Over the last decade or so, I’ve gotten fairly used to the idea that some people are glad to see the chaplain coming and some aren’t. Sometimes I show up on the scene and people look at me with a combination of fear and horror, as though my arrival means things are worse than they thought. And sometimes people haven’t had good experiences with church in the past and they understandably don’t want someone coming into their homes and judging them or preaching at them. One of our nurses, when she learns people are hesitant to meet me, always says, “Oh, you’ll like her, she loves everybody—she’s our hippie chaplain.” I take that as a compliment. But I do understand—and don’t take personally—the times I’m not welcomed with open arms.
But this week I was. One of our newer hospice patients is a smart, independent, funny man who was quite happy to meet me. “I have been wanting someone to talk with about the Bible,” he said. He and his wife had been active in church for decades, and now that he’s no longer well enough to go there physically, he watches a number of services online. But he has questions and thoughts and he likes to discuss them. He said he’s out-talked everyone in his family and he’s looking forward to having someone new to talk with.
So I was there a good long while in our first visit, as he talked about a number of his favorite characters in the Bible. “The things that gets me,” he said, “Is that I want to know the rest of their stories. Don’t you?”
And I thought, you know, he’s right—for most of the vivid and vibrant characters in both the Old Testament and the New, we get only snapshots of their lives as they play a key role in the story. And after that, we never hear about them again. What happen to the Centurion’s daughter? Or the woman caught in adultery? Or Peter’s mother? Or even Adam and Eve once Cain hijacked the story.
Sarah in our Old Testament reading today is a good example. She was an important person in the whole Bible narrative. She—even though she was 90 years old!—brought into the world the child she’d been praying for all her life, a child who would be the first of all those descendants God promised to Abraham when he said he would make of him “a great nation.” But that wasn’t going to happen without Sarah, so her moment in history is an important one. And I love how she reacted to this impossible news that she would now, in her ninth decade, have a child. Can you imagine? She laughed! I wonder if any of us would be that gracious or that trusting.
She said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” Laughter, perhaps, and certainly joy. And belief in God. And the important reminder for us all that when God has a plan for us, God will unfold it in the perfect way, no matter what we think our limits might be. Those are all in our heads and don’t apply to God. God has no limits. With God, all things are possible.
But don’t you wonder about the rest of Sarah’s story? How did it feel to become a mother after a whole lifetime of waiting and praying? How did it increase her faith? How did she handle the nights when—as a young mom of 92—she was bone weary from picking toys up off the floor and chasing a toddler around all day? We hope her joy was complete. And that her sense of wonder and gratitude never left her. And that her life unfolded, day by day, filled with the warmth and light, laughter and love of God. We hope, but we don’t know, because the rest of the story isn’t told. The only other mention of Sarah past that point is in Genesis 23: 1-2, where scripture says she died at the age of 127, and that Abraham mourned and wept over her. So we can surmise—she was still blessed, still loved, and here long enough to see her son grow to adulthood.
But because of the way we live these lives—one moment at a time—we often wonder and worry about what the rest of our story will be. That’s something the patients I visit often want to talk about, because being admitted to hospice care brings the rest of the story into sharper focus. Time is more precious than ever now, and people think of what they most want to do and who they most want to see. Priorities arrange themselves and important things get said. The rest of the story is often sweet and meaningful, full of moments that fill peoples’ hearts and give them precious memories for a lifetime. The “rest of the story” when we’re living it on purpose and with love is a sacred place.
One patient I had a couple of years ago was determined to make her well-known pies for the State Fair just like she did every year, even though she’d just been admitted to hospice care. She’d been doing it for 30 years and wasn’t going to stop now, no matter what her health conditions were like. That year also happened to be the first year we were dealing with COVID, so the public portion of the fair had been cancelled but the competitions were still going. So her granddaughter delivered the pies to the right place at the appointed time. And our patient—in the last weeks of her life–had the deep satisfaction of winning a blue ribbon yet again—it was a clean sweep in all the years she’d entered. For her, that was an important part of the rest of her story.
Sometimes what seems to be a difficult time in life—a setback, a breakup, an illness, the loss of a job—turns out to be just the nudge we need to let our storyline be changed for the better. For me that happened the summer the bottom fell out of the book publishing industry. I’d been writing professionally for 25 years or so and at that point I’d signed contracts for three more books, which was more than enough work for the next six months. But then suddenly things changed, ebooks were on the rise, and publishers began cancelling contracts, not sure how many print books they could sell. Guess what happened to my contracts? All canceled in the same week. In a matter of days, I went from having everything settled and feeling secure, to having no work at all ahead of me. It was a crisis, and it felt so huge, so unthinkable, that I actually didn’t worry. I just knew God’s hand had to be in it. I had no clue what the rest of my story would be, but I trusted that God was unfolding something—and God was. Soon I was a hospice chaplain, and not long after that, God led me here to be with you. Life changed for the much, much better. Every day I’m thankful God put such a wonderful plot twist in the unfolding story of my life.
The Samaritan woman at the well didn’t go there that day expecting to have an experience that would change the whole rest of her life, but that’s what happened. Around noon that day, she went to draw water as she had probably done a hundred times before, and as she approached the well, she saw a Jewish man sitting there resting. And this wasn’t just any well; rather it was important place in God’s story. The Cambridge commentary says here, “Abraham bought the ground, Jacob gave it to Joseph, and Joseph was buried there.” This was a place that was special—sacred even—in Jewish history and in our own.
There are many significant moments in the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman that are worth considering more closely. First, when she approached the well, Jesus asked her whether she would give him a drink. The Matthew Henry commentary points out here that the hatred that existed between the Jewish people and the Samaritans was intense, and it would have been startling for the woman to see a Jewish man there, much less have him speak to her. Matthew Henry writes, “She was surprised because he did not show the anger of his own nation against the Samaritans. Christ took the occasion to teach her Divine things.”
In this first exchange, Jesus asks for her help, and it is a tiny personal moment of healing, a truce, nation to nation. The woman points out the differences between them, questioning his request. And then Jesus does something that he hasn’t done before—and he does it with this Samaritan woman, someone with no power, no status, who is at odds with his tradition—he hints to her that he is much more than he appears to be. He indicates that if she saw clearly, she would ask him for a drink, and he would give her living water.
And this next moment is so important. Because instead of being cynical, instead of laughing and turning away, or falling back on the easy stereotypes of distrust between their nations, this woman feels something when she hears his words. She wants to know more. Maybe something like hope stirs in her heart. “Sir, where can you get this living water?” she asks.
That is the moment that completely changes the rest of her story. Yes, the part when Jesus tells her the truth about her life is compelling and dramatic, and the moment when he says he is the Messiah is eye-opening and an honor, that he would be so direct and truthful with her. But truly the whole story of the Samaritan woman hinges on her inward desire to lean closer and listen to the Son of God. Then all the rest unfolds, Jesus tells her the story of her life, and offers her the truth that changes everything for her. It occurs to me that this same thing—feeling a desire to lean closer and listen to the Son of God—is what we are invited to do, not only with God but also with “that of God” in every being on the planet.
And what else do we need to know about the rest of the Samaritan woman’s story? Scripture tells us that she went back and told all her friends and family members, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” And they all hurried back to see. In this way, she not only was the first human person Jesus told about his Divine identity, but she was also the first evangelist: Come and see who I’ve found!
Just because the Bible gives us snapshots of characters doesn’t mean that we can’t discover the rest of their stories for ourselves. George Fox believed and taught that the way we deeply learn what scripture has to say to us is by trying on all the roles ourselves. We know Sarah’s joy in having a prayer answered after many years of faith and waiting; we know the feelings that draw us close to God, causing us to listen as we lean forward, learning to love and forgive in this world. We can literally try on every character in the Bible and look out through their eyes to see the truth their story offers us. Throughout our life of faith, we learn how God works with each of us, tenderly, insistently, faithfully. We pray to feel God’s presence, so truth is revealed in our hearts and minds. We make room for silence, and we witness the promise of spiritual fruits as they begin to appear: Light, peace, and joy. The rest of the story, the start of the story, the middle of the story, it’s all in God’s hands–all secure, full of grace, arising from and returning to love.
Toward that end, I close with the poem I Cannot Dance, O Lord, by Mechthild of Magdeburg, a German mystic from the 12th century:
I cannot dance, O Lord,
Unless You lead me.
If You wish me to leap joyfully,
Let me see You dance and sing—
Then I will leap into Love—
And from Love into Knowledge,
And from Knowledge into the Harvest,
The sweetest Fruit beyond human sense.
There I will stay with You, whirling.
- OT Genesis 21: 1-7
- NT John 4: 5-30
- Magdeburg, Mechthild. “I Cannot Dance O Lord” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/157587/i-cannot-dance-o-lord