The woman at the well (John 4) drank muddy water.
In our sanitised world of piped and purified water we forget that the social and personal snubs delivered to this woman who chooses to fetch water at the height of heat after the animals have drunk.
The water would have been unsettled. The task would have been gritty. The results too. Mud.
Recently, I’ve been to places in my own life and ministry where I have felt I was scraping the bottom of the well. I’ve been tired, stressed and completely underestimated how a simple change of leadership in a parish can cause so much disruption in peoples lives.
My well has been muddied. Trying to get any refreshment has been a hard task. The water I bring up is not potable. I was called to task this week by two brave young people who asked why I seemed to have lost the plot.
My well had become muddy.
I look forward to a break. In South Africa, we’ve come to our summer shut-down and the death of our beloved President Mandela has caused the country to shut down a few days earlier. I have closed the parish office from next week with the comment that unless you’re dead, dying or have a death-wish, don’t come. It’s an exaggeration, of course, but the switch of modes to go-slow and informal is desperately needed – for all of us, so that our waters may settle once again and allow what is drawn up to be clear and refreshing.
We’re at the beginning of a global outpouring of sentiment about Nelson Mandela. Some beautiful, some hysterical and some negative.
I just add a simple recollection of Mandela on one of the occasions I met him.
I was 22 or 23 years old and working for Exclusive Books. We’d been asked to assist with the South African launch of ‘The Long Walk to Freedom’ It was a December launch and there was a nervous tension in the air.
We arrived at the venue early, suitably attired (working for a bookshop it meant upgrading from jeans and hand-washed t-shirts) and set about our work. I was then asked to go to the dining room in Douw Steyn’s house so that we could assist with the signed copies of the book. I don’t think much of the request until Ed, a colleague pointed to mounds of books still in their printers wrappers and instructed that they needed to be opened.
In walked the man. Not smiling. All Business.
I must have looked a right chop. Penknife in hand (I don’t remember being security vetted) next to the legend and hero.
He greeted us and sat down to work. Signing. Lots of books. We were alone with him. Cutting, passing, opening, waiting for the ink to dry, closing, stacking. process.
So it went. I kept on opening the books on the wrong page. After a while I got the stern voice. ‘This is the correct page. open it here for me please’. Wow. The Man corrected me.
And so it would go for the hours we were privileged to spend with him. No speaking – this was work and beside, what do you say?
After a while news came that one of his grandchildren was ill. Immediately, Zelda la Grange was summoned. In the middle of the signing, he got up to go and buy sweets for the child and visit. No mean feat with security and one of the most important society events happening in a few hours.
He left. We waited.
The child was more important than the book.
When he returned and I witnessed this Granite Grace once again. Zelda returned with him. and security. and we started the process up again. And all the way through, with a granite grace, he pointed out how he didn’t like to be messed about with time. He told a story of how in Tokyo when he was told to be ready at 7pm it meant 7pm. Not 7.01pm… and how he appreciated that. She and the team were in tears. Point taken. not a raised voice. Granite.
Later that evening I was asked to take his pen and glasses to the room in which he was staying. He wasn’t there, but everything was arranged in a precision I could only dream about in my own office and life. Glasses case perpendicular to the blotter. Pens in size order parallel. Slippers at right angles to the bed. Military. or Prison.
I met Madiba on two other occasions. Not to speak to him again. Once was the Gosforth Park event with Bl. Pope John Paul II. And on both occasions, I felt I got the vague hint of a smile of recognition.
I have one of those signed books, with the Macdonald Purnell Publishers imprint. it wasn’t done again in that imprint – it was the first sold out South African Edition. It is in pristine condition. It has become immensely more valuable today. But I wouldn’t part with it for anything. I was there when I witnessed granite grace sign his book for me.
Nearly nine month into a new parish assignment and the honeymoon is over. Probably five months ago. But now the gloves are off and the knives are out.
Transitions are never easy. For parishes or for people. And also not for priests. That’s the part that I think people forget.
I’m not into pity parties. I’m not seeking attention or sympathy. But give us a break. Please. I’m not appointed by a church council or to make you feel better. I’m appointed by the Bishop. For you. His care comes in me…
So give us some space.
But you are fast out of the blocks proving the adage that the best parish priest is always the previous one. You scandal and gossip and organize on false premise.
And when you are proven wrong… The flight begins. Really. You leave then spend your time complaining in your new parish about me.
You keep treating your priest (yes. Yours. Not to possess. But yours because I’m here for you. Your parish. Your parish priest) as if he’s never done this before. Never dealt with finances and staff. Never dealt with databases. Never dealt with statutory and canonical requirements. But in reality, All he’s not dealt with is you.
Or maybe that’s what you think.
Fifth parish. Fifth you.
Get over yourself.
Here’s my suggestion. Just be honest . But. First with yourself.