Caught in the mess, caught in the mercy

An invitation to the Table

by Nancy Hastings Sehested

It was field day on the prison yard. A couple hundred inmates were competing in basketball and volleyball games and relay races. The cooler of fruit punch ran out, but they had a water fountain on the side of the building. But Montel was in a wheelchair and couldn’t reach the fountain. He wheeled over to the staff tent and asked for a cup of water from the staff cooler. Several staff said no. Then he turned to me, the chaplain, and asked for water. I said no.

I couldn’t sleep that night. Why didn’t I give a man a cup of water? Jesus said something specific about that, and if anyone gives a cup of cold water. . . .

First thing the next morning, I went to his housing unit to see him.

I wanted to cover my shame with an apology. I wanted him to know I was a good person and not like the others. I waited. An officer said it took awhile for Montel to get ready each morning.

Twenty minutes later he came out. “Montel, I came to apologize to you,” I blurted. “I’m really sorry that I didn’t give you water yesterday out on the yard.”

“What?” he said. “You came down here at 8 o’clock to tell me that? Chap, this ain’t about you. This whole damn mess ain’t about you.” With those words, Montel turned his wheelchair around and went back to his cell.

I stood on the concrete floor unable to move my legs. My mind raced. I’d wanted absolution. Instead I got the whole damnable truth. It’s not about me.

And yet it is about me and about you and about Montel and how we are all caught in the whole damnable mess. James Baldwin said, “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”

Caught. Both Pharisee and tax-collector stood alone. Both in their own way sought some public parcel of ground to stand on to justify some measure of goodness.

Jesus’ disciples gathered with him around a table in a time when they were caught in fear and confusion, uncertain about where they stood. Jesus offered these words:

This is my body broken for you. Take and eat.

This is my cup poured out for you. Take and drink.

This is the table for the caught. Caught in the mess. Caught in the mercy. Come, the table is set for us all.

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