Reach Out As Jesus Did

I couldn’t help laughing. A fellow parishioner had just read my reflection which referenced our recent trip to Israel. Though this person was touched by what I’d written, he quickly asked, “But was it safe there?” After assuring him that the good deacon and I always felt secure in Jesus’ homeland, I shared our older son’s response to our first trip to Israel. When Mike and I announced our plans for that venture, our son turned to me with something between a grimace and a smile. He looked me in the eyes and declared, “Well, Mom, it’s been a good run.” Though I assured our firstborn that I’d never travel to an unsafe destination, I sensed that he was more than a little worried about his dad and me. The image of his half-hearted smile stayed with me until we returned home safely. Though we remained completely outside of harm’s way throughout our visits to the Holy Land, I do understand our son’s concerns beforehand. I wondered if Jesus’ mother shared our son’s worry when Jesus left home for the streets of Cana and Capernaum. The truth is that, in many ways, Jesus’ homeland hasn’t changed much since Jesus lived there.

Though Israel’s politics sometimes suggests otherwise, the variety of people who make up that nation’s diverse population interact on many levels every day. Our Jewish Israeli guide Yossi and our Palestinian bus driver worked very well together. Day after day, they join their fellow citizens in doing their best to secure peaceful and productive lives for themselves and for their families. Yossi observed often, “All they want is to work and provide a home and food and a life for their children. This is what we all want.” Yossi certainly supported this effort as he guided us to a Muslim monastery, an Italian Catholic mission, an Orthodox Jewish home, a tourist stop in Jericho, the West Bank, Christian, Muslim and Jewish holy places, Arab shops, Palestinian restaurants and so much more. Each of these encounters spoke to the people’s successful efforts to co-exist on the job, in their neighborhoods and as friends. How could my thoughts not turn to Jesus’ similar efforts in the midst of all of this?

On this third Sunday of Lent, the scriptures address all of our efforts to build community in our little corners of the world. The first reading (Exodus 17:3-7) tells us how Moses dealt with the grumbling Israelites who seemed to have forgotten that they’d been led from the grips of slavery and were on their way to the Promised Land. They complained incessantly throughout their journey. They went so far as to threaten Moses when they deemed the available drinking water too bitter to drink. Filled with disgust and fear, Moses pleaded with God for help. In spite of the people’s lack of faith, God provided the water they craved. In his letter to the Romans (5:1-2,5-8), Paul invited his readers to seize the blessings which their ancestors in the desert had overlooked. Those blessings flowed like water from Jesus and from themselves when they sustained one another. Above all, Paul insisted that God remained with them.

It is the passage from John’s gospel (4:5-42) which gets to the heart of what I discovered while among the people of Israel. John shared the details of Jesus’ encounter with a woman of Samaria. As he rested at Jacob’s well, Jesus surprised the woman by asking her for a drink of water. At the time, Jewish people avoided association with Samaritan people at all costs. Jesus’ request for water crossed a line better left undisturbed. Still, Jesus persisted in the exchange, offering the woman far more in return than a sip of water merited. When this woman ignored societal barriers and acknowledged Jesus, her life changed forever. Jesus extended the woman a second chance, or perhaps her sixth or twelfth chance, for happiness. Jesus offered no lecture regarding her failed marriages or anything else. Jesus simply accepted her as she was and asked that she open her heart to something more. In the end, that encounter touched the woman so deeply that she couldn’t help spreading Jesus’ good news throughout her town. As it happened, many turned to Jesus that day because the woman from Samaria indiscriminately shared her good fortune with them all.

I never expected our treks to Israel to reveal so much of Jesus’ life and lessons to me. I would never have guessed that the efforts of Palestinians and Jews, Muslims and Arabs, Christians and agnostics of every sort to live and to work together would so clearly mirror Jesus’ work among his contemporaries. Though national politics sometimes gets in the way, the majority of Israel’s people diligently invest themselves in building community. It seems that Jesus invited the woman from Samaria to do the same. When she shared the Jewish rabbi’s message of love and mercy, the woman inspired others to do the same. This Lent, as I try to open my heart more completely to Jesus, that wise and brave Samaritan woman nudges me along. Her eagerness to share all that Jesus had done for her inspires me to find ways to do the same.

©2020 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Water, Water Everywhere!*

As of late, I’ve been taken with meteorological images. I’ve shared my experience with a perfect storm and the multifaceted clouds which so often surround us. Though we most often associate storms and clouds with troubling circumstances, both can also be the source of new life and joy. Though I hobbled a bit during and after my bout with that storm, the sunshine which followed penetrated my spirit with renewed energy. Clouds in the aftermath revealed unexpected blessings. The rain which has fallen since has helped as well by washing away lingering debris. That rain also softened the ground beneath my feet just enough to allow new seedlings to poke their way through. What a beautiful addition to the landscape around me! Yes, I’ve weathered that storm, I’ve found encouragement in the clouds and I’ve been renewed by the rain! What more can I ask for? It occurs to me that, as always, God has been quite generous. Since this is the case, I’ll answer my own question. There is nothing more for me to ask for. So it is that, today, I turn my eyes upward to ask, “Lord, what is it that you’re asking of me?”

My propensity not to allow God time enough to respond to my questions failed to come to fruition this time around. Apparently, God’s eagerness was greater than my own because I was immediately inspired. Thank you, Lord! That inspiration suggested that, though it comes to us in the midst of inclement weather, water is the most precious commodity Creation has to offer, with the exception of course, of those God has given us to love. With that, I turned to today’s scripture readings. There I found it: Water, water, everywhere!* Each passage invites us to dance in the rain and to embrace the waters of God’s presence in our lives. If my recent history is any indication, this is truly life-giving advice.

The reading from Exodus (17:3-7) chronicles Moses’ distress as he stood before the unruly Israelites. Though God had promised to lead them to “…a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey,” they’d found themselves dying of thirst. Rather than trusting God who had already delivered them from the bondage of Egypt, the people grumbled and threatened Moses. In fear and disgust, Moses begged God for help before the people took matters into their own hands. Fortunately, and in spite of their faithlessness, God provided the water they so desperately needed. Sadly, it took many more similar encounters to convince the people that God’s presence among them was far more plentiful than the water God had provided. In his letter to the Romans (5:1-2,5-8), Paul invited his readers to drink of the blessings which came with the death of Jesus. This one from Galilee had outstretched his arms for each one of them. In the blood and water that flowed from Jesus’ side on the cross, new life abounded. Indeed, through both his life among them and his death, Jesus offered the waters of new life. Through this water, God remained to forgive and to revive, that each one would thrive, if only they chose to drink in God’s presence.

If God’s intent to ensure that we flourish through the waters of eternal life isn’t yet clear, John’s gospel (4:5-42) certainly makes it so. John wrote of Jesus’ encounter with a woman from Samaria as he rested at Jacob’s well. Jesus surprised the woman when he asked her for a drink of water. At the time, the Jewish people avoided any association with Samaritans. Sharing a drink of water crossed lines better left undisturbed. Nonetheless, Jesus persisted in the exchange, offering the woman far more than a simple drink in return. Much to her surprise, Jesus promised the woman eternal life. Impossible as this seemed, the woman allowed Jesus to explain. This woman was so taken with Jesus’ openness and his absolute acceptance of her that she couldn’t walk away from him. It was at Jacob’s well which was replenished by rain from heaven above that Jesus extended a second chance to this woman. Had this been her sixth or twelfth or thirty-third chance, Jesus would have offered it as freely. Once again, God forgave and revived that another of God’s children might thrive, if only she chose to do so. That wise Samaritan woman did just that!

At one time or another, we all find ourselves in the midst of perfect storms, surrounded my clouds and far more rainfall than we care to deal with. It’s difficult not to give up when we’re deluged by these things. Still, God insists that the joy and the sorrow, the comedy and the tragedies which make up our lives are of great concern to this Loving Parent of ours. All the while, God waits patiently to quench our thirst, to forgive and to revive, if only we choose to accept God’s kindness. Though I may seem to be writing from my own choices to dance in the waters of God’s love for me, I find myself apologizing to God far more often than I care to admit for having done just the opposite. I worry and I tread water until I become more overwhelmed than ever. Sometimes, it is only when I’m far too thirsty and weary and desperate to go on that I turn to God. And, just as generously as God responded to the Israelites and the woman at the well, God revives me with a cupful of Divine Love. I am fully convinced that God waits with another cupful for me, just as God waits with another cup filled with Divine Love just for you!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

*From Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Reach Out As Jesus Did

I couldn’t help laughing during Mass a few weeks ago. We’d just returned from our second visit to Israel. My husband-the-deacon was preaching that day and he began his homily with a story about our older son’s response to our first Israel trip. When we shared our plans for that venture, our son turned to me with something between a grimace and a smile and announced, “Well, Mom, it’s been a good run.” Though I assured our firstborn that I’d never travel to an unsafe destination, I sensed that he was at least a little worried about his dad and me. The image of his feigned smile stayed with me until we arrived in Israel last year and found ourselves to be completely outside of harm’s way. Our Israeli guide and our Palestinian bus driver joined our tour director Nancy in seeing to our worry-free travel the entire time. This year’s adventure proved to be equally secure and enjoyable. After sharing all of this, Mike went on to the point of his homily. I missed the bulk of the poor man’s message because my mind drifted back to Israel. I couldn’t shake the notion that Jesus’ homeland hasn’t changed much since our first visit there. I also think that it hasn’t changed much since Jesus lived there.

Though Israel’s politics sometimes suggests otherwise, the variety of people who make up that nation’s diverse population cooperate on many levels every day. They do their best to secure peaceful and productive lives for themselves and for their families. Our guide Yossi often commented, “All they want is to work and provide a home and food and a life for their children. This is what we all want.” Yossi certainly supports this effort through his work as he guided us to an Italian mission, an Orthodox Jewish home, a tourist stop in Jericho, the Christian, Muslim and Jewish holy places, the Israeli Museum, Muslim shops, Palestinian restaurants and so much more. I’ve shared before that Yossi is a gifted musician. When he treated us to his selections in these venues, he included the best of his own Israeli pieces, Christian classics and the favorites of those who hosted us. Each of these encounters spoke to the people’s successful efforts to co-exist on the job, in their neighborhoods and as friends. How could my thoughts not turn to Jesus efforts in the midst of all of this?

On this third Sunday of Lent, the scripture readings speak to Jesus’ efforts, Yossi’s efforts and all of our efforts when we try to build community in our little corners of the world. In the first reading from Exodus (17:3-7), Moses deals with the grumbling Israelites who seem to have forgotten that they were led from the grips of slavery in Egypt and were on their way to the Promised Land. They complained incessantly throughout this journey and threatened Moses at the time due to the bitterness of the water at hand. With disgust and fear, Moses pleaded with God for help. In spite of the people’s complete lack of faith, God provided the water they craved. In his letter to the Romans (5:1-2,5-8), Paul invited his readers to seize the blessings which flowed like water from Jesus. Paul went on to tell them to find further sustenance in one another. Paul assured them that, all the while, God remained with them.

It is the passage from John’s gospel (4:5-42) which gets to the heart of what I discovered while among the people of Israel. John tells us of Jesus’ encounter with a woman of Samaria as he rested at Jacob’s well. Jesus surprised the woman by asking her for a drink of water. At the time, the Jewish People avoided association with Samaritans at all costs. Jesus’ request for water crossed a line better left undisturbed. Still, Jesus persisted in the exchange, offering the woman far more in return than a sip of water merited. When this woman ignored societal barriers and acknowledged Jesus, her life changed forever. Jesus extended the woman a second chance, or perhaps her sixth or seventh chance, for happiness. Jesus offered no lecture regarding her failed marriages or anything else. Jesus simply accepted her as she was and asked that she open her heart to something more. In the end, this conversation touched the woman so deeply that she couldn’t help spreading Jesus’ good news throughout her town. As it happened, many turned to Jesus that day because the woman from Samaria shared her good fortune indiscriminately with them all.

I never expected my visits to Israel to reveal so much of Jesus’ life and message to me. I would never have guessed that the efforts of Palestinians and Jews, Muslims and Arabs, Christians and agnostics of every sort to live and work together would so clearly mirror Jesus’ work among his contemporaries. Though national politics sometimes gets in the way, Israel’s people work diligently to build community among themselves. It seems to me that Jesus asked the woman from Samaria to do the same. When she opened her heart to this Jewish Teacher’s message of love and mercy, the woman couldn’t help doing good in response. This Lent 2018, you and I are invited to open our hearts and to do the same.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Rocky Roads and Plush Paths

When we visited Israel a few weeks ago, we visited Megiddo National Park on our first tour day. This place has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site with good reason. It served as a strategic land route and stronghold long before biblical times. As a result, Megiddo’s history includes an ongoing series of battles for its control. Modern day archaeological digs have revealed thirty layers of ruins which illustrate the remarkable fortifications which protected this place, complex water systems and the lavish lifestyles of those who occupied it. Perhaps it is no wonder that this place is also known as Armageddon where many Christians believe the final battle between good and evil at the end of the world will occur. There certainly has been enough strife there to set the tone! Still, as I looked over the area, I prayed that this won’t be the case. For me, Megiddo is a beautiful illustration of life on this earth and there is much to be learned from its geography and its people.

I lost sight of Megiddo’s troubled history as I gazed across the seemingly endless expanse of ruins and rocks before me. Though these images spoke to several millenniums of hardship, the palm trees and other green plants which poked their way upward and out of the rocky terrain suggested hope to me. When I looked further to unexpectedly wide and verdant pastures of green nestled between those rocky expanses, I realized that I’d encountered hope-fulfilled. The thousands of generations who occupied this area so long ago knew the value of what they’d found. They realized the promise this location offered and happily invested the hard work which made this place a prosperous home for them. Those fortresses, waterways and palaces served them well. Unfortunately, as is too often the case with us humans, the prospect of sharing this wonderful place was incomprehensible and, time after time, war raged until each subsequent victor called this place home.

On this third Sunday of Lent, the scripture readings invite us to assess the rocky ways and plush expanses which lie before us. As is always the case, God leaves it up to us to choose what we will do with what we find. The first reading from Exodus (17:3-7) tells us that God’s people didn’t do well in this regard. Moses had led them from the grips of slavery in Egypt and was taking them on to the Promised Land. Still, they complained incessantly. Rather than trusting God and perhaps doing a little more to help themselves, they threatened Moses. In fear and disgust, Moses pleaded with God for help. In spite of their disrespect and complete lack of faith, God provided water that they might live.

In his letter to the Romans (5:1-2,5-8), Paul invited his readers to seize the blessings that had come with Christ’s death. Their lives lay in the blood and water which flowed from Christ’s side on the cross. Paul went on to tell them to find further sustenance in one another. All the while, Paul assured them that God remained to nourish and to revive them. They needed only to look in God’s direction.

As I gazed over the stark contrasts in Megiddo that day, I couldn’t help seeing the vibrant patches of hope which sustain us as we walk the rocky roads which punctuate our lives. Today’s passage from John’s gospel (4:5-42) gets to the heart of what I discovered. John tells us of Jesus’ encounter with a woman of Samaria as he rests at Jacob’s well. Jesus surprised the woman with a request for water. Jews avoided association with Samaritans at all costs. Sharing a drink of water crossed a line better left undisturbed. Still, Jesus persisted in the exchange, offering the woman far more than a simple drink in return. If she acknowledged what was before her, the woman would experience life anew. Jesus extended the woman a second chance, or perhaps her sixth or seventh chance, for happiness. Jesus offered no lecture to this woman regarding her failed marriages or anything else. Jesus simply asked that she open herself to hope in something far better for herself. In the end, this simple conversation quenched the woman’s thirst so completely that she spread Jesus’ good news throughout her town. Many turned to Jesus that day because the Samaritan Woman led them beyond their own rocky roads to the green expanses she’d found through Jesus.

I never expected a visit to Armageddon to inspire me with such hope. Though this site has been tainted with thousands of years of bloodshed, it has also been blessed with the hope of innumerable generations who appreciated its potential. You and I suffer just as the Samaritan woman did. More importantly, like her, you and I have also caught God’s eye. God’s offer of a new beginning stands for us as well, today and always!

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Unexpected Friendship

Will you journey back in time with me?

I was thirteen years old and so was Marty… Nobody knew for certain what Marty’s issues were. The politically correct term “developmentally delayed” had not yet been coined. Though my schoolmates avoided referencing Marty’s achievement with cruel terminology, they also avoided Marty. That was abuse enough. In addition to his academic issues, Marty suffered from a severe case of acne, and he managed to grow several inches in seventh grade. His inability to control his long limbs made him all the more a spectacle among his peers who spent seventy-five percent of their time grooming themselves. When in class, Marty occupied a spot in Group Four, the lowest placement in our junior high school tracking system. For the students there due to their own lack of effort, this lack of challenge was heaven on earth. For those like Marty, this perceived lack of challenge was insurmountable. Occupying the lowest rank in Group Four took its toll on Marty, especially when his teachers had difficulty hiding their exasperation with him.

I moved into the neighborhood the summer before seventh grade, and I did not know where Marty lived. I did know that he quickly crossed Chicago Avenue after school to avoid the students who remained on the opposite side. Marty alternated between walking a bit slower and a bit faster than everyone else. In this way, he shielded himself from the “looks” often awarded to outsiders. I know this because I watched Marty as I walked with the crowd he avoided.

Though I was new to the school, I had found a place for myself among my peers. I tended to be a good listener, so I was privy to information that would never reach Marty’s ears. In my circle of friends, I knew exactly who liked whom and why. My classmates told me things they would tell no one else. Unfortunately for me, my role as “listener” was my only role in the group. I simply observed when it came to the romances blossoming around me. Though my role was quite functional for my friends, it did little to fill the void within me. I empathized with Marty, especially on those days when I could not handle listening to another love story. On those days, I found myself walking like Marty, just a bit ahead of or a bit behind the crowd.

As it happened, Marty paid attention to my activity as well. If he was ahead of the crowd and I was behind, he adjusted his avoidance strategy in order to walk across from me. After a few weeks of this, I smiled and waved to Marty. If Marty had been a candidate for a cardiac episode, an adolescent heart attack would have been in the making. Fortunately for my lanky friend, he survived my acknowledgement and returned his own. “Hi, Mellen Ellen!” (No, that is not my real name, but it is the way Marty pronounced it. The truth is that I did not mind the distortion.). It took some time, but after fall and winter and a hundred smiles across Chicago Avenue, Marty crossed the street. I will never forget the look in those sparkling eyes when Marty said, “I walk home this way, too.” I did not comment on the obvious as Marty and I continued down the street together.

Though Marty was academically challenged, his friendship graced me with the opportunity to learn all of the wonderful things Marty knew about nature, the neighborhood and relationships. Marty knew about the things which make people happy and the things which make people sad. Marty, though denied the pleasure of relationships with his peers, had become an expert at his relationships with adults and others in the neighborhood who chose not to focus upon the things he could not do. By the time he moved away the following year, Marty had taught me much of what I needed to know as I continued my journey in this life. Marty’s footsteps led me in the same direction as the footsteps the Nazarene left two millennia earlier.

The gospel readings this Lent illustrate the point of our earthly journeys quite clearly. God created each one of us out of great love for us. There is nothing accidental about our existence. The paths we walk offer us numerous opportunities to discover our purpose. These opportunities provide the means we need to develop our relationships with God and with each other. As we learn to love God and to love one another, we engage in all of the preparation we need for eternal life.

The Lenten gospels remind us that Jesus went to the desert to seek out his Father. Later, Jesus showed himself with Moses and Elijah in all of their glory. Through this transfiguration, Jesus touched this earth with the possibilities of heaven. With those possibilities in mind, Jesus greeted the Samaritan Woman –the Marty of his day– with words of eternal life. In Jesus, the Samaritan woman discovered the relationships which really matter. In Jesus, she found her way. Perhaps it is time for you and me to find our way in Jesus as well. Perhaps it is time for us to live and to love as Jesus did, in our relationships with God and in our relationships with those whom we meet along the way.

©2014 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved