I had a mid-morning meeting earlier this month and decided to go to Starbucks before-hand and get some work done, like a typical young, millennial American. It was a bitterly cold morning, perhaps the coldest of the year so far, and a warm cup of coffee and free WiFi sounded like a great start to the morning. Amidst my morning productivity, there was some commotion right outside the window where I was sitting.
There was a man and woman arguing outside. They traded exaggerated gestures, yells, and some choice belittling remarks. In the aftermath of the exchange, the woman walked in to Starbucks and half sat down, half collapsed at a nearby table with her head buried in her arms on the table, audibly weeping. Most of us in the coffee shop tried to avert our gaze as this woman tried to be discreet in her despair.
After she quieted down a little bit, she started to look around and you could tell that she didn't know what to do next. She began to meekly ask people that passed by if they could get her a regular cup of black coffee. Now, I can't pretend to know anything about her background or her story, but I do know that she was in a bad position and that it just got worse. I know you can't judge a book by its cover, but you can at least get some hints from it. I knew that she was not, by any means, well-off, and that she had nowhere else that seemed a better option for her to retreat to at this moment of intimate conflict than this public area.
After I watched several people shuffle by, and either politely refuse her or casually avoid her, I decided to get up and go grab her a cup of coffee and a hot breakfast sandwich before I left. She hadn't personally approached me, but I felt it was the right thing to do. I told the barista that I had to leave and that I wanted them to give the coffee and sandwich to the woman over in the corner, whom everyone behind the counter was aware of without having to look.
After having planted my classic fast food drive thru-esque act of kindness, I planned to leave before the woman had realized who had done this for her. As I was leaving, the Starbucks staff gave her the coffee a little quicker than I expected and pointed to me signaling that I had bought the coffee for her, making me feel a little awkward as I walked past her. As I passed her, she looked at me, gave a soft smile, and said, "Thank you so much," with a grateful nod. All I could muster in response was, "Have a nice day," with a quick smile.
I walked out the door and expected to feel charitable, Good Samaritan-like even, but instead I felt a little ashamed, rotten even. Why?
The first reason was most likely because of the sense of self-righteous "humility" that I expected to feel because of my meager deed (see C.J. Mahaney's book on Humility for a better sense of what I mean). But the second reason was much more profound and convicting.
Many have heard the popular quote, "Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words" (often incorrectly attributed to Francis of Assisi). While I won't go into much detail on why I wholeheartedly disagree with this statement, you can read this article that pretty much sums up how I feel (while also clearing the name of poor Francis). Romans 10:14 also shows a pretty clear depiction of what Paul thought about the audibility of the Gospel. Even though I certainly don't like the above quote, I sure embodied it in that coffee shop, and it's the reason that I felt the most convicted. While the simple act of me buying some coffee and a sandwich for that woman in no way placed her in a position to owe me anything at all, it did, however, open the door for her to be willing to interact with me.
"It's simply impossible to preach the Gospel without words. The Gospel is inherently verbal, and preaching the Gospel is inherently verbal behavior."
- Duane Litfin, former president of Wheaton College
In my times of prayer and reading in the mornings, I have been praying and pleading for God to put opportunities in front of me to be able to share His Gospel and to be used as a tool for that purpose. After I walked past that empty chair across from that woman, I felt so very small. How cowardly was I to shy away from actually loving and caring for that woman? I wanted to feel like I helped her, without actually having to know anything about her. I didn't ask her if there was something more serious going on. I didn't ask about her relationship with, and her thoughts on Jesus, and I sure didn't share mine. I didn't tell her how imperfect I was, and still am. I didn't say that God, being so full of mercy, because of His unthinkable love for me, even in the midst of my wretched heart, forgave all these things through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, and adopted me as a son (Ephesians 2).
I wanted to feel like I helped her, without actually having to know anything about her.
In John Chapter 4, we see Jesus' interaction with the woman at the well. Several aspects of this story hit home with me after my encounter with the coffee shop woman (which is how I must continue to refer to her, because I didn't even bother to know her name). The first aspect is that Jesus was extremely intentional. He went through Samaria in order to get from Judea to Galilee in a time that most all Jews would have taken a longer route so that they didn't have to interact with the reviled Samaritans. Jesus didn't just pass through Samaria, he went directly to a Samaritan. Not even a Samaritan man, but rather a woman (even more culturally surprising, as we can see in the woman's response in verse 9).
These cultural , ethnic, racial, religious, and gender divides lead into the second aspect of the story that convicted me; Jesus disregarded every single excuse not to approach that woman. Jesus cared more about that woman, who she was becoming, and ultimately where she would spend eternity, than any societal barrier that was in place. How small and insignificant these barriers between us and others are when we hold them up to the light of eternity.
The third and most compelling lesson that I need to learn from this story is that Jesus saw past immediate earthly needs, and sought to satisfy her most dire need of all: forgiveness and reconciliation. Not only did he offer these things, he expressed them in language that she understood. She wanted water. He offered Living Water. She was thirsty. He offered the only thing in the universe that eternally quenches.
Jesus cared more about that woman, who she was becoming, and ultimately where she would spend eternity, than any societal barrier that was in place.
I have prayed for that woman since then, and I hope that you will too. I'm no Christ, and I don't have any Living Water to offer anyone, but I have a personal relationship with the One who does. The best that I can hope to be to this world is a humble, broken vessel overflowing with love that I never deserved to begin with.
Who would continue to lavishly pour such invaluable contents into a broken jar, leaking at every seam? With each new chip or crack, it seems He pours all the more. I pray that we Christians can become more intentional, step outside of our comfort zones, and keep eternity at the forefront of our minds.