During my junior year of college, I did something ugly.
I had been having a good day that spring. The Orlando weather was finally perfect, blue skies and cool breeze. I was practically skipping along, amazed that the morning had sailed right by me. I had gotten out of class early and, with extra time on my hands, decided to stroll to the coffee shop.
Then there she was.
I heard her before I saw her. I guess she was the opposite of lightning, her sobs like thunder as they boomed around the corner. She had her tiny cell phone pressed tight against her face, her hair clinging to her tear-streaked cheeks. “Mom,” she heaved that painful sort of sound that comes right from the stomach, right from that place where unfixable problems hide. “Mom, I don’t know anybody here.” She finished with a sniffle, probably only half listening to whatever motherly lecture her mom had prepared for her on the other end.
At first, I walked right past her on my way to the bookstore for a comfortable read. Then, suddenly, I stopped. It was as if the hand of God had caught on to the back of my shirt and pulled. I hate that, sometimes. Right when I’m in my comfort zone, He yanks me out, douses me with cold water and plops a mission into my soaking wet hands.
She’s alone, I thought. Maybe I should help.
My mind crept back to my first year of college. I had been far away from everything I needed. My family was an ocean and a $400 plane ticket away. I knew no one. I had no car, no friends, no map, no guidance and no church home. I felt like I was on my own and it took years before I could make Orlando my home. It took time and tears and broken phone calls to faraway voices that couldn’t possibly understand what I was going through.
It was God that kept me sane. He is the craziest constant, the unchanging who always seems to surprise me. He forced me to cry, to laugh, to shake hands and try things that hurt and some that felt better. It was hard to get to that place in my life where I could see above the waves and I had forgotten what it took to get me to comfort. I forgot that I was helpless and hopeless, and that I needed someone to carry me the entire way. So with my own weakness a thing of the past, I decided I could be of assistance to the sobbing stranger I had just passed by.
As a kid, I’d heard of the Good Samaritan. Straight out of Luke Chapter 10, I knew he was one of those something special biblical characters. Jews and Samaritans hated each other’s guts, and here this half-dead Jew was, crumpled on the side of the road like somebody’s leftovers. So the story goes like this. A priest (God’s shepherd, right?), passes the dying guy on his way to do whatever. Then a Levite, also a Jew, doesn’t want to get his hands dirty, so he passes him by too. Finally, a Samaritan, the kind of dude that the Jews despise, decides to help him out. Not only does he take the dying man to shelter, but he pays for his recovery and everything. Now, I’ve always known what kind of person I’m supposed to be like. The Samaritan. And when faced with the choice, I always knew what I’d choose. Help the person in need. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus said in verse 37. Go.
So I swiveled, a direct 180. I should at least offer to help, I told myself. Maybe she wants to grab a coffee? Who doesn’t like coffee? But when I got near her, when she was visible again, her knees tucked into her body, her cheeks stained with tears, I lost my nerve. I’ll embarrass her. I’ll make her feel so ashamed that I overheard her crying. And what if she’s offended by me? What if I’m just being too nosy? What if …?
I wish I could say that I talked with her anyway. I wish I could add that to the list of honorable things I’ve done, of people I’ve touched. I wish I hadn’t been like the priest and the Levite in the Good Samaritan story, too worried about the complications to stop and do what I should have done. But I realize now that if I had done it, if I had asked her to coffee and given her a friend, I wouldn’t have been doing the right thing at all. I would have been a “Bad Samaritan.”
You see, I wanted to be the hero, the life-changer, the savior. I forgot that it was God who saved me in the first place. If I had stopped for the reasons that compelled me, that girl would have been just another star-shaped sticker in my notebook, a check plus on my wall of “congratulations to me.” I would have given her nothing but an empty, useless friendship, because that was all that I had to offer. That is all that any person can give. I would have been the Advil to her broken leg, the ice cream to her broken heart. She should have been offended that I thought enough of myself to assume I was the cure for her loneliness.
It’s hard to remember we are just the messengers, that the Good Samaritan didn’t get a card and flowers in the mail or give himself a pat on the back. Everything we do, every gift we give, every sacrifice we make is because God made a million more for us. We aren’t the source of light; we aren’t the source of salt for our world. He is, and He is awesome enough to share that source with us. We were made to carry the message that He’s given us.
I still think about that girl. I wonder if she ever gave up. Maybe she found some inadequate, insufficient pain reliever. Maybe she’s sitting on some other bench out there, still lonely, still waiting. And maybe, if you see that girl, or someone like her, you’ll know what to do and you’ll do what I didn’t. Love like Christ loved; give like Christ gave. Not because it would make you a better person, but because He loved and because He gave. Because the world needs to know who sent us.