My grandmother has been a writer her entire life, she just never saw herself as one.
She started keeping a diary long before she met my grandfather and became a faithful Lutheran pastor’s wife, recording her experiences as an Iowa farm girl earning a living working in town before she met my grandfather at a Walther League convention in St. Louis. For over 60 years she carefully recorded everything that happened in her life, through moves all over Canada and the American Midwest, the birth of seven children and 23 grandchildren, and eventual retirement in Cheney, Kansas. She wrote countless family letters, Christmas letters to people all over the world that she and my grandfather had met over the years, and precious yearly birthday letters to every member of our family.
For my grandmother, story was essential to understanding life, and her story was the way she shared the love of Jesus to everyone she met. She’s always been the type of woman who talks to perfect strangers if she knows someone from the same town as them. She wants to know their story and make connections everywhere she’s been.
My grandmother spent years working on a draft of a memoir that she wanted to see published as a family history for her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Last spring, my uncle decided that it was time for her to finally see a finished product. While declining health made it impossible for her to truly finish the story that she wanted to tell, the published book is still a treasure for all of us who feel like we are finally getting to truly know a woman who has meant so much to us for our entire lives.
My experience as I read through my grandmother’s memoir once again highlights for me the importance of understanding a person’s story. And if I’m being perfectly honest, I don’t think this has ever really been something we have been good at as human beings.
I’m an English teacher. I read and discuss stories for a living. But the universal stories that we tell to teach and explain and entertain are not windows to the individual soul. They are reflections of the human condition.
It’s the individual stories that connect us.
The story of my friend’s suicide when I was 16 explains my sensitivity to issues related to mental health. The story of watching my dad go through difficult trials in several of the churches that he worked at explains my own aversion to church meetings of any kind. The story of our struggle with fertility and watching so many friends deal with complications on the way to parenthood causes me to take a step back and let others tell me about their parenting journey without me badgering them for details of if, when, and how many children they hope to have someday.
The need to be aware of the stories of others often comes down hard on me in my teaching career. Too often I have made assumptions about students, sometimes writing them off and other times being extra hard on them, only to later discover the reasons behind their current struggle. As teachers we are often juggling so many things that we don’t take the time to consider why a student is acting the way that they are; we instead focus on what they are doing and how that might be impacting us. But taking the time to know their story doesn’t just make them feel like someone else cares. When we take the time to listen and understand, we create a safe space for tough conversations. When our students feel seen and heard, they are more willing to be open to what we have to teach them.
But this is more than just a lesson in teaching; this is also a lesson in ministry.
While I’ve heard many people over the years talk about the woman at the well, I’ve never heard someone discuss the woman at the well in relation to the concept of storytelling.
Before Jesus started talking to the Samaritan woman, he knew that she wasn’t Jewish. He knew that she had been married many times before and he knew that she was living with a man that she was not married to. He took the time to show her that he knew her story and he made it clear that he saw her, not just another woman at the well. He knew that while she was there to draw water, what she really needed was spiritual healing. He addressed the “elephant in the room,” but instead of discussing all the ways she had failed as a human being, he moved on to speaking about “living water” and the spiritual freedom he was offering her at that very moment, as she was.
And while readers of the Bible have no way of knowing whether or not she completely changed her life around once she left the well, we know that she left her water jar, “went back to the town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?’” (John 4:28-29) By the time Jesus left Sychar, the local Samaritans were ready to declare that he was in fact the Messiah. Because Jesus took time to show the woman that her story mattered, many people in the village came to believe the Savior of the world had arrived.
If we are really serious about the Gospel and if we really want to see Jesus working in the lives of those we come into contact with, maybe it’s time that we take a lesson from the Master Teacher. It’s time for us to meet people where they are and get to know their story. We need to know who they are and why they are before we can talk to them about the One who brings healing.
So open your ears the next time someone has a story to tell. Ask questions and be curious. You never know where that story might lead you, or them.