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Biblia Luna # 30
Welcome to Issue #29 of Biblia Luna, the weekly newsletter about the intersection of mental illness and faith.
Crazy Lectionary — Third Sunday in Lent
March 12, 2023 will be the Third Sunday in Lent. The lectionary readings for this day are Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; and John 4:5-42.
The reading from John is the story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well. In this story, Jesus sits by a well in a Samaritan village, while his disciples are apparently off doing something else. A Samaritan woman comes by to get water at the well, and Jesus asks her to draw him some. The conversation that ensues takes up much of the chapter, and through it several things are revealed:
The woman regularly comes to this well for water.
The woman has a complicated and perhaps painful past.
Jesus knows everything the woman has ever done.
Jesus has “living water” that might prevent the woman from ever being thirsty again.
Living with a mental illness means, almost by definition, having a complicated and painful past. Mental illnesses, whatever they are, are not easily diagnosed. And often, they’re not diagnosed until years after they start manifesting themselves. Many things prevent people from even seeing a professional for help in the first place, including the ongoing stigma against admitting you have mental illness.
I don’t even know what my own diagnosis is, despite knowing pretty well how it manifests. I think I have persistent depressive disorder (PDD, formerly known as dysthymia), and I think that my PDD is complicated by episodes of major depressive disorder (the two together are sometimes called “double depression”). But I also have some symptoms of both social anxiety disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. I’ve never been clear if my anxiety is just a disguise my depression wears sometimes, or if it’s something else entirely. It’s complicated.
So, I think this woman can symbolize someone living with a mental illness. And the well that she keeps coming back to – well, that can symbolize the ongoing struggle to find the right treatment, whether that’s talk therapy of one sort or another, or the quest for the right cocktail of medications, or some other form of treatment. Most mental illnesses involve continual treatment. A treatment that works for one person may not work for another; a treatment that works for a year may no longer help the following year. You need to keep coming back to the well, keep trying meds, and meditation, and exercise; keep seeing your doctor and your therapist; keep doing the work or you’ll slip back.
And if Jesus promises to replace all that work, well – that’s just a wonderful idea. The trouble is, that’s not quite what he’s promising here. Faith in Jesus does not prevent or cure mental illness, no matter how many well-meaning memes might tell you otherwise. And that’s obvious here, really. In the story, the woman is at the well to draw water, literal thirst-quenching water. The living water that Jesus promises will not prevent her from needing to drink. We all know that. Faith in Christ doesn’t replace our need for hydration, or for oxygen, or for anything else our physical bodies require. What it does is provide a different sort of water, a spiritual water that fills us in a very different way. That quenches a very different sort of thirst – our thirst for God’s love, our thirst for acceptance, our thirst for meaning.
Just as Jesus does not promise to take away our need for literal water, he doesn’t promise to take away our need to “do the work” of procuring the “water” that treats our mental illnesses. Instead, he promises to give that work meaning. He promises to imbue everything we do with living water. And that is very good news for someone struggling day after day, month after month, trying to keep, well, trying to keep above water. This living water can give hope and persistence to someone who needs it, for whatever reason.
A few bits of good news here. I had a great talk yesterday at the Bangor Public Library. I’m always willing to “take my show on the road” — if you know of any church, or reading group, or support group, or any other place who might appreciate a talk, please let me know!
Secondly, thanks to my good friend Pete Barry, the audiobook version of Darkwater is getting close to ready. I may have that news for you in the next few weeks…
A Song I Discovered
Thanks to my friend Steve, I recently discovered the song “You Say” by Lauren Daigle, which I am thinking of as the “theme song” to Darkwater. It describes so well life with mental illness and faith. Check it out:
The best way out is always through. — Robert Frost