The Luggage We Carry: Reflecting on Stigma — Student Christopher Flowers

7 A Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me some water to drink.” 8 His disciples had gone into the city to buy him some food. 9 The Samaritan woman asked, “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” (Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate with each other.) – John 4:7-9

If you search online, the Merriam-Webster dictionary describes a stigma as “a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something.” It is quite the poignant definition, full of the initial and innate interactions that happen when creation witnesses more of creation and sees only other. Merriam-Webster crafts this complex experience in a very simple and tangible way, utilizing words like beliefs, negative, and unfair; and these are all terms that help quantify what a stigma is, but it misses a very crucial fact about stigma. The Merriam-Webster definition focuses primarily on one against another, but stigma, real stigma, pervades not only the accuser but also the victim.

In the narrative above, Jesus, this Jewish man with all the history, privilege, and idealism of his people interacts with a Samaritan woman who also bears the yoke of her people. And when the two interact, they are not just seeing and hearing each other, but they are in a valley teeming with tensions, expectations, and stigmas that are centuries old. Jesus maybe just asking for water, yet he is doing more; he is crossing the valley and daring to traverse all filth along the way that divides creation from creation and he invites this Samaritan woman to journey along with him in simple and divine ways, “Give me some water to drink.” And she replies, “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” Sometimes, we do not feel worthy or significant enough to answer the call in front of us.

static1.squarespaceThe truth is, stigma does not just affect how we see others, but also how we see ourselves. Stigma lives inside us; writes false narratives. Stigma does not allow us to dip our hands in the well because it teaches us a set of negative beliefs about who we are and how others see us. Even before Jesus and the woman had ever met, she was carrying this enormous burden, this stigma, which had unwillingly been gifted to her. The woman is shocked at Jesus’ statement. She does not know how to react when this Jew speaks in very human ways to a Samaritan. Her reaction is akin to, “Do you know who I am? Who you are? This is not right. I am not right.” There is so much stigma wrapped up in how she has been taught to see herself that when that false identity is challenged, she does not act in jubilation, but in hesitation. Stigma has mandated she stay in her lane; yet, this is an interaction for which there are no familiar roads and she has to decide for herself who she is. We have to decide who we are.

We all carry stigmas. Some are more apparent than others. Some are so tangible that they roll around with us like airplane luggage strapped to our arms. Some are the invisible ghost of history and interactions long forgotten but ever present. Some others give us and some we refuse to put down. If we are honest, our stigmas have shaped our identity in unfathomable ways. And if we are more honest, it can be terrifying to put them down, bring up water from the well, and stare at the reflection glaring back at us as the bucket rises. And furthermore, it is a lot easier to challenge how others see us than how we see ourselves. Yet, the beauty this narrative offers is how Jesus sees us, how God sees us. Not as the world has scripted us to be, but as beloved participants in creation. And here in this story, Jesus needs water, and God needs us; not the Samaritan, though that is important, not the woman though that is empowering, but even more so, God needs us as we are. And we need God to continue to meet us at the well and remind us to release the stigmatic yoke we carry daily.

This Lenten season let us fast from what has prevented us from being our truest selves. Let us pause to reflect on how we see and treat creation. Let us repent of all that has prevented us from giving freely of ourselves. And let us name our stigmas, claim ourselves, and no longer shame others. Amen


Chris-Williams-300x300Christopher Flowers is a second year Masters of Divinity student and a fellow at the Center for Faith and Service.  Christopher is the co-creator of and regularly writes for the blog Wine and Bread