The impact of a brief encounter



My father-in-law died a few weeks ago. He had been suffering for a while and was at peace with moving out of this limited life and into the freedom of heaven. I miss him, but I’m happy for him. The weeks before he died were stressful, however, as those of us who loved him struggled to care for him in the midst of his suffering. During those difficult weeks, I had some brief encounters with people I may never meet again, which had a powerful impact on me.

One of those encounters occurred when my husband and I accompanied my father-in-law to a medical appointment. He was so ill that afternoon that by the time we arrived at the clinic, I was extremely anxious about his condition and desperately wishing we were back home where he could lie down. Although I don’t remember her name, I will never forget the face or the voice of the nurse who came to take us back to the exam room. She summed up my father-in-law’s condition in one compassionate glance and immediately set about making him as comfortable as possible. She pared down the usual lengthy office visit routine to the bare essentials, held his hand when asking him questions, brought a cool cloth for his forehead, put a pillow behind his neck and got change out of her purse to buy him a sprite from the vending machine down the hall. In and of themselves, these were very small gestures from the nurse, but they seemed to come from an endless well of compassion. Our encounter lasted no more than 15 minutes, but in that short time, I felt like I had encountered Christ.

Another encounter occurred when I was required to go through after-hours security at a hospital. It was the end of a long day and I was tired, hungry, anxious and in a hurry. As I went through the metal detector, the alarm sounded. The security guard gruffly ordered me to step aside, which I did. I tried to explain that I had a metal rod implanted in my lower leg, but he tersely cut off my explanation, saying that the detector indicated metal above my waist. In a loud, brusque voice, he informed me that he would have to “get to the bottom of this situation.” After a couple of uncomfortable minutes, he ascertained that the metal on my bra strap had set off the detector and allowed me to proceed into the hospital. Our encounter lasted no more than three or four minutes, and any other time I may have laughed it off, but coming as it did after such a sad and difficult day, it left me angry and upset.

In the first brief encounter with a stranger above, the compassion emanating from the nurse brightened a very dark day. In her presence, I felt the love of Jesus. In the second encounter, the aggressive authority emanating from the security guard made an already dark day uglier. In his presence, I felt small, insignificant and alone.

Did you ever notice how many powerful brief encounters there are in the Gospels? It seems like in the Old Testament, powerful events happen on a long, slow trajectory – the Israelites wander in the desert for 40 years before arriving in the Promised Land, and Kings David and Solomon are both said to have reigned for 40 years. But if the Old Testament is a testament to change happening over time, the New Testament is a testament to the power of the brief encounter. The entire public ministry of Jesus lasts just three years. And during those three years, most of the powerful encounters Jesus has with people are very brief, often lasting only minutes. But in those minutes, the Word is made flesh, the love of God is made visible, and lives are changed.

During these last difficult weeks, I have been made aware of some very important things. I have been reminded that what may be an ordinary sunny day for me could well be a dark and painful day for someone I encounter. I have been reminded that compassion is sometimes more important than efficiency and one-thousand times more powerful. And I have learned that my brief encounter with a stranger could be their encounter with Christ.