Pr. Michelle Sevig
During the presidential campaign, and in the weeks after the election, I spent too much time in a Facebook group called Pantsuit Nation. This “by invitation only” group of Hillary supporters had endless stories, opinions and photos to share. Many people shared heartbreaking stories about their disagreements with friends and relatives that would likely end in permanent estrangement.
But the stories I was most drawn to, and still am, are about people who are intentionally bridging gaps with others. At a time when so much divides us, it’s important to remember that relationships are being transformed—even when it seems that would be impossible. The stories in Pantsuit Nation were filled with great sorrow and joy—and courage. Courage to sit down with parents or a sibling, co-workers or friends, and have real conversations, not through social media, but in person. They asked questions and listened intentionally and intently.
That’s what it means to be in a relationship, right? That we meet one another with a posture of openness—and seek to understand as much as we seek to be understood. A good conversation with someone who is “other” (who looks different, lives differently, believes differently) is crucial to relationship-building and understanding. A conversation that includes respect, active listening, and mutual vulnerability will transform us into people who bring down walls and bridge gaps.
Today’s familiar gospel story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman reminds us that conversations need to be cultivated and valued. This is so different from today’s rampant “I’m right and you’re wrong” exchanges. Jesus comes to a woman at the well in the middle of a hot desert day to get a drink of water. And she is alone, excluded from the community of women who gather water in the cool morning. She’s likely widowed or divorced because she was barren; left to fetch water on her own because no one would want her bad luck to rub off on them.
Yet Jesus comes to her; even though Jewish people and Samaritans were not supposed to interact with each other, even though she is a woman; and unrelated men and women are not supposed to talk with each other. Jesus comes to her and asks for a drink of water—a simple way to initiate a conversation that ends up being transformative for her.
In this exchange between rabbi and unnamed woman there is mutual vulnerability—Jesus is thirsty, and she needs the water that only he can provide. In asking one another questions, they listen for what is on the heart of the other. And it is here that Jesus reveals his true identity for the first time as the one sent from God—I AM…the one who provides eternal life.
Pastor Ben modeled such conversations for us Thursday night when Holy Trinity’s five confirmands participated in “Takin it to the Streets--” a once a month ministry bringing food to people who live on the streets in the South Loop.
We first timers were nervous, not sure what was going to happen as we interacted with people we did not know and assumed did not share much in come with us. None of us had ever really interacted with someone who is homeless. We’re much more used to passing them by on the streets of our city.
Pastor Ben talked to us about our anxiety, about respect for people who live on the streets. He encouraged us to engage in conversations with people, instead of just handing them food and looking the other way. He coached us about what kinds of questions to ask and how to listen with an open heart. Instead of the usual questions we use when meeting other people, like “where do you work or where do you live?” Ben encouraged us to look for a connecting point. A Cubs hat? Find out if you’re both Cubs fans. Do they have a great smile, tell them so. Etc.
And so we went out, and we did find things in common. We learned their names, and told them ours. We offered soup, and had brief conversations. We even had a couple of drumsticks for drumming to give to a couple of guys on State Street. And before we knew it, one of the confirmands was drumming on the wall of a building with these two strangers who are often ignored and alone. The conversation blossomed as they sang to us about Jesus and his great love for everyone.
And we experienced what Pastor Karoline Lewis describes in her blog about today’s gospel story, “When it comes to conversations with or about Jesus,” she said, “expect to be surprised. Expect God to reveal something about God’s self that you’ve never seen before. And anticipate being changed in the process.”
The woman at the well goes from dismissed to a disciple. From alone to being a sheep of Jesus’ own fold. In our relationships, in our encounters with others—on the street or in our homes—we, too, are changed when we allow this living water to transform our lives.
But this story at the well isn’t only about water. Yes, the very human Jesus was thirsty and yearned for a drink. But his thirst is about so much more. God, in Jesus, thirsts to be in relationship with us.
The story about soup being served on the streets is not about the soup. It is about being in relationship with our neighbor. Thirsting for connection, thirsting for understanding, thirsting to drink deep from God’s well of love and compassion and mercy.
The eternal life Jesus gives to this woman, and to us, is a life that is transformed to live in the full presence of God. When we open ourselves up to the present moment we might be surprised to find God in the most unlikely of people and places. Yes, we meet God in the baptismal waters of grace. Yes, we meet Jesus in the bread and wine, forgiving sin and restoring life. But let the water and the wine, the bread and the Word, the song and the silence move us from this place to the next—where we will be surprised. As we meet the Holy One face to face in our co-worker or classmate, our estranged relative or neighbor in need. And then we will go out from this well of life with our own stories of transformation to tell.