Come and See

PrisonFriday, January 13, 2017

John 1:29-42

A lawyer friend of mine says that when she’s trying to get someone to come along with her on an issue of justice for others, she does not point to a higher moral calling, she does not bank on another’s virtue, she does not try to sway with sympathy—she appeals to their self-interest.

“What’s in it for me?”

And in our lesson this week, as John the Baptist points out Jesus to his disciples, as Jesus turns and invites a couple of them to “come and see,” as Andrew found his brother Simon and brought him along, this question is there. It’s on their hearts, even if it is not on their lips.

What’s in it for me to follow you instead of going home for dinner?
What’s in it for me to follow without you telling me where or why or when it will end?
What’s in it for me to follow you, Jesus, who haven’t proved yourself yet, in any way?

As a pastor, it seems like my entire job description is to get people to go places and do things that they might not have otherwise planned. I have learned from experience that the self-interest angle is often quite useful, for “because Jesus said so” only gets you so far. But it’s not always possible to figure out how to speak to self-interest in every case.

So here we were on Thursday night, standing outside of the Iowa Correctional Facility for Women. We were about to attend a worship service at Women at the Well, a congregation made up entirely of inmates. Since I had never been in a prison before, I had no answer for “what’s in it for me?” Instead, a number of our group might tell you they ended up there because of the patented Pastor Sarah Ask—“I’m going, will you come with me?”

“Come and See.” Curiosity was enough to get us in the door.

But now that we’ve been, we do have some answers to “what’s in it for me?”

As we sat down next to the women, we were instructed not to ask about their crimes or sentences, not to get too personal. However, many offered without prompt. Our imaginations were captured with thoughts of the family who came to visit or didn’t, the hurt left behind back home, what it was like to have a release date far off on the horizon or never.

We left that night with their stories on our minds.

As we worshipped, the service was very much like our usual Sunday experience. And yet, everything sounded and felt so different on the inside. The hymns had a different tenor, the scripture a different gravity, the communion more present, the prayers more immediate, the confession and reconciliation of greater importance.

We received a fresh experience of something so familiar.

As we looked around the room we saw that, aside from the clothing and name tags, the people really didn’t look any different than we’d encounter on the outside. As we visited with the pastor and volunteers following the service, we learned about some of the circumstances beyond their own control that contributed to their present situation—abuse, learning disabilities, mental health issues.

We walked away with awareness that it was little more than accidents of fate and a wall separating us.

And when it was time to leave, a volunteer handed us a small but thick stack of papers. In different handwriting: names, worries, hopes, thanksgiving.

We headed out into the cold night carrying the prayers of others in our pockets.

Pastor Sarah