Knowledge Without Shame
Posted by Margaret Manning Shull on September 19, 2011
Frank Warren started his blog PostSecret.com in 2004 as a temporary community art project. He invited people to mail in postcards that had one of their secrets written on it. The rules were that the secret needed to be anonymous, and something never shared with anyone else. Still going strong today, PostSecret generates thousands of postcards, many of them decorated by their senders. Indeed, this small blog project has created the PostSecret Community which now has 80,000 members. Apparently, even those with secrets feel the need to share them with someone. Whatever secrets people have hidden, this website phenomenon highlights the fundamental human desire to be known and seen at the deepest levels.
Yet being truly known simultaneously arouses fear. And it is no wonder that so many keep secrets from even their nearest and dearest. Being known opens us up to exposure, and if exposed we risk rejection—for all of who we truly are is neither beautiful nor lovely. As the contemporary songwriter Aimee Mann once lamented, “People are tricky. You can’t afford to show anything risky, anything they don’t know. The moment you try, well kiss it goodbye.”(1) So rather than risk relationship, we hide from others what resides in the dark recesses of our souls. We hide our private secrets and put on our public facades praying that what we really are will never be seen or come to light.
Given this fear of being known, the invocation to “come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done,” could be heard more like an accusation at an inquisition than an invitation to be seen completely without shame. Yet, this invitation—given by an unnamed, Samaritan woman in the gospel of John—is an invitation to see and to be seen by one who tells her all that she had done. His knowledge doesn’t reject or destroy relationship. His knowledge restores her dignity.
We are only given a few details about this woman. She was a Samaritan, a long-despised ethnic group. She came to draw water during the hottest part of the day and not early in the morning or late in the evening as would have been typical for the women of her day. We are told that she had had five husbands and was currently living with a man to whom she was not married. While it is not stated explicitly, this is likely the source of her shame. Women in the ancient world derived their social standing and economic viability from their husbands. Without a husband, and particularly without a male child, a woman was without recourse and completely dependent on a society that often abandoned her. And so, perhaps this woman comes to draw water when no other women were around as a way of hiding her shame. Hers is a secret too painful to tell.
Yet in her brief encounter with Jesus he reveals her secret. But not for the sake of shaming her or exposing what she feared the most. Jesus at no point invites repentance, or for that matter, speaks of sin at all, since she very easily could have been widowed, abandoned, or divorced. Five times would be heartbreaking, but not impossible. Further, she could now be living with someone that she was dependent on, or be in what’s called a Levirate marriage (where a childless woman is married to her deceased husband’s brother in order to produce an heir yet is not always technically considered the brother’s wife). Her shame is tragic, rather than scandalous; her fear of being seen the result of deep pain.
Immediately after Jesus describes her past, she says, “I see that you are a prophet” and asks him where one should worship. “Seeing” in John, biblical scholars note, is all-important. “To see” is often connected with belief. When the woman says, “I see you are a prophet,” she makes a confession of faith.(2)
She sees because Jesus has seen her. He has seen her plight. He has recognized her, spoken with her, offered her something of incomparable worth. He has seen her—and showered on her worth, value, and significance. All of this is treatment to which she is unaccustomed. When he speaks of her past both knowingly and compassionately, she realizes she is in the presence of a prophet. She leaves her waterpot, runs into her city, and issues an invitation to “come, see a man who told me all the things I have done.”
John’s gospel places this encounter with the unnamed Samaritan woman immediately after Jesus speaks with Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader. Nicodemus, however, has great difficulty comprehending who or what Jesus was. Yet, as scholar David Lose notes, Jesus’s encounter with this woman yields an entirely different result. She “who was the polar opposite of Nicodemus in every way, she recognizes not just who Jesus is but what he offers—dignity. Jesus invites her to not be defined by her circumstances and offers her an identity that lifts her above her tragedy. And she accepts, playing a unique role in Jesus’ ministry as she is the first character in John’s gospel to seek out others to tell them about Jesus.” (3)
“Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done” becomes an invitation to be welcomed into knowing, and welcoming others to know. Jesus is the one who demonstrates that knowledge of our most intimate life details need not make us afraid or feel ashamed. His knowledge brings dignity and freedom to be known in all of our human complexity. The nearness of Jesus doesn’t kill us from exposure, but offers us a new identity forged from intimate knowledge. It is an invitation to know, just as we are fully known.
Margaret Manning is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.
(1) Aimee Mann, “It’s Not,” Lost In Space, Superego Records, 2002.
(2) David Lose, “Misogyny, Moralism, and the Woman at the Well,” The Huffington Post, March 21, 2011.