Abide with Me: The Power of Presence
Have you ever tried to put a young child to bed? Whether they are your own children, your grandchildren, nieces or nephews, or perhaps a child that you’re babysitting, I wonder if you can relate to this scenario that is pretty typical in my house these days:
After several books, back rubs, snuggles, and tuck ins … I gracefully leave my 3 year
old’s bedroom only to hear seconds later a pleaful cry: “Mommy, I’m thirsty” to which I reply “You already had some water when you brushed your teeth, remember?” “Yes, but I’m reeeaaallly thirsty…just one more sip?”
We go back and forth like this for a few rounds and usually, I give in, returning to Juliana’s room with a small cup of water. After a very quick sip (for we both know that she’s not really thirsty) she asks: “Can you stay with me for just a little bit longer?” Now, as a busy and tired mother of four kids, I have to admit that some nights I have more patience with this shenanigan than others. But when I can step back and listen to what she’s really wanting, somehow I feel more generous about giving in to the cup of water. “Can you stay with me for just a little bit longer?”
This morning’s gospel passage, the story of Jesus’ unlikely encounter with a Samaritan woman at the well, is remarkable for many reasons. First of all, that this conversation is happening at all is a surprise. It was not typical for Jews to interact with Samaritans as they were considered social, political, and religious outsiders. So for Jesus, a Jew, to strike up a conversation with a Samaritan is unusual in and of itself. And then what makes this encounter even more remarkable is the fact that she is a woman AND, given her shady personal history, most likely someone who was ostracized even from her own people. What it says about Jesus’ openness and compassion for the marginalized and most vulnerable people in society could be the subject this entire sermon. It’s a familiar tale in the life and teachings of Jesus and one that resonates with many of us, especially now with the challenges that we face in our country.
As I was re-reading this story in recent days, however, something new caught my attention. “Jesus, tired from his journey, was sitting by the well alone.” Then a Samaritan woman comes to draw water from the well and he asks her to give him a drink. I found myself wondering: Is he truly thirsty? or is he, like my 3 year old daughter, really asking: “Can you stay with me for just a little bit longer?”
It seems here that the later might be true, because Jesus has a lot that he wants to say and in fact, after their lengthy conversation, he never receives a drink of water from this woman yet he appears satisfied by her company, her questions, and her staying power. He puts himself out there, by opening up a conversation and she in turn takes considerable risk in engaging Jesus with questions about his identity and about this “living water” that he’s offering. Their ability to be vulnerable and to trust each other in this very unlikely situation is the beginning of a deeper connection that’s about to
Their conversation continues with questions and answers about this mysterious gift of “living water” and then Jesus reveals that he knows about the woman’s troubled past. We don’t get all the details, but Jesus mentions that she has had five husbands and that the man she is with now is not her husband. And this knowledge, coupled with the fact that he’s taking this time to talk with her, is enough for the woman to realize that he is someone special – a prophet, perhaps even the awaited Messiah. There at that well, after both Jesus and the woman have had plenty of time in the solitude of their own thoughts, they give each other their undivided attention. Within their conversation I see vulnerability, curiosity, and a willingness to listen. It is as if each is saying to the other: “I see you. I hear you. You matter to me. I will stay with you a little bit longer.”
Some of you might know that this year I have been leading a Walking Prayer group at Walden Pond every Monday morning. We meet on the beach for some check in time to share whatever joys and concerns are on our hearts and then we head out to walk in silence around the pond with the intention of quieting our minds, noticing what we see and hear around us, and inviting God to journey with us. When we return, we offer personal reflections and a closing reading. Our routine is fairly simple and it’s one that doesn’t require a great deal of planning or preparation. And yet, what has happened there, at least for me, has been pretty profound. It is a time set aside in our day, unencumbered by our “to do list” and without the distraction of our phones and computers, where we can just BE together. Through shared conversation and through silence we are able to connect with our own hearts, with one another, and with God in a way that feels rare in our otherwise busy lives. Walden Pond has become a well for me and our Walking Prayer there has helped me to taste the “living water” of which Jesus speaks. In our time together at the pond, I have witnessed tremendous vulnerability, curiosity, and a willingness to listen. It is as if the gift of solitude somehow widens our capacity for empathy. And that empathy, experienced through deep listening, in turn, offers both insight and inspiration.
Such is also the case in my experience with our amazing group of teenagers at this church. In addition to our regular opening ritual of sharing joys and challenges at the beginning of each class, this year I’ve added a time of silent meditation where we all just sit and breath together. Not unlike the ancient tradition of Christian centering prayer, this practice helps us to really pay attention to what’s going on inside of us and allows us to be more present to God and to one another. This new practice has been particularly helpful this year, as several of our youth group members have faced significant personal and family challenges. Time and time again, I have marveled at the way that these teenagers create a safe space for sharing and for listening. Their ability to show empathy for their peers – through raising a prayer concern, making cards, writing in their journals, or sometimes just by sitting together and being ok with not knowing exactly what to say – is a great witness to the “living water” that flows through that small room in the basement. We may not have answers to all of our questions, but God’s abiding presence is palpable there. “I see you. I hear you. You matter to me. I will stay with you a little bit longer.”
At the end of the conversation that the Samaritan woman has with Jesus, some of her questions remain unanswered and she is still not completely certain that he is the Messiah. She doesn’t fully understand the gift of “living water” that’s being offered by Jesus, and yet, what she experienced in their encounter, is compelling enough to leave her water jug and return to the city to share her testimony with other Samaritans. Through the attention and empathy that Jesus offers, this woman experiences the power of God’s company and unconditional love. This new and unexpected insight inspires her to invite others to “come and see” for themselves. And when the Samaritans return to meet Jesus, scripture tells us, Jesus stays with them for two more days. Two more days! That’s staying power!
What a gift – this power of presence. This “living water” offered by God to each of us so that we might be less thirsty in our lives and more present to one another. To me, this is one of the greatest blessings of belonging to a community like West Concord Union Church. This is a place where we can offer our real selves, being vulnerable with one another in trust that while we may not always have the answers or know the perfect thing to say, we will be here to listen and to learn. Because we know the power of God’s deep and abiding presence, we can have “staying power” with one another even when it might feel awkward or uncomfortable.
The most poignant memory that I have of experiencing this kind of deep personal connection held by the power and presence of the Spirit, involves a former member of this church that some of you may remember. His name was Walter Hansen – otherwise known as Bud. I got to know him as his wife Ruth was nearing the end of her life. They had just moved from their house here in West Concord to the Walden Rehabilitation and Nursing Center where Ruth could get the care that she needed. I remember feeling a bit nervous the first time I went to meet them. Would they feel comfortable getting a visit from a stranger at such a vulnerable time in their lives? Would we have anything in common? What would be talk about?
These fears quickly subsided as I soon realized that what they wanted was company. Sometimes Bud would want to tell me stories about his life, sharing memories of how he met and fell in love with Ruth, recounting times of both joy and hardship in their long life together. Other days, he was content to sit by the window working through his stack of reading material, while I would sit with Ruth and read to her from our Sunday bulletin or sing to her some familiar hymns. After Ruth passed away, I continued to visit with Bud whenever I could. Ours was an unlikely friendship – but it was one that captured my heart.
About three months later, Bud, at the age of 97, reached the end of his life. I got a call from his son one morning in October asking if I wanted to come to say goodbye. All the nerves of that very first visit came flooding back: What do you say to a dying man who was a stranger to you only months before?
Turns out I didn’t have to say anything. I just sat there and held his hand while he slept. And then something in me started humming an age old hymn that had been one of his wife’s favorites: Abide with Me. After I hummed a few lines of this, Bud sat up, opened his eyes, squeezed my hand, and then drifted quietly back into his journey towards death. It was a Holy and grace-filled moment. No words were exchanged that day, and yet I can still hear echoes of the Spirit’s voice, flowing like “living water”: “I see you. I hear you. You matter to me. I will stay with you…now and forevermore.” Amen.