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Telling Secrets

Rev. Anthony T. Livolsi
Mar 23 2014


It struck me, in a way I couldn’t shake, that today’s story had something of a familiar ring to it. Today’s story did seem to echo that one, back in the book of Genesis, that one about Jacob, happening upon Rachel, also in the heat of midday, at a well, and offering her water; but no, that wouldn’t be it, for in a twist rather untrue to the Bible’s typical boy-meets-girl form, Jacob rushes to second base, right then and there. And today’s story isn’t so hot and heavy as all that, though John is a genius to conjure Genesis so gently. Or maybe it was because today’s story is one in a string of stories in John’s gospel which all sound the same, sort of, which keep the core plot – a person has a life-changing encounter with Jesus – but then tweak that plot around the edges. Like, we heard one such story last week: Nicodemus, a Jewish man, comes to Christ under cover of night; compare that to today’s unnamed, Samaritan woman, who meets the Messiah at high noon. There’s some silly banter: Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born again. Nicodemus says, Huh? You mean I should hightail it back to mother’s tummy? And Jesus says, No, no, no! Compare that to today – Jesus tells this woman he would give her living water. She says, Huh? How? I have no bucket and this well? It’s … we’re talking tunnel-to-China kind of deep! And Jesus says, No, no, no! So maybe it was just because John’s gospel is artful like this and advances by a variations-on-a-theme style that I felt today’s story to have a familiar ring to it? Most probably, today’s story seemed like one I knew, this story sounded like one I had heard, because this story is one I have lived.

When I was a teenager, there were three things I wanted to be when I grew up, three: someone’s husband, someone’s dad, and someone’s pastor. Having a family sounded hard, what with the inevitable squabbling, but generally pretty great; we would make forts out of couch cushions and the kids could eat ice-cream for breakfast on their birthdays, and before bed, but after everybody had brushed their teeth, we would say our prayers together. Having a church sounded generally pretty great, but hard: for who was I to stand with a couple as they clasped hands and struggled to keep their composure and as they swore … In sickness and in health, till death do us part, who was I to stand so close – the only one at all to stand so close – as to see the tears and the joy in their eyes? And how could I baptize somebody’s baby, take somebody’s baby into my arms, take their hopes and their fears into my arms and pronounce the whole of it blessed and perfect to God and not sob for the beauty of that? And wouldn’t I throw up in the hearse as I stammered out, as I practiced, saying over and over and over again so that I would be able to say boldly at the gravesite the only thing worth saying, Behold I tell you a mystery?

Anyway, wanting all this, to be a husband, to be a dad, to be a pastor, is what I felt to be the truest thing about me. It was the stuff that my surest self-knowledge was made of. And so, what terrified me most about being thirteen and gay, well, it was not whether my family would be unkind or whether the other kids would be cruel; what terrified me most was that I would become a stranger to myself, that I would have to deny those dreams that were deep, deep down, were in my bones. Because there was no same-sex marriage then and ‘homosexuality’ was a sin, so something had to give. I had never really met a gay man, to say nothing of a gay minister. So something had to give. I put myself in therapy, the sort that promised to correct you and to cure you and to pop you out the other side playing football. I bit down on the skin of the inside corner of my mouth when I spoke so that I didn’t have such a dramatic lisp. And I met a girl. I met her parents. We flew – she and I – we flew to France and we went up the Eiffel Tower, and I went down on one knee. And she said, Yes. I made my mother-in-law so mad: for months, I opined obsessively about the centerpieces for the reception. (The woman couldn’t tell you a crocus from a chrysanthemum if her life depended on it.) My groomsmen woke up early on the wedding day, to get tin cans and streamers and tie them, old-school, to the car. I could only cry.

Then, we were married. We took turns doing the dishes; we shared shampoo. I tried so hard to fold the wash, to press the corners and not put in a crease, but her clothes were smaller, you know, and silkier and not symmetrical in the same way as mine. But I tried so hard. I tried so hard to love her. For eleven months, I tried, I lived, like on eggshells – frightened to think that I was always and only one touch or one passing glance or one Freudian slip from giving myself away. I lived, fearing that at any moment, without meaning to, I would say something or do something, that I would betray myself against my best efforts to run the sham, and that she would start to see right through me. The secret made me sick in my soul. Surely the secret made her sick, too. The secret, and the fear of being found out, the fear – it was with me waking and sleeping – the fear of another person knowing something about me that I so desperately did not want them to know, the fear mastered me.

Which is why, all of it why, I say this story feels familiar, why I say this story is one I have lived. I think I know what must have been the Samaritan woman’s weariness – wishing she could shake the whispers inside, wishing there might come one, just one day, joyous day, when she could stop nursing her secret, when she could stop living, scared of her own shadow, stop living, looking over her shoulder, tortured by the thought that the truth about her would be told out of turn. And I think I know what it must have felt like for her – to have the very thing you most fear happening, to have that happen, to have someone see right through you, see to the heart, see what you’ve sweat and wept to hide, and then finally to hear those words, horrible words: You are right to say you have no husband. But what you didn’t say is that you’ve had five, with one more in the works. That is, I know what it is to hear Jesus say, The jig is up.

I know what it feels like, and, I suspect some of you know what it feels like to finally, to finally, be seen, to be seen in full wretchedness of spirit, to be seen. You know what it feels like for Jesus to see you for all you are. You know what it feels like for Jesus to unravel the great fantasy, to ‘tell you everything you have ever done’, to hold your hand to the huge turnip of a thing that is underground and you, to hold your hand to that, to make you feel the pain, the grief of that, of the make-believe and the lies and the rationalizations and the charades and the shame of that, to make you feel that and to not flinch from that. You know what it feels like for Jesus to see your secrets and to receive your secrets with mercy and with tenderness. You know what it feels like for Jesus to suck the venom out of that thing about you, that if they only knew … thing, that thing you hate and that you hide and that has become a hell. You know what it feels like for Jesus to whisper over you: You are more than the lie you live. You are more precious than what you pretend to. And you know what it feels like to rise and rise to some dignity, to stand, for the first time to stand free and tall to the sun, to feel more profoundly ennobled than you can put into words, but have to, have to put it into words, have to, so that, in a flash of astonishment and joy, you abandon your water jug and you – the honest-to-goodness you now – you run to praise and to sing and tell anybody who will listen, how staggeringly thankful you are to have been found out, to have been found. Amen.