My wife Liz and I recently traveled to a crowded beach for a week's vacation.
We had a great time, but we also witnessed quite a bit of stress: tailgating, gesticulating, horn-honking drivers on packed highways; parents bawling out whiny children; department store clerks alternately ignoring and sniping at frazzled tourists.
Then we experienced a stressful episode ourselves.
Our car began overheating in the blistering island sun.
As we sat idling in traffic, the needle on the temperature gauge pressed past the red line. We smelled something burning.
We'd had the car serviced before leaving Kentucky. Everything had been fine.
Now we found ourselves driving around the island — more like, sitting in various four-lane parking lots — with the air conditioner off to lessen the toil on the engine. For a day or two (foolishly, I realize), we sweated and debated what to do. We didn't happen by a single car-repair business. We knew no mechanics or anyone to ask.
Liz did an online search and found the address of a quick-lube store, where we figured someone could at least re-examine the coolant and eyeball the hoses and clamps. Our own mechanical skills, combined, lie somewhere between zero and less-than.
We'd be at the mercy of strangers, hundreds of miles from home. Because we were in unfamiliar territory, catastrophic thinking came naturally to us. Actually, catastrophic thinking comes naturally to us anywhere, but that's another column.
I imagined some dude at the quick-lube would direct us to his brother, who just happened to run an a mechanic's shop hidden in a palmetto grove and would tell us we needed a whole new motor. We'd be stranded for days and left with a massive bill.
Liz's scenario was more pessimistic. I'll leave it to your imagination. I refer to my wife endearingly as Little Miss Apocalypse.
Even with our global positioning software, we couldn't find the quick-lube store. We inched up and down highways and side streets. We grew damp with perspiration.
Liz extemporaneously started to pray aloud.
She told the Lord we were taking a much-overdue vacation. She reminded him how ignorant we are about automobiles and what easy marks we'd be for tourist-trap grifters. She told him, in case he'd not noticed, that we were having a heck of a time even finding a place to try to get help. She asked him to direct us to someone who would help us and wouldn't overcharge us. Please. Thank you. Amen.
A minute later, we found the building where the quick-lube place was supposed to be. Except that it wasn't. It had changed hands and was now a muffler shop.
Great, I thought. That prayer helped a lot. Yay God.
"We might as well go back to our condo," I said. "They're not going to fix this."
"I'm going to ask anyway," Liz said.
I sat in the car with my window down, sweat dripping off my chin.
She went inside the shop's office. She returned with a medium-sized man wearing a nametag over his shirt pocket.
The name on the tag: Jesus.
"Can you pop the hood?" Jesus asked me. He spoke quietly, graciously.
He unscrewed the top on the coolant overflow container and then, with difficulty, the hot radiator cap.
"Well, one thing, your coolant is all gone."
"We had it checked at home," Liz said. "We drove down from Kentucky."
"You might have a leak, I think."
He went back inside and got a container of coolant. He poured some in. Checked it. Poured in more. He fiddled with this gadget and that. He looked around the car's guts, pulled, twisted, tightened — I don't know exactly what all he did.
"I think you're OK now," he said in a few minutes.
"Really?" I said. "That's it?"
"I hope so. Check the coolant another time or two to make sure. Let your own mechanic look it over later. It doesn't seem to be leaking now."
"What do we owe you?" Liz reached for her billfold.
Smiling, he waved her away. "Nothing. I just want you folks to have a great vacation and be safe."
And that was it.
For the rest of our stay in paradise and all the way back home, our car ran like a proverbial top. No overheating. No leaks. Air-conditioned, we rode like cool royalty.
"Jesus healed our car," I declared more than once.
But this column really isn't so much about whether Jesus' appearance at a muffler shop constituted a full-blown miracle or even a small-stakes answer to prayer.
When Liz and I discussed it, we concluded that what it showed us most was the power of an unexpected grace bestowed by a stranger.
When we met Jesus, we were worn and frustrated and far from home and dreading the worst. We were at his mercy.
We were strangers, and he took us in. He offered us a pleasant smile and the gift of his knowledge and sent us on our way with his kind wishes.
All of us at times exist at the mercy of strangers. Some of them bear scant mercy.
But we also live, thank the Lord, in the presence of souls such as Jesus, who do good they don't have to for people they don't know. Who, whether or not they ever realize it, demonstrate God's light in a dark world. Who offer us hope, help and peace.
Perhaps we each ought to pledge that we'll be Jesus today to some weary stranger.