A Story of the Unexpected: “Just What I Wanted” from This American Life

This American Life’s recent Christmas episode, about gifts, told stories of mostly bad news: two of the […]

CJ Green / 1.26.17

This American Life’s recent Christmas episode, about gifts, told stories of mostly bad news: two of the three segments were about characters realizing that the thing they most wanted was bankrupt of what they actually needed. They were about expectations and disappointments, about human longing and our tendency to put our faith in the wrong things.

The first segment, however–the prologue–was the precise inverse: the thing we didn’t realize we wanted was the thing we needed most.

It’s a good story. It starts off with a Marine named Luke who, while serving in Ramadi, Iraq in 2005, spent his off-time watching Gilmore Girls.


Luke Huisenga: Yeah, I mean, it is girly. And there’s a lot of women talking…Like, two women can’t talk on screen, men won’t watch the show. There has to be a man or they’re talking about a man. Yeah, it’s girly, but it’s also a funny show…And I don’t think we would have watched it if it wasn’t good, the same reason everyone else watched it. But I think it struck a particular chord with us as sort of escapism, a different world from where we were.

Ira Glass: Yeah, yeah. It’s hard to imagine a world further away from a war zone in Ramadi.

Luke Huisenga: Right. Yeah. It’s a really idyllic kind of world, but it’s not super sappy. It still has sarcasm and weirdness that makes the idyllic part of it–the really nice warm part of it–it sort of makes it even more palatable and real maybe.

Ira Glass: Luke says they all learned about the Gilmore Girls from their corpsman Jess, whose sister watched the show and got hooked himself after he noticed a Tom Waits reference in one episode. He’s into Tom Waits. A few of the guys started watching. Other guys who complained that it was on, and then they reluctantly get pulled in themselves until they had a core group–Jess, Erik, John, Greg, seven or eight guys in all–who watched everything.

But the story isn’t about Gilmore Girls, exactly. It’s about Christmas. And gift-giving. Around Christmastime that year, Luke thought it would be a good idea to get his comrades a Gilmore gift. Maybe a t-shirt–something simple, manly. He went searching online. “And [on] the Gilmore Girls website store at the time,” Luke says, “all the clothing was either like a spaghetti strap tank top or a baby doll tee…There was not any unisex or male anything on there.”

So Luke wrote a letter to show-creator Amy Sherman-Palladino. He told her how much he loved the show, and how much it meant to his comrades in Ramadi, adding a “P.S.” which stated that they were bummed there were no unisex Gilmore Girls shirts online. “What gives?” he wrote.

Ira Glass: A few weeks later, sure enough, packages arrive– five big boxes.

Luke Huisenga: And we opened them up, and they were full of these navy blue wool jackets that had very subtle teal embroidering on the breast that said Gilmore Girls in the typeface and a really nice letter from Amy Sherman-Palladino.

Ira Glass: These were crew jackets, made as gifts for the show’s camera people and gaffers in men’s sizes.

Luke Huisenga: It was a big morale boost for everybody. I remember taking them back and giving them out and sort of reading the letter. And even guys that didn’t watch the show were excited. Obviously the show meant a lot to my friends and I. I think I tried to tell her that she let us feel like it was ours a little bit.

Ira Glass: Are you choking up?

Luke Huisenga: Yeah. Yeah. I just think it was really generous of her.

Ira Glass: It really felt like Christmas morning, he told me. The jackets were just what he wanted, even though he didn’t even know that jackets like this existed. I wonder if it felt that way to Amy Sherman-Palladino also. You know? The letter Luke wrote to her, like a present she didn’t even know she wanted, didn’t even know she could want till it arrived. And then she was really happy about it.

The Gilmore girls are not the only oft-talked-about women to whom the Marines could relate: they are also like the woman who came to draw water from the well, in John 4. That woman was a Samaritan, considered lower-in-class by the Jews, the least likely of people to encounter the Savior of the world. But she did. Because what she really needed was not a tall glass of H2O but living water, water that could satisfy her thirst forever.


When Jesus asks her for a drink, she squints over at him and says something like, “You’re a highfalutin Jew. Why would you talk to me?” And he replies:

If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water…Everyone who drinks [well] water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty” (Jn 4:10-14).

The gift of Christ is unlike anything we thought we needed. We thought we needed to graduate at the tops of our classes; we thought we needed to order the most edgy drink at the bar; we thought we needed unisex t-shirts. But Jesus (nor Amy Sherman-Palladino, apparently) will not grant us the unimaginative wishes of our wildest imaginations. He will not gives us baby doll tees when we could really use nicely embroidered wool jackets. He will give us the better portion.

And the better portion goes to the least of these: the most unexpected of fans, the weak, the lonely, the Samaritans. Of all people–of all the fast-talking female superfans–it was burly homesick Marines who received those Gilmore jackets, and who loved them dearly, so much that the gift still brings them to tears.

As the rest of the “This American Life” episode shows, we can’t be trusted to put our faith in the right things. There’s a morose story about an adulterous relationship, and one about voter fraud. Not so fun. But the gospel tells us that the right things put their faith in us. Christ comes to us with living water–that thing we most deeply need–a message of good news better than anything we could have expected.