“Would you like to join us? You don’t have to eat alone.”
The man wasn’t a member of our congregation. He was there to speak later in the evening about his experience living in a transitional community. All I could tell about him was that he didn’t know anyone and he was a veteran. He accepted my invitation, and we introduced ourselves, as well as our children, and he told us bits and pieces of his story. He and my husband talked about their military service, and the kids regaled him with nonsense stories.
Later, we learned that he had once tried to kill himself. That he was estranged from his family–a wife and children. That he had ended up homeless after years working an $80,000-a-year job. After he spoke, I approached him to encourage him to keep telling his story because it was so important for people to hear. He remarked that he felt bad for sitting with us at dinner when we didn’t know the whole of his story, as if it would have made a difference in our invitation. (It wouldn’t have.)
I wondered if he’d be rejected before.
I recently started watching “Call the Midwife,” the BBC series based on the memoirs of a young midwife who worked in London’s East End (a poor section of the city) in the 1950s. Jenny Lee, the main character, is faced with a number of new experiences. She is unused to the living conditions of her patients. She is visibly disturbed by bugs crawling around in their houses, by the behaviors of the women and men she comes into contact with, and the smells they emit. At one point she cries out to one of the nuns with whom she lives and works, “I didn’t know people lived like this!” The nun replies, “But they do and that is why they are here.”
In another episode, the women are cleaning up an elderly nun who is a bit eccentric. She has been wandering around the neighborhood barefoot and in a nightgown. As they wash her feet, the nun says, “Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.” And the quick-with-a-quip nun replies that the disciples probably weren’t traipsing around barefoot walking through horse dung.
I laughed, but then I remembered what I’ve learned about the culture in Jesus’ day. The disciples may not have been barefoot, but their feet would not have been clean. Covered in dust. And donkey dung. And who knows what else. Yet Jesus did not hesitate to kneel down and touch their dirty feet and wash them.
Sometimes the Gospel has dirt on its hands.
I don’t like to be messy. That’s not to say I’m a neat-freak because if you saw my house, you would know that’s not true. But I don’t like it when my socks are wet from standing too near the shower when the kids are bathing. I wash my hands when I’ve been handling anything unclean. I’m phobic about bug infestations. And smells–I’m extra sensitive to those.
Our church holds a foot-washing service every year on Maundy Thursday, and though I have participated in foot-washing services before, I have never attended the one at our church. The idea of touching other people’s feet, or having someone touch mine, weirds me out. I know what my feet smell like after a day of shoes and socks and sweat. I know what my husband’s and kids’ feet smell like, and sometimes I want to gag. What if I gagged while washing someone’s feet?
I know it’s not as awful as I make it out to be in my mind. I remember the times of foot-washing from the past, and it was beautiful because of the love and relationship with the people around me. It was difficult and awkward, but I didn’t regret it, even when my face flushed with embarrassment.
Jesus did not hesitate to touch people. Or be touched. Story after story in the Gospels shows him putting his hands in the dirt, the mud, touching people to heal them, even if they had “untouchable” diseases. I forget that Jesus lived in a world that we would probably consider unclean today. Ours is a sanitized life.
That’s not all bad. It’s important to prevent the spread of disease and to teach our kids to wash their hands to keep certain illnesses at bay. But sometimes my life is so sanitized I keep people at arm’s length. I don’t want to go there or do that because I might catch something or be soiled. This is not the Gospel way.
Jesus does not ask us to be clean before He can touch us, and neither do we need to limit our life to only the clean ones. Those who seem most untouchable are the ones who probably need a comforting touch the most.
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” the Pharisees muttered. Maybe they were “unclean” spiritually; maybe physically. Jesus sat down in their midst and broke bread. It didn’t matter to him. Imagine if Jesus had said, “No” to humanity. A perfect, sinless deity living among imperfect, sinful humans? Who does that? Thank God, he did.
Jesus did not sully himself with sin while amongst us, but he sullied himself with the stuff of the earth. Dirt. Sweat. Birth fluid. He probably would have had B.O. (And I don’t say that to diminish Jesus’ deity but to acknowledge his humanity.)
I am nowhere near the example of Jesus but I can follow his lead. I can touch and embrace those who are not clean in the physical sense. I can sit with those whose lives are not neat and tidy in the spiritual or emotional sense. Lord knows I have been there and am still there.
I have a friend who is an Uber driver, and some of the calls she gets are for guys coming out of a rehab facility or something similar. No one else wants to pick them up, she says. It is her favorite kind of call to respond to.
The Gospel is not good news only for those whose lives sparkle with cleanliness, whose hands are covered with sanitizer. It’s good news for the ones living in squalor. For the ones who don’t bathe as often as they should. Who don’t wear deodorant. It’s for the ones we want to shun, to forget about: the ones with lice in their hair, and bed bugs in their home. The ones we think aren’t worthy of our time, our investment.
The Gospel is good news for everyone. But only if we take it out of our safe zones.