There’s nothing more compelling than a true story. Last year I read The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, and watched the movie Unbroken, about prisoner of war Louis Zamperini. Both are true stories of survival and triumph against the odds, and we are fortunate to have them. It’s one thing to read a good book, but profoundly impacting when the tale is true.
These are tales of courage, strength and worthy endeavour. No-one could fail to be inspired by them or to warm to the protagonists. But there are other stories where the truth is not forthcoming, where when it emerges it is bad, and where the protagonist is not lionised but soiled by the revelation. This could very easily have been the case with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who discovered less than a year ago that the man he thought was his father was in fact not, and that his birth came about not in the natural course of his parents’ marriage, but as a result of a brief drunken tryst between his mother and a different man just a few days before her wedding. There’s still enough stigma about these things for Welby to have felt ashamed or embarrassed. His mother kept the affair secret for decades. Welby, however, claimed to feel nothing of the kind. The discovery had provoked “no existential crisis.” His identity, he said, was found in “who I am in Christ.”
It’s a dignified response, but how is it possible? Strangely enough, there’s a Bible story that’s very much like it. In John 4 a Samaritan woman goes out to fetch water at the hottest time of day, in order to avoid people, and ends up talking with Jesus about the topic she probably wanted to avoid the most: her complicated sex life. It must have been awkward to say the least. And yet, like Welby, we’re all better off for this tale being told. If it weren’t for her encounter with Jesus at the well, we’d know nothing of this woman. She wasn’t likely to have been picked up by a publisher. There’s nothing in her story that makes her look good. Jesus hones in on the fact that she has had five husbands and is now with a man who isn’t her husband. God, the shame! And in that blazing midday heat, talk about shining a spotlight on a problem!
But the story doesn’t end there. We have no idea if she tied the knot with her latest conquest, or how the townspeople treated her later on. The redemptive thing, for me, about this story, is not so much that the Samaritan woman started a new life of sexual abstinence, but that she recovered her integrity; she starts telling the truth and coming to terms with it, publicly. It’s a radical shedding of shame. Jesus discloses some incredible things to this woman at the well, deep and meaningful spiritual realities, things he shared with no-one else. The woman encountered him with a bucket load of shame and a pitcher for water, and returns to town with neither. If she’d gone back merely telling everyone she’d found the Messiah, that would be interesting, but she goes back talking freely about the life she really lives: “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” From shame and silence to truth with integrity: it’s an incredible journey.
The Archbishop’s story and the woman’s story both lack dignity in the details. In different circumstances they could each have had a sordid bestseller, along with an existential crisis. They get neither of these because both find who they are in Christ. They both encountered Jesus, and that’s what makes all the difference. True story.