A couple of days a month I drive to a house in a rougher section of town. I have friends who meet me there, some I know and some are strangers to me. We have coffee together, maybe share a meal . Sometimes we do art together. Sometimes my friends just sleep on couches or the floor. Sometimes my friends need fresh clothes and a toothbrush. Sometimes my friends need hugs.
My friends have worked the streets. They may be addicted to drugs, or alcohol. They may be experiencing homelessness.
I volunteer with an organization called Natalie’s Sisters, a ministry devoted to showing the love of Christ to women who have been sexually exploited, either on the streets or in clubs. The Natalie’s Sisters drop-in center gives women a respite, a place to go where they are safe and free from judgement. Food and clothing are available, as are other services to help them.
My first experience with the group was meal drop off. I rode with two other women and a police officer to deliver meals to women on the street.
Poverty was not new to me and I knew about sex trafficking.
I had never seen it in action, though. I had never seen women getting into a car and driving off to conduct their business. I had never seen a person so strung out on heroin that they could barely form sentences. I had never seen women so thankful to be treated with dignity.
When I came home, after that first night, to my warm house and full pantry and healthy children I cried. Hot, angry tears left my cheeks wet. It’s so confusing that a different world is only a few miles from my house. Suddenly everywhere seemed dark and dangerous. I wondered what happened in my own neighborhood that I didn’t know about.
I wondered how I can have so much while others have so little.
I wondered how I would sleep knowing that my new friends might not be safe.
I wondered a lot of things.
I’ve only been volunteering for six or seven months but I am so changed. I have learned so much. Examining my preconceived notions of what it meant to be on the streets, what I thought prostitution looked like, was hard but important.
Pretty Woman is not how it is, in case you were wondering.
On of my first full days spent at the center I just sat back listening to some of the ladies chat with each other. We were making bracelets together outside. The sky was blue, the clouds white and puffy. From far away the noise was just women talking, laughing. Up close their words punched my gut.
Their lives were not safe. Some of them had lost their children. Some had been stabbed, others slapped and hit. Some needed to find a place to sleep for the night.
Still, they had room in their lives for laughter. They made room to be caring. They took the time to hug and ask each other to stay safe.
They have community.
I think that’s one of the most important things I’ve learned from Natalie’s Sisters. Community matters. Having people who listen, and have your back, people who will make things with you, and share a meal with you. That’s community. That’s important.
Community is essential, in fact, to being human.
Natalie’s Sisters is a bridge between communities that are separated only by social constructs. Natalie’s Sisters is Jacob’s well.
Jesus met a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, breaking all the rules of Jewish culture. He sat at the well and offered her Living Water, so that she would never thirst again. The woman listened to him, shocked that he knew her sin. That used to be the part that got me, too. The disciples were shocked to discover the two of them in conversation.
This is my favorite New Testament story. There is so much happening here. It is not that Jesus knows her sin that is important. No, the important kernel here is that Jesus knows her. He knows the authentic her. He knows each of us, the real us. That’s what’s important.
“It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.” ~John 4: 23-24, The Message
One of my favorite writers, Shannan Martin, shared on her blog about this, the importance of being known. Her life was forever changed when she learned the names of people previously only theorized about. She knew about them as a concept, in the context of improving the lives of those stuck in poverty.
Shannan learned that poverty, when given names, can’t be looked as something to be fixed and she filled her blog up with words that left me hungry and knowing something new. Poverty needs relationship, shared meals, and yoked shoulders. That’s where we’ll see change. (Go read her stuff. She’s amazing.)
I’m learning the same thing. My friends have names, they have beautiful faces, and unspoken dreams. Putting a list of shoulds and have-to’s on them won’t work because their system is broken. Their personal system is broken, and the government system they have to work within is broken.
I don’t know why there are the gaps that there are, no matter how much I read it about it. I don’t understand addiction, sexual trauma, or why change is so slow. I don’t know why it’s not just about providing money and food, but it’s not.
What I have learned is this: the more time I spend with my new friends the less space there is between us.
After these months I’m comfortable knowing that it’s not my job to fix their lives. I’m called to know them. I’m called to be their sister and love them just where they’re at. I love them addicted and strung out, and I love them clean and sober. I celebrate the triumphs in their lives whether it’s jeans that fit or the choice to go to detox.
Their lives matter just as they are.
What I can see is that my time at Natalie’s Sisters is changing me from the inside out, too. I see that I am becoming Jacob’s well, not just visiting. I am allowing myself to be a space where cultural barriers are broken, a place that Living Water can be offered from. I am becoming more like Jesus, able to see people for their authentic selves. I’m not seeing addicted people, homeless people, or bad people; I’m just seeing people.
See, you can’t be in relationship with people and not be different. I no longer avoid people pretending not to see them. I look them in the eye because being known is more important than food or water. I believe that.
Today I am convicted to pray to become Jacob’s well. I want to be a place where others can meet Jesus, drink of the Living Water, and never thirst.
I think it’s key to remember that the woman at the well didn’t leave believing. She left wondering. She also left cognizant of the Truth that she was known. I believe that her questions caused her to seek answers. She went back to her village with her questions, but I also have no doubt that she was changed from what she now held in her heart.
Her heart held the treasure that she was known by the Creator of the universe, the Maker of all things good.
What is better than that?
My heart holds a new truth, too. I know that it doesn’t matter if people walk away from me believing. I used to think I was a failing Christian if I couldn’t convert non-believers. I know that it’s important that they walk away wondering, seeking answers. It’s important that they know that I see them for who they are, their true self, and that I love them.
Jesus will take care of the rest.
Be brave, misfits.
May you find Jacob’s well today.