Alberta is older, reserved and refined, a former school teacher, educated and persnickety. Dee Dee is younger, very outgoing, lacking both social boundaries and self-esteem, but is smart and yearning for an authentic relationship. What they have in common is that they are both married, and, both lonely, though for different reasons. They antagonize each other with their very annoyingly opposite personalities. Dee Dee is incessantly chatty, and Alberta is the height of decorum and control. They open each other up, while desperately trying to hide things from each other. And finally in the most explosive confrontation of the play, when Dee Dee is ripping Alberta a new one for withholding herself, something new is revealed. "Well, you're either kidding yourself or lying to me,” Dee Dee says, exasperated. “You act like [your husband]'s a saint. Like he's dead and now you worship the shirts he wore." And that’s exactly what Alberta has been unwilling to share, hoping that if she kept the news a secret, didn’t utter the words “he’s dead” to anyone, it may not be actually true. But in that moment, the anxiety and anger give way to the possibility for compassion, and for turning in a new direction - for healing. They both have been hurt by their husbands, and in sharing the hurt, they each, help open up a path toward healing, for the other. Dee Dee, for her part, sees how her cheatin’ husband is denying her a life, and she deserves more, and Alberta, frozen in place by the loss of her husband, has been given the chance to voice her worst fears, and now at least, can envision moving on.
Jesus and Peter have an explosive encounter too, veiling and revealing, tearing and healing the tear, in this significant turning point of Mark’s gospel. Turning and returning are key, as when Peter pulls Jesus aside one way, privately, to rebuke him for his passion prediction, and Jesus turns the other way, keeping Peter behind him, “looking at his disciples,” to rebuke Peter. In a sense, Jesus has torn Peter a new one – “get behind me Satan,” he says. Yet he doesn’t cast Peter out, but immediately turns to heal the tear. “Come let us return, return to the LORD.” For, to get behind Jesus, is an opportunity to follow him some more, to have a second chance.
It makes more sense if you read in context, especially the story just before this one, the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida. There too, when Jesus first puts saliva on the man’s eyes and lays hands on him, it doesn’t open his eyes all the way, and Jesus has to lay hands on his eyes again, before he is completely healed. So too, like the blind man and Peter, we may need repeated trips to the well –and to our baptismal font- to be healed of the torn nature we have experienced in this life.
It’s an epic struggle, a war of world’s, going on in our gospel today, which is manifested in this exchange between Jesus and Peter as a monumental struggle between good and evil, God and Satan.
And, it is all spoken “quite openly” at this fulcrum and tipping point of the story, to help reveal to us who the main character is. Half way through, it is not hard for Peter and the 12 to guess that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah. But, they’re completely unprepared for the way Jesus turns the meaning of Messiah around. He “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
Having heard this so many times, all our lives, it actually sounds logical to us. But for the Disciples, they had an opposite expectation. As an oppressed people for centuries, they were looking for a Messiah-king like David, and for a resistant movement like the Maccabees, those 2nd Amendment rebels, to fight with a holy power and overthrow their oppressors, the Romans, so that their holy Temple on the hill might be liberated, and they might be restored to the top of the world again.
So you can understand a little bit better why Peter, so shocked at Jesus’ call to suffer and die, pulls him aside to disabuse Jesus of this notion. But Jesus will not be tempted to turn down the road of militarism, scape-goating, and lording it over others, just like he overcame the temptation of the devil in the wilderness for 40 days after his baptism. Just like he didn’t give in to the temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane to let the cup of suffering pass from him, but kept going to the cross.
Jesus turns away from all these temptations, so that we can see the realm of God dawning in our midst. Peter’s eyes are not opened all the way, he’s not seeing clearly yet, but we know he will, soon – after the Three Great Days of Jesus death and resurrection. Two steps forward, one step back. He knows that Jesus is the Messiah, but he is blind to this, world-transforming, Son of Man, Messiah. Jesus tears into him when he’s on the wrong path, but also, he will not let Peter go until he is healed completely. When Peter tried to go ahead of Jesus, he calls Peter to follow behind him.
“What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their lives,” Jesus asks? “Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” Nothing, of course! Jesus boils it down to, life in the realm of God, or, following the Tempter. Not always a choice that is clear in our lives! Whatever it means, to take up our cross and follow Jesus, there is no simple prescription, or creed, that guarantees it.
The journey is a halting and hard fought one. It often comes in stages of revelation. We continue to turn, and return, to the font, to receive that holy spittle of Jesus, on our eyes, until the way becomes more clear to us. At the font, like at the Laundromat, we are agitated by its waters, and we meet those who seem our opposite: beneath us, or aloof from us. And yet without the stranger, we are alone, lost. And it is only in connecting up with them, in finding common interests amidst our differences, that we see the opening to our salvation. But this entails risking ourselves, and having the “human things” torn open, that the “things of God” may begin to heal us.
It may not be pretty. But in the laundromat, as Dee Dee ripped Alberta a new one, it opened up her true nature to herself, as well as a truth about Alberta, and her relationship with her husband. And in that most uncomfortable, most revealing moment, they were able to connect and forge a bond that transcended them. Through them, each was able to return to the LORD. Sometimes, an agitating washer, is our baptismal font. God comes wherever two or three are gathered, tearing and healing, as we go from death to life.