During Lent our pastors are drawing inspiration for their sermons from the book, The Lives We Actually Have: 100 Blessings for Imperfect Days, and the accompanying guide, Bless the Lent we Actually Have, both by Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie.
Last fall Anderson Cooper released a podcast. He does not take up the mic to discuss politics or world events, as one might expect of a journalist. Rather, he tackles a topic that is far more personal: He talks about grief.
Anderson Cooper began this project as he was packing up the apartment of his late mother. While going through her belongings, he was struck by the loneliness of the experience. “We don’t talk much about loss and grief,” he reflects, “which is weird because they are among the most universal of human experiences.” So Anderson Cooper started talking … And he invited others whose lives have been shaped by grief to join the conversation.
One of his interviews is with comedian Stephen Colbert. Anderson Cooper starts by referencing an earlier exchange:
[A few years ago you told me], “If you’re grateful for your life, then you have to be grateful for all of it.” How can you be grateful for the death of somebody you’ve loved?
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” Stephen replied. “I just know the value of it. I lost my father and my brothers … when I was 10. And that realization did not come until … I’m on the doorstep of middle age. Literally walking down the street, I was struck with this realization that I had a gratitude for the pain of that grief. It doesn’t take the pain away; it doesn’t make the grief less profound … In some ways it makes it more profound, because it allows you to look at it; it allows you to examine your grief in a way that is not like holding a red-hot ember in your hands, but rather seeing that pain as something that can warm you and light your knowledge of what other people might be going through … Which is really just another way of saying there is a value to having experienced it.”
“I was struck with this realization that I had a gratitude for the pain of that grief.”
Stephen Colbert’s insight is unexpected. It seems so counterintuitive. How can something so difficult, so painful be a point of gratitude?
In some ways, Colbert’s observation hits the same way as the Apostle Paul’s suggestion in today’s lectionary reading from Romans: We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us …
Paul seems convinced that suffering will — eventually — lead to hope. And, because of the source of our hope — namely, God’s love for us — we can have confidence in our suffering.
This may be true. But the way Paul presents his case makes it sound like suffering, itself, is both gift and goal … Like suffering is a necessary pitstop on the road to healing and wholeness and hope and, thus, should be received with gratitude.
Christians have had a complicated relationship with suffering. That’s what happens when a Roman cross stands at the center of our sacred story, when decorative crosses stand as focal points in our sanctuaries. We worship a God who suffered; we follow a Christ who laid down his life for the sake of the world.
In some traditions, interpretations of this passage have encouraged a glorification of suffering. It’s led to the idea that Christians should embrace suffering, that we should celebrate suffering, even emulate suffering, because suffering makes us more like Christ. This notion has done significant harm — particularly for women, LGBTQ people, and communities of color — many of whom have been counseled to endure suffering because it’s their “cross to bear.”
This theology is not only dangerous; it misses the point. The assurance of the cross is not that we are to join Christ in his suffering. But that Christ joins us in ours …
Well before his passion and death, we see Jesus do this very thing by a well in Samaria …
Following his conversation with Nicodemus (whom we met last Sunday), Jesus sets out for Galilee. And he chooses a route most Jews would avoid; he goes through Samaria. As the Gospel writer reminds us: “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” … Which is a bit of an understatement. The relationship was actually more strained than that. But the animosity between Samaritans and Jews does not keep Jesus from sharing a profound conversation with the woman he meets. Worn out from the journey, Jesus stops to rest in the heat of the day. And, as he waits beside Jacob’s Well, a woman comes to draw water. Right away, we have questions about this woman. Why on earth is she coming to the well at noon? The other women in the village filled their buckets hours ago. Does this woman like to sleep in? Or is she avoiding the crowd? After all, at this hour, it would be surprising to find anyone at the well … especially a Jewish stranger asking for help.
Give me a drink, Jesus says.
And, when she protests, Jesus takes this surprising exchange in an even more surprising direction: 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.
Right away, Jesus offers this Samaritan woman the same thing he offers every person he meets in the Gospel: the gift of God’s presence. This presence dwells fully in the person of Jesus — the man sitting beside the well, offering up living water that will quench every thirst. Like the water that sustained their ancestors in the wilderness, this living water is the source of life. But, unlike the water from the rock, this gift of grace will never run dry. Sir, she replies, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.
The Samaritan woman’s response reveals her curiosity, her openness, her stubborn hope. She is filled with awe and receptive to the gift of grace Jesus offers. But I wonder if her response also reveals something else. I wonder if it betrays her pain, her disappointment, her deep desire for a different life.
I wonder if Jesus also hears longing in her voice. It could explain the abrupt shift in the conversation.
Go, call your husband, and come back, Jesus says.
To which she replies, I have no husband.
Interpreters throughout history have made much of the fact that this woman has been married five times and now lives with a man who isn’t her husband. Many have judged her and shamed her, and suggested that Jesus brings up the topic of husbands to do the same. But such readings ignore the fact that women in first-century Palestine had little agency over marital life. From birth until death, women were dependent on men — their fathers, their husbands, their sons. Without a male relative to provide for her, a woman would end up destitute. Life was made even more precarious by the fact that men could dismiss their wives for causes of their own determination — for instance, her inability to produce an heir. Women, on the other hand, could not initiate divorce.
We do not know why this woman has had five husbands. We do not know if she’s been widowed or divorced, or had experience with both. But one thing is clear: This woman has suffered. She has suffered the loss of five husbands. She has suffered the loss of security. And she has suffered the disgrace that followed women whose lives do not conform to societal expectation … the very disgrace that would drive a woman to draw water at high noon, when she wouldn’t have to endure the side eyes and snide remarks of others at the well.
It seems this woman is not worried about sneers and derision now. For, when Jesus asks her to call her husband, the Samaritan woman does not lie. She does not evade the question. Rather, she speaks the truth. She speaks her truth: I have no husband. Before the One who offers grace upon grace, she names the suffering that has shaped her life.
The woman’s vulnerability leads to more and more truth-telling: Jesus reveals that he knows the whole story of her past and present … to which she calls him a “prophet” — meaning “one who speaks the truth.” And, then, he reveals the most significant truth, yet: that he is the long-awaited Messiah. It is the only time that Jesus will reveal this truth to another person. And the woman receives it with astonishment and joy. She leaves her water jar and runs to town, proclaiming: Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!
Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! … Come and see a man who knows the whole truth — who sees my suffering and pain, my disgrace and disappointment. Come and see a man who knows the fullness of who I am. And who offers the fullness of God’s presence, the fullness of God’s grace.
In the podcast I mentioned earlier, Anderson Cooper and Stephen Colbert go on to discuss the lack of public ceremony associated with grief. “People used to be in mourning for a year,” Colbert reflects. “It was an invitation to have knowledge of their loss. That doesn’t exist so much as a tradition anymore. And yet it’s this thirst that everyone has and no one is pouring any water for anybody … As human beings, all we want is someone to acknowledge the reality of our experience and to know that we are being held in someone’s thoughts. Because what do we most want to be? — not alone.”
This is what Jesus offers the Woman at the Well — the promise that she is not alone. He knows the fullness of who she is; he sees her suffering and her pain. And he offers her the gift of God’s presence. He pours out water for her — living water — the very source of life to sustain her in the wilderness.
And this is what Jesus offers to us, as well — the promise that we are not alone. Whether we are holding the red-hot ember of grief or mourning the break-up of a relationship; whether we are disappointed with the hand life has dealt or reeling from a difficult diagnosis; whether we are struggling with addiction or watching a loved one slip away … We are not alone in our suffering. This, my friends, is the promise of the Gospel. It’s the story of a God who loves the world so fiercely that God chooses to suffer with us. It’s the story of a God who becomes flesh and dwells among us — to know the fullness of who we are, even in suffering and death.
Anyone who has ever had a friend sit at the bedside or hold a hand in the waiting room or stay on the phone into the wee hours of the morning knows how profound this is … To be not alone. To have another share our suffering. To have another acknowledge the depths of our pain.
At the end of that interview, Stephen Colbert tells a story about the power of having another person share his grief. He had stumbled upon an old cassette tape — one he’d recorded as a nine-year-old using the Cachunk Tape Deck he’d gotten for Christmas. And, as he listened, he heard voices he didn’t recognize. They were making up some game. And, then, one identifies himself. It was Peter. The brother who died in 1974. The brother whose voice Colbert hasn’t heard for decades.
Stephen Colbert stared at the tape deck, fascinated … Not quite registering what was coming from the speakers. Not, yet, having an emotional reaction. And, then, his wife walked in.
“Who’s that?” she said.
And, at that moment, Evy burst into tears. She’d never met Peter. She’d come into the family years after the plane crash that stole Stephen’s father and brothers. But, in that moment, she saw the fullness of the pain her husband carried. “She saw my grief,” Colbert recounts. “She saw through my heart, not even my eyes … That’s one of the values of sharing your grief with those that you love … They can experience it with you, and sometimes — in those moments — for you.”
In times of grief, in times of suffering, what do we most want to be? — Not alone. And the promise of the Gospel is that we are not … We are not alone. We have each other. And, more than that, we have the one who enters into our world, who chooses to share the fullness of life in all its joy and all its sorrow.
So blessed are we — human beings who know, too well, the pain of suffering. Blessed are we, not because suffering is a gift or a goal or something to be celebrated. But because we do not suffer alone. God is there in the midst of it, holding out living water to sustain us in the wilderness. And therein lies our hope. Hope that does disappoint.
Let us join our hearts and minds in prayer.
God of all creation, we come to you with hearts full of awe and wonder. We hear you in early chirping birds and see you in the cautious unfolding of a new spring. We feel your presence in the light, in the dark and through your living word. Most of all, you reveal yourself in the people that you have created and love.
Help us to remember that we are never alone. You have searched each of us and you know each of us. Help us understand that we are fearfully and wonderfully made by you. How is it that the God of all creation can know each one of us? How is it that you know all of our deepest longings, sorrows, and joys? As the ancient Psalms proclaim, such knowledge is too wonderful for us. It is too high. We cannot attain it. May we revel in your mystery and your presence.
Redeeming God, forgive the busyness that too often keeps us from really seeing and knowing each other. May we slow down. May we find the courage to be fully present in the suffering of others. May we encourage one another. Create within our hearts a compassionate loving curiosity for ourselves and others. We pray for understanding to see below the surface of the people. Help us to reach across artificial boundaries that are not of your kingdom. May we open our hearts to new relationships. May we see our beloveds through new eyes. May we love and honor you with our whole hearts.
Now we join our voices in the prayer Jesus taught us to pray saying:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.
 Anderson Cooper, host, “Stephen Colbert: Grateful for Grief,” All There Is (podcast), September 21, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/audio/podcasts/all-there-is-with-anderson-cooper
 See, for instance: Karoline M. Lewis, Belonging: 5 Keys to Unlock Your Potential as a Disciple (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2022), 54-56.
 ibid, 57-58.
 Anderson Cooper, “Stephen Colbert: Grateful for Grief.”
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