January 31, 2021 – Unexpected

Since I was a child, I always wanted to own a horse.  So when Kathy fell in love with the house we currently live in and I saw it had a horse barn, I was willing to go through the pain of moving.  Over the past several years, I had gained some confidence as a horseman.  Our family had traveled to a ranch out west before the pandemic.  On that trip, I went on an 8 hour loping ride through the badlands.  After that, I thought I could handle pretty much anything.  But I decided I should take some lessons before buying a horse so I could learn how to care for it.  Not necessarily to become a better rider.  I felt I had that under control.

After a few weeks of learning the ins and outs of horse care, I told my instructor that I wanted to practice the trot.  I never felt comfortable in the saddle when a horse was trotting.  She told me of a horse that had a good trot and would be the best to learn on.  She described this horse as one of the most well trained and gentle they owned.

When I got into the saddle, I expected to start off at a gentle walk.  But then the unexpected happened.  The horse started bucking like a bronco in a rodeo.  Immediately I was thrown into the air and landed hard on my side, rolling out of the way so the horse did not come down on top of me.  I was seeing double, the wind was knocked out of me, and I was in terrible pain.  When I was finally able to stand, my instructor had gotten hold of the horse.  When she asked if I was ready to get back on, I gave her an emphatic “No” and proceeded to drive home.   Kathy, of course, insisted I go to the hospital.  For days I refused, but eventually relented when the pain became too unbearable.  I discovered I had broken several ribs, injured my pelvis and my shoulder.  And as I lay in my bed for the next several days, I doubted I would ever get on a horse again.

This year has brought many unexpected things in all of our lives, things we would never have guessed could have happened.  A pandemic which has locked us in our homes, isolating us from the ones we love.  Social unrest on many levels, including an attempted insurrection filling many of us with fear, anxiety, and anger.  Like me getting on that horse, we had no idea what was coming our way and the pain we would experience in its wake.

The Rumi poem we heard this morning is one of my favorites.  It reminds us not to resist the unexpected.  Not to dismiss those emotions, those experiences, those are part of our lives.  Rather, we should embrace them with courage, with welcome, with respect.  The imagery Rumi evokes is powerful to me.  As one who likes to plan and not be taken by surprise, I am generally not excited when someone unexpected shows up at my door.  And this is particularly true when that person does not come bearing good news.  But Rumi challenges us to embrace all of the visitors we have in life, even if they are a “crowd of sorrows” preparing to empty our house of all that is familiar.  To welcome even the dark thoughts, the shame, the malice we feel when those unexpected visitors come.  And to not only welcome them, but to greet them with laughter and invite them in.

Rumi says that when we are able to do this, when we are able to welcome these unexpected visitors regardless of what they bring, we can see them in a new way.  Not just as a disruption, not just as an unwelcome guest, but as an invitation.  An invitation to see our response to events not just as something to overcome, but as an opportunity, a guide from beyond.

We see an example of this in the story of the Samaritan woman.  It is easy for us to get comfortable, fall into a pattern of thinking that we will encounter the Divine in certain ways.  That the manner in which we experience our spirituality falls into certain patterns.  That the change we hope for, the justice we seek, our search for hope will come through expected channels.  And because we have certain expectations for how things will go, we can sometimes miss opportunities which come to us in the unexpected.

The Samaritan woman experienced such an unwelcome visitor when she comes to a well to draw water.  She is following her routine, engaged in a menial chore, collecting water she needs to use at her home.   The manner in which she comes tells us a little more about her.  The woman has come to the well alone rather than with other women.  And this is a little unusual.  It would be customary to come to the well in the company of others.  We are not told the reason she is alone, but it may have been because she had a bad reputation, was not held in esteem by those in her community.  And therefore, she probably was particularly invested in quickly getting her work done and going home, avoiding the judging looks or half-hearted greetings from her neighbors.

When she arrives, she encounters a man who tells her to give him a drink.  This may not seem like a big deal, but this request was a significant breach of social and religious norms.  First, a man asking a woman for a drink of water could be considered flirting.  This woman already had a bad reputation, and she didn’t need that image to grow.  In addition, this man is a Jew, a Jew who should not engage with her because she is a Samaritan.  Samaritan women were considered unclean from birth.  Therefore, even her water vessel would have been considered unclean for Jewish drinking.

Jesus is slowing this woman down from completing her work, and he is making her uncomfortable in doing it.  She was probably exasperated.  Why should she waste her time interacting with someone who in the end will only judge her?  So she says, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman from Samaria?” By asking this question, maybe she thought she could shut Jesus down and end this unexpected interaction.

But Jesus would not be pushed away.  He did not simply walk away due to this woman’s discomfort.  Notice how Jesus responds to the woman’s protest.  He doesn’t respond with criticism.  He doesn’t react in judgment.  Jesus responds with an invitation – an invitation to embrace the unexpected.  He says, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would give you living water.”  Jesus chooses this woman from Samaria, this woman with a bad reputation, this woman who did not seek him out, to share his identity.  And this woman’s unexpected conversation with Jesus was to become the longest recorded conversation with Jesus in scripture.

Despite her initial hesitation, despite her struggle with the unexpected, we witness movements in this woman’s spirituality as she engages with Jesus.  This conversation which at first seems to hold no promise because Jesus and this woman are separated by race, by gender, by religion, begins to deepen in unexpected ways.  They speak about water, but the meanings they attached to it are different.  While the woman expected they were speaking about drinking water, Jesus is referring to the water of life.  While the woman expected that Jesus would know nothing about her, Jesus reveals that he knows her at the deepest level.  While the woman expected Jesus to distance himself from her by pointing out the difference in their beliefs about the appropriate place to worship, Jesus defuses the difference by pointing out that the religious categories which existed will one day be obsolete.

The Samaritan woman had no idea what would happen to her when she arrived at the well that day.  And I’m willing to bet that if she knew ahead of time who would be waiting there for her, she would have been a reluctant to go, fearing the possibility that she would be judged rather than embraced.  She may have chosen to stay home rather than experience something different.  She may have chosen to avoid the uncomfortable rather than stretch herself and explore a new way of belief.  She may have chosen to stay where she was, rather than walk into the unknown.

As Rumi discusses in his poem, when we are greeted at our door by the unexpected, we have a choice.  We can attempt to keep those unwanted guests out, or we can invite them in and learn from them.  We can begin to recognize that the circumstances they bring with them, the emotions they evoke, can serve as a guide to us.  Lead us in a new direction.  Open our eyes to new possibilities, create space for new opportunities to emerge.  This willingness to embrace the unexpected is one of the central features of spirituality.   In his book Eternal Life, John Shelby Spong writes, “The task of religion is not to turn us into proper believers; it is to deepen the personal within us, to embrace the power of life, to expand our consciousness, in order that we might see things that eyes do not normally see.  It is to seek a humanity that is not governed by the need for security, but is expressed in the ability to give ourselves away.  It is to live not frightened by death, but rather called by the reality of death to go into our humanity so deeply and so passionately that even death is transcended.  That is the call of the fully human one, the Jesus of the transformed consciousness.”

I would not want to relive the experience of being thrown from that horse again.  And if I would have known it was coming, I would have done everything I could to avoid it.  But that time I recovered also became a time of renewal for me.  Unable to do the things that normally occupied my time, I was able to reflect on where I found myself in my life, what I wanted next, what I felt was missing.  It also fostered a recognition that anything can change at any time and gave me a new perspective on embracing the moment.  And it was during this time that I made the decision to pursue this position at NCC.

None of us would want to relive what we have endured in the past year.  But perhaps we can still welcome the feelings that have come with them.  Perhaps we can open the door to them and invite them in.  Maybe they are not something to slam the door on and anxiously anticipate the day they leave our doorstep.  Because as painful as some of our visitors have been, they may also be opening us up to a new delight, preparing us to move past our pain by embracing the unexpected.