Some years ago I had a chance encounter with a person that changed my life forever. I was living in New York at the time, having returned to graduate school after several years in the ordained ministry. In order to support my family, I worked part-time in several churches, taking weekday services, hearing confessions, and helping the full-time priests with hospital calls and pastoral work.
It was early on a weekday morning and even though spring was just around the corner, the night had been cold and the morning air still had a bite to it. As I was walking to the church to get there in time for an early morning celebration of the Eucharist, I encountered a homeless man who had slept the night on an old piece of cardboard. He made his bed over a sidewalk grate near the steam exhaust of an apartment building.
It was the best he could do. He was still shivering from the cold; his clothes were thin. He had no gloves, no hat, no topcoat. I suspect he had not eaten in several days. As I passed him on the sidewalk, our eyes met, and when they did, I knew I would have to stop for a moment to speak to him and ask if there was anything I could do. He didn't ask for much. He didn't want a coat or a better place to stay. He didn't even ask if I had any food vouchers from one of the neighborhood delis. I reached in my pocket, thinking I would give him a couple of quarters for a hot cup of coffee. But he seemed not to want anything that might make his life more comfortable on this cold morning on the streets of the city.
"No, Father," he said, "all I need for you to do is to give me a blessing." "Give you a blessing?" I asked, somewhat surprised by his request. "Yes, that's all," he said, "a blessing." So I knelt down beside him on the sidewalk, said a prayer with him and laid my hands upon his head and gave him a blessing. With a peaceful look upon his face, like he had received a gift that he had been waiting for for a very long time, he picked up his cardboard bed and a little bag of belongings and walked haltingly down the street in the opposite direction.
Unlike many of the street people in our neighborhood that I saw day after day, I never saw him again. He simply took his blessing and went on his way, but those few moments changed my life forever.
Today's Gospel is the story of Jesus' chance encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus was on his way form Judea to Galilee, and he had to pass through Samaria in route. He stopped by Jacob's well in the heat of the day for some refreshing water; there he encountered a woman who had come with her water jar to draw water from the well. Jesus does the unthinkable! He speaks to her and asks her for a drink. What a moment it must have been! It was not customary for men to speak with women in public, and Jesus was not just any man. He was a rabbi, a further limitation on his public behavior, and this was no ordinary woman. This was a Samaritan woman, one with whom no contact was allowed, an outcast of sorts, a near non-person who existed well outside the margins of society.
Asking her for a drink of water was nothing short of scandalous. John notes that the disciples had left Jesus by the well to rest while they went to fetch food and provisions for their journey. Had they been there, they would have gotten Jesus water, and had he still insisted on speaking to the Samaritan woman, the poor disciples surely would have fainted. The woman is taken aback, that a man--and a rabbi at that--would speak to her. So she asks Jesus what was up. And Jesus responds by saying in effect, "Sister, you don't know the half of it. If you knew who I am, you would be asking me for water, and living water at that!" Now the woman was really getting confused. It's one thing for him to speak to her, but his suggestion that he might give her water, that's so far beyond what is possible it boggles the mind. The woman tries to deflect her uneasiness by saying to Jesus that there is no way he can draw water for her-not that she's asked, of course-because he has no vessel with which to draw the water and the well is deep.
More than the well is getting deep at this point. Jesus now promises her that the water he can provide for her is water from which springs eternal life-water that will quench her thirst forever.
At this point, Jesus has her right where he wants her: curious, receptive, but still doubting. Now he is going to take things a step further. He says to the woman, "Go get your husband, and the two of you come back here." She tells him she has no husband. "Right again," says Jesus, "you have no husband, you have five husbands, and what's more, the man you are hanging out with now is not your husband either."
"Sir," she says, "I perceive that you are a prophet." That was probably the understatement of the year! Jesus continues to explain things to the Samaritan woman and as he does, the disciples return. They saw Jesus talking with the woman, and it must have puzzled them greatly, but they had the sense enough to keep their mouths shut this time.
And the woman left her water jar and went back to her community and told her people about this rabbi she had met who refused to play by the rules. And many heard her story and it was so compelling that many came to believe in Jesus.
What is it about Jesus? Time and again his behavior surprises us; his words jolt us; his teaching forces us to rethink the way we see and understand the world.
In this case he turned everything upside down: He sidestepped the boundaries and spoke with an outcast; he suggested to her that he might serve up the water rather than be waited on by her. He confronted her with the sure knowledge of her secrets, but rather than condemning her, he used her own difficult story to help her discover who he really was.
Give Jesus half a chance and most of what you think you know about him he is going to turn upside down. He is going to find a way to transform your life, reorient your thinking, and replant your feet in midair!
That's exactly what happened to me that cold, spring morning when I had my chance encounter with the homeless man in my neighborhood. My whole world was turned upside down. Remember, I was on the way to church to serve as a priest, to speak a good word, and give Holy Communion to the people. And a nameless, homeless man asks me for a blessing; it seemed so normal at first. After all, that's what priests do: We bless people in the name of God. In one way it all seemed so perfectly normal, a priest blessing a homeless man. But when the encounter was over, I realized in a profound way, that I was the one who received the blessing. It wasn't so much that as a priest I had crossed a barrier and ministered to a marginalized person. Quite the opposite. As I walked on toward the church that morning, I realized that a homeless man without a name had crossed a barrier with me and showed me Jesus in a way that I have rarely experienced.
I prayed a blessing on him; he became living water for me-living water through which God gave me a taste of eternity and quenched my thirst. It is really important to be careful when you spend time around marginalized people, outcasts, and sinners of all kinds.
It is important to be careful around such people because there is no telling how God may turn things upside down. God might well use you to minister to the needs of an outcast or two. But be careful, because the chances are even better that God will use them to change your life, and their blessing will be upon you.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus Christ, friend of sinners, lover of outcasts, champion of the downtrodden, we give you thanks for your love and compassion for all people. We see you among us in the faces of strangers, in the voices of children, in the cries of the poor, in the yearnings of the dispossessed. Show us the way, Lord Christ; empower us with new ways to love, the courage to accept new challenges, and the will to persevere in works of justice and mercy. Stir up within us the passion of your love, and give us the grace to follow you wherever you lead the way. Lead us on, Lord Jesus, lead us on to the threshold of the age to come and to the world that awaits us there. Lead us on, Lord Jesus. Amen.