Canceled Plans and Canceled People

Nothing New (or Gospel-Aligned) about Cancel Culture

Guest Contributor / 3.18.20

This sermon comes to us from Will Ryan.

I want to talk this morning about canceling. In the face of all the suspensions—the NBA, the NCAA, airports across the globe, and all the rest (including worship services)—I think it’s important to hear how Jesus responds to someone to someone facing another kind of canceling.

Here’s a story to illustrate what I mean:

It took some time for L to understand that she had been canceled. She was 15 and had just returned to a school she used to attend. ‘All the friends I had previously had through middle school completely cut me off,’ she said. ‘Ignored me, blocked me on everything, would not look at me.’

Months went by. Toward the end of sophomore year, she reached out over Instagram to a former friend, asking why people were not talking to her. It was lunchtime; the person she asked was sitting in the cafeteria with lots of people and so they all piled on. It was like an avalanche, L said.

Within a few minutes, she got a torrent of direct messages from the former friend on Instagram, relaying what they had said. One said she was a mooch. One said she was annoying and petty. One person said that she had ruined her self-esteem.  Another said that L was an emotional leech who was thirsty for validation.

‘This put me in a situation where I thought I had done all these things,’ L said. ‘I was bad. I deserved what was happening.’

Two years have passed since then. ‘You can do something stupid when you’re 15, say one thing and 10 years later that shapes how people perceive you,’ she said. ‘We all do cringey things and make dumb mistakes and whatever. But social media’s existence has brought that into a place where people can take something you did back then and make it who you are now.’

In her junior year, L said, things got better. Still, that rush of messages and that social isolation have left a lasting impact. ‘I’m very prone to questioning everything I do,’ she said. ‘“Is this annoying someone?” “Is this upsetting someone?”

‘I have issues with trusting perfectly normal things,’ she said. ‘That sense of me being some sort of monster, terrible person, burden to everyone, has stayed with me to some extent. There’s still this sort of lingering sense of: What if I am?

Canceling is the 21st-century equivalent of shunning or ex-communication. It’s purity culture through and through without the giant letter A. If you don’t adhere to a group’s beliefs and practices then you’re shoved into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. If someone or some group deems you “unworthy,” then it’s over. It’s declaring someone “unclean” and then cutting off all ties.

And we see the ramifications of it in L’s story, the internalization of that cut-off. Thoughts well up from within: she’s a “monster, terrible person, burden to everyone.” This situation realizes one of our greatest fears—we really are not worthy of love.

I think it’s safe to say we’ve all experienced this phenomenon. Cut off, shunned, excommunicated. We’ve all been deemed unworthy or unclean by a group, a friend, or a family member. Maybe the drinks you had spiraled into an addiction. Maybe you argued about politics one too many times at the Thanksgiving table. Maybe you loved the wrong person and dared to admit it.

Certainly, there is more than a fair bit of this dismissal going on in the face of COVID-19. If you don’t think this whole thing is blown out of proportion. If you don’t wash your hands 6 times an hour. If you don’t believe it was concocted to take down the president. If you don’t self-isolate and instead go out to love and serve your neighbors.

I even felt like I was going to be canceled by some of my clergy colleagues for still wanting to have worship today!

I also think it’s safe to say the Woman at the Well was feeling this way when she made her trek to fill her jar with water during the mid-day heat. There would really only be one reason she would venture out of the city during the heat of the day—and make no mistake, it would be hot. This is the desert we’re talking about. The only reason she would be going out there when it was hottest would have been because she had to.

Married five times and shacking up with yet another guy would have made anyone back then worthy of being canceled. Maybe she couldn’t deal with the early morning sneers. Maybe she was sick of the side-eye glances. Maybe the deafening silence was too oppressive for her to bear anymore. Either way, she decided to lean into her canceled life and make her water trip when she wouldn’t have to deal with those who deemed her unworthy and unclean.

So she made her trek to her ancient Patriarch’s watering hole to do a simple chore in peace, but when she got there she found she wasn’t alone. Jesus was there. This woman would have been even more of an outsider to him than to anyone from her town. He was a man, and it was forbidden to be alone with a woman. Also, she was a Samaritan and he a Jew. Their two countries were bitter enemies, or as Hamilton puts it, they were “diametrically opposed, foes.”

She would not have been on anyone’s, let alone any self-respecting Jew’s, list of people to interact with, but Jesus does. “Give me a drink” starts off the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the gospel of John. This conversation has many twists and turns—each exchange brings her closer and closer to the life-giving water Jesus promised to give. Each exchange reveals the depth of Jesus’ boundary-crossing love for this woman. Each exchange shows us how Jesus came for people like her.

In fact, verse 4 in chapter 4 discloses the strange obligation compelling Jesus here: But he had to go through Samaria. This isn’t a geographical necessity; there were roads one could travel to avoid Samaria. Jews did it all the time. They would take the long way around to avoid their arch-rivals. No, this is a theological truth. Jesus had to go through Samaria because his message of life-giving grace included those even his kin had spurned.

And here’s the kicker: This woman becomes an evangelist, a preacher! She runs around the city exclaiming the wonderful news about what Jesus did for her: He told me everything I have ever done.

Every little snide remark made. Every horrible thought that bubbled up. Every time I decided not to wash my hands. Every argument I started with my wife. Every time I looked the other way when someone reached out for help. Every time I convinced myself I was good to drive, even though I knew I really wasn’t. Every time I took advantage of another person’s kindness. He told me everything I’ve ever done and those things I’ve left undone.

It’s terrifying because there are certain things I’ve tried really hard to forget; I’m sure this is true for you too. But for this woman, He told me everything I’ve ever done is the Gospel. Christ met her amid her sin and failings. It’s as Paul puts it in today’s assigned epistle reading from Romans: For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly … God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Rm 5:6,8). Jesus offers his life-giving water of grace to this woman, even though he knows full well her sinful past, present, and future.

He doesn’t ask her to change. He doesn’t give her a list of things to do first. He doesn’t count the number of religious points she earned. No, he invites himself into her life, sin and all, and offers her his forgiving grace. He does for her at the well what he does for us at the Cross—while we were still sinners Christ died for us. Died that we might have life. Died that we might be forgiven. Died that we might find grace. Died that we might not be canceled, but reconciled to God and to each other.

But this good news is not just for those canceled like the Woman at the Well. When she’s preaching around the city, she isn’t talking only with her friends. She doesn’t have any. No, it didn’t matter to her whether she ran into someone who canceled her or not; she told them about Jesus. And the funny thing is that Jesus offered them the same grace he did to her! He even offered them the gift of his presence by staying with them for two more days.

It doesn’t matter if you’re the canceled or the canceler, because we’ve all been both. But Jesus had to go through Samaria, just so he could bring his life-giving water to people like you and me.

Featured image credit: Enherdhrin