There is a particular biblical story that drives me nuts. It’s the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well in the Gospel of John, chapter 4. I won’t recap the whole thing here, but the part that I get stuck on is the funny bit where Jesus tells the woman “everything she ever did.” Most of the people in the Gospels who love Jesus do so because they have been healed from some sort of life-altering ailment or because they have observed him perform miracles or because they have experienced the deep love he has for them and for the world. They come to love him, because they have been loved by him and because he has brought healing to their deepest wounds.
The Samaritan woman is not physically ill. She’s not possessed by demons. She doesn’t have a dying child. She hasn’t seen Jesus walk on water or turn water into wine. What does happen in her interaction with Jesus is that he tells her things about her own life that were cause for shame in her time and culture. The man she is living with is not her husband, and she has, in fact, had five husbands.
At this point in the story I get a little irritated with Jesus and think, “Jesus, why are you rubbing this in her face and adding to the shame imposed on her by her society?” I expect her not to feel too warmly toward this strange man Jesus who just confronted her with truths about her life that are painful for her to bear. But, every time, I’m wrong, because the Samaritan woman gets up, runs back to her town, and calls everyone to come see the man who she believes could be the messiah, the one who “told her everything she ever did.”
I’m left asking: What happened when Jesus told her the story of pain running through her life? Why would she love Jesus when all he did was acknowledge her reasons for pain?
When I think of stories of pain I think of Kurdish and Arab friends of mine in Iraq. Once when I was in Iraq with Christian Peacemaker Teams I remember a few of us CPTers having a conversation about nonviolence with a Kurdish friend. Pondering what nonviolence might mean for her people, she said, “At the beginning of the genocide waged against the Kurds in the 1980s students gathered together in the center of the city and sat silently in protest of the violence. The military came and surrounded the students and then opened fire, trying to kill all of them. Those who escaped were taken to the hospital, and then Saddam sent planes to bomb the hospital. All of the students, all of their families, all of the doctors – they were all killed.”
When I think of stories of pain, I can’t help but think of all of the stories of sexualized violence I am hearing now that there is building momentum in the Mennonite church to talk about abuse. One of the reasons that I’m paying attention to this conversation is that I am a survivor of sexualized violence. I won’t share my whole story now, but I don’t know how to talk about this larger conversation happening in the church without identifying myself as someone who knows the trauma of sexualized violence personally.
Because it is so painful to tell, my story of abuse is one that is often untold outside of my closest relationships, a silent story that has taken so much of my energy and so deeply affected my life, my faith, and my relationships. My closest friends and wonderful husband know more about PTSD than they’d like, because it’s a part of my life and that means it is a part of our life together. There is no way for me to describe how devastating and life-shattering it is to experience the trauma of sexualized violence.
There is also no way for me to express to the power and possibility of healing. I am grateful beyond words to now be in a position where I can say that the violence and trauma of my life no longer define me or hold me captive. Seeds of hope and love and justice and goodness, notions that were completely destroyed for me by the experience of sexualized violence, have grown back with such force that they have become more real to me than the fear and threat imposed by violence. Don’t get me wrong. Violence is real. Trauma is real. Their seriousness should never be downplayed, and I am not unaffected by them. What I’m saying is that they don’t have the last word in my life, and they don’t have the last word in the story of the world. The God I believe in is a healing God, a reconciling God, a God who truly is person-by-person, community-by-community, making all things new.
One of the things that was essential in making healing possible for me was learning to validate the story of my experience and having that story validated by others. As I listen to those in the wider church who are sharing their stories of abuse now, I find that the same thing has been important to many, and I have permission from the woman who shared this next story with me to also share it here.
For a long time, the memories haunted me, and I didn’t say a word about them. If they were someone else’s memories, if it was someone else’s story I would have been able to recognize it for what it was. But the experience of trauma twists everything up inside, and in the way you often hear about in clichés I really did fear that what happened was my fault. I was tricked into believing that I was the exception to the rule, that I was somehow defective or even evil inside, and that all of my suffering was self-imposed. I carried this burden day in and day out for years. Every day I’d wake up wondering if I was worth anything at all and fearing that I wasn’t. I took in all of the messages from billboards and movies and political debates and accepted that what I’d experienced was reason for shame. I thought I had no choice but to keep carrying the weight of that shame around with me. One day I went to church and we had a guest preacher. He got up there and preached a sermon about the lessons the church has to learn from survivors of domestic and sexualized violence, and at the end of the service I just sat there. I heard my story in his words, and for the first time the weight of my shame was lifted off of my shoulders, and I didn’t want to move for fear that it would come back. Hearing that preacher validate my experience gave me the courage to tell a friend what had happened to me and about my fears of being a defective person. When I was finished telling my story, I sat there trembling, afraid of what would come next. This friend of mine who had been gracious enough to listen took my hands, looked at me with all of the love in the world and said, “My dearest friend, you were raped.” That’s all she said. I burst into tears, and we cried together. Painful as it was, that was the moment that my healing began. That was the moment that my story was told. That was the moment that the power of violence lost its grip on my life. Her witness to my deepest pain was the gift of healing I’d been waiting for.
I have to admit… the word “witness” creeps me out a little. Especially when churchy folks throw it around, it’s a word that makes me think of pushy people who are convinced they have all the right answers and are bound and determined to let everyone else know it. I have zero interest in that, let me be clear! At the same time, when I hear the word in this woman’s story I can’t help but be drawn to the idea that this concept of “witness” might hold a different meaning that can actually be pretty valuable to those who have experienced trauma, sexualized violence in particular, and all those who love them.
The friend who listened to this woman’s story gave witness to the truth of the woman’s experience. “My dearest friend, you were raped.” She didn’t jump into trying to make the woman feel better. She didn’t try to fix it. She didn’t start listing all of the ways that everything could turn out okay in the end. She didn’t instruct the woman to count her blessings in the midst of her darkest hour. She listened. She put away any anxiety she might have had in hearing such a terrible story. She resisted the urge we often feel to downplay the messy, painful parts of life. She let the woman’s story be what it was: a story of violation, a story of suffering, a story of fear and pain and loss. With all the love in the world, she spoke the truth of this woman’s experience and validated her story. “My friend, you were raped.” And with those words, the doors to healing were opened.
The magnitude of suffering in our world as a result of sexualized violence is huge. Stories of pain sit inside of us and the ones we love and shape our lives. The urge to push it all away is understandable. We see the stories of suffering and we fear that we’re not strong enough to withstand them. We fear that taking them in as they are will threaten our most fundamental beliefs or challenge certain decisions we’ve made about how to live. And, we think that by trying to contain difficult stories – either by keeping our distance or insisting that they’re not as bad as they seem – we’ll escape the danger they pose to us.
But, we’re wrong. We will not escape the hard reality of suffering no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try avoid it, because suffering is real. It is happening.
We are also wrong, however, when we believe that we’re not strong enough to withstand it. One of the great gifts we inherit in this life is that we’ve been given examples that show us how to stand in the midst of suffering and not be overtaken.
The Samaritan woman had five husbands, and the man she was living with was not actually her husband. We know that marriage during her time was not what marriage is today. A woman could only avoid poverty and social castigation through the provision of her husband, and a woman had little to no choice regarding the man she would marry. For this woman to have had 5 husbands, she must either have been repeatedly widowed, or her husbands must have divorced her. Either way, she would have been regarded as an outcast and likely shamed by her community. Not being married to the man she was living with, she would have had very little economic security, and she probably had to struggle quite a bit to survive. Her suffering would not have been very well recognized by her community. This is a weight she likely carried alone.
Now imagine Jesus sitting with her at the well, treating her as his equal. Imagine Jesus, with all of the love in the world, taking her hands and saying, “You have struggled. You have had 5 husbands. You have dealt with loss and abandonment, social and economic strife five times. You have struggled to survive despite your circumstances five times, and now after all of that, though you have been strong and resourceful and found a way to continue on, you still don’t have security. The man you are living with is taking advantage of you and won’t marry you. You, my friend, are living in the midst of uncertainty and fear.”
I imagine that this spirit of love is the spirit in which Jesus might have spoken to the Samaritan woman. He told her the truth about her life not to rub her misfortune in her face but to acknowledge and validate her suffering. He didn’t try to make the woman feel better. He didn’t try to fix it. He didn’t preach to her about how her life would turn out okay in the end. He didn’t instruct her to count her blessings despite her circumstances. He saw her. He listened to her. He let the woman’s life story be what it was: a story of oppression, a story of suffering, a story of fear and pain and loss. With all the love in the world, he bore witness to the truth of this woman’s experience and validated her story. And with his words, the doors to healing were opened. She ran back to her town and called everyone to come meet the one who could be the messiah.
As human beings, we are called to hear stories of pain for what they are, without sugarcoating them, without trying to explain away the hard parts. We are called to speak the truth about what we’ve seen and heard, even if that truth is something awful, because the moment that truth is acknowledged is a moment that opens the way toward healing. It is in acknowledging the stark reality of suffering that we find our way toward healing. It is in witnessing to the stories of brokenness that others carry that we might find ourselves participating in their journeys of healing.
The several times I was in Iraq, I would ask our local partners how I could best support them when I traveled back to the US. Again and again and again, they said, “Tell our stories. Tell your people what is happening to us. Let us know that the world knows what we’re going through. This is what brings us hope.”
When I talk to other survivors of sexualized violence and ask what the church can do to support their healing, they say, “Break the silence. Listen to our stories. Tell the people of the church what we’re going through. We want to feel that our stories have been welcomed, heard and understood. This will bring us hope.”
Saying this to the audience of OSU may be preaching to the choir, but I think we can use all the encouragement we can get. So, let us continue to learn to be bold witnesses to the suffering of our own hearts, to the suffering of those who have experienced sexualized violence, and to the suffering of the world. Bringing stories of pain into the light is the tool we have been given that will keep the darkness from swallowing us up.