Sunday, February 24, 2008

Thirsty Anxiety

Sermon preached February 24, 2008

Incarnation Episcopal Church, Santa Rosa CA

The Rev. Matthew Lawrence

I want to begin this sermon by reminding us that the job of the preacher is to proclaim the Gospel and by Gospel we mean... what?

Good News, that’s right.

We are gathered here this morning to hear the Good News. Not the bad news; not even the interesting news – I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ll try to be interesting but what I’m saying is that’s not my primary goal. I can’t guarantee interesting.

I can’t even guarantee that this will be news you can use – because, I don’t know, maybe the Good News isn’t always that useful. I mean, a Cuisinart is useful. I think sometimes the Gospel Good News is more like a Rembrandt than a kitchen appliance. Imagine the look on my wife’s face as she brings home a beautiful painting and hangs it on the wall and I say, “Well, what does it do?”

What I’m saying is I don’t think Rembrandt sat down in front of his easel and said, “Today I’m going to paint something really useful.”

But I will attempt to preach the Good News.

That is the standard by which I am willing to be judged.

So: do you see what I did right there? What I did was I started out by clarifying expectations: “This is what I’m trying to do. If you’re expecting something else, you might be disappointed.” Because the key to any satisfying relationship is having clear expectations.

Take a look at our Bible readings this morning for example. In the book of Exodus Chapter 17 the people of Israel are in the middle of the desert, and man, have their expectations taken a beating! They’re camped out there at Rephidim, in that place that would later be named Massah and Meribah; and there is absolutely no water to be found anywhere – they’re practically dying of thirst. And they are not happy.

This is not what they expected! So they go to Moses and confront him: “Why did you bring us out here? To kill us and our children and our livestock of thirst?” (Ex. 17:3)

Wow. Pretty extreme language. Can you imagine how Moses must have heard this? I can just picture him, staring at these people whom he had led out of slavery just 4 months earlier. Especially since these are the very same people who, just 40 days and one chapter earlier, had come to him and complained that they were hungry.

In Chapter 16 the Bible says, “The whole congregation of Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread...’” Oh, the good old days, right? “’...for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill us all.’”

But then what happened? God sent the manna from heaven, and the people ate and had their fill.

That was just 40 days earlier; and now they’re coming to Moses complaining again; and again saying he must be trying to kill them.

Can you imagine the look on his face: “You think I’m trying to kill you? This is me, Moses! Don’t you know me by now? Haven’t I done enough to win your trust?”

But the thing was, and this is the important part, the people were desperately thirsty. They were literally afraid for their lives. Their anxiety was sky high. Poor Moses didn’t have the benefit of modern science and brain scans but what the scientists tell us now is that when we’re anxious, we’re not exactly thinking with our highest brain function. When we’re anxious our thinking almost goes on auto-pilot; all the activity is happening down here, around the brain stem; what they call the reptilian brain – that part of the brain that controls automatic reflexes and fight or flight responses. When we’re anxious we’re literally thinking more like reptiles than like mammals. And so of course they’re not seeing Moses as a friend or a liberator or a person they can trust. They’re feeling anxious and they think he is the reason for it and so they almost go blind to what their heart tells them and all they see is a threat.

The Bible calls these moments the “hardening of the heart.” Which is exactly how this moment is remembered, centuries later in Psalm 95, which we also read this morning:

95:8 Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,

95:9 when your ancestors tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.

The “hardening of the heart” is such a good way of describing this phenomenon – because the the emotions are controlled by the mammal brain -- in the limbic system, I’m told -- and when we’re anxious, that area of the brain almost shuts down.

The other crazy thing that we do when we’re anxious is we do that thing called triangulation. Triangulation is that thing we do when we experience something painful or unpleasant and we enlist another person or object into the relationship to relieve us of our pain or discomfort.

The people experience anxiety because they’re thirsty and they think they’re going to die, so they enlist Moses to fix the problem: “Give us something to drink!”

We all do this – this is how we manage our anxiety. When we feel things we don’t like, we look for someone to take the bad feelings away. And since the whole system only works if we believe that the triangulated person or object has the power to fix our problem, we will insist that he or she does – regardless of whether or not they do in reality. We will convince ourselves that that person has the power to fix our problem; and we will expect him or her to take care of it. Often times we will just decide that our problem is the other person’s fault in the first place.

And of course it’s irrational – because that kind of thinking isn’t happening in our rational brain. It’s all taking place down here in the brain stem – where all sorts of magical thinking makes perfect sense. When we’re feeling anxious, the last thing we want to see is some therapist come along and say, “So I understand you’re thirsty. How do you feel about that?”

No! We want somebody to fix it! We want a miracle worker!

We all do this. A lot of us men, for example, are taught to be afraid of any feelings of vulnerability and weakness. So when we have those feelings it makes us anxious; and so we triangulate someone into our lives who will make those feelings go away. So we look to a woman who will tell us we’re strong and powerful; we’ll take unspeakable, private pride in the fact that we can unscrew that mayonnaise cap for the little lady; we’ll spend enormous amounts of money in sporting goods stores and hardware stores – power tools! - we’re triangulating objects that promise to take away our anxiety. We actually believe those commercials that tell us if we drink that beer and drive that car and wear that aftershave we’ll be stronger and more powerful – not because it makes sense rationally but because our anxiety – our fear of weakness and vulnerability – is driving us into our reptile brain, where that magical thinking goes on.

And women, of course, are taught a hundred times a day that their value depends on how closely they resemble the models on the magazine covers; and so of course their anxiety around their appearance is enormous, so much so that just about every woman – even supermodels – hate their bodies. What a tragedy that is!

And so women triangulate men to take away that anxiety. I’m talking about women who really, if they were thinking with their full brains, would know better than to ask, “Does this make me look fat?” But they’re not thinking straight; they’re thinking with their anxiety; they’re triangulating their partner with that question, so that, you know, God help the man who answers rationally, right? Because that poor guy doesn’t understand that she’s not looking for a rational response; she’s not in her rational mind when she asks that question – she’s feeling anxious and she’s engaging in magical thinking and she’s triangulating the partner to magically take the anxiety away. And if he won’t do that, then he’s the enemy -- instead of the real enemy, of course, which is the twisted and fallen culture that teaches every single woman that she is not exquisitely beautiful just the way she is.

Which is where we find Jesus, talking to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4: 5-42); looking into her eyes; and seeing her clearly; as she is. Here Jesus finds a woman who has every reason to hate herself. She is a Samaritan and she is a woman, for starters. That’s enough to be despised right there. But she has had five husbands – in that culture she might as well have been a prostitute – and the man she is in relationship with now is not her husband. She is, in other words, an expert at triangulation – she keeps recruiting men into relationships with her – she’s got so much anxiety and self-loathing that she can’t stop looking for another man to relieve her of it.

And then along comes Jesus – who shouldn’t even be speaking to her.

The Gospel reading is very long; it has a lot of dialogue – but the Good News is not so much found in all the words that pass between them as in the fact that Jesus speaks to her at all. And it’s the way he’s speaking to her: he shows absolutely no anxiety. I imagine the woman wondering, why is this guy not nervous; why isn’t he looking over his shoulder? This man is violating about 15 different rules in the Purity Code – he could get shunned, lose his reputation, even his job (if he had one) just for looking at me -- and he’s not even nervous! He’s sitting here, looking into my eyes; and he’s seeing me like no one has ever seen me before. He sees me as a person of dignity; he even speaks to me of eternal life – he actually wants me to drink this water of life.

The woman gets a taste of this living water just by speaking to this man who sees her as she really is: he sees her dignity; he sees her pain and he sees her love and he sees her soul and for the first time in her life she is exquisitely beautiful – in the eyes of God.

This is not recorded anywhere in the Bible but I believe I can say this with some confidence, that after this conversation by the well, the Samaritan woman never again asked, “Do I look fat in this outfit?”

And if that were all that this Jesus ever did; if all he did was freed us from the self-loathing and anxiety that we are taught from our earliest moments – so that we knew how beautiful we were – that would be enough. But that is just the beginning of the story; the rest of it is here; at the altar; where we taste the bread; and drink the wine; and step into that Kingdom of God that Jesus inhabited so completely. From there it goes to our every waking moment, as we remember to breathe; and to trust in God; in so doing, we let our anxiety wash away; and our let eyes open to the world as God sees it -- as it really is: alive with love.

And so I don’t know about you, but to me that’s pretty Good News.

And maybe even news you can use!


1 comment:

Julie said...

Amen. Excellent reminder for me as I wander through the job search - Jesus takes away the anxiety that has been taught to us since the first moment in time. That is Good News!