The following sermon was preached in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in advance of a day of service, expertly facilitated by Chicago Cares, as part of our annual “Welcome (Back) Week” (new student orientation).
Here’s a story about a time I just didn’t understand what was really going on.
It was the late-90s, about twenty years ago, and I was in my mid-twenties. I was living in Minneapolis, Minnesota and working as a case manager for youth and young adults experiencing homelessness in a federally subsidized public housing project. Most of my clients were no more than three or four years younger than me, but the fact that I held a college degree and could pay my own rent somehow qualified me to provide support and guidance to the people in my case load.
Federal dollars meant federal regulations and federal oversight, and part of my job was to make sure we stayed in compliance with those regulations so that we didn’t lose those dollars. So, when I realized that the eighteen year-old with the corner apartment on the first floor was sneaking his buddies in through the window after midnight and allowing them to crash on his floor overnight, I wrote him up and explained that if he kept this up he was putting his housing at risk.
But that didn’t stop him. At least once a week I’d hear loud noises coming from his unit and discover unauthorized guests asleep on his couch after visiting hours, or I’d spot them dropping from his window to the sidewalk as I was leaving work at the end of an overnight shift.
Realizing that write ups weren’t having any impact at all, and not wanting to have to be the one to issue him an eviction, I pleaded with my client to explain to me why he was putting his housing at risk — when he’d waited so long to get into this program and start rebuilding his life after years on the street.
He told me, “look, you don’t understand. When you’re a kid on the street, you find a new family — people who look after you, that you look after too. If you’ve got food, you share it. If you find a place to crash, you let them in. Without your crew, you’d never survive on your own. So, I know you think I’m being an idiot, but this is my family and I owe them. I owe them everything.”
I felt foolish. In my role as a case manager I’d been set up to accept that the rules of the game, as they’d been established by the government, were the first and last word on what was acceptable behavior for young people transitioning off the streets. Of course, from the point of view of young people experiencing homelessness, these rules were just one more hoop to jump through, one more set of competing and contradictory forces pulling their lives in opposite directions. I’d spent weeks thinking about this young man as an isolated individual, holding him to a standard of adulthood rooted in values of individualism and autonomy that work really well for capitalism, but not so well for human beings with their many and varied needs. And the whole time I’d been thinking about him and his path to independence, he’d been thinking about his family, the other runaway, homeless and street-dependent youth on whom he relied for his life far more than he relied on me.
I just didn’t understand what was really going on.
But a strange thing happens when I begin to tell you a story about a time when I didn’t understand what was really going on. By framing the story through my experience of unknowing followed by discovery, another story gets told as well, a story that hides behind the words of the first. That second story might be titled something like, “this is a story about a time when I finally realized what’s really going on.”
This is the story about the time I when I finally realized the harsh realities under which homeless youth live their lives. This is the story of when I finally realized that there are different rules for people who can’t maintain a middle class lifestyle. This is the story of how I got woke to the nature of privilege. This is a story that demonstrates that I actually do know what’s going on.
Both stories getting told at once.
It seems to me that something similar is happening in the portion of scripture from John’s gospel. It begins with the tail end of a much longer and extraordinary conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman who meet at a well and defy all manner of social conventions in their exchange. A Jew and a Samaritan. An unmarried man and a woman who’d been married several times. As the scene opens, the disciples have just returned from a trip to pick up supplies to find Jesus speaking to someone whose life experience was, in all likelihood, a complete mystery to them. John says, “They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or ‘Why are you speaking with her?’” (John 4:27)
It’s interesting to speculate about why the disciples were silent in the face of this exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. The gospel doesn’t spell it out for certain, leaving preachers and readers all sorts of room to guess.
But since we’re here at a seminary, and classes are about to begin, I’m led to wonder if the disciples didn’t want to risk being wrong in front of the rest of the class. They’d returned from their mission to find their teacher teaching someone else, and she seemed to be a far more capable student than most of them had proven to be most of the time. She, an outsider among outsiders, had uncovered Jesus’ identity as the messiah. While the disciples were out picking up lunch, she’d become an apostle and had already begun evangelizing her community. She had joined God’s mission without any help whatsoever from the disciples, because God had reached out to her directly. Later, when she returns with the Samaritans from her city, all that is left for the disciples to do is to enter into her labor, her work among her people, accompanying Jesus as he continues his sojourn with the Samaritans over the next few days.
So, in a sense, John’s gospel tells its story much in the same way that I told my story by telling two stories at once. There is the story of the Samaritan woman who engages directly with Jesus, is transformed in the process, and immediately joins God’s mission in the world by sharing her story with the people in her immediate community; and there is the story of the disciples, who do not immediately understand what’s going on, and remain silent in the face of their ignorance and confusion. And we, the readers and hearers of this gospel story, perceiving the contrast between these two examples, are tempted to consider ourselves woke to the dynamics at play in this intercultural exchange.
We, too, are disciples — the scriptures seem to imply — except we understand what’s really going on.
The problem with this way of hearing the story is that is assumes that we, the listeners, are always the subjects. It is a way of reading that works very well in the context of colonialism and empire, because it continually re-centers the reader as the disciple who understands what’s really going on, and therefore as the one with the knowledge and authority required of those who lead. After all, that’s why we’re all here, right? To learn what we need to learn in order to secure positions of leadership in the church, in the academy, in the world?
In her book “Misunderstanding Stories: Toward a Postcolonial Pastoral Theology,” Methodist theologian Melinda McGarrah Sharp writes,
“Misunderstanding and understanding are not so much achievements as they are moments in a lifelong process. Both moments of misunderstanding and rarer moments of understanding must be acknowledged. Understanding across differences is more challenging than misunderstanding because [understanding] involves a willingness to recognize one’s complicity in [misunderstanding].”
For me, this means that I never, ultimately, understood what was going on with the young man at the end of the hall — I had a moment of understanding in which it became clear to me that he lived, and moved, and had his being in a much wider network of relationships than I could even perceive. That in the story of what was going on in his apartment, I wasn’t even really a central character. I was, perhaps, more like the disciples who been sent off on a practical, somewhat administrative errand; while he was demonstrating love and fidelity by laying down his well-being for his friends. From the perspective of his friends, who were not my clients, but who had a safe, warm place to sleep because of the risks he took, I was barely a part of the story at all. And my ability to understand this at all was occasioned by my complicity in the original misunderstanding that arose when I used the power delegated to me through a variety of intermediaries, but originating with the state, to exert influence over a situation I barely understood at all.
And me knowing this does not mean that I have achieved any true depth of understanding, just that I have experienced for a moment a glimmer of insight into the lived experience of another human being and the communities to which they belong. I have perceived, I have once again been reminded, that God is constantly at work in the world, carrying on conversations with and converting the hearts and minds of people whose lives look very little like mine, at least from the outside.
Our task — whether we are meeting one another in the classroom and beginning to form opinions about each other, or we are entering a congregation and seeing how power and authority work, or we are representing the seminary out in the community through a day of service and encountering people whose lived experience does not match our own — is to remember that long before we encountered that person, place, or community, God was already present there. God was already active in those lives. God is already carrying on a conversation with each of them, just as God is carrying on a conversation with each of us, treating each of our lives and all of our lives as worthy subjects of divine love and liberation.