We are living through a nearly unprecedented moment. We are taking nearly unprecedented measures. And we are facing a once-in-a-generation kind of threat.
As we do so, our sermon for the week reminds us that there is great power in how we choose to frame our stories—and great power in choosing to include God in the way we tell our stories.
The Hebrew people, while wandering in the wilderness, forgot God’s powerful presence in their story and were led to despair.
When the Samaritan woman at the well realized for the first time that God was part of her story, the entire trajectory of her narrative was changed forever.
Today, and in the days to come, I hope we’ll remember that God is present in our story, too—and that God’s presence in our unfolding narrative makes all the difference.
2000 years before Christ was born, the most powerful man in the world was the Egyptian Pharaoh. The Pharaoh ruled over one of the great empires of all time. For generations, the Hebrew people had lived under Pharaoh’s thumb as slaves.
Originally, they had come to Egypt seeking refuge from famine. Do you remember the story of Joseph and his brothers? Joseph, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, had become the second most powerful man in the world. He was the one who handled all of Pharaoh’s affairs.
And the other brothers—who had betrayed Joseph—now come to Egypt to beg him to save them and their families from starvation.
In a remarkable demonstration of compassion and forgiveness, Joseph takes them all in, and in this way the twelve tribes of Israel are settled in Egypt.
Joseph dies and generations pass and eventually the memory of Joseph’s influence in Pharaoh’s court is lost to history. Without the protection of Joseph’s memory, the twelve tribes of Israel begin to be used as forced labor on Pharaoh’s great building projects. They become slaves.
Over the years, the Egyptians treat the Hebrews with increasing harshness and brutality to prevent a possible Hebrew uprising.
This goes on for generations until, eventually, God raises up Moses. Moses stands up to Pharaoh. He demands the freedom of the Hebrew people. And God performs great signs for Moses and the people. God is present and powerful in the lives of the Hebrew people like God hasn’t been present to them for years, maybe even centuries.
Eventually, Pharaoh is persuaded to free the Hebrew people. And in a final display of God’s power, God parts the waters of the Red Sea so that the Hebrew people can pass through and then closes the waters over the Egyptians behind them, swallowing up and drowning Pharaoh’s army.
The Hebrew people are finally free!! Now they are on their way to Canaan—the Promised Land!
They are on their way to claim a promise that had long been forgotten—a promise that for centuries no one had been able to claim.
And now this generation is the generation lucky enough to see God’s power at work—the generation lucky enough to move closer to the promise—and a generation lucky enough to be led by one of the great heroes, not just in scripture, but in all of human history, in Moses. What a time to be alive!!!
The musical, “Hamilton,” ends with a song sung by Eliza Hamilton, who reflects on how her husband, Alexander Hamilton, will be remembered. The final song is titled, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.”
One of Eliza’s overarching concerns is whether her husband’s story will be lost to history because of his early death while the stories of the other founding fathers will live on. “Who will tell his story?” she wonders. And how will it be told?
The song is punctuated by the repeated refrain directed at the audience, “Who tells your story?” “Who tells your story?”
The song is a powerful reminder that our lives, and the stories we tell about them, are more than just the events that happen to us and how we react to them.
The stories of our lives are equally as much about what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget, about how we choose to interpret and frame the events of our lives. About how our story is told. And who tells it.
In that way, the Hamilton song reminds us that we have incredible power to shape the trajectories of our lives simply by how we choose to tell our stories.
In Exodus chapter 17, the Hebrew people are wandering through the desert—having escaped from Pharaoh, but having yet to make it to the Promised Land. They have no water. What food they have is less than satisfying. And they’re beginning to lose confidence in their leader, Moses.
They make camp in the middle of the desert after a long day of walking and again find that there is no water.
Who on earth would make camp for a whole army of people at a place where there is no water? What kind of person would do that? What kind of judgment does that demonstrate?
Scripture says the people began quarrelling with Moses, arguing with him about his decision to make camp where there was no water.
“We need water!” they said.
And Moses said, “Have some faith. I know you’re tired and thirsty. I’m tired and thirsty, too. Don’t you think I know we need water? Why are you putting your Lord to the test?”
But the people were desperate. Their children and livestock were dying of thirst. They challenged Moses again. And Moses turned to God and said, “What am I to do? The people are angry. They’re going to stone me!”
So, we have two possible ways to tell the story of the Hebrew people’s deliverance from Pharaoh. You can just imagine how two different people who had experienced the same events might tell the story differently, right?
We can see the power in who tells the story and how.
One says, “I can’t believe it! After all those generations of slavery, my generation is the one that gets to claim the Promised Land! I don’t deserve to be so blessed!! And we get to serve under, live under the leadership of Moses. Has God ever used anyone in such a powerful way in the history of the world! What an adventure! What a life! What a time to be alive!”
And the other person—the Exodus 17 person— says, “I can’t believe it. What a time to be alive. After all those generations in Egypt, mine is the one that gets stuck in the desert. No water, terrible food, incompetent leadership, I can’t believe this is happening to us. Let’s just go back to Egypt—God has really let us down.”
Two people experiencing the same events.
One says, “Has God ever used anyone in such a powerful way in the history of the world.” The other says, “God has really let us down.”
How we choose to frame the events of our lives has incredible power to shape the stories we tell about ourselves. And the stories we tell about our lives have incredible power not just to shape how we remember our pasts, but also to shape our futures.
The narratives we construct can lead us exuberantly toward the Promised Land or dejectedly back to Egypt.
One of my favorite poets, W.H. Auden, writes in his poem “The Age of Anxiety” that “we would rather be ruined than changed.”
He writes (bold added for emphasis):
“Yet the noble despair of the poets
Is nothing of the sort; it is silly
To refuse the tasks of time
And, overlooking our lives,
Cry – “Miserable wicked me,
How interesting I am.”
We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.”
We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather live into the misery of our narrative than change it.
We would rather grumble about the lack of water than celebrate the promise of abundance—and do the work necessary to claim it.
Auden says that one of the tasks of time is to change or rehabilitate our narratives. We think, perhaps, according to Auden, that there is something noble in despair, something interesting in our misery.
Auden says that is an illusion that we should let die.
There is nothing noble or interesting about living into the narrative of dread and despair. That, he says, is what everyone does.
If you want to stand out, if want to be different, if you want to leave your mark, then change your narrative.
Climb the cross of the moment and claim victory over your story.
Be changed instead of ruined.
In John chapter 4, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well—someone who perhaps would rather be ruined than changed.
This woman, in conversation with Jesus, reveals herself to be jaded, cynical, sarcastic, challenging, unbelieving—even despairing. And, perhaps like Auden’s poets she even thinks her despair is noble. She would rather die in dread than climb the cross of the moment and let her illusions—the current story she tells about herself—die.
Jesus asks her for a drink, she responds with a challenge.
Jesus offers her living water. He says you need never be thirsty again.
And she says, “I don’t think so. You don’t even have a bucket to draw water with.”
She’s saying, “You’re on my turf. I know more about this well than you do.”
She knows the well’s history, too, and she even shows off a little bit.
She says, “You know Jacob himself drank from this well? This isn’t just any old well. My well is special. Do you think you’re better than Jacob? Do you think your water is better than Jacob’s water, our hometown hero?”
It’s part of the story she tells about herself. It’s an admirable piece of hometown pride.
Jesus responds to her jaded, challenging, world-weariness by telling the woman her own story. Jesus tells her the story of her life. She is the woman who’s had five husbands. The woman who even now is living with a sixth man, and they’re not even married.
He tells her the story of a woman alone at the well in the middle of the afternoon.
He tells her the story of someone who comes to draw water in the heat of the day when she knows no one else will be there.
He tells her the story of an outcast who’s ashamed.
He tells the story of a woman whose challenging, protective bravado is a defense mechanism, finely honed from years of being hurt and scorned.
Jesus tells her the story of her life—the story she’s been telling herself for years now.
Jesus, in Auden’s memorable phrase, tells the story of a woman who would rather be ruined than changed. A woman who has learned to say with a noble sense of despair, “look at miserable, wicked me. How interesting I am.”
In Telling the Truth, Frederick Buechner reminds us that each of our stories has plenty of source material to create a first-class tragedy, a hope-filled comedy, or a wonder-filled fairy tale. It all depends on how we choose to tell it.
Professional storyteller Donald Davis reminds us that “story is much more than simply telling what happened. Story is interpretive; story is the way we choose to frame what happened. So story becomes the way we choose to remember what happened.”
There IS great power in how we choose to tell our stories.
Jesus told the Samaritan woman her own story in a way that she would recognize. He told her the story of her life as she’d been telling it to herself for years and years.
But what if Jesus had told her this story instead?
What if he had told the story of a woman whose testimony about an unlikely encounter with God caused her whole hometown to come to faith in Jesus Christ?
That’s her story, too!!
But she wouldn’t have recognized it. It makes me wonder if I would recognize the story that Jesus might tell about me. It makes me wonder if you would recognize the story Jesus would tell about you.
What if he had said to this woman at the well, “Because of you, your Samaritan town will get to spend a few days talking and visiting with the Son of God in the flesh. They did.
What if he had said, because of you all five of your husbands and all of your children will be able to say that they have personally talked to and met the Savior of the World. They did.
That’s her story, too!
What if Jesus had stood there at the well and said, “One day, my friend over there, John—the one coming down the road toward us over there—one day, he’ll write your story down and millions of people will read it for thousands of years.
And people even as far away as Newnan, GA will take inspiration from your story.
What if Jesus had said to her, “Your story will help them think about how they tell THEIR stories.”
She may not have recognized it or believed it, but that’s part of her story, too!!
When Jesus is part of her story, she’s a hero!
In their encounter at the well, Jesus invites her to see that he is part of her story, too.
If Jesus were to tell you the story you tell about yourself, the one you’re most likely to recognize, what story would Jesus tell? Do you identify yourself by your shortcomings, too? Do you think you’re known for the mistakes you’ve made, too?
Whatever story you’ve been telling yourself, Jesus knows it all already. And Jesus could tell a much better story than the one you’ve been telling so far.
At each encounter with God we are invited to recognize that Jesus is part of our story, too. And when Jesus is part of your story, you have a hero’s tale to tell.
So you can keep telling the story of someone who’s always thirsty. Or you can begin telling the story of someone who needs never be thirsty again.