Flight Behavior: Stuck in a Rut
…Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” …The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Jesus answered her, “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.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “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. What you have said is true!”
Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him. […]
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. John 4, excerpted
Have you ever been at a place in life where miserable felt normal? It is a fact of human existence we rarely speak of, that we rarely ever admit, that we do not like to acknowledge about ourselves—how we can become comfortable with the uncomfortable, content with unhappiness, complacent with misery. Everything about our society tries to deny it, or at least it used to—a favorite theme of television and movies is the triumph of the human spirit over all adversity. But, lately, even that triumph… is that what we really see any more in the pettiness of reality television? As we watch Duck Dynasty and Honey Boo Boo and the Real Lives of LA Preachers. Is there any triumph in those shows, or do we pretend reality television is really reality because of how miserable we are with our own lives?
I confess this is not a popular way to begin a sermon, certainly not an uplifting one, yet it is truthful. It is something I see played out in the world around me, and it is a theme that Barbara Kingsolver addresses quite beautifully in her novel Flight Behavior. You don’t have to have read the book to know Dellarobia Turnbow. Her name might seem exotic to you, but you know her. Her Tennessee accent might be different from what you hear around here, but you know her. You’ve probably ministered to someone just like her: married young, right out of high school, because she “had to,” two kids, an under-employed husband that she hardly ever talks to. Trying to make ends meet on nothin’ much. She goes about her daily routine, trying to hold up the world’s expectations of her—taking care of her children, but yearning for something more, feeling guilty that she yearns for something more; doing the endless piles of dishes and laundry; feeding her husband each evening, growing increasingly disgusted by his behavior, feeling guilty that he disgusts her. Trying to see him in a kinder light, yet hardly ever feeling very kind.
Dellarobia hasn’t ever traveled far from where she was born. It’s the hills of Appalachia, but the same thing happens in the small towns and the neighborhoods where you all live. She hasn’t owned anything new for as long as she can remember. Everything in her life is second-hand. Everything in her life feels ragged, torn and faded—from the furniture to her clothing to her children’s toys.
For the last few years, the only thing that has kept Dellarobia Turnbow going is the attention she occasionally gets from some strange man she encounters. Some guy who looks a little longer than he should, someone who lights her cigarette or offers to pump her gas, a repairman who makes her laugh, a friend of her husband who pays her too much attention. She gathers this attention, even solicits it at times, and lets it be her only source of distraction in the day-to-day misery of her existence.
None of the attention ever goes anywhere—she’s got too much guilt for that—at least until the misery seems to have reached a tipping point. We are pulled into Dellarobia’s life right at her tipping point, when she dons a pair of second-hand boots and climbs up the mountain her husband’s family owns to meet a cute young repair guy who is in love with the color of her bright red hair. Her life has become so miserable that she considers this her great escape, making herself believe that the repair guy who calls her Red will be the cure for what ails her.
Dellarobia’s flight attempt may not be something you’ve ever considered. In fact, you might feel compelled to judge or condemn her for cheating on her marriage vows. I know how judge-y ministers can be. But again, before you hastily judge, remember that you know this woman. You may not have seen her escape up a mountain in second-hand boots, but you’ve seen Dellarobia waste her life on the Internet, you’ve seen her zone out with her iPhone in between shuffling kids to soccer practice. The Dellarobia you know might not even be a woman. It might the guy you know who drinks beer in his easy chair each night until he falls asleep, heading to work the next morning only to do the same thing all over again the next day. The Dellarobia in your life might be the couple, husband, wife or both, just pick one, who argue every night, make up the next morning, but never really reach a conclusion to their endless battles over money or the kids or the in-laws. The Dellarobia in your life might be an older person going through the motions, overwhelmed by loneliness and grief and depression, simply waiting to die. The Dellarobia in your life might be the young adult who seems to constantly dwell in relationship drama of his or her own making. The Dellarobia in your life might be the teenager slowly getting lost in the shuffle of trying to fit in. Even more, it must be said, though we don’t like to talk about it, we rarely want to face it, and ministers would rather die than admit it could be true: the Dellarobia in your life might just be you.
You may be the one who feels so stuck in a rut you can’t get out. Stuck in the rut of raising kids. Stuck in the rut of a bad marriage. Stuck in the rut of your own depression, your own anxiety, your own loneliness, your own anger. Stuck in the rut of a career path or a job or a calling you are too afraid to leave. Stuck in the rut of a relationship that tears you down.
Of all the sins that plague humanity, of all the sins we preachers preach about, stuck in a rut might just be the toughest to defeat. Stuck in a rut might just be more terrifying than death, more fear-inducing than a horde of Walking Dead zombies. Stuck in a rut might be harder to shake than the cruel words of the judges on your favorite reality show. Stuck in a rut can’t be fixed by Candy Crush. Stuck in a rut can’t be obliterated by the finest scotch or the cheapest beer. There is no app on your smart phone to deal with stuck in a rut. Not even the Most Interesting Man in the World can tell you the secret to make stuck in a rut go away.
For Dellarobia, and because it’s fiction, the cosmos intervenes to help her get out of her rut. Something wondrous drops into her life that changes everything. But let’s not dismiss Dellarobia because she exists in a book of fiction. Because the thing that intervenes in Dellarobia’s misery—while it is wonderful and welcome and beautiful at first—is in many ways not so different from the things that happen in our lives to spur us out of our ruts. In our lives those interventions come in many forms: a friend who really listens, a pink slip, a catastrophic diagnosis, the hard to hear advice of a loved one, a suicide attempt, the serving of divorce papers, finally meeting someone you really connect with…
The interventions can be as miraculous as millions of butterflies landing in your backyard or as disastrous as the loss of a loved one. They can be as strange as a man from another culture asking for a drink of water. But when life throws one or the other at us, we, like Dellarobia, have to decide what we are going to do about it. We, like Dellarobia, have to decide whether we will continue in our ruts, or allow opportunities good and bad to change us, to transform us, to help us out of the rut where we have grown so comfortably miserable.
Dellarobia meets a man and it changes her life. And of course, he is tall, dark, and handsome. And smart. And passionate. But Ovid Byron does not come into Dellarobia’s life to seduce her. He comes to study the butterflies that have landed in her backyard. Yet in this encounter, in coming to know and work with and befriend this man, Dellarobia is changed forever. And much like the woman at the well and her encounter with Jesus, Dellarobia and Ovid Byron are at the fringes of their respective worlds. In one story we find a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman. In the other, an uneducated woman from Appalachia and a sophisticated scholar from the Caribbean. Ovid is a man of science, a university professor. Dellarobia is a woman of little faith, stuck in the rut of her own miserable life. And not at a well but on a mountain covered in butterflies, Dellarobia’s encounter with this man pulls her out of her rut and her comfort zone and makes her look at her life and her decisions with brand new eyes.
Now I won’t tell you the entire story, but I will say that Ovid does not fix Dellarobia’s life for her. He just helps her to see it differently so that she can be transformed. Just as Jesus doesn’t actually tell the woman at the well everything about her life. He just tells her the one thing, the one very significant thing about her that keeps her stuck in a rut. The very thing that kept this woman from being whole and happy. And the Living Water Jesus offered her was like the new life offered to Dellarobia by those butterflies, by her companion Ovid, sent to guide her on the journey. Because we all need a companion on the journey.
The woman at the well went back to her life and saw everything differently, because as I am told it is all in how you look at it. She saw her life as a woman who had tasted Living Water. As a woman who had looked upon her own reflection in that bucket of Living Water, and who had seen something and someone very different. Dellarobia came down from that mountain of butterflies a changed woman, too. She got a taste of another way of living and it opened her eyes and she saw everything and everyone differently, including herself.
The Living Water—that invitation we know and experience in the life of Jesus Christ— I suggest to you, my friends, it is a mirror to help us see new life, Resurrection Life, in ourselves, in others, in the world. Living Water is the mirror that allows us to see ourselves as God calls us to be—and it may not come in the form of a literal bucket of water, but it will come to us in a hundred different ways, good and bad, if we just open our eyes to see it.
That Samaritan woman at the well? What Jesus did for her was to let her see herself the way God saw her. Free of the guilt that kept her lonely at the well in the middle of the day when no one was around. Free of the shame that prevented her from being a true part of her community.
And Dellarobia Turnbow? What she saw was a woman capable of so much more than flirting behind her husband’s back. What she saw was a woman free of the misery of the rut she’d lived in since she was barely 18 years old.
When the woman at the well met Jesus, experienced the Living Water and saw her own life changed, she said to anyone and everyone she met, Come and see. When Dellarobia saw her life changed, when she experienced the transformation and resurrection in those butterflies, she said to her husband, to her children, even to her mother-in-law, Come and see. Come and see. The easiest and the most important invitation we’ll ever get.
Come and see. Let me bring this home to you all, my colleagues, in a world where clergy are so worried about their own churches, so fixated on dollars and attendance numbers and solving silly problems about the heat and the color of the sanctuary, they delight when they see another pastor stuck in a rut. As ministers, as people of God called to preach the good news, let us not get stuck in a rut, but rather let us be companions on the journey for one another—helping each other, not competing with one another but truly inviting one another to know the transformation that comes from looking into Living Water.
Now, I may not be the Most Interesting Man in the World, and I might not preach as well as those Real Preachers of LA, but I promise this perspective is better than any you will find on reality tv. I will be your companion on this resurrection journey, and I will remind you of the truth you already know in the Christ we follow: Come and see, my friends, come and see. Amen.