Just a cup of water | a reflection

Just a cup of water | a reflection

It happens a few times over the course of any given year. Someone arrives at the church during our Sunday evening worship, a little drunk, a little lost, maybe just cold or lonely.  Sometimes they’ll be looking for something to eat, sometimes for a bit of money or some bus tickets. After all, this is a downtown church, and people from the streets have been more or less conditioned to understand their relationship to churches and church people as being one of simply receiving. Receiving a cup of coffee, occasionally a few dollars, perhaps some emergency food, maybe some helpful (or not…) advice. It is so easy for us—for me—to slip someone a five-dollar bill and just watch as they head out the door. I remain the “giver,” they the “receiver.” I can console myself that at the very least I’ve demonstrated that Christians are not cold-hearted and tight-fisted; that I’ve been ever-so-nice in the name of Christ. The person with my five-dollar bill probably doesn’t care about my motives. They’re hungry, or they’ve got addictions, or… well, they’re five bucks up on where they were when they arrived.

Her voice had that unfiltered quality that comes when someone has been drinking heavily; loud, slurred, random. Standing before the communion table and savoring the stillness that accompanies the ringing of the sounding bowl, that unfiltered voice was quite literally disquieting. A kind of tension crackled through the church, the calming stillness gone. I have to confess that at that moment I wished that whoever it was would realize that the liturgy had just begun, and that they would just wander back out onto the streets.

But “whoever it was” didn’t wander out the door. Over the next hour, she and her companion were very much present in our midst. They moved around a fair bit, sometimes sitting cozily together, sometimes very much apart. At the beginning of the sermon, her companion strode up the aisle and parked himself in a pew close to the front. A few minutes into the text of my sermon, I saw his hand go up. “Excuse me… I’ve got a question,” he slurred. I paused and told him that we’d talk at the end of service—“we will, I promise”—and then just kept moving the sermon forward as best I could.

The readings, the sermon, the prayers were all punctuated by the sound of her voice; sometimes asking a question, sometimes making a comment, and sometimes just thinking aloud. The two of them continued to migrate around the church, seldom sitting in one place for more than just a few minutes. I was aware that several people had taken it upon themselves to shepherd and care for these two as best they could, quietly answering their questions and doing whatever they could to help them find a space in our midst. I was also aware that the various people who suddenly discovered one or the other of our guests sliding into the pew next to them seemed to take it all in stride. That felt good and right to me; we were making room for these two… yet was I too smug about our being oh-so-tolerant?

I just kept moving the liturgy forward, doing my best to ignore the noise our visitors were creating. I’d led us through the invitation to confession—“In a time of stillness, I invite you to speak the truth of your life to God; and to name your fears, your wounds, your sin…”—and we’d been in silence together for perhaps ten seconds, when again I heard that loud, unfiltered voice. “What… right now?” I could only smile, and wonder who was sitting with her now, and how they might be dealing with that question.

What I didn’t know is that she was sitting with someone who took her question quite seriously, and explained that yes, this was a time of silence in which we were invited do that piece of truth-telling. What I didn’t know was that in response to that clarification, our guest began to weep, inconsolably. What I didn’t know is that she continued to weep through the words of absolution, the exchange of the peace, the preparation of the communion table, and the whole of the Eucharistic prayer. For all that she was quite thoroughly drunk, her question, “What… right now?” had been asked with a kind of longing that she probably didn’t even know was there. When she was assured that yes, “right now” was the time, she responded with a raw and aching truthfulness about her own fears and wounds and sin. What I didn’t know, in other words, is that she answered that invitation to confession with an unfiltered immediacy unmatched by anyone else in the church.

I knew nothing of this as I stood at the table and spoke the words of invitation. “Come,” I’d said, “whether you have much faith or little; have tried to follow, or are afraid you’ve failed.” “Come,” I’d said, “because it is His will that those who want to meet him might meet him here.” As is our pattern, the congregation sat down as we took just a few moments to organize the teams of communion administrants. Yet I’d said, “Come,” and our two visitors quite reasonably heard it as an invitation. With the rest of the gathered community seated and waiting patiently, the two of them came wobbling down the aisle. As they reached the front, there was a bit of a stumble, and they caught one another in a tipsy embrace. I could feel the congregation take a collective breath. I wondered, how many of us saw it all as comedy, and how many as tragedy? And then I saw it. It was both, and it was in its own strange way, if not a fairy tale, at least a parable.

You see, it was as I went to guide the two of them into place to receive communion that I realized she was weeping. The tears rolling down her face seemed remarkably round and large, as if pouring from a place of particularly deep woundedness. And there was something about the look in her eyes that said she knew that some part of her hunger was about to be filled; some part of her wounded soul was about to be healed. As soon as she had received the bread—she declined the cup, by the way—she turned to her companion and in a very even and measured voice said, “That’s all I wanted. We can leave now if you want.”

Now, I don’t mean to romanticize any of this, or to present that communion experience as being without its complications. Yes, she declined to receive the cup, yet he opted for the cup alone. “I just want the blood of God,” he said when the bread was offered to him. “You can’t do that!” she exclaimed, and I watched as his body tensed. Are we about to have a domestic incident in the communion circle? Thankfully, we weren’t. She had received what she’d come for, and nothing he was going to do would take that from her.

One other thing I didn’t know while all of this was unfolding. When they first arrived at the church, he was carrying what appeared to be a large wooden cross, on which was mounted a life-sized, headless figure. From the descriptions people gave to me, I suspect it was probably a scarecrow, lifted from someone’s garden. But who knows? For one person who happened to see the couple walking along Broadway on their way to the church, it very much represented the cross. “That image—a stuffed plaid shirt with its ‘arms’ outstretched and attached to the cross, stuffed ‘legs’, no head,” she wrote in an email, “and of the man carrying the cross struck me in a profound and somewhat unsettled way.” And why not a cross? For all that they unsettled and disrupted our liturgical celebration, for some of us at least they did bring something of Christ into our midst… and that mostly because they unsettled and disrupted with outbursts and noise, and especially with tears.

They did end up staying on for the remainder of the liturgy, and the three of us did manage to sit down to talk. That conversation is a story all of its own, but it is important to share at least this much. Beyond giving them a bit of my time to talk, the only thing they asked for was a cup of water, the sharing of which has a very particular gospel resonance (Mt 10:42). Though a couple of times I sensed a bit of a build-up in that direction, they never actually asked for any money, bus tickets, or groceries. In other words, we weren’t reduced to our stock roles as charitable giver and needy receiver, which in itself was a gift to all three of us.

Jamie Howison

2 Responses to Just a cup of water | a reflection

  1. Aisha Entz says:

    God speaks to us in mysterious ways…thanks for writing this, Jamie! Christ was indeed among us that night in perhaps a more tangible way than ususal!

  2. Byron O'Donnell says:

    And on next week’s episode of Extreme Sermons….

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