Last week I was mowing my yard after getting home from the church. I had decided to bag the clippings from my yard to use, partly, in our compost bin, and the rest I intended to take to the tree dump. This, of course, was a bit of extra work, and required some extra energy as well.
I mowed in the backyard and side yards first. I then moved to the front yard. Stopping every time the bagger on my push mower felt full. I went from the mower to the compost bin and back. Then from the mower to the bed of my truck and back. Walking what seemed like twice as much as when I mow without the bagger.
It was a warmer evening--sunny--but nothing the summer-loving human that I am couldn't handle. However, I must have appeared hot and red-faced enough for others to notice because just as I was finishing the front yard and preparing to move to the last side of the house--without warning--an icy bottle of water appeared in front of me. I was startled enough by this sudden appearance that I stopped the mower. I looked up from under the brim of my floppy yard work hat only to find that attached to the bottle of water was the hand of my neighbor--a young adult with whom I hadn't exchanged much conversation in the time that we have lived here.
I asked her, "What's this?" She said, "Here's some cold water for you." I replied, "You didn't have to do that." She looked at me and said, "It's really hot out here." I said thank you, and that was it. My neighbor turned and headed back toward her house.
I'm not sure how she felt after that brief, not-so-graceful-on-my-part exchange, but I was floored. I drank two-thirds of that bottle down immediately and finished the rest when I was done mowing. It was just what I needed when I needed it without me really knowing that I needed it. And it made all the difference (this is odd because I normally can't stomach super cold water) .
It was just a bottle of water. It wasn't a million dollars. It wasn't an offer to finish mowing my yard for me. Yet, I couldn't get it out of my mind. It was totally unexpected. It was completely unsolicited. It was truly a random act of kindness that I didn't really know what to do with. It was the Samaritan woman at the well story from John--only BETTER--because unlike Jesus, I didn't ask for the water. My neighbor just noticed me. Just saw a need. Tended to that need. And went on about her day. She ministered to me. To ME! And these days later her kindness and her attentiveness linger.
I wonder how many times we make ministry far more complicated than it needs to be? I wonder how often we get caught up in BIG plans and special events and fail to see the simple needs we can do something about right now? I wonder if, in focusing on the larger problems of our culture, and offering our commentary on those problems online or in casual conversation, we are missing our opportunities to minister to those in our immediate vicinity, and do the small thing we can do right here and now?
Edward Everett Hale once said, "I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do." We're only one person in a world of people filled with need. It was only one bottle of cold water in a world that is horribly thirsty. But to this thirsty person, that one bottle of cold water meant the world.
Learning to do what I can and not what I can't with you,
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen was called as the pastor of St. Paul Congregational UCC in June of 2020. Prior to her call to St. Paul, Pr. Melissa worked as a hospice chaplain in the Ames, IA area, following pastorates at rural churches in Central Iowa and Southern Illinois. Pr. Melissa is a second-career pastor with a background in agribusiness and production & supply operations. She received her M.Div. from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and holds a MA Ed. in Adult Education and Training, and a BA in Organizational Communications.