Love One Another Just as I have Loved You
Author: Deacon Deb Haynes
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Let me tell you a story of discipleship that I just witnessed at my day job at the Lamb Center, a drop-in or day shelter for the homeless and the poor up the road at Fairfax Circle. A 70-year-old, seriously mentally ill woman with a long history of homelessness, reappeared after being missing for six months. She was in terrible shape. Her clothes were crusted with dried urine, she stank to high heaven, she was covered in bruises, she was talking in what we call “word salad” – a jumble of words with little or no meaning, and her long hair was in a stinking mat on top of her head, a solid mass like a wool sweater that went through the wash. For days we tried to engage with her, to encourage her to bathe and change, to go into a shelter and get a bed, all to no avail.
Then one day after closing, my colleague sat on a bench with her outside and listened to her ramble. At an opportune moment, she invited her to come inside and shower while the building was empty, and the woman agreed. My colleague checked in with me partway through the shower, and after her report of the woman’s emaciated condition, I called Adult Protective Services and the county Office to Prevent and End Homelessness to advocate for extra help. I look up from my phone, and my colleague is standing in the door of my office, suds dripping off her gloved hands, and she says “I don’t think I can save her hair.”
I follow to the bathroom and I watch with my heart in my throat as the woman sits on the bench in the handicapped stall and my colleague gently tries to loosen the mats of hair with conditioner. Picture a frail, bruised, starved-looking older woman mumbling to herself as a healthy young woman - who could have gone home from work hours ago - is tenderly, carefully trying to loosen the mats in her hair and wash away the crust on her scalp. Yes, it was gross, but it was possibly the most holy thing I have ever witnessed. It was like looking through a window into that upper room and getting a peek at Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.
If you are tempted to push away from this story, from how uncomfortable or dramatic it is, by pointing out that it happened in a special place, I must lovingly call you out on that. Yes, my colleague and I have an unusual workplace, and this exact scenario isn’t likely to happen to you. But the truth is that messy, painful, uncomfortable places and times intrude into every life. All of us are going to experience someplace like a preschool, a nursing home, the ER or the psych hospital, someplace where pain and snot and blood and strong emotion rupture into our lives, no matter how orderly and sanitary we try to keep things. That is simply reality. And it is the reality that Jesus knows. The reality that God in Christ chose to enter into. The messy death that Jesus went to so that we would be liberated from sin, death and the devil. This is living, and this is discipleship.
Whatever painful or matted or scabby place you have in your own life, Jesus is there. That reality does not diminish how painful or matted or scabby is, not one whit. It doesn’t make it all right. It doesn’t mean that whatever you are suffering is part of some plan from God. It simply means that where there is dirt and mess, Jesus who washes feet and sweats blood shows up to love us. Shows up in the bodies of our neighbors, of people we don’t even know, to be Jesus for us. To feed us, to wash us, to care for us with the love of God who was willing to be one of us and experience all this crap firsthand for the sake of love.