I was pretty sure of things twenty five years ago. I was taking an intern year away from the Episcopal seminary where I had been studying and was in the middle of an intern year as a youth minister in a small town in Northern California, I had been hitting the gym faithfully, religiously even, and was in the best shape of my life, I was on a proper professional track at the church where I was serving, and I was engaged to be married to a wonderful woman whom I loved and who loved me. So everything was in place, as I was sure it should be, with the exception of the transmission of my car – which was not working at all - and so I found myself on a long and circuitous bus and subway trip to get from Eureka, the town where I was working, to San Francisco, then across the Bay to Berkeley, the city where my seminary and fiancée were waiting. I was so happy, so proud, so sure. I have learned more since then, and in most ways I think I am both happier and more real, but I have never been that sure of myself.
So I took this long bus ride down the Redwood Highway and I read a book on ministry and wrote in my journal and thought about my life, and when I got into San Francisco I went into the nearest BART station, the local interurban subway/railway, to catch the train to Berkeley. And this black guy, African American came up alongside of me on the platform and I could see that he wasn’t walking too steady and his clothes looked a little rough and he might have smelled, though from work or dirty clothes or booze I don’t remember. And he said, “Where do I get the train to Oakland?” and he was right next to me.
So I looked towards the track to our right and said, “I think you’ll find it over there.” And he raised his voice a bit and said, “I don’t want to know what you think, I want to know what you know.” And I thought, “Well, I am going to get mugged or worse, here it comes. And I said, “It’s right over there.” And he said, “Look at me!” And I took a breath and looked up at him – and I saw a man who was probably a bit older than I, and tired, probably harder working than I had ever been, who had a few scars and some real serious dignity that he had likely had to fight for over the years. And I felt sorry, both for him and, surprisingly, for me, and I wasn’t afraid anymore. And I looked at him and said, “the train for Oakland will be on this platform. And he looked at me for a minute and then said, “Thank you,” and walked away.
And I felt like I saw something about me that I hadn’t seen before. Something about how narrow I was, how snobbish, self-serving, insulated by my own concerns from a world that was big and unpredictable and unsafe and full – maybe – of messengers of God that I might have overlooked in my narrowness of vision. I saw that day that I didn’t see much, about myself and about Gods’ world at all. It’s been twenty five years since, and I can still see his face. I never knew his name, never will. But I have a hunch who he might have been and why he spoke to me.
The part of the Gospel that spoke to me in that encounter, that lit it up further and turned it into a kind of icon, was the story in John where Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well. And the question that sparked for me then, and continues to speak to me today is this: What is in your vision? Who do you see? And who sees you? And how is that for you? There is so much in that biblical encounter scene that I want to cut it down from a very complicated scene in a major motion picture to a couple of photos, a few quick snaps to focus on some things so that we can see what might be happening from a different angle.
Now at first glance nobody sees anybody in the story. Jesus asks the woman at the well for some water and she’s amazed that he doesn’t seem to see she is Samaritan – someone that a good Jew would avoid, keep away from, not share water, utensils, let alone conversation, And she tells him this, then they start talking for real. The pictures become close-ups.
Now Jesus says something very direct. “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
And maybe the Samaritan woman sees that there is someone, something out of the ordinary here; worth the chance of a direct encounter and she looks at him, and says, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water…are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well? She asks him questions concerned with practicality, history, culture and custom
Then Jesus comes back with one of those memorable one-liners that make the Gospel of John such a majestic document. ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’
And if they weren’t looking at each other face to face before, they are now. And she says, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’ Save me from need, from the daily walk to the well, give me some rest. Can you see them talking now?
A quick and very direct dialogue follows: like one, two three.
“Go, call your husband, and come back.”
“I have no husband.”
“Right… you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”
Let’s pause for two quick questions here: what do you do when you see the Messiah? And what do you do when the Messiah sees you? What do you do when the one who is the ultimate word of God’s love and knowledge and compassion and concern is face to face with you and telling you the story of your life?
The man on the subway platform in San Francisco forced me to look at him, and in that moment I saw parts of myself that I had never seen before. But I also realized that when we were looking at each other, when he forced me to meet him face to face, that he forgave me. It took me a little longer to come to terms with the depth of my racism and classism and the shallowness of my egoism: all that took awhile and in some way it is still working its way out. But that was my problem, not his. He had already forgiven me. It was both all over and all new at that moment.
Can you imagine what it would feel like for that woman? All the mistakes made, the wrong roads taken, the commandments broken and defenses and denials made up to protect the little girl who got lost on the wrong way a long time before: most of us know something about that path. Then to have Jesus look on you and know you, and love you and forgive you: all over and all new at that moment. What if we looked at all our own history with the deep love and forgiveness of God that we see in the life and teaching, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the human face of God face to face with us, walking and talking along side us, in the middle of life with us, in love with us? What if we could see our way clear to forgive and love ourselves that much? What if we could forgive and love each other too?
That’s why we are come together as church, in our particular subway stations of the sprit, to look for God in those we overlook, to be forgiven and renewed by those we’ve never seen clearly before, including ourselves. As William Blake writes, we are here “to learn to bear the beams of love,” and to forgive and to see one another, ourselves, our God: in the light of grace and forgiveness and love of Jesus Christ. Sometimes it is not easy, but it can be wonderful. So we stop here on in the middle of the journey of our lives, to come to the table and take the nourishment, bread and wine, living water, the flesh and blood and love of God into our lives. So that we can see it all – the world, the friend, the stranger, more clearly when we meet them all face to face, and so that we can continue the ministry of Christ, to be messengers of repentance, refreshment, forgiveness and renewal, enlightenment. To see the world in God’s light and God’s love and God’s life. All in the name of Christ.