NT Reading: Acts 26: 12-18
This past week I have reread Will’s sermons on evangelism. I wanted to be reminded of things he has said. And one of the things I was reminded of was how the word evangelism was at the heart of my childhood religion. All of my life until age 23 when I walked into a Presbyterian Church.
During my youth we had once or twice a year revivals where a guest speaker would come to preach every night for a week. He was an evangelist, and the Baptist Standard Newsletter which came out monthly would publish the statistics from all the revivals occurring the past month. Statistics like how many were saved, baptized, rededicated their lives, or gave their lives to full time Christian service. Of course there were no statistics for some things, because they were unknown perhaps, things like how many children or adults were now terrified of ending up in hell some day. How many were afraid to ever ask a question because it might indicate they were losing their faith.
I used to sit and witness so many people talking about Jesus in terms of being certain he was who the church claimed he was, and I would wonder what was wrong with me for not being certain.
So I am here today to bear witness to my faith, and a part of evangelism, that feels authentic for my life. My belief is that the story of my life, and of your life, complete with the faithful parts, the doubts and the questioning parts, the sinful places, and the holy places we have been, belong in God’s story of creation.
It is far easier for me to stand in the pulpit for my 15 minutes and tell you how much my faith and Jesus are continually transforming my life, than it would be to talk about it, uninvited, somewhere else. I just wouldn’t do that.
I suspect most of you are like me - as much as telling the story of Jesus may be suggested by our hymns and the Bible - it doesn’t seem so easy to do among the multitudes.
So what can we do?
In scripture from Acts, which was read earlier, Paul finds himself imprisoned and up before the magistrate. So he bears witness to what he knows for certain - his own story. In his own words he testifies to that day on the road to Damascus when he was struck by the great light, and he was transformed. And that incident eventually led to this very moment when he is up before the governing forces. This need for Paul to defend himself was anticipated by Jesus who saw such occasions as opportunities not just to answer charges, but to bear witness for the faith. In Luke 12:11 Jesus says the the Holy Spirit will teach you at that moment what you are to say. I believe that if I should find myself in such a place before the authorities, asked about my faith and my teachings, I would bear witness to my experience. In many churches, this kind of testimony is called just that: giving one’s testimony about their faith. Sometimes it happens in a church service. But most of us here in the U.S. in this day, don’t find ourselves defending our faith in a prison, like Paul.
However, there is another example in the scripture about how listening to a story can be transformative. I believe it is a way of evangelism that is authentic, because it is the example that Jesus, himself, gave witness too.
I usually think of the stories Jesus used to be ones for teaching about God’s Kingdom - the parables - or the stories that a gospel writer told about Jesus healing and his miracles. Stories about his calling disciples and feeding hungry people and curing the mentally ill. Stories about touching lepers when no one in their right mind would do that. But he did.
So what was his example as an evangelist? How did he do it in a way that could transform a life - and could be an example for us? The scripture doesn’t show us a Jesus who went around telling people about his baptism in the River Jordan, being the Son of God, or even about his own life and experience. He wasn’t standing on a street corner holding a sign that said “Jesus Saves.” Or keeping statistics or worrying about results.
So I come to the scripture from the Gospel of John. A story that shows me how Jesus did it.
GOSPEL READING John 5: 1-9.
Jesus is in this story, but it’s not his own story he’s talking about. He’s coming up to a man who’s sitting by a pool of water that is known to contain healing water if one can get in it at the right time.
So Jesus goes to sit down by this man and find out this man’s story. He’s not there to preach or to proclaim his own path - not this time - he’s there to listen to this man. And in that conversation, one I imagine to be very caring and collegial, he asks him if he would like to be healed.
And Jesus finds the answer to that question when the man feels free to tell Jesus his own story. His story of waiting so long to get in the water and why he’s still waiting. The scripture tells us that this man had no idea this was the famous healer, Jesus. This was just someone willing to listen. It’s there in the scripture - a story of how Jesus has modeled for us what it is to transform a life by being willing to take the time to listen.
If you travel to Jerusalem today, you can find what is believed to be the place of that pool. It’s beside St. Anne’s Church, built in 1150 AD, and believed to be on the spot where Jesus’s grandparents lived. Anne and Joachim, Mary’s parents.
This story takes place when Jesus has come to Jerusalem on a Feast Day. All Jewish men who lived within 20 miles of Jerusalem were required to come to Jerusalem on the Feast Days. And Jesus was a good Jewish man. But he was so much more. He wasn’t just a good Jew, a teacher, a Rabbi, so well studied in the Hebrew Law and Prophetic writings. He was a man filled with God’s Spirit. A man who was filled with compassion. A man who cared about people, from the richest to the poorest, sick or well, greatly sinful or not so much.
But on this day in Jerusalem, he goes to the Pool of Bethzatha. If it really was located next to where his grandparents lived, then I believe he had been there as a young boy, that he had heard his grandparents talk about this place. He was probably very familiar with people gathering under the porches waiting in hopes of being healed. Perhaps Jesus learned to listen well from those grandparents. Maybe early on he had learned that when one listens to another’s story, they open a doorway for empathy, for caring.
In this same Gospel of John there is the familiar story of Jesus going up to a Samaritan woman at a well and asking for a drink of water. And the scripture tells us the long conversation Jesus has with this woman, about her family, about where to worship, about living water. And when his disciples ask him why he was talking so long with this woman, he tells them that this is the will of his father. This kind of conversation is food that feeds him. That feeds his soul.
Jesus healed a lot of people. I believe he sat down with these people and listened to them talk about being blind, or what it was like to be a leper. How it felt to be lonely, and no one coming to help or to listen. Jesus probably learned compassion day by day, by being with people and listening to them, by being their friend.
In our scripture today, the man sitting by the healing pool for 38 years never had to even touch the water or know who Jesus was that day. He just told his story, and his life was transformed. I think something else too. It’s a new, radical thought for me. I think that Jesus was transformed by the stories he heard. I think that all those days of traveling and listening formed him into a person of compassion and deep empathy. Empathy so deep, that he gave his life for love of the people.
The ministry of The Gathering was formed to invite people to tell their stories and to invite other people to listen to those stories in hopes of creating empathy across Sacramento. People willing to listen to unfamiliar stories of others. Healing and community can happen in the heart of the storyteller, but it can transform the hearts of the listeners too. Jesus has shown us that.
Is that evangelism? Is it really that easy, to just take the time to listen? Jesus seemed to think so.
Today we come to the table of Jesus. The Table where we eat the bread and drink the wine in remembrance of who Jesus was and to who Jesus, the Risen Christ, is today. We come to this table to be blessed, so we can turn and go into the world to be a blessing.