Sister Helen Prejean is the Catholic nun who wrote the book Dead Man Walking, the story of her experience as a spiritual advisor to a man on death row. We might assume that Sister Helen ended up in this position because, well, she is a nun, and don’t nuns often end up serving the people no one else will?
But Sister Helen’s story is much more complicated than that. She grew up in a warm, loving Catholic family and decided at an early age she would become a nun. When she joined an order, she was determined to be the most pious, most obedient, most prayerful nun she could be; she was determined to live the perfect life of faith.
One day, she walked out of an adult learning center where she was working, and a man called out to her. “Hey, Sister Helen!”
He carried a clipboard and was approaching everyone on the street.“You want to be a pen pal to someone on death row?” he asked.She didn’t know much about the death penalty, but she knew if someone was on death row, the odds were pretty good that the person was poor, and as a nun, she was called to serve the poor. Besides, how hard could it be to write a letter? She’d been an English major after all.
She now describes this as her first encounter with “Sneaky Jesus,”the Jesus who sneaks up on you and draws you in with something that seems harmless enough. “I’m only writing a few letters,” she thought, but then she got a response from her pen pal on death row, a man named Pat Sonnier, saying he never had any visitors, so, she went to visit him. And then Sonnier asked her to be his spiritual advisor, and she said yes, not knowing that when he was put to death, the only person who could be with him all the way to the end was his spiritual advisor.
Sneaky Jesus meets us where we are and draws us to placeswe never thought we’d go.
That day on the street, signing her name to that clipboard, Sister Helen could not have foreseen that she would be the face of love…the last face in fact, that Pat Sonnier would see, or that these events would ignite in her a calling to write, and to speak all over the world, about the love and forgiveness of Jesus, for all God’s children.
Sister Helen met “Sneaky Jesus.”
One of my favorite seminary professors, Dr. Rollie Martinson, once said in a class lecture something that I will never forget: “Jesus shows up when we least expect it. And when he does, he reaches in and messes with our very lives.” I’ve found a lot of truth in that statement over the years.
In our Gospel text, the woman at the well simply wanted water. It was a regular, daily chore. Most of the women in the community went early in the morning, before the heat of the day, when it would be easier to carry the heavy casks of water. But this woman was an outcast, and so she went in the heat of midday, when she knew no one else would be there. She knew who she was…and she knew what others thought of her. She was trying to keep a low profile.
Jesus and his disciples were not supposed to be there. They were traveling from Judea to Galilee. But instead of taking the direct route, Jesus decides to travel to Galilee by way of Samaria. That’s pretty far out of the way. It would be like saying that I was going to go from Owatonna to Minneapolis by way of St. Peter.
Plus, the people of Samaria were generally pretty hostile to the Jewish people. So not only were was Jesus and the disciples going out of their way, they were taking a bit of a risk to do it.
But there’s a reason for this. If you were in worship last week, we took a look at the Gospel of John, chapter 3. One chapter ahead of today’s reading. In it, Nicodemus was quizzing Jesus about how this whole salvation thing would work, and who it was for. They go back and forth for awhile, and then Jesus, kind of exasperated, has this mic drop moment and says “Here’s how it is: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will have eternal life.” Boom. End of story, right?
But I don’t think it was. Because the Jewish people, including his disciples, they had been God’s chosen people since the time of Abraham. They were confident that God’s goodness was for them. So I’m guessing that they were maybe a bit startled when Jesus said “For God so loved the world…” The world? Surely, Jesus must have meant the Jewish world, right? I mean our world. I mean…God’s love and righteousness is for us…not them…right?
But Jesus was talking about the world. “I just told you that God loves the world, but you aren’t sure what the world is? You want to know what I mean by “world?” Fine. Then I’ll show you the world.”
And off they went to the last place the disciples would expect…to Samaria.
And there, Jesus found this woman, who was just minding her own business, at the well. And in that encounter, Jesus did three really important and profound things…things that were intended to teach his disciples an important lesson. Things that are intended to teach us…an important lesson.
First, Jesus asks for a drink. He breaks the boundaries. In Jewish culture, as an unrelated man, he was not supposed to approach, must less speak to a woman. And the fact that she was a Samaritan is way beyond the boundaries. You know what it was? It was “sneaky Jesus.” He caught this woman at the well…and he caught his disciples, completely off guard.
In this simple action, Jesus is teaching his disciples…and by the way, that’s us…that to love is to step beyond the boundaries and to occasionally step into uncomfortable places. None of us like that. But it is where the Jesus who loves unconditionally, and who asks us to do the same, calls us to go.
Have you ever stepped into uncomfortable situations? Or conversations? We avoid them precisely because they are uncomfortable. But almost always, that’s where we learn and grow the most.
This past year, I participated in the “Courageous Voices” series, conversations about race in our community. These events were put together as a response to the racial incidents that took place 13 months ago at the high school. And I’ve got to tell you…the conversations were so good…and they were so hard…because I heard stories about people’s experiences, so different than mine, but living in the same community. And I felt their pain…things that I, living in the dominant culture, just had never experienced. Hearing people’s powerful stories opened my eyes and moved my heart.
I believe completely that this was “Sneaky Jesus” at work within me, catching me off guard. Teaching me something important.
Second, Jesus doesn’t just talk to the woman at the well, he sees her. In their conversation about her difficult marital history, and her present circumstances, he is not condemning her. Not at all. Rather he is recognizing that she has lived a really difficult and maybe even tragic life. She’s been abandoned five times and is now dependent on someone who will not marry her. She’s in a desperate situation. But Jesus doesn’t ignore, or critique, or even pity her. Jesus recognizes and names her challenges and in doing so, sees and values her. This was new to her. She’s probably never been seen this way before. Again, the power of Jesus’ love and grace “sneaks up on her.”
Third, Jesus gives an invitation. Jesus invites the woman to leave her burdens behind. And he invites the woman into a new identity: “Child of God.” And again, Jesus’ intentions catch her off guard…they sneak up on her; they take her breath away. And when she returns home, she cannot help but talk about it.
I don’t know about you. But I could use a little “Sneaky Jesus” right now. I am a little overwhelmed by a world that feels like it’s in chaos. 9 days ago, when Pacific Lutheran University was among the earliest of the college campuses to close its classroom learning, and we had to bring Nathan home, two weeks before his spring break, Lori’s and my reaction was “What?!? Really? Come on!” In those 9 days, we have watched hundreds of other campuses do the same, along with the major professional sports leagues, and high schools, and cruise lines, and game shows, and the Disney parks, and March Madness, and much of Washington DC and so on and so on and so on…
Things are not changing week to week or even day to day. They are changing hour to hour. And there is fear. And there is anxiety. And I get that.
In these moments…in these chaotic days, Jesus shows up. Just like with the woman at the well, Jesus sneaks up on us, with his love, and his grace, and his willingness to slog through the craziness right here alongside us.
Jesus breaks through the barriers between heaven and earth, between life and death, to get to you.
And Jesus sees you. He really sees you. He sees all of the messiness of your life, and your fears and anxieties, coronavirus or otherwise, and he reminds you that you are loved. You are valued.
And Jesus invites you into something more. Jesus says: “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.” There is a life that will restore your weary soul.
Know, and hear, and believe what Jesus promises:
- That he will cross the very boundary between life and death for you
- That he sees you, knows you and loves you, despite your imperfect life
- And that he invites you into something more.
And like the woman at the well, “sneaky Jesus” shows up. And we have the opportunity to drink the water that Jesus gives, the water that gushes up to eternal life. And we get to live the life and tell the story of this “sneaky Jesus,” the Savior who draws alongside us, and is full of surprises.
Thanks be to God!