has no embarrassment about using it to create a really interesting comparison between one’s love life and one’s faith life. In her excitement over meeting a prophet who meets her at the level of her lived experience, the woman proclaims that Jesus, who “told me everything I had ever done,” is the messiah. She becomes his partner in ministry, and her entire Samaritan community is embraced by Jesus as co-laborers in the field. Despite their weird religion….and despite her weird love life.

This is why we celebrate Mental Health Sunday in church. Like the Samaritan community, in Jesus we hear a different voice than the voice of condemnation or othering. A voice that doesn’t care about our weirdness or mental health challenges, our messed-up gods and addictions and meandering life stories, but claims us as co-laborers. This voice does not ignore our brokenness but does not fixate on it either, caring more for our capacity for spirit and truth than the attributes of our outer package. The voice of the sower, who planted in us our strength and resilience, always rejoices over us. May we drown out the voices of stigma and self-judgment, and focus only on this still small voice.

And now friends, as I prepare to depart from HUCC to labor in another field that has been prepared for me, reaping seeds that I did not sow, just as you will grow and tend the small seeds I have planted here, let me leave with you a beautiful thought from my home tradition, the Roman Catholic Church.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own. Amen.