I’m not what people would call "athletic." I’ve never been on a sports team or chosen to don sweatpants and sneakers to do something other than gardening or going to the grocery store. Surprising, I know. But when I turned 30, I felt it was time to at least try to be physically fit. At my request, my family bought me a membership to the YMCA. Since we had recently moved off of Chapel Hill Road, I thought that the Lakewood Y’s proximity would be encouragement enough. Turns out, you need more than location as a means of motivation. Hannah Overholt graciously offered to take me to my first class at the Y. She had raved about this thing called "Zumba" and while I am not known for my dance moves, either, I thought I’d trust my friend.
I nervously walked to the back of the class, my new workout clothes crisp, my hair tied neatly in a ponytail. I’d worried about this the most – how to "look" like I belonged in a new-to-me environment. I was an outsider and a foreigner. I had no clue how to engage in a workout class – how to move, how to talk to people while sweating, how to not look like a complete fool. One look around and I quickly realized that everyone else seemed comfortable, seemed at home. Women greeted one another with familiarity and friendship, with understanding. There were women of all shapes and sizes and ages and races and ethnicities and personalities. Women in fancy aerobic gear and women in t-shirts from their kid’s sports teams. Women in make-up and jewelry; women with short hair and long hair, straight and curly and wild and plain. Women who were older than my grandmother and women who were on the cusp of adulthood.
As I took in the scene of this wide swath of God’s creation, in walked our instructor. I knew it was her by the way she looked at us. She greeted everyone with radiant hospitality and grace. She introduced herself as Lu and asked if anyone was new to the class. I tentatively raised my hand and she said, "Welcome" with such authenticity that my tension vanished. The rest of the class smiled at me and I knew all would be well.
But all did not go well for him on that day. Remember with me this familiar story – a man was walking along a road to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers. Stripped, beaten, left for dead, neither the priest nor the Levite – both righteous and religious people – stop to help him. Then, a Samaritan sees him and stops. Christ delineates the Samaritan’s actions, putting them in very physical verbage. Hear it again:
"But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him."
The Samaritan cared for this man – this stranger – with familiarity and tenderness, with touch and attention. Touching strangers, touching unknown people, is an odd and infrequent practice in our culture and it was then, too. To physically attend to a stranger requires a great sense of trust from both parties, a sense of humility and a sense of compassion. When we hear in Luke that the Samaritan was moved with "pity," it does us well to replace that word with the more accurate translation of "compassion." The Samaritan saw the wounded and was moved with compassion, with a deep yearning to serve and heal and guard. He has no reason to help this man. It is of no benefit to him and in fact, it is dangerous. The road on which they travelled was known for incidents like this – robbery, beatings, even death. He was taking a risk, a risk at losing his own life. But he saw in the beaten man not a stranger, not a threat, not a foreigner, not the other but instead, a fellow created being of God. In his seeing, he was able to do what Jesus declares as the key to the law, and to inheriting eternal life: loving your neighbor as yourself.
In his commentary on the synoptic gospels, John Calvin reflects, "The general truth conveyed is, that the greatest stranger is our neighbor because God has bound all together for the purpose of assisting each other."1 I might add that God has bound all together for the purpose of being in relationship.
By now, it was getting pretty embarrassing. I’d worked my way through half of the routine and cha-cha’ed myself into several tumbled footsteps. I finally knew what it was like to actually need dry-wick clothing and my perfectly-coifed ponytail was a disaster. What you athletic folks have known for a long time about exercise came all in one fell swoop to me in that Zumba class – it feels good and right to move. I believe you call this "endorphins." I suddenly felt my whole body surge with recognition at this embodiment and as I looked around at my fellow classmates, I knew they felt it, too. There we all were, sweating and loving every minute of it. We were dancing and shouting and swaying and jumping and we were doing it all together. Each woman glowed with gratitude at her body and her ability and our instructor, Lu smiled at us with pure compassion.
I turned to Hannah and my eyes filled with tears. I don’t know if it was the endorphins or the strain of moving muscles I didn’t know I had but I said to her, "I love this!" And I did; I do. In that moment, watching women I’d never met before, I felt incredibly tied to them, bound together by God and by our shared experience. And because I’m me, as a loud hpi-hop song played in the background and we moved onto a new routine, I started to think about a French Trappist monk and my hometown Louisville.
Back in the mid-20th century, Thomas Merton was living at the Abbey of Gethsamni not too far from Louisville. He came to the city one day and had a revelation on the corner of Fourth and Walnut. We even have a plaque to commemorate this event. He shares, "I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers."2 I felt like Merton, standing at that corner decades ago and realizing how innately bound we are to each other. Overwhelmed by love, tears streamed down my face as I danced awkwardly next to people who could no longer be strangers.
We are one another’s. I am reminded of this even more so in the wake of the article written in this week’s Daily Tar Heel, a racist and classist attempt to pit Durham as a seedy town out to harm Chapel Hill.3 I am reminded of this in the stories I hear about gossip and bullying that happens to our youngest at schools. I am reminded of this every time we go to Urban Ministries and we serve a meal to the same people month after month. I am reminded of this in the ways that we attend to one another as church members and still without a doubt, ignore some of those most in pain.
But I am also reminded of this Good News that comes at the end of our Gospel reading today: "The next day he (the Samaritan) took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’" When I come back, he says, I will still tend to this stranger. When I come back, he says, with hope and intention to continue to be in relationship with his now neighbor, his now friend.
We have a call to be neighbors to one another. The story of the Good Samaritan ends with Christ asking the lawyer, "Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?"37He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise." Amen.
1. Calvin, John. Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, volume 3. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom33.ii.vii.html
2. Merton, Thomas. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 1968.