Barely more than two years ago, I sat at my kitchen table and typed a long letter to a stranger whose faith I admired from a distance. “I’m about to face Christmas without Jesus,” I wrote, “and I’m not okay with that.”
Today, I write not from the comfort of my home, but from one of the commonest of places: the Laundromat. No Christmas tree here. Our washing machine transmission failed last week. I didn’t know they had transmissions, but ours did—and the cost to replace it equaled the cost of purchasing a new machine. I called my mom for advice on brands—we have used the machines that the previous owners of our home sold to us for pocket change, so I’ve never actually bought one. Instead of advising me about the best quality I could get within our means, she and my dad insisted that they buy us the machine they have—the one I’ve been coveting for a year. It wasn’t in stock until later this week, and I hate being behind on laundry. With three little girls under five years old (I’m keeping my almost-2-year-old niece for the week), the hampers fill quickly. So I find myself here.
The environment is actually quite familiar to me in a painful way. We had to evacuate our home rapidly once when I was a young teen to escape the greatest danger of my childhood—my father. I don’t remember the specific reasons that we didn’t have access to a washer or dryer—it was likely that we couldn’t afford one, or perhaps my mom hoped for a return home that was in the not-too-distant future. Whatever the reason, we spent many hours at the Laundromat. It may have only been for a few weeks, although it feels like it was months. However long it was, our return home didn’t happen until my dad was released from prison years later. I remember my mom praying over the coins in our Folgers coffee tin—that they would be enough to wash and dry everything we brought. I think they always were, except for a few times when the bed linens ended up on a clothesline in the back yard of the home we were renting from friends for less than half the price they could have asked for it.
I hated the Laundromat. I was thankful for clean clothes, but getting them was uncomfortable. Our particular location (in the “bad” part of town) reeked of cigarette smoke. Rowdy children chased each other through the maze of machines. Babies cried for milk or a nap and were ignored while their moms folded clothes. I remembered wanting to take them all home, as if my broken family could offer them something better. Laundromats seem to so often be full of people with broken lives, not just broken washing machines.
Tonight in this Laundromat, I’m still broken—just in a different way. I still long for Jesus the way I did fifteen years ago when I guarded precious prayed-over coins. What would it look like if he showed up in a place like this? If the John 4 story of the Samaritan woman at the well were to be set in modern times, I think it might take place at a Laundromat. What breaks my heart the most this Christmas is that I can only consider such things in a hypothetical way. Why is the modern version of the gospels only in my imagination? Where is Immanuel? His very name is “God with us,” and I can’t find him. I can only conclude that the historical version was also a product of imagination. Two years after my desperate letter, I’m yet again about to face Christmas without Jesus. And I’m still not okay with that.
I want him to be with me in my doubt the way he was with Thomas. I want him to be with me in my worry and busy-ness the way he was with Martha. I want him to be with me in my impetuousness the way he was with Peter. Was he ever with mankind at all? Why did he leave? Even if I trust that his physical absence is for his glory and our good, where is the spirit that he promised us? Many of you can tell me of personal experiences to answer my last question. Why can’t I?
I want an Immanuel who is the ever-present father to the fatherless. I want an Immanuel whose tears mingle with ours when children are massacred. I want an Immanuel who meets me at a well, even though he knows who I am—one who sees all my dirty laundry and loves me anyway. I want an Immanuel who offers the satisfaction to my thirst and the permanent fix to every part of me that is broken.
I often find myself wanting to wrap my words up in a song. The one that I identify closely with tonight is “Where Are You, Christmas?” by Faith Hill—the first half. Ever since I learned “the truth” about Santa Claus at a very young age, the magic of Christmas for me has been the miracle of the Incarnation. God with us. If I can’t find Immanuel, I can’t find Christmas. He hasn’t given us a multitude of angels. He hasn’t given us a star. With my weakness and lack of resources, the only thing I can do now is ask that he find me, the way he found a Samaritan woman at a well. He knew everything about her; she didn’t even recognize him.
I wrote the above two nights ago from the Laundromat, and then got up to move my clothes to the dryer. The post was not yet finished, and my plan was to continue writing during the hour that my clothes were drying. That didn’t happen—it’s now two days later, and I’m writing from home. Why the delay?
I returned to my seat after my clothes were drying, and a man approached me. He had been trying to make small talk every time we were together at machines, and I had been short and vague in my replies in an attempt to get home from the Laundromat alive. Now he said this: “I don’t want to sound like a creep or anything, and my clothes are done—but I can’t leave a pretty girl alone here like this. I’d feel terrible if I found out something happened.” We made polite introductions, and then I tried to dissuade him—he could easily be the man he is saying he wants to protect me from, and in my mind my chances of surviving the night would be greater if he would leave me alone. His use of flattery was a red flag—a “pretty girl” in yoga pants, a sweater that could fit someone twice my size, no makeup, and hair that hasn’t been washed
in over 72 hours recently. A “beautiful name” that 33% of my high school advanced calculus class shared with me. Did he have an agenda? Despite my resistance to him staying for an additional hour for my protection, he did stay. He had initially said he would sit down in the back just to keep an eye on me, but he actually sat down right across from me. I thought for sure that the raised computer screen would at least tell him to keep silent, but he spoke. “What brings a girl like you to the Laundromat?” he asked, as if I were not wearing yoga pants and an oversized sweater with no makeup and hair that hadn’t been washed in over 72 hours recently. “Broken washing machine,” I replied without elaborating. “Sucks,” he offered. I nodded. He continued, “I’m in the middle of a divorce. She took the machines.” I felt bad for him and decided that his vulnerability deserved at least one word. “Sorry,” I managed, finally making eye contact. He shrugged. “It happens.”
He kept talking, and I let my guard down slowly. It wasn’t long before I knew his exact address (which just so happens to be on my street, although I wasn’t about to tell him that), exactly where he works, his kids’ names, and that three of his best friends have died in the past year. When he finally said something about his church, it surprised me. I didn’t picture him as a church-goer at all, and I’m usually good at that. I asked him where he attended—my first full sentence in what had been a largely one-sided conversation. “First United Methodist,” he said, and added “What about you?” “First Baptist,” I answered honestly, kicking myself in the brain for giving out personal information to a Laundromat
killer stranger. “I knew there was something about you,” he said. “That’s the reason I was supposed to stay and talk to you. We have something in common.” Uh-oh. I didn’t realize what look was on my face until I saw his non-verbal response to it. I had to explain. “I guess that used to be true,” I said to raised eyebrows. “I’m just not so sure any more what I believe.” I went from giving out personal information to baring my soul. This guy was bold, and I dreaded the conversation that I was anticipating. It didn’t happen. “Okay,” he replied simply. “So that’s the real reason I was supposed to stay and talk to you. I now know that I need to pray for you.” “Thanks, I guess…” I said awkwardly, with the words sounding more like a question than an expression of gratitude. He just smiled. The machine that had been tumbling my clothes stopped running, and I was relieved for an excuse to end the conversation. I dropped my clothes into a basket, and he walked me to my car. “Thanks for staying with me. Unless you’re about to shove me into your trunk or something,” I laughed nervously. “You’re welcome,” he replied, “and I’m not going to kidnap you. I will be praying for you. He won’t leave you.”
He won’t leave you.
With that, we got in our cars. I took a convoluted route home so I could be sure I wasn’t followed. By the time I folded the laundry and relayed the encounter to my husband (who says that I am never again going to a Laundromat alone at night), it was too late to write any more. Besides that, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say. I guess I’m still not sure. The rational side of me says that conversations like these happen in Laundromats where broken people gather. That a high percentage of people in my region would mention attending church and respond with an offer of prayer and reassurance when I share my doubt. The emotional side of me that deeply desires to have faith tells me that this conversation was an immediate answer to the first part of this post. It reminds me that I asked for God to be with me and says he showed me that he is. It insists that he found me in a Laundromat after I asked him to find me the way he found a Samaritan woman at a well—that he spoke through a stranger and said “I won’t leave you.” That side of me recalls that Jesus revealed that he knew everything about that Samaritan woman, and she still didn’t recognize him until he said “I who speak to you am he.” Have there been times that he’s been with me when I have failed to recognize him? Could I be missing Immanuel?
It has been enough to occupy my thoughts for the past couple of days. The Laundromat stranger’s words were common and not unexpected for the situation—don’t worry, atheist readers; my head is still screwed on. But my heart so intensely longs for those words to mean more—especially in December when I’m looking for Christmas and dealing with a lingering child-like belief in miracles.
O come, O come, Immanuel.
[Image by Carl Heinrich Bloch (http://masterpieceart.net/carl-heinrich-bloch/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons