I really like this Samaritan woman in John 4. I wish I knew her name. I like her spunk and her spirit. I like her questions. I like the way she stays engaged, letting the conversation always go deeper and wider. I like her courage.
I say “courage” because it was not at all proper for a woman to speak to a strange man in a public place. It was not typical for a Samaritan and a Jew to engage in a social relationship. And it took courage for her to go tell the people in her village about this man she had met; it was risky for a woman with a tarnished reputation to bear witness to the Christ. What would people think?!
In John and in Acts there are two stories: the woman of Samaria and the man Paul from Tarsus. Two stories of people who moved from disbelief and cynicism to faith and trust; two stories of people who turned from resisting to following; two stories of people who – because of their passion for the Christ – found the courage to let their lives be radically reoriented and re-shaped by the Christ.
There are countless stories like these. Again and again, across the ages, around the world untold courageous people like these have let themselves be changed: their beliefs, their values, their priorities, their behaviors, their assumptions, their lives. People who encounter the living Christ are changed. And this takes courage.
There are countless stories about this kind of courage; here’s another one I found in a wonderful book called The Weight of Mercy by Deb Richardson-Moore.
Deb was a seasoned journalist living in Greenville, South Carolina when she decided to go to seminary just so she could write more effectively about religion for her newspaper. Little did she know what God had in store for her.
Deb was called to serve at the ecumenical Triune Mercy Center in inner city Greenville. She writes in her book that she thought she already knew about the underbelly of her community; she found that she had no clue. Even though she had 27 years of experience and had seen all kinds of things in her career, she very quickly recognized that it is only God’s mercy that can sustain one in ministry.
Within the first few weeks as the new pastor at the Mercy Center, Deb had to figure out how to deal with a janitor who called in sick with a hangover; with a director of the food pantry who would trade extra canned goods for cigarettes; with the fights that periodically broke out at the Sunday meal for the homeless; with the snores and the burps that punctuated her sermons.
Then there was the day an angry pimp towered over her, threatening her, calling her names and spitting in her face; that was the day Pastor Deb told God: “Okay. I’ll do this for one year. One year. And then I’m out of here.”
It’s been more than ten years since Deb made her commitment. I’m thinking this kind of perseverance takes courage. What do you think?
Actually it took the courage of the entire community to step up to the entrenched, convoluted challenges of their neighbors. Louisa was 91. She had been a member of Triune for years and refused to leave when the neighborhood around them started going down the tubes. She brought the communion bread and made sure the candles were lit for worship. “The world’s oldest acolyte,” Louisa called herself. Alfred was a security guard who had fought in Afghanistan; he was big and imposing and also compassionate and wise.
Deb tells a story about a man, one of their newest members who was arrested for indecent exposure.
When I visited him in jail, he had just one question: “Am I still a church member?”
“It takes more than that to get kicked out of Triune,” I assured him.
We will probably always be the best represented church in the detention center. I’m certainly not proud of that. But we shoulder the weight and move on.
It is the weight of mercy.
Like the woman from Samaria, witness to the good news of Jesus Christ very often comes from the brokenness of real people; all of us with all of our tarnished lives.
“Treasure in clay jars,” Paul called it – where the light of God’s presence shines through our cracks and testifies to an unreasonable, unpronounceable mercy. (2 Corinthians 4)
“Christ in you: the hope of glory,” Colossians says (Col 1).
The community of Triune Mercy Center shared a vision to minister to the homeless, the down and out, the victims who were caught in the deadly spiral of addictions. But they didn’t want to be just a church for just the homeless. They wanted to be church – a community where rich and poor and black and white and hung over and sober could all embrace the weight of God’s mercy that bound them together.
It hasn’t been easy. It takes courage every single day. Some of the Board members left because they didn’t like the direction the church was going. Some of the church members left because they didn’t like a gospel that included “those” people. Some of the homeless and addicted left because they didn’t like being held accountable.
But Pastor Deb marvels at the people who came – and who keep coming. Each Sunday, many from Greenville’s middle class and some of their city’s most affluent worship and eat with those who have absolutely nothing except mountains of troubles.
They come, Deb imagines, because they have never before seen the church living out the gospel in such tangible ways. It’s hard. It’s messy. It’s uncomfortable and risky for a people to become this kind of church. There are no guarantees. It takes courage.
I like what Mark Twain reminds us about courage: “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” We can absolutely be quaking in our boots, wondering how this is going to turn out; wondering what people might think; wondering if we are doing the right thing; wondering, fretting, worrying. Fearfulness and resistance are understandable in the face of change. But – even so – it is in those very quaking boots that we can still take our stand for what we believe is right. We stand on the promises. We stand on Christ the Rock. And thereby we find the courage to continue to stand firm and move forward.
Dr. Lance Pape says:
The pioneer of cruciform faith did not find the trail he blazed to be “safe” in any conventional sense of the word. Those followers who have attempted most courageously to conform their lives to the identity disclosed through the narrative of his betrayal, arrest, and brutal murder at the hands of those threatened by his way of being in the world have consistently found that the abundant life he offers is not any kind of life they can secure for themselves.
Dr. Pape was my preaching professor at Brite and this is from his book: The Scandal of Having Something to Say. Pape explores the history of Christian preaching and theorizes that the decline of the church in our modern day has at least some connection to milk-toast preaching.
Pape agrees with Karl Barth that the core question people ask when they come to worship: “Is this true? Is this real? Does this matter?” If a preacher can’t address the burning questions that seekers ask, then what’s the point? But if – with courage – the preacher proclaims and the church embodies the surprising grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ, then – in the weight of God’s mercy – amazing things can happen.
People find hope and unexpected joy. Grace happens. Love abounds – all because people are radically reoriented and reshaped by the Christ.
Shaped by the Homeless, Crucified One.
In the late stages of cultural eviction anyway, the church may finally be ready to go willingly “outside” [the gate] (Heb 13:13) to the Homeless, Crucified One.
Disabused of faith in our own words, we may be ready at last to make our preaching conform to his scandalous word and no other (1 Cor 2:2).
The startling prospect emerges that the situation most proper and “native” to [Christian proclamation] is perpetually one of audacity and jeopardy. (Pape)
It is courage that allows us to be reoriented and reshaped by his life and his way.
It is courage that allows us to proclaim – and to become – God’s radical and audacious gospel.
Deb Richardson-Moore, The Weight of Mercy, http://triunemercy.org
Dr. Lance B. Pape, The Scandal of Having Something to Say (Baylor University Press, 2013).
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