The Stranger

I don't think I would have seen her at all, if I hadn't glimpsed her blue jacket from the corner of my eye as she walked past my office window, on her way to the back door. And since her knock was so quiet I didn't even hear it, I don't know if I would have opened the door to her if I hadn't thought "Well, better figure out who just walked past my office window." But there she was on the back step. At first I thought she was one of the neighbour children--one of the younger ones, since she was so tiny. My own guys would have dwarfed her. But she wasn't a kid; she was a very small woman in her forties or early fifties, a stranger to me, and she needed to come in.

She told me that she'd been in the group of hikers that my husband was leading through the neighbourhood woods that day. It wasn't a long or difficult hike, 15 kilometers over level ground, but halfway through, quite close to our house, she'd found herself too tired to go on, with another 8 kilometers to go and two more hours before the hikers left to go back to the city. So my husband sent her over to our house, to rest until the others could come get her.

I was taken aback: I already had two visiting kids present--God knows, my kid spends enough time at their house!--and the weekly piece still to write, and a zillion and one things to do. I felt a momentary flash of irritation at my husband: oh, Molly will look after it... But I was nicely brought up, so I asked her in, made her tea, supplied her with newspapers and magazines, and made her comfortable in the living room. I couldn't stay and talk, I said apologetically: I had a deadline to meet.

As I tapped away at the keyboard, I heard the rustle of the Saturday papers for a while, and then I got too wrapped up in my work to pay attention. I finished the piece, gave it a quick once-over, and shipped it out. I really should check on her, I thought--maybe offer more tea, or sit and chat with her. But when I poked my head into the living room, she was curled up in the corner of the sofa, fast asleep.

So I left her and went to get on with the laundry, and there near the washing machine were her hiking boots, which she'd taken off when she came in. They were tiny, a child's boots: they can't have been more than a woman's size 4. I hadn't seen boots that small since my kids were in early grade school. And I was suddenly clonked cross-eyed by an overwhelming sense of wrongness. I hadn't welcomed her in cheerfully. I hadn't offered her a couple of cookies, only tea, and that (I thought) ungraciously. Or at least I'd been inwardly ungracious, even if my manners were okay.

Here one of God's tired souls had come to me for a place to rest and be welcome, and all I'd thought about was how much needed to get done. Yes, I'd looked after her, but grudgingly, as little as I felt I could get away with without being rude and inhospitable. The laundry could have waited. The writing could be sent off later; my deadline was purely self-imposed. People really ought to come first; I know that in theory, but this time my walk and talk hadn't lined up at all. And yet, I'd done nothing that I could properly apologize for--to God, perhaps, but not to her.

I have been a tired stranger too, an exile looking for rest and a little comfort; you'd think I'd remember that. But we forget the times we were needy. We lose the awareness of our own past weakness and poverty when we deal with the in-the-now weak and poor. Or perhaps we haven't had enough of that sort of experience to understand at all. We deal _de haut en bas_ with them; we "minister to them" from our superior prosperity to their lowliness, and often with a comfortably self-satisfied awareness of how we, being so clever and successful, would never find ourselves in this fix. Or how we have escaped from similar fixes, always (of course!) purely by our own exertions, pulling up the old bootstraps. Maybe this is why the poor truly are blessed: they're somewhat more likely than the prosperous not to fall for that delusion.

But Christ says in no uncertain terms that in the end, we will be judged by how well we have served others: sheep to this side, goats to that: "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." Nothing about sound doctrine or correct behaviour here, nothing about following the rules, nothing about being successful: no, the criterion is how we have provided the simplest, most obvious sort of care for "the least of these". If we can stand by uncaring while someone else is clearly suffering, we have to answer to God for it, for we have failed in love.

It should be a matter of joy to look after each other, because it's God's work: "work is love made visible". In serving this tired little woman, I was serving Christ, and I should have done so with my whole heart and no reservations, with gratitude for being given the chance to serve. I'll try to remember that next time something like this happens.

She woke up just as my husband and the others got back from their hike, retrieved her tiny boots, and slipped out of the house without a word, shyly, not meeting my eyes. I suspect she felt embarrassed that she'd fallen asleep on my sofa. I didn't know what to say either. I'm still not sure.

Copyright © 2000 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 19 Aug 2000
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