“It was very effective. Like some of you, I went to see the performance of Getting Away With Murder at the Westmoreland Players. I didn’t know anything about the play before it started, which made it even more striking that I felt the effect of the play immediately. I felt a gut response of “Get me out of here. Get me away from these nasty people.”
This effectiveness was carried out by the excellent set design as well as the excellent acting. The set design gave the immediate feeling of a place that was broken, falling apart, and most of all, dangerous. The set conveyed a visual sense of who the characters are. As each of the characters appears, they each turn out to be broken, falling apart, and most of all, dangerous. There is a strong sense of being trapped. My immediate gut response of “Get me out of here. Get me away from these nasty people” was intensified as the play went on, as each of the characters clearly wants to get out of this broken, falling apart, and dangerous building, and as each of the characters obviously want to get away from each other.
Even in the middle of my feeling of revulsion, there was a little voice in the back of my head that said, “You guys would be a lot better off if you could just relax and be nice to each other instead of being so hateful.” But there is the sense that each of them can’t relax or be nice, because each of them is driven by something that compels them to some form of destructive behavior.
Even with all my theological training, I did not pick up on the key theme of the play until it was expressed directly. The characters have been coming to group therapy sessions, but in the course of the play they discover that the therapist has no interest whatsoever in offering them any healing; in fact, he has been doing the exact opposite, by lying to them and betraying them, and what he was really up to was that he has chosen them as representatives of the seven deadly sins so that he could write a book about how horrible they are and get rich from their misery.
The play works for a variety of reasons. For one thing, there are enough twists and turns to keep up a lively curiosity in the audience about what’s really going on as the plot thickens. The play is dark, but it also has enough humor, even dark humor, to keep it from being overwhelming. It is in many ways a secular play, and it works dramatically regardless of what your religious beliefs happen to be, and regardless of whether you have any religious beliefs at all.
For me, though, what I admired most about this play was that it is such a brilliant depiction of the nature of sin. This sense of being trapped is an essential element of what sin is. People don’t see any way to get out of the deeply dysfunctional ways they relate to each other, and they don’t see any way to get out of the behaviors that are destroying their lives. They can’t find a sense of peace because they are constantly pushed by compulsions or pulled by fears. They don’t see any way out of the self-loathing of envy, they don’t see any way out of the despair of sloth, they don’t see any way out of the hostility of anger. We think of some sins as the desire for pleasure, but ironically the opposite is true: when someone is driven by compulsions of gluttony, lust, pride or greed, they are least likely to actually enjoy the pleasures of food or sex or approval or possession that they actually have, because their focus is always on the craving to grab more, more, more. They can’t see any way out. To be trapped by these cravings and fears is what sin is.
Since each of us has a sense of revulsion toward our own sins, we construct justifications to try to hide our sins from ourselves, as well as lies to try to hide our sins from others. If someone tries to criticize us for our sins, we construct even bigger justifications and lies, usually by blaming other people. This happens over and over in the play. The characters do these horrible things because they think they have to.
Each character has something to hide, and what keeps them trapped, more than anything, is the feeling that they have to keep their sins hidden, that they cannot tell the truth. As a result, they destroy each other.
Juxtaposed with this is today’s gospel reading from John 4. John makes a point of telling us that it is about noon when the Samaritan woman comes to the well. Why does he make a point of telling us that? Remember what climate we’re in here. This place is hot desert. Noon is when the sun is directly overhead and the heat is intense. It is the worst part of the day to be carrying anything. Normal people gather at the watering hole in the morning or in the evening when the temperature is milder. You would go to get your water at noon if you wanted to get your water when other people were least likely to be there. On this particular day, though, there is someone there. Jesus. The Samaritan woman is immediately ready to be rejected. As soon as Jesus asks her for a drink, the first words out of her mouth are, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” and John explains, Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans. She is ready to be rejected because she is a Samaritan. She is also ready to be rejected because she is a woman. We see later on in today’s passage that when the disciples come back, “they were astonished that he was speaking with a woman”. The extent to which women were regarded as nobodies in this era is visible in the fact that throughout this passage her name is never mentioned. Jesus breaks right through the xenophobia and the sexism and speaks to her with no hesitation or guardedness, but with directness and openness: “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.” She, like Nicodemus in last week’s gospel, is thinking in a literal way and responds accordingly. Jesus, as he did with Nicodemus, says, “no, no, I’m not being literal-minded here; I’m talking about spiritual thirst and spiritual water of eternal life.” When she says, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water” I expect it brings up in her the emotions of dreading going out in the hottest part of the day to draw water, and the even greater dread of meeting someone at the well. Jesus then brings up the one topic she most wants to avoid. He says, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” She has to admit, “I have no husband.” Jesus speaks the truth: You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” In this economy, the only security a woman had came from her husband. If he discarded her, she had nothing. Other men would treat her as worthless. A man might keep her around for a while for the sex, but without giving her any security, and he could abandon her at any time. She feels debased already. It is not hard to imagine that people would humiliate her, and that she would do whatever was necessary to avoid that. But obviously there is something very different about Jesus uncovering the truth about her, because her response to him is, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.” Jesus sees who she is, and then Jesus lets her see who he is. They have a conversation about worship. She says, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus says, “I am he.” In the original Greek, Jesus says simply, “I am.”
The woman goes back to the city and tells people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” Having someone know what she had done was her worst fear. What makes this so emotionally powerful for her is that she has met someone who knows what she has done and loves her anyway. She has met Jesus.
The irony is that this woman who had done everything possible to avoid the townspeople now goes out to tell them all about what happened. The transformation in her is obvious to them. She becomes very effective. As John tells us, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.”
What changed for her? In some ways, nothing. In one way, everything. Her circumstances are exactly the same after the conversation with Jesus as they were before. The one thing that has changed is that she doesn’t feel trapped anymore, because Jesus has showed her the way out. What Jesus has showed her is that he sees who she is and what she’s done and he loves her anyway. Once she has felt that love from Jesus, she doesn’t need to hide, she doesn’t need to lie, and she doesn’t need anybody else’s approval. She doesn’t need to be afraid anymore.
Once she realizes she doesn’t need anyone’s approval, lots of people approve of her and believe in Jesus because of her testimony. Once she realizes she doesn’t feel afraid anymore, other people’s frightening behavior simply vanishes. Once she realizes Jesus knows the truth about her and still loves her, she is no longer trapped by anything broken, or falling apart, or dangerous. Once she knows that Jesus sees the ways she was broken and falling apart and in danger, she realizes that she isn’t broken or falling apart or in danger anymore. She can relax and be nice.
The characters in the play feel trapped and destroy their lives, as they trap each other and destroy each other. What Jesus does is to liberate this woman. Jesus gives her love and truth. Jesus’ love and truth are what dissolves the glue that holds us stuck in our sins. This Lent, we have the opportunity to bring our sins to Jesus and receive the love he gives us even when he knows who we are and what we’ve done. His love is very effective.”