It was late afternoon — cloudy, windy, and cold. November. I was low on gas, feeling sorta lost and strange, and needed a coffee fix. And I was trying to hurry or else I would get stuck in traffic and be late to my daughter’s basketball game. So I gave up my quest and pulled into a gas station.

As soon as I pulled in I saw a woman step out of the public restroom on the side of the station. She tried to flag me down, but I pretended to ignore her. I had seen her kind before and I didn’t have time to mess with her. So I drove around to a pump on the far side of the station and got out of my car. That’s when I realized that someone was talking to me. That woman was heading my way.

She was filthy. Her clothes did not fit. Her shoes did not match. Her teeth were stained. Her hair was matted.

She said “Hello” and asked if she could pump gas for me. I said, “No Thank You” and turned away without making eye contact. Then she said that all she really wanted was a few dollars or some loose change. I asked why she needed it and she told me that she was trying to gather enough money to pay for her motel room for one more night. Then she proceeded to tell how her house had burned down and how her family wouldn’t help her because … I sorta quit listening … but the people at the motel … still not really listening … but none of that mattered anyways … almost done … because “God is good and I know he loves me.”

I was already emotionally wasted, and I was starting to feel pretty cranky. At this point she was really starting to annoy me. So I turned towards her and asked if her house really burned down, and if she was really homeless, and if she really needed money for a motel. She said “Yes” and that it didn’t matter to her if I believed her story or not.

And she smiled from ear to ear.

I don’t know how you imagine her, but I bet you would never imagine that she was a short woman with a pale face, green eyes, red hair, and yellow teeth. She was as white as some of you.

I wish you could have seen her staring up at me with that big smile on her grimy face. That’s when I saw her, and really saw her as a real person.

And she was angelic.

I decided to make the most of the conversation, so I asked her name. It is Tracy. I asked how long she had been homeless and whether she had kids and how old she was. She said 46, but I said she seemed younger. She said I seemed older than 44.

As we chatted I started to see Tracy as a kind of Samaritan woman who needed living water. So I did what pastors do in situations like that: I slipped into “Jesus-mode” and asked if she truly believed in God. She said, “Yes of course. I stand on John 3:16 and Ephesians 6:10.” And I said, “What does that even mean? Are those scripture references?” She said, “Yeah” and I said, “Do you even know what they say?” And she proceeded to quote them verbatim, along with several others. And she told me why they meant so much to her.

I was still annoyed, but also impressed.

And I said, “Why would you believe in someone who claims to love you, yet lets your family reject you and your house burn down and leaves you homeless.” And she said, “Because of everything he has done for me.” And I said, “Like what?” And she said, “For starters, he sent his Son to die on the cross for my sins. And that’s how I know he loves me.”

And I asked, “Who is his Son?” And she said, “Jesus.”

And before I could ask any more questions she grabbed my hand and asked, “What about you? Do you believe Jesus came to die for you? Do you believe God loves you?”

That took me off guard. After all, I was having a terrible, horrible, no good very bad day. I was thinking about lots of bad things and wondering where God was in all of it.

And her question bothered me because I knew she had just turned the tables on me. I was supposed to play Jesus; and she was supposed to play the Samaritan woman! She flipped the script.

She stared at me and waited for an answer. Her green eyes pierced my soul, and her yellow smile melted my heart.

I was cut to the heart and said, “Yes, Tracy, I do believe all those things. In fact, I am a pastor. I was just messing with you to see if you really believed all those things.” And she let go of my hand and stepped back and said, “Oh! Well that wasn’t very nice.”

(I felt ashamed for doing that, especially with so much at stake.)

Then she smiled again.

I apologized and thanked her for tracking me down, and hassling me, and for reminding me about God’s love, and pointing me back to Jesus.

She just shrugged her shoulders and smiled as if it were no big deal. But I knew in my heart that it was. Tracy had asked me for something I would not give. And she gave me something she would not keep to herself. The gift of grace.

In the end, I offered to pray for her on one condition — that she pray for me. So, she bowed her head and folded her chapped hands and prayed for me. Then I laid my hands on her head and asked the Lord to bless her and keep her, and to make his face shine upon her and give her peace.

Then I gave her some loose change and petty cash and wished to God it had been more.

As I drove away tears filled my eyes. In his tender mercy and providential care the Lord sent a short, dirty, homeless woman to tell me the story of Jesus.

To fill my empty heart with living water.

To remind me that I am still a Samaritan, not a Savior. And that I still need a Savior because I am a sinner.

[This story was first told as part of a homily delivered on 4 January 2015. Read the whole thing here.]

Source: US National Archives on flickr