A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Dr. Joseph Schaller on the Third Sunday of Lent.
The movie Moonlight—recently awarded an Oscar as “Best Picture of the Year”—is a film based on the play In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. I suspect that many of you have seen it. It’s a story of a young boy named Chiron, growing up in the housing projects of Miami, with a mother who becomes increasingly dependent and debilitated on drugs and a father who is no ware in sight. We meet Chiron as he is being chased by a group of other boys after school. He finds refuge in an abandoned apartment. Just a bit earlier in the film we had met Juan, a dark-skinned Cuban-American man who was “at work” checking on his crew of young men who sold drugs for him on the street. There is a somewhat frightening moment when Juan tears off the plywood covering the window of the apartment where Chiron is hiding, and neither he nor us know if this bodes well or not. As it turns out, the inpouring of sunlight into the tomb-like apartment becomes a harbinger of more light to come. Juan brings Chiron to the comfortable house shared with his girlfriend, Teresa. While remaining largely mute, he hungrily eats a meal. Chiron remains guarded and is perhaps perplexed by this act of kindness of strangers, but he is eventually able to speak. I also found myself suspicious of Juan’s kindness and solicitation, wondering if this was nothing more than a routine of recruitment of a vulnerable child for Juan’s stable of young “employees” in the drug trade. But the relationship between Juan, Teresa, and Chiron, continues to grow. We soon learn that Chiron is being bullied at school because of his emergent gayness, and he finds his first opportunity to broach the questions he has about “queerness” in the accepting relationship with Juan and Teresa. A most memorable scene occurs when Juan teaches Chiron to float, then to swim, in the ocean. Being able to swim—or at least to float- becomes of metaphor of that lies ahead. Shortly thereafter, the scene changes. We move ahead a few years. Chiron is on the cusp of puberty. Juan has mysteriously disappeared, through with implication he met a violent death. But Teresa continues to offer friendship and food to Chiron, as he continues to negotiate the challenges of his life.
Today’s Gospel presents an unusual encounter, which was perhaps more “necessary” than “inevitable” (to use Armistead Maupin’s way of describing critical yet unpredictable encounters), Jesus, tired from his journey, stops by a well for a rest. This is a well of some significance religiously and culturally. He is a stranger in a strange land: a Jew in the territory of the Samaritans—close relatives by blood and history yet alienated by a family feud of sorts. He happens to encounter a local woman, who remains anonymous, minding her business, seeking to draw water at the well. No doubt she did not appreciate the intrusion of this strange man, probably assuming it was yet another experience of a man assuming the prerogative of telling a woman what to do. She had absolutely no reason to anticipate that any good would come from this. They start up an interesting conversation, or rather a somewhat pointed contest of challenging questions and assertions, and she becomes intrigued by his clairvoyance. It turns out that she has had an apparently colorful life, though probably not a particularly happy one. How she managed to accumulate five (plus) husbands is not clear. Women in this time and place were not free to conduct their own marriages, let alone dissolve them. Perhaps she had the misfortune of a series of husbands who died or otherwise abandoned her? Perhaps she had been unfaithful, but escaped more serious sanctions imposed by her culture? But the point of the story is clear. This is not a woman of any kind of privilege or good reputation, but one who has been marginalized; certainly, from the perspective of the Jews, and probably among her own people. The woman’s skepticism quickly gives away to hope, and a desire for something more from this man than an ordinary drink of water. The turns out to be religiously curious and somewhat literate, and becomes a witness to the one who told her “everything she has ever done” and yet did not do so in a way which created shame. We don’t know where her life went from that point. She may have become an active follower of Jesus, or she may have drifted back into the routine of a difficult life. But one can’t help but believe that something significant has changed for her through her encounter with this man at the well. Was her life forever different because of an apparently chance encounter? Certainly, something changes in the way we might regard her: not merely as an anonymous woman with a troubled life, but as a person who became animated by the grace of an encounter with God’s most only One.
In his review of Moonlight, film critic A.O.Scott pointed out how the film does not merely humanize its characters, who might otherwise be seen as caricatures of those who are most disadvantaged in our society. Rather, it reveals that these people have never been anything other than human. In his words, Moonlight dwells on the “dignity, beauty and terrible vulnerability of black bodies, (and) on the existential and physical matter of black lives.” Toward the end of the story, we learn that Chiron has followed his mentor’s example and established his own posse of younger drug dealers all while adopting much of the typical costume and attitude of a street gangster. Yet there is something different behind the presentation. In another fortuitous moment, he exchanges a phone conversation with a friend from the past: someone who had shared Chiron’s first—and perhaps only– experience of sexual intimacy, as well as someone who has betrayed him. Yet these men come to discover a long-held but secret love between them. We have no way of knowing what is to become of Chiron as the film ends, yet the final scene suggests the presence of a grace which offers hope. Chiron is not heroic, except in his survival, but he is deeply human, and in that humanity, we are invited to grasp something of the holy.
Much has been said—and much more could be said—about the significance of Jesus’ insistence in attending to those considered to be “the other,” the “stranger” among us: those who are outliers among the social and religiously privileged. But I would like to draw something else from these stories. God invites us to recognize the other, the stranger within each of us. To some extent, we all “pass” to some degree or another and at different times in our lives: passing as privileged, whole and “normal” people, secure in having our act together. And more often than not, these realities may be true. But any of us might feel ungodly at times. Each of us has a part of ourselves which feels alien at times, which may make us vulnerable to shame, or which may threaten to undermine the possibilities of our lives. Can we let Jesus find us precisely in those parts of our lives which seem least promising? Least complete or comfortable? You may have heard many sermons about how Lent involves more than just cleaning up the nasty bits of our lives. Rather, Lent may call us to a kind of receptivity to the presence of God which comes seemingly by chance and at random times, catching us off guard and producing unanticipated outcomes. Even if this amounts to nothing more than a capacity to behold and embrace the tenderness of our humanity and the humanity of others, we have received a great deal. We may also recall encounters with individuals in our lives—either long relationships or brief, serendipitous meetings—which allowed us to recognize something good in ourselves that we hadn’t known before. And these experiences can change us. At times when we are sorely tempted to wonder whether “the Lord is among us or not.” But it is equally important to ask whether we are among one another or not. As the film critic says of Moonlight, “every moment is infused by what the poet Hart Crane called infinite consanguinity, the mysterious bond which links us with one another and that only an alert and sensitive artistic imagination can make visible.” I would add that our bond with one another is also made visible by an alert and sensitive religious imagination, which does not filter out everything which does not conform to our expectations or demands but which sees a wholeness where others might only see fragmentation. Incarnated love discloses the wholeness of humanity, rather than its deficiency. May we all be able to receive the grace which God so desire to give to us and to this world.
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