Allow me to share a true story, one that dramatically changed how I think about the shared meal. I was at a conference in Seattle in June, about a year after starting to research the Christian practice of the shared meal. On this particular night a colleague and I headed down to the wharf to get some fish and fries. While getting on line at the outdoor fish stand, we were approached by a homeless woman for money for feminine products. A colleague replied,
But, I was intrigued by the woman’s request because it had never once occurred to me how a homeless woman would manage such a monthly (and expensive) need. This woman was relatively young, maybe in her early thirties. One of her front teeth was chipped, and her skin showed obvious signs of vitamin deficiency, likely related to alcohol abuse. Not wanting to give her money for alcohol, I instead said,
“Well, let’s go to the drugstore and I will buy you what you need.”
The woman immediately argued that it was thirteen blocks to the nearest drugstore, and she’d just take the money. So I looked her right in the eyes and said,
“No, I am sorry. I can’t give you any money.”
She swore at me and walked away, and I found myself asking to her back,
“Wait a minute! Are you hungry?”
The woman stopped in her tracks, turned back toward me with a question on her face (my colleague did too), and I said,
“I am getting some fish and fries for supper. Do you want some supper?”
She eyed me with a suspicious hope and I managed to hold her gaze. Wrinkling up her forehead she said,
“Well, can I have a Coke too?”
I replied, “Sure. You can have fish and fries and a Coke, same as I am having.”
She came toward me then, and touched my arm with her filthy, scaly hands, and I all but recoiled from this physical contact that violated my “personal space”. She quizzed me again,
“Can I have the biggest Coke they got?”
“Sure, the biggest Coke you can get”, I said.
By now we were next in line. I told her to go ahead and order, while informing the vendor that her order was on me. With great flourish and glee the woman ordered fish and fries and “the biggest Coke you got,” while ferociously tearing at the napkin dispenser to stuff napkins in her pocket. As I stepped up to make my order and pay, she turned to me, put her reeking arm around my shoulder and said,
“Lady, you made my day. You made my whole month. Thank you.”
And she skipped down the line to fill her Coke cup. Her order came up, and she snatched at the sack of food wondering aloud if she could get some ketchup. I motioned to the tables overlooking the harbor where ketchup bottles stood ready for the diners, but she said,
“No, no, no. I need them little packets of ketchup. Lots of ‘em.”
So the vendor gave her a fistful of ketchup packs while I filled my drink, looking around for my colleague amongst the tables, and, I admit, consciously hoping this woman would be on her way. And that’s what happened- she bounded off with her food and drink and napkins and ketchup. My colleague commented that I was an easy target while I sat down congratulating myself that the situation had turned out so well. I went to bed that night content that God had placed a need in front of me and I had responded with kindness and generosity- I had loved my “neighbor” in an uncomfortable situation.
I was awakened by a voice around 2:00 a.m. I remember sitting up in the bed, frightened that someone had broken into the room. I confirmed that I was awake, not dreaming and then felt a shadow at the end of the bed. There was Someone in my room; Jesus was here, and I had nowhere to hide. But very gently, he repeated the question with which he’d awakened me,
“What was her name?”
“What? Whose name?”
And the Lord distinctly and forthrightly said,
“What was the name of the woman at the fish stand?”
Then he was gone. And my heart welled up with an overwhelming wretchedness. I had bought a hungry woman some food. But, even after more than a year of study on the Christian practice of the shared meal, I had failed to dignify the woman’s existence by asking her name, and inviting her to sit with me for supper. I had not once thought to pray with her or for her, to introduce her to the Jesus I know and love. I had helped a hungry person by sharing some money. But I had not shared a meal or had any serious conversation about God and his love with this distressed woman whose hunger was deep. That night I learned that while hunger comes in all shapes and sizes, and that non-judgmental love for the stranger is itself a hard and strange calling, we are called nonetheless to attend to the needs of those Jesus places in our path, even when it means sharing an evening meal at close quarters around a table with someone who suffers from addiction and needs a bath almost as badly as she needs Christ. I gave her a meal, but I neglected to tell her about the coming Feast.
I tell you this story because we all need to think about why our participation in Christian practices like the shared meal may take much practice. It is precisely through these shared practices Christians can “more fully…understand their shared life of response to God’s active presence in Christ and to embody God’s grace and love to others amid the complexities of contemporary life” and how they can help us think “about how a way of life that is deeply responsive to God’s grace takes actual shape among human beings.” What is even more important, the Seattle story unveils a truth about who is welcome at God’s Table. “Jesus intentionally ate with those at the margins…as an act of compassion but also of empowerment.”
Shared meals afford us all these things: helping us understand our shared lives together, responding to God’s presence, embodying his grace, and recognizing and empowering the marginalized. Thus, the shared meal constitutes a critically important practice we should not ignore, because they provide a regular opportunity for becoming “deeply responsive” to God’s provision, nourishment, and grace. If you have been hungering for a change in the way you live your life, start at the table. Invite. Prepare. Provide. Sit. Eat. Relax. Converse. Listen. Invest in the other lives at the table. Pray together. Read Scripture. Forgive. Reconcile. Be forgiven. Laugh. Cry. Share. Live. And, God himself will be amongst you to confirm its rightness. It is time to clear your table of mail and projects and get started. And, the best place to start is with Jesus himself, and the meals he shared.
 I say “personal space” because it is a cultural norm in North America to be physically “distant” from strangers, giving us the “power” to decide who is invited into that space. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day weren’t any different-they kept the “unclean” away and criticized Jesus for doing the opposite. I admit to being a little germ-conscious, so hugs, and touching, and handshaking have always made me uncomfortable. You can ask my friend Joy, the hugger. After five years I can now hug her back with enthusiasm. These things take practice!
 Dorothy C. Bass, “Introduction,” in Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, ed. Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002), p. 7.
 Craig Dykstra and Dorothy C. Bass, “A Theological Understanding of Christian Practices,” in Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, ed. Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002), p. 15.
Smith, G.T., A Holy Meal: The Lord’s Supper in the Life of the Church, p. 77.