One of the most familiar tropes in film and fiction is when a character in distress or at the point of death sees his entire life flash before his eyes. Events from birth to the present moment cascade rapidly through consciousness, as the protagonist looks on in wonder at his life’s review. This happens in Bruce Willis’ Armageddon, Tom Cruise’s Vanilla Sky, even in the Shrek spin-off cartoon Puss in Boots, though in that instance Puss in Boots sees all nine of his kitty cat lives replayed in front of him. Most recently we saw this in the hit Netflix series Stranger Things, when Max is near death and sees the events of the previous seasons flash before her eyes.
In most of these examples, the rapid life review is reminiscent, poignant, or even a comfort to the protagonist. It is a means by which he can culminate his life before letting go. But let’s pause and ask: Is that what it would feel like for us to have our lives flash before our eyes? To have everything from our lives flash before our eyes?
In addition to the things we do or leave undone, human beings spend much of our lives creating powerful psychological defenses, and we use these to suppress some painful or shameful memories and revise others. We magnify our victories and minimize our failings. In short, we tend to recast ourselves as the heroes of the story of our lives. But here’s the thing about the breakneck life review that flashes before us at life’s end: It doesn’t care a whit for our psychological defenses. The life reel that we will see (if indeed that’s how it works) will be not be varnished by our recasting. It will show us the blunt truth of who we’ve been in each and every moment. It will show us our joys but also those times when we faltered by mistake and when we willingly did harm. We want the movie reel to be a superhero movie or a romantic comedy, but for some of us it might be closer to a horror film.
The reality is that the movie reel of our life already exists in its stark and unembellished form. We know this, and we acknowledge it at the beginning of our worship each Sunday. We’ve already done so today. Immediately following the procession, the Celebrant prayed, “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid…” We might even add a tagline from the prophet Jeremiah: “I am watching, says the Lord.”[i]
The revision of our life stories may deceive us, but it does not deceive God. God knows who we are. God knows who we are. And if that doesn’t make you the least bit nervous, you’re a much better person than I am.
This is the circumstance of the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s Gospel today. This is a long passage, filled with theological heft and nuance, but among its most striking aspects is the few lines of dialogue between the woman and Jesus sandwiched in the middle. After Jesus has told the woman all about the water of life (and more about that momentarily), Jesus instructs the woman to go and fetch her husband. Attempting to shroud the truth of her life and its circumstances, the woman offers sheepishly and obliquely, “I have no husband,” upon which Jesus says, “It is true that you have no husband,” and then, as Frederick Dale Bruner puts it, Jesus “pierces her life at center.”[ii] Jesus proceeds to run the movie reel and flash the woman’s life before her eyes, describing her unorthodox repetitive marriages and revealing that she is now living with someone to whom she isn’t married. We don’t know the nitty gritty details beyond that, but it is clear that Jesus does, just as it is clear that the woman’s lifestyle sets her, fairly or unfairly, outside the bounds the morality of her day and time.
Just as we would be, the Samaritan woman is taken aback by Jesus’ prescience. That much we would expect. What we would not expect is what the woman tells all her neighbors when she goes back to town. She says to one and all, “Come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done!” Having spent so much effort—as we all do—building her psychological walls of defense, having obfuscated to herself and others (including Jesus) in order to preserve her sense of self as a good person, now the Samaritan woman rejoices that Jesus has seen her entirely and held that true mirror up to her. And beyond that, her reaction is contagious. Inexplicably, John tells us, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’” All of a sudden, they want to see the true reel of their lives, too. They want to face themselves square-on and without varnish. Somehow, Jesus has turned the horror movie into a miracle story.
How is that so? How is it Jesus can draw us to the very thing we’ve so diligently and assiduously avoided all our lives: The vision of our truest selves, light and shadow both?
It is because of the way today’s passage both begins and ends. Before Jesus has held up the mirror of the Samaritan woman’s life, before the good, bad, and ugly have flashed before her eyes, Jesus shares with her the Good News of living water. He does so already knowing everything about her. To Jesus, already, the woman’s heart is open, her desires known. From him no secret is hid. And yet, even before he reveals all of this to her, Jesus offers her the water of life.
And what about after he told her everything about her? Was the prior Good News just a ruse then to pull the rug out from under her? Did Jesus intend, like some Puritan preacher of old, simply to begin with the Gospel in order to show us how depraved and fallen—how beyond grace—the Samaritan woman was? No. After the woman is faced with the stark reality of herself, Jesus continues to sit, and teach, and offer that grace fully and freely. He stays with her, ignoring even his incredulous disciples, until she (not he) is ready to move.
The second half of the Collect for Purity we say at the outset of the Holy Eucharist—the prayer that reminds us God is the one “from whom no secrets are hid,”—says, “Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name.” The answer to that prayer is what we see happen in the Samaritan woman. She can endure, and even welcome, seeing her life flash before her eyes, because Jesus is with her before and after the viewing. Jesus is the one who shows her her true self, but he does so already having extended grace. In the metaphoric language of the passage, he provides her with the food and drink she needs in order to face who she has been. In a phrase, Jesus loves her first, and through his love she can bear to see her life truly, allow it to be washed clean by the living water of Christ, and begin to love more perfectly in return.
Part of who we have been is glorious, to be sure. As I preached two weeks ago at the beginning of Lent, God says that we are good.[iii] But there are also those parts of us and things we have done that we prefer to keep hidden in the shadows, that we don’t want to admit to ourselves, much less the world around us. Do we trust Jesus enough to let him show us everything we have ever done? Are we thirsty for the living water that will strengthen us for the viewing? Redemption begins with only and exactly this trust. Only in it and with it can we be honest about who we have been and who we are. Jesus reveals us to ourselves not to condemn or shame or abandon. Jesus rehearses our lives so that we, too, can love more purely and live in the light. Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! Are you ready for your life to flash before your eyes?
[i] Jeremiah 7:11
[ii] See Bruner’s The Gospel of John: A Commentary, pp. 259-260.
[iii] Thompson, Barkley. “Why Lent?” https://rectorspage.wordpress.com/2023/02/26/why-lent/