My colleague Michael Sweeney, our Director of Family Ministries at St. Stephen's, shared this beautiful reflection at our Celtic service this evening. I love how he draws a connection in his own life with the story of the woman at the well, which was the Gospel reading for today (John 4:5-42), about how God seems to put us in the right place to serve his purpose. This is a great mystery. So here is Michael's story:
In December I shared a bit about my time in Mexico City, how I was hired via email to teach English at a private school there, how my desire for adventure and weakness for feeling chosen blocked out all rational consideration in my decision-making. So I packed my suitcases and moved to Mexico.
The school turned out to be awful. A for-profit operation, it had grown its student body from 300 in year 1 to 600 in year 2 without adding the requisite staff or classroom space. I taught about half of the 600 hundred students, squatting in other teachers’ classrooms. When I complained to the principal that this wasn’t a very good arrangement, she offered to set up a tent in a corner of the playground.
I’d go home each night, cook some food, and sit at my kitchen table with the seventh Harry Potter book until I was tired enough to go to sleep. My life was like the waiting room at the slowest doctor’s office in the world. I needed a shot of courage to quit, but it seemed like the doctor had forgotten about me, so I just read my book as patiently as I could. In fact, I read each sentence as if it were the last, two or three times, slowly, always covering the next sentence with my fingers so I wouldn’t cheat and skip ahead before I’d licked the bone of every word completely clean.
It was the last Harry Potter book, and I wasn’t at all eager for the story to be over, but more importantly, I didn’t know what I would do with myself when it was over. Having another story to live in every night was the one thing that made the day almost bearable. And I didn’t know how long I’d be stuck in that apartment, waiting for the courage to leave. It sounds so silly in retrospect, that I couldn’t just walk into the principal’s office and quit, but I couldn’t. I tried twice and failed.
There’s one night that was different from all the rest. I had sautéed onions and peppers, browned some beef, and sat down with Harry Potter. I was dangerously close to the end. At one tender moment, I began to cry and closed the book. The story continued to move even though the words had stopped, like water blown from a tree after the rain.
My phone rang, interrupting the moment. I answered in Spanish, trying to sound as normal and put together as I could manage. I needn’t have bothered. The voice on the other end was broken—slurred and sobbing—the voice of my Dutch colleague Dominic. We’d spoken only a handful of times, only at work, always polite and mundane. His girlfriend had left him and he was afraid that he was going to drink himself to death. He asked me if I’d be willing—he knew it was a lot to ask—but would I be willing to come be with him?
Of course, I said, and I went. I listened to his heartbreaking story, I brought him water when he needed it, and when he could stay awake no longer I watched him sleep until morning.
I don’t know why Dominic chose to call me that night. Perhaps it was helpful that we had no history, that we weren’t especially close, that we might not ever be good friends. Perhaps he was as alone in a foreign country as I was, and there was simply no one else to call. Whatever the reason, I’m glad that I was in Mexico City that night, sitting at my kitchen table, waiting.
I know I’ll never understand God’s will, even in retrospect, but I enjoy guessing at it. I look at scripture for clues—how God puts us in the right place to serve his purpose, how the Samaritan woman, sick and tired of her grueling and monotonous chore of fetching water, met Jesus at the well, that place she didn’t want to be, and from there spread his message of hope and salvation to her whole city.
I can’t say that God used my foolishness to put me in Mexico City, or my lack of courage to keep me there. But I sure do wonder. Soon after the night with Dominic I found the conviction to quit. Were it only for that one night that I spent nine hard weeks living in Mexico City, I thank God for my time there.