No doubt you’ve seen one of those uncomfortable episodes on ABC of “What Would You Do.” In case you haven’t, the main concept is to concoct scenarios portraying people in need, then witness the sometimes good and sometimes cringeworthy response of unsuspecting onlookers. Like when teenage kids harass a homeless person , or a mother runs out of money in the grocery line. I’d like to think I would step up in those moments. But I know how easy it is to simply ignore the needs of others when it’s not on my agenda.
Just the other day, I found myself in such a situation. I was breezing down the highway, when I saw a couple stranded on the side of the road. I was already in the right lane, so it was an easy pull over. Except I didn’t pull over. I drove on by, hoping someone would come to help them. Two exits down the freeway, my conscience got the best of me. All those scenes from WWYD kept replaying in my mind, nagging at me, and I looped back around.
On the way back, I saw this huge (non-methaphorical) sign with the slogan, “Compassion Never Goes out of Style.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? I know it’s true, and I know I always appreciate it when people go out of their way to show compassion to me. But it made me think: why is it so difficult at times to find the energy to show compassion to someone in need?
You’re Not You When You’re “Kopos”
In John chapter 4, Jesus faces a situation where he easily could have shut off his compassion radar, and just coasted on by. Coming off a very succesful evangelistic campaign, he starts to get flack from some jealous religious leaders. Deciding not to stir the waters, he heads off on a cross country journey to Galilee. On the way, he finds himself in Samaria, in the town of Sychar, which is the kind of place you don’t stop in unless you run out of gas.
That’s actually what happened to Jesus. He’s exhausted from the journey, and the emotional toll of constant negative feedback. He was tired, and he was hungry, and as the Snickers campaign reminds us, “You’re not you when you’re hungry.” Jesus sends all 12 of the disciples into town to pick-up the food. He must have been really hungry!
Actually, the passage alludes to something even greater than hunger when it calls Jesus “weary.” John uses a form of the word, kopos, which refers to a tiredness that comes from being beaten down. Kopos was often used in the OT to refer to the idea that man is born to trouble.[mfn]Job 5:7[/mfn] This is particulalry true for the righteous man because of the the unjust nature of the world. With all that Jesus endures on a daily basis, you can understand him feeling kopos.
Springs of Water
At this point on the journey, we might be inclined to say Jesus deserved a break from serving others. We generally accept that when we’re feeling the kopos of life, this is not a time to be thinking of others. Obviously, we are in no position to give of ourselves at those moments. When he asks for a simple drink of water from the woman at the well and she tries to drag him into another theological argument, you could excuse him for checking out, or getting snarky. But as tired as he is, Jesus seems unfazed.
Instead of growing irritated, Jesus engages her with an almost playful banter. I can see a wry smile as he tells her, “If you knew who I was, you’d be asking me for a drink.” Then as Jesus senses her growing spiritual interest, he gently guides the conversation. At the Spirit’s promptings, he starts a difficult conversation about her marital status, even though it adds to her discomfort. Finally, when she seems ready to wrap the conversation up, and finally give him water, Jesus reads between the lines. He rightly senses she is ready for the big reveal: “I am the Messiah you’ve been waiting for.”
Clearly, Jesus does not operate on the “kopos” level we tend to feel so comfortable at. If we have energy and time, we’ll be compassionate. If not, then hopefully someone else will take care of it. But it’s not my problem. Jesus does not lose his sense of compassion in this exchange. How is he able to do this?
Jesus points to the solution in his offer to the woman about living water. In antiquity, water sources, even artificial ones, were regarded as the property or dwelling of divine beings. [mfn]Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Gerhard Friedrich. electronic ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964.[/mfn] This explains the woman’s interest in Jacob being the owner of this well; such a distinction carries spiritual prestige.
However, while she has been speaking of a manmade well, Jesus points to a spring, or “pege” in the greek, that is the actual source of water. Based on previous conversations about water, Jesus obviously means to direct her attention to the Holy Spirit. The profound promise he makes addresses why “kopos” does not affect him: this living water will be a spring within you. Divinity will come from within, as it does in Jesus, and you will draw vitality from a source greater than your humanity.
I’ve Got a Secret Stash
This simple promise is the point at which we so often run into conflict. We tend to medicate the pain of kopos with temporal things. This is why the disciples immediately ask, “Has anyone brought him something to eat?” (Where I grew up, we called that comfort food!) This happens when we ignore the reality that spiritual needs are more pressing than physical needs. You might need to read that again: spiritual needs are more pressing that physical needs. Always.
It’s hard for us to accept that, because we tend to mix up our objectives for God, with God’s desires for us. Maybe you’ve heard sayings like, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” We often take it to mean that we must meet someone’s physical needs to address spiritual problems. Get them a job, get them a house, get them a new car. If we don’t, how will they ever get well?
The truth is, such cliches are often about our objectives. We want someone to know what I know, and believe what I believe. So, we’ll manipulate them by placating their “kopos.” Instead, what if our interest was in their spiritual renewal? How would our interactions look different?
Jesus could have easily ignored the interest of another to meet his needs, but he trusted the Father’s leading. He made himself completely present with the woman, listened to her and saw her for who she was. He paid attention to the Spirit’s prompting, and he provided her with something far greater than a means to meet her very real physical needs. All of this, while having his needs seemingly unattended. But as he told his disciples: “I have food to eat, that you do not know about.” His Father took care of him.
The real problem is, we trust ourselves more than we trust God. We trust our answers more than his. We don’t realize that not only is the spiritual greater than the kopos, but the spirit will take care of the kopos. God will not leave us in our weariness. He will not abandon us to despair. Nor will he abandon those we seek to serve. And if we will only turn ourselves towards him, and direct others to do so as well, we will find more than enough compassion to go around.
For Prayer & Reflection
Take some time to respond to God about the passage and primer you just read. Read through John 3 again, and let these questions help guide your prayer time.
- Think about the difference it made to the Samaritan woman that Jesus showed up in that moment, despite his weariness. Who usually needs you to show up, even in your weariness?
- How often do you embrace your weakness and ask for God’s living water to revive you? How can you make space to do it more often?
- In what areas of your life do you need to “lift up your eyes” to see the ways that God is moving? At work? At home? In your neighborhood?