Last week I spent Thanksgiving with friends on Club staff and I honestly was exhausted going into it. I had just spent a week preparing for and a weekend at Middle School Retreat where sleep didn’t really happen, and went right into Club the next day. So I was really looking forward to my 5 hour train ride, especially as an introvert, as 5 hours of reading and sleeping and listening to sermons and Christmas music and not talking to anyone sounded fantastic to me, and probably like a nightmare to you extroverts.
As I boarded the train I was listening to a sermon from a church in Georgia that I used to attend in college:
“You get out of your car, and you’re fumbling for your wallet and there’s a dude across the street, he’s scanning eyes waiting for someone to catch theirs. As soon as they catch somebody’s eyes, there’s this lock and they start coming over to you and they’re going to ask you for money…But why will you do so much to avoid locking eyes with that person? Why will you do so much to walk away quickly? It’s an amazing experiment in social psychology to watch people try to get away from people who are about to ask them for things. It’s because when people ask you for things, it’s powerful. It’s very hard to say no. Because when someone needs something and they asks you directly to address that need it evokes power over you.”
No sooner had I sat down on the train, that an obese, half-blind, mute woman smelling like urine with her tongue sticking out of her mouth sat down nearby. And I’m sitting there, only watching her out of the corner of my eye (knowing the power of eye contact) and she opens a plastic cage she’s carrying and pulls out the biggest white rat I’ve ever seen. Well, I now knew where the urine smell was coming from. She let the rat crawl under her jacket, and it was like a car accident and I couldn’t look away. I almost took a picture.
I almost Instagrammed her like a freak side show.
She turned to the teenage boy trapped between her and the window and motioned for a pen and piece of paper. The boy just shook his head, looking like he wanted to jump out the window. She asked the guy sitting behind her. He waved her away, glued to his phone. Then she turned to me. Oops. Eye contact.
I thought about pretending I didn’t see her. But she made some loud grunts in her desperation for me to understand what she was asking for and I was afraid she might cause a scene. So I gave her a pen and paper, thinking about how I’d probably have to disinfect that pen later and hoping she had something important to say, like that she needed some help getting to the next train. I couldn’t believe there was no one there helping her.
Of course, she wrote something barely readable on the paper in German, so I had to turn to the German woman behind me and ask her to translate for me. She chuckled as she translated: “Thanks. My name is Nadine. What’s your name? What are your hobbies?” and my heart kind of melted a little. She’d just wanted to make a friend.
Thus began an hour-long exchange that consisted of more translation of the paper and I pulled out my “emergency German” (the German you don’t know that you know until you’re under pressure to speak it) and my hand motion skills as we talked across the aisle. She made me pet her urine-covered rat. She motioned to the cage and handed it to me and I discovered she had ANOTHER rat in there, that she was very proud of. The whole time I was breathing through my mouth because the smell was so bad.
THEN, she got up, came over to my seat, shook my hand, and then didn’t let go. Holy awkwardness, Batman. She stood there holding my hand and looking at me for way longer than was comfortable, and then as we were trying to communicate where the other person was going, for a split second I thought about lying, just in case we were on the same train, knowing that I would have to do this for another hour. I didn’t lie, but I’m not proud of how seriously I considered it.
We were on the same 2nd train.
She made the German guy behind her carry her stuff and escort her to the next train while I followed behind. He spoke English, so we had a short conversation. On the next train, she told me an elaborate story only through hand motions for an HOUR, and if I even looked away for a second, she would grunt loudly to get me to pay attention. Not to mention, she described how the smaller rat bit her, and she would let the bigger rat lick the wound on her arm. I had to hold my stomach contents in at that one. She would get up, take my scarf off of me, and arrange it in different ways on my head and have me look in the window at myself and laugh. She did that with my hat too, and put my hat on her hat. I wouldn’t be able to wear those 2 items on my trip, I knew, before I washed them.
Then when I got up to leave, she hugged me and held on for a long time, and as uncomfortable as I was, it broke my heart. Especially when, as I told her God loved her in my broken German, she motioned with only her hands for me to pray for her (I had told her I worked for a church), waiting expectantly for me to agree. I did, and tried not to cry when I left the train.
All I could think of after that was,
“…and He listened to her whole story.”
Mark 5. The story of the woman who had been bleeding for years. I imagine she was a social outcast. I imagine she might have smelled bad. I imagine she had the same kind of desperation that Nadine had, yet she had some needs that Jesus knew that were more than just physical. She went to Him for physical healing, and Jesus didn’t stop there. HE LOOKED FOR HER IN THE CROWD after she had touched him and been healed. HE ACTIVELY PURSUED EYE CONTACT. Here I was trying to avoid it, debating with myself if I should lie to this woman about my next train so I didn’t have to listen to her. It says Jesus listened to her WHOLE story. I sat and listened to this woman’s story, but I didn’t really have a choice. Then Jesus not only healed her physically, but told her to go in peace, and blessed her for her faith. The eye contact alone was probably more human contact than this woman had in awhile. Spiritually and relationally, she was healed. One of the most important people around had sought her out and listened to her whole story. That was probably incredibly healing for her. Nadine needed someone to listen to her whole story, even with all the physical conditions, the worst condition she was in was probably loneliness. And, even in her precarious mental and physical state, she asked me to pray for her. The chances of any German stranger knowing Jesus is slim to none, yet this disabled woman with a pet rat was spiritually self-aware enough to know that she needed prayer and she bravely ASKED for it.
It’s amazing how the stories in the Bible can relate to modern life so well. I spent 3 hours on my next train trying to process how much better I knew Jesus now because of those 2 hours of awkwardness and the story in Mark 5. A friend of mine texted me, “Matthew 25 Laura…you just loved Jesus.”
Did I? She was certainly considered “the least of these.”
Maybe, maybe I was supposed to bless her, but this story isn’t about me and what I did. I’m honestly annoyed by my own unwillingness to enter into conversation with her, and maybe even ten minutes before, before I heard that sermon, I would have been one of the strangers who waved her away immediately. And yet I consider myself a “loving” person. I don’t even know.
I think God orchestrated that sermon message to come on right before I got on the train because He wanted me to know Him more. What an incredible, loving, selfless, Savior we serve…wow.