Christmas of 2002, I had one of my most embarrassing moments during our family gift exchange. I was raised to be grateful for what you have and what you are given. This means when receiving gifts during the holidays, no matter how ugly the sweater or disappointing the gift, the smile and gratitude should always be present. Well, as a senior in college, I failed at gift receiving etiquette.
Rewind to Thanksgiving when I was home and perusing ads from the newspaper with all the deals that would be taking place the next day as people began the frantic practice of buying gifts for one another. I am a planner and knew I would be graduating from college and would need to have things for my first “home.” There were these dishes that were on major sale, an eight place-setting box of dishes for $20 and if you purchased the dishes you got a box of 12 glasses for free! I think I mentioned this ad and these dishes no less than 101 times.
Fast-forward to our Christmas gift exchange and as we open gifts with one another, box after box … no dishes. There are finally a couple of boxes left (they look to be the right size) and then they are handed to my older brother. He proceeds to open the boxes and there inside are “MY DISHES!” — yet they are now his. And this is when I broke the gift receiving rule. Tears started to fall down my face and I whispered, “My dishes” and tried to push the tears away.
Yes, I was disappointed I didn’t get what I asked for, but I think the real reason the tears filled up in my eyes is that deep down I felt like I hadn’t been heard, seen, or known. The fact that this was enhanced by my brother getting the gift was salt in the wound.
Deep down there is a part of each of us that just wants to be seen, heard, and known. That is what can make being a freshman, moving into a new community, or starting a new job so difficult. You can feel like no one really knows you or sees you. You can feel isolated, even when you are surrounded by people all the time.
Psalm 139 opens with the verse, “Oh Lord you have searched me, and you know me.” This psalm goes on to reflect on how we are fearfully and wonderfully made and known by God. Throughout Jesus’ ministry in the gospels, we hear of the power of healing, forgiveness, and grace that Jesus brought to the crowds and people he encountered.
In John 4 Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well. She is there isolated and alone, having been abandoned by community. There are societal reasons that Jesus shouldn’t have interacted with this Samaritan woman. She is a woman and he is a man. She is a Samaritan and he is a Jew. Yet he sees her, he acknowledges her, and he names her story. We hear Jesus tell her, “You have had five husbands, and the man you are living with now is not your husband.” Unfortunately, this part of the story has been twisted over and over to represent this woman as a loose woman, or prostitute, or a person that “sleeps around.” The truth is that during this time she wouldn’t have that power. If the reason she has had five husbands is due to divorce, the man is the only one that could end that relationship; the woman in that society didn’t have that power. She may have been widowed five times. The man she lived with now may have been a brother-in-law that brought her into his home, if her husband died. We don’t know the circumstances for sure, but the chances that these circumstances are due to her “sexual impurities” are low. She just wouldn’t have had that kind of power. What is true is that, whatever the circumstances, she had lived pain, tragedy, and is now in isolation, drawing water when others wouldn’t be present. In this place of isolation, she is seen, her story is named, and she is offered living water.
As we are called to live with one another in community, how can we follow this example of Jesus? How can we listen deeply to one another’s stories? How can we engage one another, seeking to understand, instead of assume? How can we reach out to people that may be different than us, from a different group, different background, different faith group and hear their story? How can our deep listening to one another help us create a community where people feel restored, known, and loved?
Let’s rewind again to Christmas 2002. The next day our large family Christmas celebration with aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents came together. We had drawn names earlier in the year and now were exchanging gifts with our “Secret Santa.” My cousin Amanda walked over with a rather large box, and as I opened it, there were my dishes. My mom said, it took everything to not tell me when I was crying, “Don’t worry, you are getting the dishes tomorrow!”
Yes, there was some sheepish embarrassment, but there was also a sense of affirmation that I was, in fact, loved, known, and seen.
May you all have such an affirmation in the days ahead by this community, but may you also never forget that the God that created you sees you and loves you fully.
Sept. 11, 2019