Forty years ago this fall, I rolled into Walla Walla as a new faculty member. That’s a marker worth celebrating. The only people I really knew then were Dale and Wilma Hepker, but when I arrived on campus with all my worldly goods stashed in a moving van, I was full of hope that I would find a home here, a community I could be a part of. Helen Evans Zolber had explained something of the challenge. “There is really not a lot to do around here,” she said, “so we have to entertain each other.”
Particular expressions of hospitality change from year to year. In those early years, I remember home night parties, bringing together miscellaneous groups of people who might not otherwise connect to enjoy an evening of good food, games, and conversation. Now, each fall, the University Church dramatizes hospitality in the Longest Table, where everyone can come and eat together. A few weeks ago, 180 tables filled Fourth St. for a quarter of a mile, turning the street by the church into a magnificent dining room. About 1,800 people, students, church members, community members, whoever wanted to come, all gathered around these tables. “And the Spirit and the Bride say come.” Here, in the Longest Table, the Spirit and the Church conspire in an earthly representation of the infinitely long table to which God invites the human race.
It is clear from the many banquet and feasting parables Jesus told that he valued hospitality as an important part of his life. At various times, Jesus assumes the role of host and of guest, and sometimes mixes them up. I particularly like the times when he turns the etiquette of hospitality on its head as he did when he invited himself to the house of Zacchaeus and turns his outcast host into a part of the gospel story. And it seems that his idea of a good time was somewhat disturbing to the religious leaders who condemned him for eating and drinking with publicans and sinners.
John begins his gospel with a story of Jesus’ own hospitality. Jesus the host in action. Two disciples of John see Jesus walking along the street, minding his own business, and curious, they trail him, discreetly, they think, but they are unwittingly giving new meaning to the term, “followers of Christ.” Jesus turns around and sees them. “What do you want?” he asks. How embarrassing. What can they say? Something profound would be nice; unfortunately, profundities don’t always leap to mind when needed.
But it is a profound question. It goes beyond the immediate issue of “why are you following me?” to the heart of who they are. What are you looking for? What do you need? What are you lacking in your life? That is the hardest thing in the world to know. What these disciples want most is to see more of Jesus. “Where are you staying?” they ask, a rather awkward question to ask a stranger who has caught you following him. That question could have been answered with a house number, but Jesus sees the deeper nature of the question and responds, “Come and see.”
I would like to hear him say that — to hear his tone of voice, to see his body language. How did he make the invitation inviting? He must have overcome the disciples’ embarrassment and put them at ease. He sees through the surface meaning of the question to its deeper meaning and speaks to their hearts. “Who are you really? And to respond to their question, he shows them who he really is. Our homes provide the setting for our lives, the place where we are our most private and truest selves, the place where we invite others to share our lives with us. When something “hits home” or “hits us where we live,” it touches our deepest selves. Jesus was inviting these two budding disciples to come and see him as he is, to experience him as he is. We don’t talk about hospitality; we experience it. Not, “come and I will explain it to you.” Not “come and learn,” but “come and see, come and experience me for yourselves.” “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good.” And they came, and saw, and stayed the whole day.
Clearly, Jesus is not carrying a day-planner. He is certainly on his way somewhere when the disciples spot him, on an errand of some kind, but all that is forgotten. He does a complete about face just to see them. Whatever business was on his mind is now forgotten. Now his business is the two inquiring disciples. They aren’t interrupting his work; they are his work. Come home with me, now, and spend the day. The Messiah doesn’t have another thing to do.
I wonder what Jesus and the two disciples talked about that day. I imagine Jesus was a good host. He clearly appreciates a good table. Remember this is the man who will prepare dinner for 5,000. I imagine that the conversation hit home with the pointedness of Jesus’ original question. The good host, in asking his guest what they want, is issuing an invitation to acknowledge their needs so he can meet their needs, no place for polite reticence, no social pretense. Jesus can see right through that. Wherever the conversation went, it went directly to the hearts of the two disciples, and of Jesus, too. If they talked about the expected Messiah, Jesus must have talked about the work set before him. Imagine the reaction of the two disciples as they come to realize that the Messiah they had heard about all their lives is not an abstract concept but the man sitting and talking with them. Their whole understanding changes. They approached him as Rabbi, teacher, someone who could explain deep matters of theology to them. But they found a Messiah, someone who could change them into the image of God. And it transforms them. The disciples leave the house as apostles, telling others, “We have found the Messiah.”
If the image of hospitality suffers with pictures of tea parties with just the right people making just the right impression, wearing just the right clothes and eating just the right foods and saying just the right things, confined to bland small talk, lest anyone be disturbed, the example of Jesus turns all that on its head.
Hospitality is a way of being in the world. It happens in our homes and at our tables. It happens in restaurants, at the Express, and at Rogers’ Bakery. It happens in our offices and classrooms, and whenever we meet another on the sidewalk. Hospitality provides a safe place where others can be at home, a place where it is safe to be yourself, say what you think, ask the questions you have, and engage in the respectful exchange of differing views. Jesus invited the stranger into his home and made them disciples. As followers of Jesus, we welcome the stranger and make them friends. Henri Nouwen describes the process well. Hospitality creates the space and carves out the time and affords the freedom for the stranger to be his own authentic self and to become a friend. It does not allow for creating people in our own image. Thoreau said, “I would not have anyone adopt my mode of living on any account . . . . I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible.” We are to listen to the other with the humility that knows others have something to give us, and we have much to learn by hearing their stories. Hospitality supports community where we can be at peace with ourselves, with others, and with God. Though hospitality can be offered by institutions, it is most often experienced by one person being heard and understood by another. It is something we can carry with us wherever we go.
The best party in town is the one you are at, with whoever happens to be with you, at any given time. It is God who has called you and put you there.
Mark 2:16; Matthew 11:19
Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (New York: Doubleday, 1975), pp. 46-78.
Walden, p. 65. Cited by Nouwen, p. 51.
Beverly Beem has just retired from the English department at Walla Walla University in College Place, Washington. A version of this article was presented at the Walla Walla University Faculty and Staff Assembly, September 15, 2016.
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