Last Friday night, I made a potentially dangerous choice. The thing is, at the time, it didn't feel like a choice. It was an impulse, an automatic reaction. As I exited the interstate onto Shelby Avenue in East Nashville, two women were trying to flag someone down. The hood of their SUV was propped open. I rolled down my window and they asked if I had any jumper cables. I said yes. I assumed that I had some in my trunk. Then, they bossily guided me into position so that my hood was aligned with theirs and my trunk was aligned with oncoming traffic. It was dusk. I put my purse under my seat, got out of my car, approached the women, and said, "I hope you don't take offense at this, but I've been hijacked before (true story), so I have to ask, are you good people?" They said yes so I proceeded to look for the cables. Turns out, I didn't have any and the women were peeved. As they were asking me to take them to an auto repair store and use my cell phone I started wondering if I'd been had. In an effort to get myself out of this situation with some grace, I tried to flag down someone else. A man finally stopped and was willing and able to help. I had the sinking feeling he stopped more for me than for them. He tried to explain what was going on with their car while they cursed the repair person who had told them it was their alternator, not their battery that needed fixing. As soon as he removed the cables, I thanked the man profusely, got back into my car and drove away. Not once did the women say thank you.
Let me give you the visual. I was on my way to a birthday party. The theme was the royal wedding, so I was wearing a bridesmaids dress, heels, and my Easter hat from third grade. The two women were dressed like normal people in jeans and blouses. When I got out of my car, the women said, "Are you going to the prom or something?" What business did I have stopping in that get-up?
Ever since I left the scene, I can't stop wondering why I stopped to help. Did I stop because I've heard the parable of the Good Samaritan too many times? Do I have a hero complex? How many times have I seen my father disregard his own safety to help others? Am I naive or just plain stupid? I knew as soon as I pulled away that my spouse would be livid with me for having put myself in harms' way. I almost didn't tell him. It's happened before and his concerns are entirely legitimate. Out of respect for him and concern for myself, I should have just kept driving. My mother even suggested an obvious alternative to stopping. Our city has a non-emergency hot line (615-862-8600) I could have called and they would have sent someone to help. Yet when the moment was upon me, I simply said "yes" and pulled over to help. I blame a sermon I heard nine years ago for my gut reaction.
Reverend, Dr. Carmen Lile-Henley is one of the most inspiring preachers I have ever heard. When I was a sophomore in college, I heard her give a sermon on the Good Samaritan and it forever changed the way I hear that story.
Growing up, I misunderstood the Good Samaritan to be a person who performed a selfless act of kindness. He was an unlikely person to show compassion in this story because he was an outsider, a minority. The priest and the Levite were shameful representations of majority culture. They are like us at our worst when we become rubber-neckers instead of good-deed-doers. It was a fairly simple and straightforward story, I thought.
Then, I heard Carmen preach. She used guided imagery to help us imagine being each character in the story.* She also clarified the details by putting the story back into a Jewish context.** She turned the story upside down when she told us to imagine being the injured man...
There I am on the side of the road. I've been robbed, beaten, and left for dead. My body is so traumatized, I go in and out of consciousness. People pass and do not stop, people who look nice and should stop, but they are busy and I am invisible. Then, after an agonizing number of hours, someone finally does stop. He gently carries me to a hospital and says, "fix her. Spare no expense because I'm paying the bill." When I wake up, I want to thank my rescuer. When he comes in the room, his arms are covered with swastikas. His head is shaved. His chest swells unnaturally large in his wife-beater shirt stained yellow under his arms. His gun gleams in its holster. I know in an instant he is a rapist, a child molester, a thief, a terrorist. This is the man who helped me? How dare he!
Carmen said that this is the message Jesus wants us to hear in this story. Not, would you stop and help, but would you let anyone, including your enemy, stop and help you? Do you see every child of God as your neighbor, because they are.
Hearing the story in this way expanded my concept of humility and compassion in an instant. The Samaritan is the least likely person to help because he or she is the person from whom I least want to receive help. It is the person I revile, abhor, and hate. But in that moment of my enemy helping me, I realize he is human. It stings like a slap because I'm ashamed I didn't see it before. We are more alike than different. We are part of the same human family. How much more would I rather dismiss him from my reality? How much more would I rather we have nothing in common? I would never want to be anything like this person, but our fraternity is inescapable in the love God has for all people. It binds us together no matter how strongly we resist it.
The women I helped were irritable. They were annoying, ungrateful, haughty, and mean-spirited. They wouldn't take no for an answer. In many ways, we were enemies: different class, race, age. All logic says I made a bad choice. Still, in my heart, I don't regret it. Nor can I blame my husband for being upset with me. After all the episodes of Oprah, Law and Order, and The Closer I have watched, I should know better than to trust strangers. His concern comes from a passionately loving and protective place in his heart. After days of reflection, I continue to struggle with how to show respect for my spouse and my marriage by keeping myself as safe as possible with how to answer God's call to help my stranger neighbors. I don't think there is an easy answer.
*Here are instructions on how to use guided imagery as spiritual practice.
**As A.J. Levine says in her book, The Misunderstood Jew, we modern Christians often miss the punchline of Jesus' parables because we do not understand the Jewish context of the stories.