Let us pray: Grace extending God, always and everywhere, in moments of intimacy or isolation, you summon us into relationship as our constant Companion. You invite us to meet and companion one another, traveling together toward your kingdom of love. Amen.
Much of the biblical story takes place on the road. Or on the water. Or, as in the scripture today, next to life-giving water. During the next few weeks during this worship series, we will reflect about the things that happen when we travel beyond our home – the encounters we have, the ways these encounters offer an opportunity to reflect on our lives, our beliefs, for potential transformed.
This series is inspired by an interview GBHEM held last spring featuring Rick Steves on the topic of Travel as a Spiritual Act. Rick Steves is a popular travel writer who is based just 50 miles north of us in Edmonds. In addition he is a philanthopist, raising money and awareness for Bread for the World and FAN. What you might not know is that he is a devout Lutheran. He shares about his faith and how it informs his experience of the world as well as how his experiences in the world inform his faith. For Rick Steves, traveling is an act of spirituality.
For Jesus, travel was an act of spirituality as well. From what we read in the gospels, we have a sense that Jesus was on the go most of his public ministry, walking everywhere he went, creating holy encounters out of what could have simply been mere interactions and exchanges. On this particular day, Jesus was traveling and had to pass through Samaria, (what is now known as central Palestine) when he stops to rest at Jacob’s well because he is weary from his journey in the heat of the day.
In an article entitled “Women and Wells in the Hebrew Bible”, Julye Bidmead writes, “In the Hebrew scriptures, in addition to being sources of water for drinking and agriculture, wells were also places of betrothal scenes such as Abraham & Sarah, Jacob & Rachel, Moses & Zipporah. Divine revelation occurred at wells, too. As water is life giving and symbolizes creation and new beginnings, it is noteworthy that God would choose water sources for places for revelation. In the Song of Songs, the woman is praised as a “garden fountain, a well of living water” (4:15). After Hagar fled from Sarai, an angel of the Lord appeared to her at a well. Later, when Hagar & Ishmael had been cast out into the wilderness and their water supply was gone, “God opened her eyes, she saw a well of water.”
Many stories in scripture and in our contemporary life feature weary travelers relying on hospitality of strangers. In this interaction, in John 4, in the unfamiliar territory of Samaria, with different cultures and theological beliefs, they shared something in common – human thirst for water. Jesus puts whatever differences they had aside and asks for a drink. Speaking to a woman – a Samaritan – at the well – ALONE in the middle of the day – was taboo. But Jesus was infamous for breaking cultural and religious taboos of his day. Most of us have heard various interpretations of this scripture many times. The Samaritan woman may have had good reasons to be alone at the well mid-day, perhaps to avoid the gossip and stares of those who looked down upon her. But Jesus saw her worth and offered her connection, conversation, and “living water.” Last week we heard Rick Steves’ tell us that “strangers” are simply “friends we have not yet met.” We don’t even have to travel very far, for any interaction with another person to become a holy encounter, as it was for Jesus and the Woman at the Well.
I recently read a story about another holy encounter about two travelers who met in a busy airport and it turned into a Holy Encounter. It was written by Naomi Shihab Nye, a Palestinian-American poet, born in St. Louis and raised in Jerusalem and San Antonio. It is called “GATE A-4”
Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed 4 hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.” Well—one pauses these days. But Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there. An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,” said the flight agent.
“Please Talk to her. We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”
I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly. “Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-se-wee?”
The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled. She needed to be in El Paso for medical treatment the next day.
I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.” We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and ride next to her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for fun. Then we called my dad and they spoke in Arabic and found out of course they had 10 shared friends. Then I thought why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This took up 2 hours.
By this time, she was laughing. Telling of her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies — little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts — from her bag — and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo — we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.
And then the airline broke out free apple juice and two little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they were covered with powdered sugar, too. I noticed my new best friend — by now we were holding hands — had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of weary ones and I thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate — once the crying of confusion stopped— seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too. This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.
In the midst of confusion and fear and apprehension, not everything is lost. This story and the Gospel story demonstrates how taking a risk and moving out of one’s comfort zone to care for each other can help bring joy and create relationships, a holy encounter. A small act of kindness also opens the heart space of those around us encouraging and influencing others to care for each other. Naomi Shihab Nye creates the idea of a community where compassion, food, tradition, and commonality are shared.
I want to show one more video clip of the interview with Rick Steves where he seeks out and encounters a “Whirling Dervish” on one of his tours. Another holy encounter that creates connection.
SHOW VIDEO CLIP WHIRLING DERVISH
What if our prayer life was patterned off of the prayer ritual of a whirling dervish. I invite you to place one foot on the floor – this is the one that is rooted and connected to home & family. If you want to stand where you are please feel free to do so – this is one way to create body memory which is a powerful prayer stance. Imagine the other foot goes around to celebrate diversity of God’s creation. Take one hand – raise it in the air as you gratefully open your heart to accept God’s love. Now imagine your other hand is open in blessing to shower God’s love on creation in all your interactions with others that can become holy encounters. This is life-giving water, becoming conduits of God’s love – celebrating the diversity of creation. A little less afraid, a little more connected, a broader perspective.
The Encounter is not one-sided. We can be redefine “strangers” as “friends we have not yet met” if we are willing to risk, to learn and grow, to appreciate another’s culture or religion, to see with the eyes of compassion. Jesus often crossed paths with others not from his “tribe”. He engaged with them in their deepest yearning. When we seek out and open to new encounters, new people, new relationships, we may discover a deeper well within ourselves in this spiritual rendezvous with humanity.
Both Jesus and Samaritan woman were thirsty. We, too, are thirsty for love, connection, friendship, sustenance, freedom. Rick Steves asked in the opening video on travel:
“Why do I see humanity as one? Because I’ve traveled. Why am I curious? In spite of my privilege, why do I care? Because I’ve traveled. Why am I grateful, why do I want to contribute? Because I’ve traveled. This is why we travel, and keep traveling. Through traveling, we find meaning.
We all thirst for lives of love, connection, sustenance, freedom. Leaving home is a way to learn more about others and about ourselves. We open ourselves accept the hospitality and love of others; we open to the different ways that this love is shown. We don’t have to travel very far. We can have holy encounters everyday. Let us remember our thirst for living water, especially when we are weary or afraid.
We are going to sing (or hum) the prayer hymn, The Summons, written by John Bell for the Iona Community in Scotland. We recorded this hymn as separate verses last January when we listened to various speakers about God’s call and vocation. As we listen and sing today, there will be reflection questions offered between the individual verses.