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Bruised Reeds, Second Chances and Finishing Well Part 6: What Happened to You?

I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true. John 4:17-18 (NIV)

While chatting with my daughter this week, we fell into talking about people who act out in harmful and dangerous ways. Her life has led her into studying the impact of trauma and working with bruised reeds in the public arena. She observed that her first thought when she sees someone acting out has now become, “What happened to you?”

She sometimes serves with an acting group that helps train police officers how to de-escalate tense situations by playing out of control characters they might run into on the street. A number of the officers get very agitated when interacting with her and state that, if this was really taking place on the street, they would have slammed her to the ground and cuffed her in the first minute. She knows these officers are not bad, but are broken people. What happened to them within that they would think and act this way?

This is not a casual question. Lives are at stake when a police officer pulls a gun and ends a life because he or she never addressed personal unfinished business from the past. The same intensity of devastation can be the outcome of a believer with unfinished business who ruins their marriage, abuses a child, crosses a line sexually, commits suicide.

But often this question of unfinished business gets set aside because what is happening now captivates our attention. We are drawn to “What have you done?!” over “What happened to you?” When we look at the lives of broken reeds, we are disturbed by what they are accused of. Bill Hybels became a sexual predator. Perry Noble became an alcoholic. Mark Driscoll became aggressively angry. Charles Hill became an adulterer. In addition to them, many believers who are not high profile have messed up badly. Maybe people’s lives you are close to are shattered by what they did. We shake our heads and wish it had never happened.

This is exactly why we automatically choose the church discipline route over restoration as our first response. We don’t know what happened to you in the past—and if we are honest, we don’t care. What we do care about is that you did what you did because it embarrassed us. It shocked us. It possibly has put our church’s reputation at risk.

In John 4, Jesus deliberately chose to journey from Judea to Galilee through Samaria. While waiting by a well for his disciples to get back with food from a local town, a woman shows up to draw water. What is striking about this encounter between Jesus and the woman is his tone of compassion and directness. He shows immediate concern for this clearly ostracized person. But he sees her clearly. “You have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband.”

It’s easy to read this as a necessary exposure of her sin by Jesus. But I suggest that Jesus did not mean this that way. He was compassionately naming what had happened to her in the course of her life.

The Samaritan cultural identity was based on the idea that they should be accepted by the Jews. They were descendants of the remnant people who were left to tend the land after the Babylonians took most of the Jews into captivity hundreds of years before. They intermarried with non-Jewish people, which is why pureblood Jews looked down on them. But like the Jews, they held to the Torah. In Torah law, it was not the wife who could ask for a divorce, but the husband. He gave her a bill of divorce.

Consider this. Here was a woman who had been married and discarded five times. We have no idea what reasons her husbands had had for kicking her to the curb, but she had come to the place where she was willing to live with someone outside of marriage just to have a roof over her head. This is not promiscuity on display. This is survival.

Everyone in town knew what she was doing, which is why she came to the well at a time when no other women would be there. But Jesus was. He truly saw her. And he offered her something she had not had for a long time—Compassion…Wholeness…Life. In fact, of all the people Jesus crossed paths with, she is the only person outside of his disciples to whom he revealed that he is the Messiah.

We need to take our cue from Jesus in how we handle bruised reeds. Stop and wonder, “What happened to you?” about every bruised reed, prominent or otherwise. While this may strike you as a speculative waste of time, seeking the answer to that question is part of restoring someone to wholeness instead of kicking them permanently to the curb.


-Steve Smith