Homelessness, the woman on my patio and the Woman at the Well

Sermon preached at First Christian Church of Palo Alto, August 10, 2014.

Text: John 4:5-15 (with references to later verses), the story of the Woman at the Well

Preamble to the sermon:

I am known in some circles for preaching a really up-on-your-feet, clap and shout amen kind of sermon. I think that was why I was invited to preach. So I want to apologize in advance. Three things have happened to me this week that placed a more reflective message on my heart:

  1. A friend of mine from FCC Redding told me this week that when she went on vacation to Savannah, Georgia, she noticed there were no homeless people downtown. When she asked about this, she found out they weren’t allowed in the tourist district. Unsheltered people used to get locked up in jail, but too many of them tried to get arrested so they would have a roof over their head and regular meals. So now they get rounded up and put in an open air pen, to create a greater disincentive to be visible or get arrested.
  2. In addition to working at East Bay Housing Organizations, I also serve as director of the Oakland Peace Center, a nonprofit collective at First Christian Church of Oakland, made up of over 40 organizations working to create peace and justice in one of the most violent cities in America. Since homeless people have been evicted from nearby areas, we have experienced a surge of people setting up camp in the many dark pockets around our building. We invited the city to help us figure out how to respond, and a caseworker came from Operation Dignity, the organization that works with the homeless population in the city of Oakland to find them shelter and services. She let us know that there are shelter beds for 25% of the homeless population. She personally has a caseload of over 200 unsheltered people she is working with. She told us, “You can push them off your property, but know that there’s nowhere else for them to go. If you want to know what to do, let the city and county know they need to provide more money for shelter and housing. Nothing will change until that changes.”
  3. A friend of mine works for Dream Catcher, a homeless shelter for youth in Oakland. They need $100,000 to buy the building that the owner needs to sell due to debts. I learned from my friend that there are 2,000 homeless youth between 13 and 18, and only eight beds for them, which might be lost.

 

So with all of that resting on my heart, I appreciate your grace in letting me share a reflective story this morning rather than a rev ’em up sermon. Let us be in an attitude of prayer:

Spirit of the Living God, Fall afresh on us;

Spirit of the Living God, Fall afresh on us;

Melt us, mold us, fill us, use us; 

Spirit of the Living God, Fall afresh on us.

Message

I do not remember her name. It may have been Rhonda, but I’m not sure.

It was only eight years ago that I met her, but I’ve met so many homeless people on the property of First Christian Church / the Oakland Peace Center since then, and I do not remember most of their names.

  • Since I met Rhonda, I’ve met the father and son who could not find a shelter, because shelters are designed for MOTHERS and children, but when the boy was young he had been molested in a shelter and told his father he was never leaving his father’s side again, so they slept outside, bat at the ready.
  • I’ve met the woman clearly on meth who was always kind to me but always raged at our facilities coordinator Allen, since it was his job to tell her to move off of the patio before organizations came to use the room there. It was also his job to clear out the objects she left behind or the objects she sometimes claimed he shouldn’t have thrown away because she was coming back for them, and I think about the PTSD he has probably taken on so I wouldn’t have to be the bad guy evicting her every morning. One day she asked me for my leftovers because she had a baby on the way. When I asked on the street about her a few months later, I heard she had miscarried.
  • I’ve met the man who is always dressed well and eager to work but who becomes belligerent and even potentially violent when he doesn’t get what he wants.
  • I’ve met the woman whose daughter helped her set up camp in the breezeway of the church, who is so kind and gentle, and whose boyfriend shows up at 2 in the morning drunk and violent and leaving a mess.
  • I’ve met the man who works hard all day and tucks himself into a not always used doorway of the church to drink and talk to himself, who always heads off amiably if you let him know his talking is disrupting a meeting in the building.

I have known dozens of people who have found shelter under the eaves of our building. It’s tucked away from the drug corridor and offers a restful spot for those trying to stay out of trouble or do their trouble without interruption. I’ve learned their names and forgotten most of them. Those who settle in for longer than is comfortable, I learn their stories before making them leave.

Rhonda was the first woman whose story I learned, and she settled in fairly unapologetically at the far end of the patio, about 50 feet from the entrance to my apartment in the basement of the church. I had been living there about 4 or 5 months—it was part of how the church paid me. I chatted with her, and I asked a trustee to talk to her as well. We didn’t like the idea of throwing anyone off the property, but we didn’t want the property to become an encampment, either. When Ernie talked with her, she had just finished changing in the bushes into a short skirt and sparkly top, explaining to him that she was a good Christian woman but sometimes you had to do what you had to do in order to survive. And she wandered off to San Pablo Avenue, half a mile away from the church, where drugs and sex are both fairly available on the street.

When I met Rhonda, I wasn’t thinking much about the woman at the well. I had studied the story extensively in graduate school—in fact, I had written a paper on the passage, studying the original Greek, in a course taught by the preeminent scholar of the Book of John. But there were similarities I wish I had noticed.

I wish I had recognized that Rhonda was a lot like the woman at the well who had to draw water at noon in the heat of the blazing sun. I wish I had made that connection to Rhonda taking care of her needs at off hours when she would draw the least attention because people around her didn’t want to be bothered with her, didn’t want to notice her. While I had believed the woman at the well slept around a lot, in fact, she was probably widowed several times and passed on from brother to brother in the family out of obligation, not valued or respected. And whether she was unwelcome to fetch water in the cool morning hours with the other women because she was seen as a burden or whether she was seen as a tramp, she was not used to being treated well by anyone, even a stranger.

Rhonda wasn’t all that different—she found a corner of the church to camp out in because it kept her off of people’s radars and kept her away from both danger and judgment. And I know that in Oakland, there is shelter provided for 25% of the homeless population, but it is illegal to camp out on either public or private property. The laws in my community are designed to make sure I don’t have any more interaction with homeless people than absolutely necessary. Rhonda was getting treated in my community an awful lot like the woman in the well got treated by her community. (As an aside, I know that there are not homeless people in Palo Alto—the city calls them “unhoused people”—and their numbers have decreased significantly in the past 5 years as the city has found ways to encourage them to relocate although not necessarily to house them.)

The other thing I wish I had recognized about the story of the woman at the well is that when Jesus tells her that he knows she has had five husbands, he wasn’t shaming her—he was telling her that he knew her story. He was neither ignorant of it nor embarrassed by it. My instinct is to ignore what is hard or awkward about others’ stories because I do not want them to be embarrassed. My instinct would have been to ignore what was potentially embarrassing to me about Rhonda’s story. But Jesus knew the story of the woman at the well and he wanted to offer her living water. It wasn’t just that her story didn’t matter; it was that he loved her, story and all, and he took away her shame and gave her dignity and power—he told her she was worthy to be a prophet in a community that had pushed her to the sides, not even wanting to interact with her during the morning ritual of drawing water. She mattered. Her story mattered. And the fact that she was open to receiving the love of Christ mattered most of all.

 

So the next time I saw Rhonda, I offered her living water, as best I knew how. She was pushing a shopping cart full of recycling to earn some extra money. I stopped her and said, “Church is Sunday morning at 11. When do you want me to wake you up so you can get ready in time?” And for a couple of months she became a regular participant in worship. She read scripture once or twice, and she always had a passionate word of prayer during community prayer times. The congregation loved on her a little and gave her some extra cash or food sometimes, but mostly she just got treated like the rest of the church, which was her favorite part of the arrangement. And we worked on finding her some sort of shelter that would be safer than staying on the street, although we didn’t realize how urgent that was.

My doorbell rang at 6AM one Sunday morning. It was Rhonda, looking pretty messed up. She said some men had come to steal her shopping cart of recycling and when they found her they raped her before taking the recycling. I called 911 and waited with her for the ambulance. A few days later, she came by to let me know the nurse had paid for a few days at a cheap motel in the neighborhood so she could heal and get on her feet. I don’t think I’ve seen her since.

 

My biggest prayer for Rhonda is that she did get back on her feet and that she found a church as willing to embrace her and maybe even more able to help her get her needs met. But as I said, I’ve met a lot of Rhondas since then, and sleeping on our property hasn’t necessarily been the living water they’ve needed. It also risks the safety and the thriving of all of the programs happening in our building since we became the Oakland Peace Center, and programs for children and at risk youth happen throughout the day as well as programs to help immigrants and people in need of food and clothing and many people living on many margins.

 

So when I get despondent about our ability to be living water to people on the street while we are in the midst of building a movement for peace in one of the most violent cities in the country, I remember that Jesus did not want us to be living water by ourselves.

  • I remember that there are organizations providing social work services to homeless people such as Operation Dignity, and I can make sure my city council knows that the Oakland Peace Center wants to see them be better supported.
  • I remember that to be part of the solution, I can work with my denomination through Week of Compassion, which funds programs addressing homelessness and human trafficking, both of which impact our communities in such serious ways.
  • I remember that Jesus may have provided living water all by himself, but that he sent the woman at the well back to her community as a preacher so that she could build up a community of believers, and that who they believed in was a savior who showed compassion for people the rest of society rejected. And therefore, whenever we preach that message, whenever we live out that message of embracing and including everyone, we become less isolated, we become stronger, and we have more living water for ourselves and for others.

 

I find myself thinking about Rhonda because in its own small way, I think FCC Oakland provided some living water for a season. But what is particularly powerful to me is the fact that there was a gift for us, too—it gave us a chance to practice being more Christlike. Jesus invited EVERYONE, rich and poor to the table. He liberated EVERYONE, although our liberation may look different.

For the woman at the well, the living water was being fully seen, having her story honored and not swept under the rug. It was the message that she was worthy of being a bearer of God’s good news to the community. For others, the living water is being liberated from the pressure to have the best of everything, it is being liberated from the possessions that threaten to crush us and force us to work so hard we lose important relationships with our family and our church and our community and with God.

When the church is at its best, it offers that living water in deeply personal ways. And it participates with others to eliminate barriers to living water. To me, the church today provides living water when it is treating every person with dignity, when it is working to build shelter for all of God’s children, when it is making sure that systems of government are partnering in providing services for homeless people and not just punishing people for being homeless.

That is too much work for me to do on my own—there are too many Rhondas I see every day, and too many Rhondas being intentionally hidden from my view. There are too many women going to the well at noon so they will not have to experience the shame and harassment if they were in plain sight.

But God invites us to linger in the noonday sun and to know the women at the well, to extend compassion, to honor their stories and let them know they are bearers of the gospel. When we do that, we will truly be Disciples of Christ. Amen.

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