It began as a regular Wednesday night Bible study. Then someone new knocked on the door.
At 7 p.m. Wednesday night, the usual suspects arrived for Jeremy and Cindy's Bible study.
The two newlyweds hosted their church's young-adult crowd every Wednesday night. Tonight as the guests arrived, it occurred to Jeremy again that the folks in their Bible study had a lot in common. He felt blessed to be a part of a group where everyone was raised in Christian families (they joked about their boring testimonies), honestly tried to do daily devotions, and even read Boundless now and then.
Oh, they had their little differences. Lindsey, a quiet, thoughtful girl who always came early, had just graduated from nursing school and worked in a local ER. Gordon was a "class clown" with a job in sales; he always had a joke ready. Alan and Emily, who were getting married in two months, usually held hands and talked about caterers and RSVPs. As for the hosts, Jeremy was in seminary while Cindy taught kindergarten.
But they were all good people, more alike than different. They were folks who served in the nursery, voted pro-life, and waited till marriage. They were exactly the kind of neighbors you'd want next door.
Until the Wednesday night when everything changed.
* * *
At 7:05, Jeremy called the meeting to order. "We're still reading through Luke," he announced, as Gordon tore open the bag of chips thoughtfully provided by Emily. There was a general chorus of groans — nobody was enjoying it so far; they'd known all the "Jesus stories" since Sunday School. "We're on chapter 5, but we can talk later about changing directions for next week," he assured them. "Anybody wanna read the chapter out loud?"
Gordon volunteered and plunged into the text. But in the middle of verse six, someone knocked.
That was strange. Jeremy and Cindy hadn't found time with school and church to make friends with their neighbors, so they could only exchange glances, wondering who it might be.
Jeremy got up and opened the door. Standing on the doorstep puffing her Marlboro was a dyed-blonde young woman who wore a short skirt and a top that left nothing to the imagination.
"Can I help you?" asked Jeremy curtly.
"I'm here for the Bible study," she announced and sauntered in blowing smoke from her cigarette, tottering slightly on her stilettos. She sat on the empty cushion next to Gordon.
Gordon couldn't help looking down at the shapely legs next to him. Jeremy was left gaping by the door, completely out of his element. Cindy tried to help with an awkward smile.
"How did you hear about us?" she asked, syrupy-sweet.
"Ran into this guy on Baxter Avenue — he said to come here," answered the woman. "By the way, my name's Helen." She extended her non-smoking hand to Cindy.
Cindy gingerly took the hand — who knew where it had been? "I'm ... Cindy," she said, while coughing pointedly at the cigarette smoke.
"A guy on Baxter Avenue?" Jeremy said. "Uh ... did he mention a name?"
"No, but he was weird. Funky robe and headpiece — Middle-Eastern looking. Said he had a better idea for tonight than bar hopping."
"And he sent you here?" asked Cindy in disbelief, wondering if the "Middle Eastern" guy was a terrorist.
Helen nodded. There was a long silence.
"Well...." Jeremy tried to think of something to say. "If you don't know his name ... I mean, we're not sure who he is...." Jeremy looked to Cindy for help.
"What my husband means is ... well, no offense —"
Cindy's inoffensive comment was cut off by another knock. Jeremy had left the door hanging wide open.
"Anybody home?" called a gruff voice. A man with a scruffy beard, ancient mismatched clothes, and enough B.O. to overpower Helen's cigarette peeked into the room. "I'm here for the Bible study," he said. "Is it OK if I bring in my stuff?" He gestured towards three bulging garbage bags piled outside.
"How ... what are you doing here?" stammered Jeremy in disbelief.
"This guy on Baxter told me about you," said the man. He dragged in one of his trash bags and slung it onto the couch beside Alan. "Really nice man — long hair and bushy beard like mine."
Alan jumped up, grabbed Emily's hand, and dragged her away from the incoming trash heap. Cindy gaped at the filth on her nicest piece of furniture.
"This guy — did he say how he knew us?" asked Jeremy.
"And was he a crazy homeless bum like you?" muttered Alan under his breath. Cindy forgot about her terrorist worries and now feared her apartment would become a homeless shelter.
"The guy said he was friends with Jeremy from seminary," answered the man. "Said he told you to expect folks like me."
All eyes from the Bible study were riveted accusingly on Jeremy. He shrugged helplessly as the homeless guy dragged in another bag and tossed it onto the couch. Jeremy racked his brain, but couldn't think of anybody at school that had long hair.
Cindy hoped it was her imagination, but she could've sworn she saw something crawling on the second garbage bag. Just as the homeless guy was settling in next to his luggage, there was a third knock at the door.
"I heard y'all was talkin' about God," said a male voice from the hallway.
A teen walked in — the sort of kid you notice and immediately cross the street. Baggy pants; huge fake-gold necklace; oversized basketball jersey. Cindy really hoped it was her imagination, but the outline in his back pocket looked more like a gun than a wallet.
"Hey, we don't want any trouble here..." said Jeremy cautiously.
"No trouble, man," said the teen. "Somebody up on Baxter Avenue sent me."
"Let me guess: long hair and a robe?" said Jeremy weakly.
"Yeah, that's him!" He looked at Helen across the room. "Hey, bay-bee," he called.
"The only guy I'm hooking up with tonight is God," she said, eyeing him with disdain. She turned to Cindy. "You got something I can cover up with?"
Cindy nodded and motioned to the afghan on the back of the couch. The woman covered her shapely legs — then inadvertently dropped the cigarette out of her mouth right onto the blanket.
"Ohhh ... I am so sorry!" said Helen. "That's gonna leave a burn mark."
"But my grandmother made it..." said Cindy weakly.
Sensing the need for a change of subject, Jeremy jumped up. "I'm going to the kitchen to — uh, get some more snacks for everybody."
He practically ran for the other room, this time remembering to shut the door on his way.
Awkward silence. "He might need help finding something," said Cindy, and followed him into the other room at a brisk trot.
"I'll go with them," said Lindsey, and joined the parade.
The remaining members of the Bible study and the newcomers stared at each other in awkward silence.
"So ... read any good Bible verses lately?" tried Helen.
* * *
Meanwhile in the kitchen, Jeremy and Cindy were holding a whispered council of war. "How are we going to get rid of them?" said Cindy frantically.
"I don't know, babe," said Justin. "We don't have money to spray after that homeless guy's roaches —"
"— And did you see that — thug? The neighbors'll call the cops!" wailed Cindy.
"I didn't know they made skirts that short," said Justin. "I'm kinda struggling with lust." Cindy shot him a dirty look. "I mean, I could be — if I wasn't fighting temptation...."
"I can't stand cigarette smoke," said Cindy. "It's like I can feel cancer developing in my lungs —"
"Can you imagine if I tried to explain a Greek verb? They wouldn't get it."
"— And they'll destroy the whole sense of community in our group," finished Cindy. She burst into tears and ran to Jeremy, who wrapped his arms around her.
"Hey, guys?" said Lindsey cautiously. "Uh, there's more snack stuff here on the counter ... shouldn't we grab it and go back in?"
Cindy sobbed. Jeremy shot Lindsey an accusatory glance, like somehow, this whole mess was her fault. "I think my wife needs a little time to recover," he said with dignity. "You should know that; you're a nurse."
"But what's the big deal?" said Lindsey, puzzled. "We have new people. It's like, outreach —"
"Outreach? Do you think anybody else will come when the living room smells like smoking slut and unwashed bum?" protested Jeremy.
"God wouldn't want to destroy our fellowship," sniffed Cindy.
"You're right," said Lindsey quickly. "I didn't think about.... But shouldn't we go back in? I mean, we're supposed to have a Bible study...."
Jeremy shook his head. "I better get Cindy to bed. She gets migraines from crying. We'll have to do it next week."
Lindsey shrugged. As Jeremy supported his distraught wife down the hall, Lindsey grabbed the extra bag of chips and walked back through the swinging door to the living room, not sure of what carnage she might find.
* * *
Alan and Emily had left; Gordon reported that Alan's allergies were bugging him. Gordon was standing by the door, probably thinking of an excuse for his own escape. The homeless guy and the dangerous-looking teen were staring into space, looking uncomfortable.
But Helen was reading Lindsey's Bible. "Hope you don't mind," she said, when Lindsey walked back into the room. "It was sitting there, and I thought —"
"That's fine," said Lindsey, standing awkwardly by the kitchen.
"It was open to that 'Luke' part," said Helen. "I think I like this section." Helen cleared her throat and read aloud:
Matthew held a banquet at his home with Jesus as the guest of honor. Many tax collectors and other 'sinners' attended. Some Pharisees complained to the disciples, 'Why are you having dinner with thieves and scum?'
Jesus answered them, 'Healthy people don't need a doctor — sick people do. I haven't come to call people who think they're righteous, but people who know they're sinners."
Helen looked up from the Bible. "I know this sounds crazy," she said, face turning red. "But I wonder ... I mean, do you think that guy we met on Baxter with the robe and stuff ... well, could he be the Doctor?"
"I don't know," said Lindsey slowly, as she walked over to Helen and sat down next to her. "I'm not sure what to think. But I realized ... well, I need to do a better job being a nurse."
Copyright 2009 George Halitzka. All rights reserved.