This summer in Luke’s gospel we’ve heard the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus makes it clear that to inherit eternal life; one must love the neighbor as much as we love ourselves. Across the diocese this question, “Who is my neighbor?” has been the subject of Bible studies, sermons and conversations at pub tables.

Out of our conversations at Christ Church, Ironton, the following account of the meaning of neighbor and the provision of mercy inspired and touched me.

A woman was recently retired after years of work as an oncology nurse at a large metropolitan hospital. She was looking forward to retirement and having time to do some special things she’d missed as a full-time caregiver. One of the things she wanted to do was to be more involved with a family Christmas custom. Each year, she and her husband placed a calendar and card in their neighbors’ mailboxes before the New Year. They knew most of the neighbors by face and maybe name, but hadn’t spent time with their neighbors since their children were small.

Being a neighbor takes time, and for me it requires reordering my priorities. A quick look at my day planner says I value my schedule over simply being available. My checkbook says I value creature comforts more than I value service to my neighbors.
With more time to commit to the family practice, this past Christmas, the woman hand-delivered the calendars to her neighbors’ doors. One particular man invited her in. “I’ve always wanted to get to know you,” he said. “My wife and I have appreciated your calendars over the years. We always thought we would call on you, but somehow the time slipped by.” The man went on to say that his wife had died several years before and he was always lonely during the Christmas season. He also explained that he was presently receiving radiation for his own cancer.

As an oncology nurse, the woman knew what he was facing. During Christmas week, she baked a custard pie and dropped it off. Her neighbor encouraged her to stay a bit and talk. They each shared stories about their marriage, children, and work.

The man recovered and soon was dropping off bouquets of flowers or cookies from the grocery. A friendship bloomed. When a week or so passed and the woman hadn’t seen or heard from her neighbor, she was concerned. A visit revealed that the man’s cancer had returned and he was depressed and frightened.

As his condition worsened, the woman did what the man’s children couldn’t do. She arrived each morning to feed and shower her neighbor. At night, she and her husband would help him into bed. One morning, the man said, “It’s time for Hospice, will you help me get enrolled? My children can’t bear to discuss it.”

Even with Hospice care, the woman went every day to spend time with her neighbor. She said she cared for him as she would have wanted her own father to be cared for. Confined to bed, the man finally needed complete care, so in between the hospice nurse’s visits, the woman bathed, fed and read to her neighbor. Within a few months, the man died, and his family asked the woman to be a reader at his funeral. She had become more than a neighbor, she was a friend.

As the woman told this story, tears glistened in her eyes. “I never imagined how hand-delivering our annual holiday calendar would result in a life-changing relationship for me and for my neighbor. I thought when I retired my nursing days would come to an end. Evidently God had other plans.”

As the woman patted her eyes dry, I knew I’d heard a sacred story, which might possibly have been the best illustration of what it means to love a stranger as much as one loves oneself. To love another as much as one would love their own parent seems to be the gold standard for Jesus’ commandment.

Most of us can’t nurse a hospice patient, but we do know how to peel potatoes for a casserole, or buy a box of cookies at the grocery store. We all know how to sit with another and listen, with no agenda other than the offer of presence.

Being a neighbor takes time, and for me it requires reordering my priorities. A quick look at my day planner says I value my schedule over simply being available. My checkbook says I value creature comforts more than I value service to my neighbors.

Listening to the woman’s story has inspired me to look for opportunities to connect with others, to be present, to remember that each encounter holds more possibilities for relationship than I could ever imagine. Every opportunity for relationship also holds the possibility for transformation – for me, for another, for our lives, our community, maybe even the world.

Jesus says the neighbor is the one who shows mercy. In the woman’s story, she extended her gift of care giving, which looked like mercy and exhibited love.

Schisler, Sallie_headshotThe Rev. Sallie Schisler serves as Priest-in-charge of Christ Church, Ironton.