When we were young and foolish, my now-husband and I (along with another friend) spent a weekend hitchhiking through northern Israel. We were spending a semester abroad there and made up our minds to see more of the Galilee and Golan Heights than our class field trips would allow. It was one year before the second intifada and two years before 9/11. Looking back, I know we were privy to a peaceful season, a thin sliver of the young country’s history when things were exceptionally calm.
So many people picked us up and gave us rides in our weekend trip. One was a dairy farmer from a nearby moshav who knew my hometown of 4000 people (and many more cows) because he had visited it to improve their own dairy methods. Another was a thoughtful, articulate guy with red hair and a nice car who talked to us about the plausibility of a peace deal.
The most memorable ride wasn’t really a ride at all. A small truck filled with Russian-speaking men passed us several times as we were making our way to a nature reserve. The last time they passed, we watched in wonder as they stopped at the top of a hill and backed slowly down to where we were standing. The men piled out–the oldest couldn’t have been more than 25–and opened the back of the truck to show us huge bunches of bananas. With hand gestures and broken Hebrew, they let us know they couldn’t give us a ride but didn’t want to be unhelpful. Then they pushed bananas into our hands, took a picture with us, climbed back into the truck, and drove off.
In her book, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, Barbara Brown Taylor talks about strangers outside of the faith in Scripture who unexpectedly show up to God’s people and bestow blessings and wisdom. Jethro, Bithia, and Melchizedek are notable in the Hebrew Bible, while the Magi take centre stage in the New Testament. In each case, the strangers arrive, speak, intercede, or give gifts, and return to their home countries and home religions. As Taylor writes, “I do not know what they are called in Christianity, but Jesus receives them more than once, whether they come from Samaria, Syrophoenicia, Canaan, or Rome… For reasons that will never be entirely clear, God sometimes sends people from outside a faith community to bless those inside of it. It does not seem to matter if the main characters understand God in the same way or call God by the same name. The divine blessing is effective, and the story goes on.” (Taylor, 109)
As an adult, I’ve encountered those who fit this bill several times. They’ve borne little resemblance to each other: a friend-of-a-friend who came to visit and encourage me while my infant son was in hospital; a homeless man who helped take down a robber while I comforted the woman he had robbed and called the police. Still, the most memorable of all encounters came at the end of that hitchhiking trip many years ago.
We had caught our last ride to Tiberius, where we planned to take the last bus to Jerusalem and our school. But we arrived too late, and the bus had already departed. We tried hitchhiking for a bit, with no success and were debating sleeping on a thin strip of grass near a gas station when a young woman approached me. She had to walk home to her kibbutz and, since it was dark, was worried about doing so alone. She asked if the three of us would accompany her, which we did. And on the way, she offered her backyard for us to sleep.
When we got to the kibbutz, the young woman, Iris, emptied her fridge for us: cheese, vegetables, juice, crackers. We ate, thankfully, while she went to the neighbour’s yard to get a few pomelos, and when she came back, she peeled and served them while telling us about her family and life on the kibbutz.
We spent a safe, grateful night sleeping on the soft grass outside and woke early the next morning. We packed up, thanked Iris for her hospitality, and caught our 21st ride of the weekend from another kibbutznik to the stop where we caught our bus back to Jerusalem.
I learned more about something my own faith emphasizes–hospitality–in those various encounters with strangers than I ever learned reading about in the Bible. The writer of the book of Hebrews exhorts followers of Jesus, saying, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”
I am not an angel, but I certainly have been blessed by those who are ready to entertain them. They didn’t share my faith, but they showed me better how to live it. They were gracious without agenda; caring without conditions. And that’s how I want to live, too.
Kadee Wirick Smedley is a lifelong storyteller and ordained minister in the Church of the Nazarene. She currently serves as a chaplain for at-risk and homeless youth. Kadee lives with her family in Vancouver, BC.