I have been on stage, in one role or another (acting, speaking, and singing) since I was five years old. I’m quite comfortable there. It’s one of the reasons many people said, “Steve Austin will either be a preacher or a politician.” I have no fear of the spotlight.
But all last week, as I was preparing to speak at my home church on suicide, I wanted to vomit. No, really. My stomach was in knots from the time I woke up Thursday morning. This was the first time I’d spoken in my hometown since I nearly died by suicide six years ago.
I was a nervous wreck. On-edge. Cranky. Distracted. Anxious. Ready to cry. If I didn’t respect my friend and pastor, I might have considered backing out. But I’ve come so far since those dark and terrible days, and I know my story matters. So I pushed through nausea and paranoia.
Are you familiar with the Bible story of the woman at the well? Here's my paraphrase:
It was about noon when Jesus arrived at a town called Sychar. He was tired, sweaty, and thirsty. He sat down by the city well, and a local Samaritan woman showed up.
Jesus asked the lady for a drink, and she was shocked. Didn't he know that Jews and Samaritans didn’t mix? If this had been the 1960’s, they would have had separate water fountains and different schools.
But Jesus didn’t care. He was dehydrated, and she had the means to give him a drink of water.
Jesus goes into this bizarre little speech about something called, “Living Water,” and promises he can give her a life where she’ll never be thirsty again. Jesus was tapping into the woman’s need. She'd been trying to fill a void for years. He already knew her story.
In fact, everyone knew this lady’s story. And the townspeople never would have called her a "lady." Far from it. She’d been with five different men, and Jesus was quick to point out, “the man you have now is not your husband.” Like the town gossip, the woman at the well got around.
Hearing this story as a child, I pictured Jesus channeling his inner Mrs. Cleo ("Call me now!"), and harnessed some heavenly psychic power and reading this woman’s mail. But that’s not true at all.
That's not the miracle. They already knew her story.
After her encounter with Jesus, the woman is so stunned that she forgets her water jar and sprints back to town to invite others to come to meet the man who, “told me everything I ever did.” Her meeting with Jesus changed everything.
I think it’s because Jesus recognized this woman as a whole person, rather than limiting her by a few big mistakes. Instead of avoiding uncomfortable conversation, Jesus sat down next to her, ignored her scarlet letter, looked her in the eyes, and asked for a drink of water. Jesus was more focused on wholeness than holiness.
To paraphrase Mike Yaconelli and his book, Messy Spirituality, the real miracle here wasn’t that Jesus pulled out a crystal ball and told the woman her story. It’s that Jesus already knew her story, and chose to engage with her anyways. Jesus approached her with understanding and compassion. People in the town called her terrible things: slut, whore, and homewrecker. But along came a wild-eyed Rabbi who gave this lady permission to be human. He issued her an invitation to experience a better way of living.
The invitation of Jesus is always into a better way of living.
As I spent time preparing for this Sunday’s sermon, I connected with the woman at the well more deeply than ever. I don’t think she feared people knowing her story: everyone makes mistakes. I think she avoided the crowds because of her fear of all the things they didn't know.
The woman at the well was drawing water in the middle of the day because all the other women went early in the morning when it was much cooler. Like a dog that's been abused, she tucked her tail, stayed low to the ground, and did her best to avoid anyone that seemed threatening. The sad news is that when you're full of shame, everyone looks like a threat.
I felt the same way on my ride home from the psych ward. The time leading up to my suicide attempt was the darkest season of my life. Not only was I in mental health crisis, I had made some poor life choices, too. I imagined I’d never feel welcome in a church again if people understood the gravity of my story.
The biggest reason I've spoken anywhere but my hometown until now is because I still fear the gossips. Those who would rather fill-in-the-blanks with their own assumptions, what-ifs, and slander, rather than reaching out to me personally. The slick church people who cloak their own twisted versions of my story in "prayer requests" are the people who have kept me shut up until now.
Maybe it’s true for you, too? Perhaps it isn’t a mental health diagnosis, but what is it? The divorce you’d rather not speak of? The affair? The fact that you’re about to file bankruptcy? There are a million different reasons you might be drowning beneath an ocean of shame, but we all know that terrible feeling.
In her book Rising Strong, Brene' Brown says, “Many of us will spend our entire lives trying to slog through the shame swampland to get to a place where we can give ourselves permission to both be imperfect and to believe we are enough.”
Brene' is right. For the longest time, I let my story hold power over me. But taking power back from my story is simple: I just have to show up and tell the truth. Each time I invite others into my story, I take power back.
I strongly identify with the woman at the well, because, like her, Jesus met me at my lowest point. I was lying in a hospital bed in an ICU room, when I felt the warm hand of God on my chest and heard an inaudible whisper in my soul, “I’m not finished with you yet.”
Jesus shows up and changes everything.
Jesus always changes everything. And sometimes it isn't in a mud-on-the-eyes, dipping-seven-times-in-the-river kind of way. More often than not, it’s through the most ordinary of circumstances. Jesus comes to us as we confess our darkest secrets and biggest fears to the therapist. Jesus empowers us to own our story and guarantees us that the power of confession will bring healing.
For a woman who had been shunned and shamed for years, the miracle is that she found the courage to be vulnerable for possibly the first time in her life. Everyone else had been whispering what they knew about her (or what they didn't know), from behind closed doors. But Jesus shows up and blows the doors off of her guilt, shame, and secret-keeping.
He did the same for me. That's just how Divine love works.
The Power of Conversation
The call of Jesus is, “Come just as you are.” When the woman (or man) at the well shows up at our front door - or our church - we are charged with creating a safe space, where everyone feels welcome. We are called to create an affirming home environment, church community, and world, where hurting people feel compelled to tell the truth and ask for help. Jesus knew that (he was fully human, after all).
Whether you're a hurting person or a helper, the power of conversation saves us all. Admitting we need help, and listening to those in need is the first step in suicide prevention - because it helps us feel less alone. Jesus met the woman at the well and changed her life in the most ordinary way: through the power of conversation. The same is true for us: the only way to live fully free is by owning our stories and asking for help.
Steve Austin was a pastor when he nearly died by suicide. A second chance, a grueling recovery, and years of honest conversation allowed Steve to find healing and purpose. It’s evident in his writing, speaking, podcasting, and coaching: he helps overwhelmed people get their lives back.