On the first Sunday of each month, we usually have a faith story. This is a chance, typically, for you to hear from someone other than me (hooray for you) and for me to have a little rest (hooray for me). Today, I’d like to give you a little faith story of my own. Since I’m up here most often, you often hear little snippets of my experiences or of my family. I try not to do that too often and rely on other things to flesh out my explanations of the gospel and where I believe God is in the world.
And it’s very rare that I tell you something big that you don’t already know about. That’s not because I’m keeping secrets, but because I don’t really share that much. I don’t want to get in the way of God’s story, so I try to keep my story and myself out of the way.
Around this time last year, I was still afresh with the glow of V’s birth. I had a beautiful little girl and a healthy toddler little boy. I was exhausted, but happy. I knew I would come back to work in a few weeks and it would take a while to get used to a new routine, but things would work out. I’d figure it out. I always did.
Occasionally, I would have panic attacks. I’d wake up and watch the baby sleep, afraid she’d stop breathing. I’d run down and check on D. I’d put my hand on Rob’s chest. I stare at the ceiling for hours. I told myself this was normal and it would pass. I would feel better. It was all just new. A lot of new, but it would become old soon enough.
I would try to pray. If I was praying for someone else, I could do it. I could feel it- the words came, the power, the expectation. But for myself- there was nothing. Pages of my journal stayed blank. The computer screen was empty. I needed a new ribbon for my typewriter and I didn’t see any point in buying one.
I came back to work. I wrote sermons and blog posts. I prayed for people. I counseled and made phone calls. I visited and wrote cards. I participated in two outside writing projects. But I could not pray for myself. And then it became March and April. Easter was early last year. Resurrection celebration came and it went. I sang the songs, but I did not dance in the parade. It went on.
I was afraid. Very afraid. Everything felt too hard. Harder than it had ever been. I was afraid of messing up, afraid of mistakes in raising my children, of being a wife, of leading you. I felt paralyzed by how I could screw up anything and everything… It was all there. How easily I could fail… how easily I could fail people who I loved… how easily I could let them down.
When those thoughts began to multiply, they came with a horrible, terrible. Not a chorus or a picture or a whisper or a shout or a monster or a phrase… a horrible, terrible. That’s what it was. The horrible, terrible communicated that if I was so close to screwing up… maybe it was better not to be than to risk it. I tried to squish the horrible, terrible like a bug, but it didn’t work.
It’s hard to tell someone, anyone, that you’re having that thought. That you don’t have a plan, but that you think things might be better for someone, for anyone, if you weren’t there. Every day I would lay in bed in the morning. I would look at the ceiling and I would decide who I was living for that day. It might have been my kids or one of you or a sibling or a colleague or my parents or… or… or… one reason to be was all I needed. Day by day, until I finally was able to get in and see a counselor, I thought of one reason to be. One reason that was greater than my fear of screwing up.
When I finally began to see the counselor, when I went in week after week, I clutched a pendant of Mary, the mother of Jesus in my hand. I still couldn’t pray for myself. I referred to this as the fact that God and I weren’t on speaking terms. I was afraid, hurt, scared, and frustrated with God. I wasn’t praying to Mary- she and I weren’t talking either, but I thought that if anyone knew how I felt- it was surely her.
Among the things I sorted out in talking with someone was how much of my own identity was based in what I could do for other people. In general, I believed (and I still wrestle with this) that a person loves me, likes me, finds me useful because of what I can do for him or her, not for who I am. Which is what makes a fear of failure paralyzing… if I can’t do it right or well or whatever, how will I be loved?
And, so, here I stand- the world’s most ironic Lutheran. I’d built so much on the expectation that you (and others) will like me if I do it (whatever it is) well. Our relationship with others is a reflection of our relationship with God. I’ve had to spend nearly a year figuring out that maybe, just maybe, I’d thought God would reject me if I screwed up as well.
How can I have thought that? How can I have thought that? How can I have thought that? I would never let any of you entertain that thought for more than a second. But there it was. I couldn’t do anything right. If I was failing my kids, surely my husband, the congregation, my friends, and God all followed.
There is a tendency to read the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well as a BIG story. Jesus talks to a woman (ominous music) who is also a Samaritan (more ominous music). The fact that she’s had more than one husband is amplified. The fact that she’s at the well at noon is played up and used to make hay. All of the wrong things get exacerbated and the point gets missed.
The woman comes to the well in the light of day in contrast to Nicodemus who came in the cover of night. That’s all that is. Maybe she came back to the well because she spilled her jug of water. Maybe she’s trudging along, thinking, “I can’t do anything right. My husbands keep dying. No one will marry me or keep me in the their house. And I spilled the water on washing day. Why do I go on? And I can’t even get water by myself without the third degree from some Jew!”
It’s a story that’s remarkable in its ordinariness. There’s no scandal beyond the fact that God encountered this woman in her every day life. That in order to be on speaking terms with God, she had to speak to the person right in front of her. To be in relationship with God, she had to trust in the words of Jesus. Not get them totally right, not be able to explain them perfectly, but tell them to hear neighbors, turn them over in her heart, and dare to live as if they were true.
Ultimately, that’s how I get out of bed every day. Knowing I’ll probably screw up. Hoping that I will still be loved. Turning the words of Jesus- “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”- over in my heart and daring to live, trusting they’re true.