We’re going to get to what Jesus teaches us about shame. But first, we need to tease shame out from two other words we often use interchangeably with it.
And those are embarrassment and guilt.
We end up switching these three words out for one another when we talk, because all three make us feel pretty similar.
Whether we are embarrassed or guilty or ashamed, we might feel our face flush, our palms sweat, our heart race. All of these feelings make us cringe.
But they are, nonetheless, really different in their cause and especially in where they take us.
Let’s start with embarrassment.
Embarrassment happens when we do something foolish or uncomfortable or even gross, especially in front of someone else.
For example, I was embarrassed when I got all the way to the top of a five flight staircase for a water slide, then chickened out, and how to walk all the way back down the stairs to the ground squeezing past the other kids waiting in line for the slide. That was embarrassing.
And it was especially embarrassing because I was 30 years old.
Or, for another example, I was embarrassed when I was talking with my hands one afternoon like I always do and forgot I was holding my cell phone and it flew out of my hands and right into a lake.
And I was especially embarrassed when we took it into the cell phone store to have it fixed, and water kept dripping out of it, after I told them “I don’t why it’s not working!”
So that’s embarrassment.
Then there’s guilt. This one has some of the same effect on us as embarrassment – the flushed face, the sweaty palms – and may have started with a foolish or stupid action, but it comes with the added awareness of having done something wrong, especially if it hurt someone else. Guilt is a tough one.
But guilt has one small positive piece. Sometimes it actually motivates us to become better people, to repent, to make things right. We’ll look at that more later.
But then there is this third one. The insidious cousin of the other two. And that’s shame. Again, flushed face, racing heart, sweaty palms.
But here’s why it’s different.
Shame makes us feel not just that we did something bad, but that we ARE bad.
So embarrassment is when we say “I did this foolish or even horrible thing” and guilt says “I did this horrible thing and it hurt someone” but shame says “I am horrible and wrong.”
Today we are going to focus in on this last one. Because we dole shame out, all the time.
We shame other people by looking at their lives and deciding who they are because of what we observe and perceive as breaking our version of the moral code.
And we shame ourselves.
Let’s look at the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well from the gospel of John, chapter 4: 4-42 NRSV
4 But he (Jesus) had to go through Samaria.
Samaria wasn’t a place that Jews would have sought out, that we know. scholars are divided on what this means. This would be the equivalent of us saying “she had to drive through downtown at rush hour.” No one does that for fun.
So he had to go through Samaria. What we don’t know is did he have to go through Samaria because it was the only way from A to B, or did he have to go through Samaria because Jesus had some business to do there, did he come on a mission that ended up with woman we will meet in our story. We don’t know – but the passage goes on:
5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
This reference to Jacob and Joseph are the Old Testament Jacob and Joseph, which means this well is not just any well – it’s an important one.
7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)
Okay – there are a lot of details here, and all of them would have made the people during the time this happened go “oooooooohhhhhh”
The text says specifically that it was noon. Why does this matter?
Because women only came to the well to draw water in the morning and at night. But then here she comes. At noon. And it is not just any woman. It is a Samaritan woman. Jews and Samaritans never hung out together. Samaritans were definitely seen as “less than.” Not only that, but men and women didn’t talk together alone. But the text says that the disciples had gone looking for something to eat, leaving Jesus alone as the woman walks up. And what does Jesus do?
He strikes up a conversation.
9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)
See? The woman knows it isn’t customary for this to be happening. But Jesus keeps going…
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?
This exchange begins a dialogue between the two of them that is one of the longest dialogues we have between Jesus and a woman. The woman doesn’t know who he is at this point, and still (rightfully so) thinks they are talking about water in a well.
12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
The woman has started to move here from skepticism at this strange Jew who is talking to her at the well to engaged and interested in who he is and what he is saying to her.
16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.”
Now we are going to take a huge pause here, because this is why this text has been so often misused and misinterpreted. We read this part of the text and immediately make all kinds of assumptions. We have a handful of shame and we are ready to dispense it on this woman. The woman has had several husbands and is with a man now that is not her husband so we assume that
1. She must be really promiscuous.
2. Is really sinful and therefore
3. She should be ashamed.
But there are two significant problems with this interpretation.
First, historically that doesn’t add up.
Women couldn’t just go around marrying and divorcing men at their pleasure at this point in history. Women didn’t have the right to do that once, let alone five times. Which means the most likely explanation of the laundry list of husbands in her life would have been the levitical law that required the woman to marry the next youngest brother or male relative if her husband died.
This woman is not a harlot.
She has had the worst luck ever.
Second, and equally important: What does Jesus not say to her, which he often says to other people?
“Go and sin no more.”
He doesn’t say that. He only says “that is true.” No shame. No judgement. Doesn’t even say she is sinning. Just observing what is. Let’s see what happens next:
Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”
So if we misinterpret the text to say the woman has been living a life of sexual sin and we assume therefore she is ashamed, it looks like she is changing the subject in this part of their conversation as a distraction from what she has done.
But when we read it in its context, the woman instead has realized that whoever this strange man is at the well, he knows things about her, and therefore he must be a prophet. And if he is a prophet, he can probably answer a theological question that has been bothering her. Where do we really need to go to worship? Do we have to go to a certain place? This question would be especially important for a Samaritan.
21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Jesus goes on to teach the woman about what is unfolding in God’s work in the world. That all people, all true worshippers, will be able to worship in “spirit and in truth” not in a certain place. And Jesus doesn’t limit these worshipers to the Jews. Which makes us start to think that Jesus “had to go through Samaria” to extend the gospel to them. He ends their conversation together by revealing who he is – the Messiah she has been waiting for. Then the disciples come back, and not surprisingly, are shocked to see Jesus sitting there in the middle of the day talking to a Samaritan woman.
27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to him.
The woman runs back to the town and starts telling everyone who will listen to her about her encounter with Jesus. The disciples, still worried about lunch, try to get Jesus to eat, but he responds that ministering to people is what nourishes him.
31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
The story finishes by showing the effect of the woman’s testimony. People all through Samaria came to see Jesus and believed that he is the Savior of the world.
Jesus didn’t let the cultural prejudices dictate whom he should talk to or what he thought about them. He didn’t let other people’s decision about who this woman was affect him.
Instead, he talked to her, about her life, about worship, about who he is. And then he equipped her to go out and be an evangelist.
Jesus didn’t shame her for her situation.
Because Jesus doesn’t deal in shame.
Which means we don’t deal in shame either.
This has two implications for us:
The first one is simple.
Stop using shame with other people in your life.
If we can make that mistake with a woman in a Bible story, you know that we are making that mistake with people we know. There is no way to soften this one, and it is so important.
It is not up to you to shame other people, to look at their life and make a judgement about who they are.
It’s not up to you to decide what someone’s heart looks like because of what they are wearing or how they said something or what they did or didn’t do or what you heard about them.
Because it is not up to you to tell them who they are.
Only God can do that.
Shame is not a weapon you have been given to wield against other people on behalf of morality. It is a sin in your life that you need to be constantly on guard against.
It’s time to let go of shame. If Jesus didn’t shame other people, then we certainly don’t either.
Second, stop using shame on yourself too.
You are going to make mistakes. And you are going to be tempted, when that happens, to trade guilt for shame, to trade in “I did this broken thing” to “I am broken and irreparable.”
Will you feel guilty when you do something wrong? Yes. And you should.
Because guilt brings you to your knees to seek God’s forgiveness for what you have done and be set back on a right course.
Guilt leads to repentance from sin. But shame tells you sin is who you are.
But just like it’s not your job to tell other people who they are, it is also not your job to tell yourself that either.
This sounds strange to us – who knows us better than ourselves – but the only person who can really tell you who you are is God.
God is the only one who can see your whole life, and tell you exactly who you are.
And God already has. When Jesus came and walked among us and then died on the cross and conquered our sin, he has already told you who you are. You are loved. You are a child of God. You are broken, yes, and also whole because of God’s work in your life.
Shame lies to us. And it makes us lie to other people.
But Jesus doesn’t deal in shame.
Instead he meets us, at the well, and offers us everything we need.
About the Author
Megan Collins is the co-pastor of Maitland Presbyterian Church near Orlando, FL. Find her on Twitter @pastormegan
More Things Jesus Taught about Letting Go of Shame
- Matthew 9: 9-13
- Mark 2: 13-17
- Luke 5: 27-32
- Matthew 10: 26-33
- Luke 12: 2-9