Where We Are
Tony Campolo is a well known Christian speaker and professor at Eastern University. In his book The Kingdom of God Is a Party, he relates an experience he had late one night in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Up a side street I found a little place that was still open. I went in, took a seat on one of the stools at the counter, and waited to be served. This was one of those sleazy places that deserves the name, “greasy spoon.” I did not even touch the menu. I was afraid that if I opened the thing something gruesome would crawl out. But it was the only place I could find.
The fat guy behind the counter came over and asked me, “What d’ya want?” I said I wanted a cup of coffee and a donut… As I sat there munching on my donut and sipping my coffee at 3:30 in the morning, the door of the diner suddenly swung open and, to my discomfort, in marched eight or nine provocative and boisterous prostitutes. It was a small place, and they sat on either side of me. Their talk was loud and crude. I felt completely out of place and was just about to make my getaway when I overheard the woman beside me say, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be 39.”
Her “friend” responded in a nasty tone, “So what do you want from me? A birthday party? What do you want? Ya want me to get you a cake and sing ‘Happy Birthday’?”
“Come on,” said the woman sitting next to me. “Why do you have to be so mean? I was just telling you, that’s all. Why do you have to put me down? I was just telling you it was my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should you give me a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”
When I heard that, I made a decision. I sat and waited until the women had left. Then I called over the fat guy behind the counter, and I asked him, “Do they come in here every night?” “Yeah!” he answered. “The one right next to me, does she come here every night?” “Yeah!” he said. “That’s Agnes. Yeah, she comes in here every night. Why d’ya wanta know?” “Because I heard her say that tomorrow is her birthday,” I told him. “What do you say you and I do something about that? What do you think about us throwing a birthday party for her—right here—tomorrow night?”
A cute smile slowly crossed his chubby cheeks, and he answered with measured delight, “That’s great! I like it! That’s a great idea!” Calling to his wife, who did the cooking in the back room, he shouted, “Hey! Come out here! This guy’s got a great idea. Tomorrow’s Agnes’s birthday. This guy wants us to go in with him and throw a birthday party for her—right here—tomorrow night!” His wife came out of the back room all bright and smiley. She said, “That’s wonderful! You know Agnes is one of those people who is really nice and kind, and nobody does anything nice and kind for her.”
“Look,” I told them, “if it’s okay with you, I’ll get back here tomorrow morning about 2:30 and decorate the place. I’ll even get a birthday cake!” “No way,” said Harry (that was [the fat guy’s] name). “The birthday cake’s my thing. I’ll make the cake.” At 2:30 the next morning, I was back at the diner. I had picked up some crepe-paper decorations at the store and had made a sign out of big pieces of cardboard that read, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” I decorated the diner from one end to the other. I had that diner looking good.
The woman who did the cooking must have gotten the word out on the street, because by 3:15 every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. It was wall-to-wall prostitutes…and me!
We will finish the story in a second but I wanted to point some things out about the scripture this morning first. Last week we heard the story of Nicodemus, the Pharisee, who came to ask Jesus some questions during the night. We found Jesus to answer his questions with the phrase Very truly, I tell you. Jesus was very vague with Nicodemus. He talked in deep theological terms and about being born again, born from above, and that God is like the wind. We learned that we cannot ‘get’ God because God is too big for our brains.
That was the story of the insider. Nicodemus was a churchgoer of course. To be a Pharisee he probably had to be a churchgoer most of his life; if not all of it. He was one who grew up and was familiar with church, God, and religion. Although he never really got it during his conversation with Jesus, he was comfortable talking shop. Plus Nicodemus was a Jew and so was Jesus. So they could talk together with no social ramifications.
That is not the case for the person Jesus talks to this week. This week we get the Samaritan woman at the well. Now that right there is a loaded statement. That right there points to all the reasons why Jesus shouldn’t have been talking to her. Since Jesus was a Jew he shouldn’t have been talking to a Samaritan. Samaritans were the sworn social enemy of the Jews. They didn’t like each other and never really got along. And actually it was even thought that a Jew could be contaminated by traveling through a Samaritan’s territory. It was like Ancient Biblical Cooties.
Jesus was not scared of these Cooties though and asks the women for a drink while the Disciples are out grocery shopping. This is a kinder and gentler Jesus than we had in the last chapter with Nicodemus. There Jesus seemed heady and distant. Here Jesus is just how we like him, personal, intimate and full of love and grace. The woman is surprised that he asked her for a drink because she was a Samaritan. But not only that she was an outcast of her own Samaritan town. The Scripture said that it was about noon, the hottest time of the day, when the woman came to get the water. This is probably a daily chore back then and who would want to fill up jars of water and carry them back home during the hottest time of the day? A person who wants to stay away from a lot of people, that’s who.
We learn that this outsider, this Samaritan woman, well…had gotten around. I don’t care what era you live in, whether Old Testament, New Testament, the 1800s or in 2008. If you have owned more husbands than cars in your life, people will start to talk. It is this talking, this uncomfortable reality that this woman was living with which forces her to avoid people by doing the chore of getting water in the hottest part of the day.
This trip to the well though is a lot different than she was expecting. This Jew who is there when she gets there asks her for a drink. He then offers her something called living water. He tells her, everyone who drinks this water [the water in the well] will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life. This woman is intrigued and asks for more information. Eventually, out of this touching and deep discussion, Jesus admits that he is the Messiah that is coming. That he is the Christ.
Jesus does not offer this piece of truth to the Pharisee. Nicodemus, the insider, admits he is from God but Jesus doesn’t then offer him this type of revelation. The insider is left out of that discussion. The outsider though gets it handed to her. She is so amazed that she leaves her jar and goes to tell people in the city about this person who knows her intimately and told her every thing she ever did. Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.
The disciples on the other hand, when they came back from grocery shopping cannot believe that Jesus is talking to her. They are some more insiders too. They are the ones who were the closest to Jesus and they couldn’t tell why he was doing what he was doing. I’m an insider. I grew up going to church and especially in high school, I almost never missed a Sunday. I felt comfortable in church and felt I could be completely myself when I was there. I am an insider. I am sure many of you are the same way and we agree with the disciples’ reaction to seeing Jesus talking to this unsavory woman. We like to think of Jesus being here, inside the church, inside our hearts where it is nice, safe and warm. That is where WE like to keep Jesus but the truth is that is not where Jesus spends all of his time. When we like to keep Jesus in that nice little neat box, like Nicodemus was attempting to do, we miss out on the intimate and powerful and real Jesus.
There are churches out there that are searching once again to find Jesus where he meets people. There is a church in Charlotte, NC that has started a different type of evangelism that has gotten a lot of press recently. They are going around to the bars and restaurants around the area they are building congregations and are passing out shot glasses. The shot glass as their church’s logo printed on it with this quote, “Give us a shot!” There is a church in our own district, right here in the Lexington District, which goes to the local bars on the weekends and cleans the bathrooms. Right there in the middle of the weekend crowds, they walk in with buckets and brushes and clean toilets. And you know how nasty those bar bathrooms can get on a Saturday night. Both of these congregations share the same theory and reason for this type of evangelism. They think that Jesus comes to where we are. He doesn’t ask us to change before he comes but he doesn’t promise we will stay the same once he stays. They are going to where Jesus is.
The truth is that if an insider wants to find Jesus, we will find him with the outsiders, the uniformed, the unfaithful people of the world. We will find him drinking with a woman who has had five husbands and lives with a possible sixth. We will find him down the street at the block party in the low income housing development. We will find him at the bedside of a person dying of AIDS. We will find him in the soup kitchen, the clothing closet, and the homeless shelter. We will find him comforting a homosexual who has just broken up with his partner of twelve years. We will find him talking Spanish and Mandarin at the flee market on East Holly Hills Road, as we meet here for worship. We find him in the dark allies, the dark bars, and dark places that we don’t want to go. We will find him at a bar at 3:30 a.m., throwing a birthday party of a prostitute.
Here is how Tony Campolo’s story ends…At 3:30 on the dot, the door of the diner swung open, and in came Agnes and her friend. I had everybody ready (after all, I was kind of the M.C. of the affair) and when they came in we all screamed, “Happy birthday!” Never have I seen a person so flabbergasted…so stunned…so shaken. Her mouth fell open. Her legs seemed to buckle a bit. Her friend grabbed her arm to steady her. As she was led to sit on one of the stools along the counter, we all sang “Happy Birthday”‘ to her. As we came to the end of our singing with “happy birthday, dear Agnes, happy birthday to you,” her eyes moistened. Then, when the birthday cake with all the candles on it was carried out, she lost it and just openly cried.
Harry gruffly mumbled, “Blow out the candles, Agnes! Come on! Blow out the candles! If you don’t blow out the candles, I’m gonna hafta blow out the candles.” And, after an endless few seconds, he did. Then he handed her a knife and told her, “Cut the cake, Agnes. Yo, Agnes, we all want some cake.” Agnes looked down at the cake. Then without taking her eyes off it, she slowly and softly said, “Look, Harry, is it all right with you if I…I mean is it okay if I kind of…what I want to ask you is…is it O.K. if I keep the cake a little while? I mean, is it all right if we don’t eat it right away?”
Harry shrugged and answered, “Sure! It’s O.K. If you want to keep the cake, keep the cake. Take it home, if you want to.” “Can I?” she asked. Then, looking at me, she said, “I live just down the street a couple of doors. I want to take the cake home, okay? I’ll be right back. Honest!” She got off the stool, picked up the cake, and carrying it like it was the Holy Grail, walked slowly toward the door. As we all just stood there motionless, she left.
When the door closed, there was a stunned silence in the place. Not knowing what else to do, I broke the silence by saying, “What do you say we pray?” Looking back on it now, it seems more than strange for a sociologist to be leading a prayer meeting with a bunch of prostitutes in a diner in Honolulu at 3:30 in the morning. But then it just felt like the right thing to do. I prayed for Agnes. I prayed for her salvation. I prayed that her life would be changed and that God would be good to her.
When I finished, Harry leaned over the counter and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he said, “Hey! You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?” In one of those moments when just the right words came, I answered, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning.”
Harry waited a moment and then almost sneered as he answered, “No you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that!” Wouldn’t we all? Wouldn’t we all like to join a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning? Well, that’s the kind of church that Jesus came to create!
And all of God’s people said…Amen.