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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor: Crossing borders

Note: My dear friend and clergy colleague, Thomas Eoyang, preached this sermon today. I love Holy Scripture and I am a huge fan of Elizabeth Taylor, so you won't be surprised to learn that I think this sermon totally ROCKS! So much so that I begged Thomas' permission to have me reprint it here, on my blog. To my absolute delight, he consented. If the story of the Samaritan Woman had ever been made into a movie, I think it would have been a script written for Elizabeth Taylor. So, enjoy!

Lent III - Sermon preached at Grace Epiphany Church, 
Philadelphia, PA
27 March 2011 
(the Rev'd) Thomas Eoyang
Copyright © 2011 Thomas Eoyang

Lent 3: Exod 17:1-7; Ps 95;
Rom 5:1-11; Jn 4:5-42

Today’s gospel reading is about crossing borders you’re not supposed to cross, and touching people you’re not supposed to touch.

Jesus and the Samaritan woman should not be talking to each other, both because he’s a man and she’s a woman, and because he’s a Jew and she’s a Samaritan. The relationship between Samaritans and Jews was like the relationship today between Shia and Sunni Muslims.

The Jews from Judea knew themselves to be the chosen people; to them the Samaritans were degraded half-Jewish descendents of northern Israelites and Assyrian colonists from eight centuries earlier. Judeans didn’t see Samaritans as fully human, and the Samaritans no doubt returned the favor.

But instead of relating to each other out of centuries of established prejudice, Jesus and the woman have one of the longest conversations that Jesus has with anyone in John’s gospel.

Jesus treats the Samaritan woman as fully human, despite the rules and prejudices that inform his Jewish identity. And there’s something I love about the woman’s attitude in talking with Jesus: she’s not in the least bit in awe of him.

Unlike Nicodemus, whose conversation with Jesus we heard last week, the Samaritan woman has never heard of Jesus before. She takes in what Jesus tells her and challenges his words with complete fearlessness.

The whole conversation about “living water” turns on a double meaning, just like the conversation with Nicodemus from last week turns on the dual meaning of “born from above” and “born again.”

When Jesus asks the woman for a drink and then tells her that he can give her “living water,” she understands him to mean “flowing water,” that is, water from a running stream or bubbling spring.

Even when he tells her that the living water he’s talking about is the water of baptism that will give those who receive it “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life,” she’s still thinking fresh flowing water, and from his description it sounds like a good deal to her. She wants this handy water so that she doesn’t have to keep coming back to the well.

Then Jesus tells her something about her that he couldn’t possibly know: that she has had five husbands and is currently living with a man who is not her husband. Notice at this point what the text actually says and does not say. When we hear that she has had five husbands, don’t we immediately begin to make a judgment about her moral character?

But notice that Jesus makes no moral judgment. He does not consider her multiple marriages to be sinful and continues to talk with her. Throughout their dialogue, he treats her as a full human being despite all the rules that say he shouldn’t, and she responds at every turn as if she is his equal.

Today, I just can’t help hearing the story of the Samaritan woman in relation to the most famous multiply-married woman of our time, who died this past week: Elizabeth Taylor. Few people have had more moral judgments made about them in a single lifetime.

Now, I have no idea about Taylor’s spiritual life, her faith in God, or her attitudes toward Christianity. I don’t really care. I am not going to make a case for her being a saint for our time.

What I do want to talk about is what she did for the gay and lesbian community, in particular for gay men, and most in particular for gay men who had AIDS.

First, let us remember her unearthly beauty, which made her eternally “other,” unlike any of the rest of us. Even though we could witness her living a life of recognizable human appetite and human desire, that life was lived larger than any of us would have imagined for ourselves—large diamonds, large marriages, large love affairs, large scandals.

If anyone was ever clearly different from the rest of us, she was. Like the Samaritan woman,she never seemed to be intimidated by anyone, including her public: no weepy apologies for letting us down as she went into or came out of rehab, no calculated series of interviews to restore her public image.

Though we the public have a consistent history of wanting to control the idols we make of other human beings, and destroying them when we disapprove, she faced us down, maintained her independence and integrity, and went on living her life with all its flaws and mistakes played out for all of us to see.

Then, in the early 1980s, a complicated virus appeared that no one had known about before. First a few people died, then dozens, then hundreds, then thousands.

Just a few years into the crisis, which so many people refused to look at or consider a crisis, Elizabeth Taylor called her Hollywood community and her nation to pay attention to the people dying of AIDS, when no one, including her Hollywood contemporary who was at that time the president of the United States, wanted to deal with the growing horror.

She raised hundreds of millions of dollars for AIDS research. That money and that research shortened the time it took to find solutions—however imperfect they still are—to the biggest health emergency of our generation.

When she did this, it was a time when gay men were coming to understand that large parts of the population didn’t just fail to care whether we lived, some of them actively hoped we would die.

We got an inkling of this a few years before the epidemic struck. In the mid-seventies, the mayor of San Francisco and a member of the Board of Supervisors were murdered in their offices by another supervisor who had just resigned.

It was a shocking double murder, but even more shocking was the verdict: the murderer was convicted and received a prison sentence of just five years for killing two people.

The gay people of San Francisco were convinced that the murderer got a light sentence because the dead supervisor was Harvey Milk, the city’s most important champion of gay and lesbian civil rights.

Gay men learned from the verdict that people thought if you kill the mayor but you also kill a gay person it makes the whole thing understandable and so you don’t deserve to be punished quite so badly.

In those days of the 1970s, when gay men and lesbian women began to assert our human dignity, to demand that we be treated as full human beings, healthy and whole, we could see that not only did large segments of society not want to do that, but large segments of society — including parts of society that called themselves Christian - would be happy to see us dead.

And so we felt the same thing when a mysterious and rare set of illnesses appeared among gay men in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Later it was found that intravenous drug users and Haitians were also coming down with the same diseases.

Gay men, drug users, Haitian immigrants—all were people that society at large could look down upon and treat as if they were of no account, less than human. The physical effects of the disease were excruciating to experience and excruciating to watch.

The nursing professor who edited the book I published on HIV/AIDS for nurses told me that she had always thought that cancer was the worst way to die. Now she saw that dying from AIDS was much worse.

Those of us who could bear to look watched in grief and terror as dozens and then hundreds of healthy, vital young men took on the physiques of holocaust victims and died in agony within a matter of months.

In this atmosphere of grief and terror, of agony, loathing, and fear, Elizabeth Taylor came forward and went to work.

Now I’m not saying she single-handedly fixed the AIDS crisis. It took hundreds, thousands of nurses, doctors, researchers, and activists; it took a lot of organizing, advocacy, and anger to bring about the day when AIDS/HIV is for many a severe but manageable chronic illness.

But Elizabeth Taylor crossed borders she did not have to cross, and she touched people she did not have to touch. She accorded dignity to people that much of society considered to be scum.

She crossed borders to touch and help people whom many others considered too alien, too sinful, too freakish—and now, too sick—to be fully human, fully deserving of God’s love and the healing water of life.

In doing what she did, Elizabeth Taylor helped change the views of many people not just about those living and dying with AIDS, but about all people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered. She helped many people see that LGBT people are fully human despite our differences, despite the centuries of accumulated prejudice and hatred.

And in case you think that that work is done, that the borderlands are now open, that the barriers have fallen, and that prejudice against LGBT people is a thing of the past, let me remind you of the bullying last fall that led to the suicides of several gay teenagers.

Let me remind you of the law that the government of Uganda is still trying to pass to make homosexuality a capital crime.

And let me point out to you that a recent article about me and Grace Epiphany, published on-line in something called Mt. Airy Patch and describing our welcome of LGBT people of faith, has been noticed in the conservative Episcopal blogosphere and the comments, though not life-threatening, are not what you’d call friendly.

The waters of life are meant for all of God’s people, and as the Word of God unfolds through the stories we hear in Scripture and most assuredly as we share in the grace of the Word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ, we come to understand that God’s people means all people.

All of us—man/woman, gay/straight, black/white, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Jew: fully human, fully beloved of God, fully entitled to share in the abundance of God’s earth, and in the water of life, and in God’s wild and boundless love.

Copyright © 2011 Thomas Eoyang


Nancy Davidge said...

Elizabeth, Thanks for sharing Thomas' powerful words.

JCF said...

Now, I have no idea about Taylor’s spiritual life, her faith in God, or her attitudes toward Christianity.

Well I know she converted to Judaism (many years ago), and was buried as same.

Sleep in the arms of the Holy One, Liz. Your good works will live after you!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You are most welcome, Nancy. I'm so proud to say that Thomas is an EDS alum.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - I do believe she never renounced her conversion to Judaism but I seriously doubt her funeral was a Jewish one. I'm thinking that it was more generic but very gracious and classy.

Barbara said...


Erp said...

She was buried within about a day as per Jewish custom and it was presided over by a rabbi. Not Orthodox but not strictly secular either.

She did stand by her friends even as others turned their backs on them.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I've since read this, Erp. Wiki says she was very much pro-Israel and that Egypt forbid her to finish filming Cleopatra because she was Jewish. However, Israel forbid her from marrying Richard Burton there b/c he was not Jewish.

May she rest in peace and rise in glory.