Knowing we’re supposed to love the hard to love people in our lives, even knowing the theological reasons for that, is one thing. Actually seeing it in practice is something entirely different. This past Sunday as we continued in our series, Hard to Love, we took a look at a remarkable story of the kind of transformation that can take place when we let love loose into our hard to love situations. You don’t want to miss this.
Let me start this morning with a tough question. In fact, I want you to close your eyes in order to answer this one. How would you respond if your child was murdered? That’s an emotional question, I know, so go ahead and feel that emotion for a minute. Let me show you a picture. This is a picture of Mary Johnson and her son. In 1993 Mary’s son, Laramiun Byrd, was 20 years old. One night he went to a party with some friends. As perhaps many young men are wont to do he did a little bit of fronting at the party to the benefit of his ego and his image in front of his friends. Now, this might not be such a big deal on a normal night, but this particular party was also attended by a 16-year-old young man named O’Shea Israel. O’Shea took up Laramium’s challenge and did a bit of fronting of his own. After all, he couldn’t be made to look bad in front of his own friends. Things digressed from there and the next morning Mary got a call asking if Laramiun had come home the night before. He hadn’t. Not long after some officers arrived to let her know that he had been murdered at the party. In an instant—perhaps just as you imagined—her world completely fell apart.
When she heard a few days later that this young man named O’Shea had been picked up for the shooting a hatred began burning in her heart for him. When she was given the chance to make a statement during the trial phase, she acknowledged that as a Christian she had forgiven him, but she hadn’t really. That hatred just kept burning inside of her. The discovery that the trial judge unilaterally decided not to try him as an adult on the charge of first-degree murder but instead on the lesser charge of second-degree murder only served to fuel her internal rage. She would later to confess to wanting to hurt him there in the courtroom. O’Shea would be sentenced to 25 years in prison, but she wanted his whole life as ransom for the life he took from her, not merely a fraction of it. I think we can safely agree that for Mary Johnson, O’Shea Israel was hard to love.
This morning we are in the third part of our series, Hard to Love. We are halfway through the series this morning so if this is your first time catching it you are coming in at about the halfway point in the movie. You are welcome to go to the church’s website or my blog—both of which are printed for you in the bulletin—in order to catch up on what you’ve missed. In any event, the big idea for this series is that we all have people in our lives who are hard to love and while it would be nice if most of these folks were generally far removed from us so we didn’t have to deal with them very often, the tough truth is that our most relevant hard to love folks are probably people close to us with whom we have to interact on a frequent basis. And the goal of these few weeks is twofold: First, to help us learn how to interact with these folks in such a way that not only is the relationship maintained, but they eventually move out of the hard-to-love category for us; and second, to help us wrap our minds around the fact that even though we ourselves could have easily fit into the category of hard-to-love for God He nonetheless loves us with an unconditional love. The connection here is that if we really understand the second part, we’ll be able to do the first part.
We started off this journey by establishing a kind of foundation point on which we could build the rest of the structure we’ve been constructing. This foundation came out of Jesus’ command to love our enemies in Luke 6. The big idea there was that we love our hard-to-loves because God does too. The reason doing the hard work of coming to loving the hard-to-love people in our lives is worthwhile is that God loves them and if we hate someone who God loves we are committing ourselves to one of a couple of different ideas, neither of which are very comfortable. The first is that God is wrong in loving them. In spite of what He thinks, this person is simply not worthy of His love (now there’s a lingering question here of what makes us particularly worthy of His love but that’s even less comfortable of an idea, so we’ll come back to that another time). The second idea, though, is that we are simply not going to go with God on this particular journey. He may have never led us astray in the past, but this time He’s off His rocker and even if not, it’s just too hard for us. The problem here, of course, is that taking up one of these ideas while simultaneously maintaining the claim that we are followers of Jesus don’t really go along with one another. Either one is true or the other is true, but not both. No, it just works better to go with what Jesus said: we are to love our hard-to-loves because God does too.
Then last week we took a small step forward and got a lot more specific by talking about people who don’t share our beliefs. Like it or not, these folks are very often incredibly hard to love and what’s more, if you are a follower of Jesus, the likelihood that you have at least one of them in your life is really high. (As a matter of fact, if you don’t, that’s a problem because then you aren’t engaging with unbelievers which means you can’t do very much about fulfilling the Great Commission, but that’s for another sermon.) The problem here is that Christians don’t have a great reputation when it comes to loving these folks. The reason for this is we far too consistently don’t obey Paul’s commands in 2 Timothy 2:22-26. The bottom line here is that whenever we find we don’t agree, grace and truth will help us see. Whenever we find we are not in agreement over some significant matter, if we will reach out with grace while holding fast to truth we will be able to see, not necessarily the direct path to fixing the problem, but at least the ways we can maintain the relationship. And as we said last week, if we at least have a relationship in place there’s a chance for love to do its thing.
This morning we are going to talk about loving the hard-to-love folks in our lives yet again, but I want to take a slightly different approach than we’ve taken so far. Thus far we have looked at it from the perspective of theory and commands. We’ve spoken theologically about why we should do this. Now, that’s all really important. I mean, if we don’t have good theology in place then we aren’t going to believe the right things and if we don’t believe the right things, we aren’t going to do the right things. Lots of folks want to jump straight to application, but absent right belief we won’t have anything to apply. So again, the last couple of weeks have been really important. But, for a lot of folks, hearing about something theologically is one thing. Being told over and over the theological reasons behind loving the hard-to-love people in their lives is necessary and valuable, but they need something more. They need to see it in action. They—perhaps you—need a clear visual in order to really grasp what this could look like. This morning is for you. This morning I want to look with you at a story of this happening and together think about the results of it. This story is found in John’s Gospel and it comes out of one of the more famous episodes from the life of Jesus. Grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures, find your way to John 4, and we’ll take a look at this.
The story starts out this way: “When Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard he was making and baptizing more disciples than John (though Jesus himself was not baptizing, but his disciples were), he left Judea and went again to Galilee.” This took place not too long after Jesus Himself was baptized by his cousin John. Up to this point John’s ministry was the much more famous of the two. Word had spread far and wide about this wild-looking guy in Judea who had set up shop at the Jordan River where he was calling people to repent of their sins and be baptized as a symbol of their repentance. Religious fanatics and curiosity seekers came from miles around to hear him preach, to see the spectacle, and, when God got ahold of their hearts, to be baptized themselves. Even the Pharisees—the group of guys everybody considered to be the most righteous in the land—had come out to be baptized…and had been blasted by John when they did. Anybody who called the Pharisees out on the carpet was probably someone to whom you should pay at least a little bit of attention. This would be a little like if a wild guy came wandering out of the Blue Ridge Mountains into Ashville, NC, found his way to Montreat, started blasting the Graham family for their sins, and they all responded with confession and repentance. Every single one of us would be thinking, “Wow, we’d better listen to whatever this guy has to say!”
All of this is to say that John was really popular. He was popular enough that when Jesus’ ministry started taking off in the same area…well…the town wasn’t big enough for the two of them anymore. And this not because they cared—they both knew who the other was and what was going on—but rather because folks started to take sides. As a result, Jesus moved. He knew and supported what John was doing, namely, to point people to Him, and so He could comfortably get out of town knowing that the people would be in good hands.
But then John says something really strange in v. 4: “He had to travel through Samaria.” Now, from a strictly geographical perspective this isn’t strange at all. When you look at the region on the map, of the three regions in question here, Judea was the furthest south with Samaria immediately to the north and Galilee just north of that. If you wanted to get to Galilee from Judea via the shortest possible route you had to pass through Samaria. But, people don’t tend to think primarily in terms of geography. We first think culturally. That’s why when we moved from Denver, CO to Richmond, VA a few years ago, we entered the south even though geographically speaking we were on the same line of longitude we had been in Denver. The culture of Richmond has long been shaped by the south and Denver’s hasn’t.
In the first century, culturally speaking, no self-respecting Jew traveled through the region of Samaria. As far as the Jews of Jesus’ day were concerned, on the scale of us versus them, the Samaritans as they were called sat way over on the “them” side. They were considered half-breeds—the result of pure Jewish bloodlines being polluted with a host of non-Jewish tribes when Israel was conquered by Assyria several hundreds of years earlier. They used the same Law…mostly…but in a corrupted form, and they got some really key details wrong. If anybody was hard to love in the mind of a good Jew from the early first century it was a Samaritan. I mean, at least the pagan Romans had the excuse of not having the Law. The Samaritans had the Law and screwed things all up anyway. John doesn’t record the disciples as saying anything about the route Jesus chose but you can bet they were thinking it. They were in the wrong part of town and both they and the Samaritans knew it.
But, that was the route Jesus took and so they followed. Verse 5: “So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar near the property that Jacob had given his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, worn out from his journey, sat down at the well. It was about noon.” Now, in Israel, in the summer, at noon it’s hot. You don’t do anything then if you can help it. You find water and shade and you rest. If you have any labor-intensive work to do—like, say, hauling water from the local well back to your house for the day—you do it either in the morning or in the evening. But not at noon. In fact, someone doing something like that at a time like that would have immediately attracted suspicious attention.
Verse 7: “A woman of Samaria came to draw water. ‘Give me a drink,’ Jesus said to her, because his disciples had gone into town to buy food. ‘How it is that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?’ she asked him. For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.” Can you see what’s happening here? Had Jesus been somebody else—a Pharisee, for instance—this conversation would have never happened. This woman had enough strikes against her to have her thrown out before the game even started: she was a Samaritan, she was obviously sinful given the time of day she was fetching water, and to make matters worse, she was a she. Any one of those facts by themselves would have kept a conscientious Jew from looking at her, much less actually talking to her. She knew this as well as He did. The only difference between them was that she cared about this social convention…He didn’t. In fact, under normal circumstances she might not have even responded to Him, but He so caught her off guard that she probably answered without even thinking.
What comes next is this incredible and rich theological conversation in which Jesus reveals Himself to her to be the giver of a living water that will result in her never getting thirsty again. He’s speaking metaphorically the whole time while she’s thinking literally resulting some humorous misunderstandings on her part. A couple of times things get a little uncomfortable such that she brings up some stock theological issues to serve as a diversion which Jesus gently brushes aside. He winds up revealing that He miraculously knows her story. As it turns out she was just the kind of person to be coming to the well at noon instead of early morning. She had been married five times and was now living with a sixth guy to whom she was not married. Whether you take this to mean she was a loose woman or merely a victim of a broken culture when it came to the position and value of women, her situation was scandalous. Finally, just as their conversation builds to the climax of His revealing to her that He is the Messiah (something He’d worked very hard to keep under wraps up to this point in His ministry), the disciples return and by their remarkably loud and judgmental thoughts pour a big heaping dose of awkward all over the conversation.
When they show up she makes her exit, but instead of slinking away back to her old life, we see that she has been totally transformed by this encounter with Jesus, by the love she has received from someone she thought for sure would have considered her hard to love (even as she surely did Him). She leaves her water pitcher and races back to Sychar, and, forgetting all about whatever reputation she had in the minds of her own people, begins proclaiming: “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Can this be the Messiah?” Now, the people of Sychar could have responded in a number of different ways, most of them pretty negative. But they didn’t. Perhaps it was just something about her testimony and the earnestness with which she brought it. Perhaps it was the light in her eyes—they could see that a change had come upon her and her words were worth heeding. Maybe it was the content of the message: the hope of a coming Messiah was a more powerful thing then than we really understand today. Maybe it was a lot of things. But whatever the reason, when this woman spoke the people listened. They listened and they believed and they came out to see for themselves what was happening. Verse 39 declares the results: “Now many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of what the woman said when she testified, ‘He told me everything I ever did.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. Many more believed because of what he said. And they told the woman, ‘We no longer believe because of what you said, since we have heard for ourselves and know that this really is the Savior of the world.”
Pretty amazing story, isn’t it? If it doesn’t have enough punch for you as it is, make Jesus look like you and substitute for the woman whoever the hardest to love person you can think of is. Or try switching around the nationality or socioeconomic status of all the characters. Make Jesus a Hutu and the woman a Tutsi. Make Jesus a Kurd and the woman Turkish. Make Jesus black and the woman white. Make Jesus a Democrat and the woman a Republican…or the other way around if that’s too much for you to handle. However you want to frame it, this was a powerful example of someone reaching out to love the most hard to love person in their world and the result was nothing short of extraordinary. Not only was the woman transformed, but her whole community was. The simple truth here is that love transforms even the hardest situations. When we unleash love into our hard-to-love situations, the power and potentiality for transformation is beyond what we can fathom. We have to make sure we are getting the definition of love right, but when we do and when we set it loose in our hard-to-love relationships, love transforms even the hardest situations.
But maybe this sounds too good to be true for you. I mean, how likely is it that our love unleashed into a hard-to-love relationship is going to transform a whole community? We can hardly wrap our minds around the notion of it transforming just the hard-to-love relationship. I mean, sure, grand stories like this one, or the incredible recent story of Brandt Jean, the brother of Botham Jean who was murdered by a Dallas police officer openly forgiving, embracing her, and preaching a powerful Gospel message heard around the nation, are powerful, but they seem so far off. This was a one-in-a-million Jesus encounter. We’re never going to experience something like this. Let me see if I can make it a little more real for you. Remember Mary?
When we last left Mary, she was a broken woman after her son, Laramiun, had been murdered and the guilty young man had received a much lighter sentence than she would have preferred. She had that hatred and bitterness boiling in her gut. It stayed at a low boil most of the time, but like you might expect it occasionally got pretty intense, and the overall affect was that it was making her hard. For ten years she stewed in her anger and her hatred. But then, one day, she was given a poem about two women meeting in heaven and sharing their stories. One woman’s son had been murdered and the other was a murderer. As they talked one of the women realized that it was her son who was instrumental in the killing of the other woman’s son. The poem ended with the one woman forgiving the other and it gave birth to a vision in Mary’s heart and mind of an organization dedicated not only to ministering to women whose children had been murdered, but also to those whose kids had become murderers. At the same time this vision was taking place God moved in her heart and told her that it was time to really forgive O’Shea. Put yourself in her place for a minute. You have a decade’s worth of hurt all stored up inside and God comes to you and says: “It’s time to let it all go.” By then the hurt had no doubt become a suit of armor for her that she wore in order to prevent herself from getting hurt again. It kept her from loving well, but at least she didn’t hurt.
Yet nonetheless, God’s call was clear. It was time to forgive. At the same time, He had begun working in O’Shea’s heart. He talks about how he was in a pretty dark place for the first ten years of his prison term but that he had turned a corner and come to the realization that he had to grow if he was ever going to really be a man. But still, the first time Mary reached out to meet with him he turned her down cold. He just couldn’t bear to face the woman whose son he had murdered. She persisted, though, and eventually he agreed. He would later describe the moment when he was waiting in the visitor’s room for her to arrive as the scariest thing he ever faced in prison. The two talked for a while and finished with a hug. Here was a mother whose son had been murdered wrapping her arms around the man who had done it as an expression of love and forgiveness.
That moment changed her forever. She had reached out with love to the single hardest-to-love person in her life and because of it she was transformed. Love transforms even the hardest situations. The hatred, the bitterness, and the anger were all gone entirely from her heart. In their place was a lightness, a sweetness of life, a joy that would not leave her. She began to advocate for O’Shea’s release. When his parole hearing happened she was there to testify on his behalf. In 2010 when he was granted parole Mary worked with her landlord to secure the apartment next door to her for him to live in and with the help of some local Catholic nuns threw him a release party. Today, she will tell you that O’Shea is a son to her as much as Laramiun was. In an interview a few years ago O’Shea said that if he doesn’t call her to check on her every few days, he’s going to hear about it: “Boy, how come you ain’t called over here to check on me in a couple of days? You ain’t even asked me if I need my garbage to go out!” As a matter of fact, that picture I showed you just a bit ago…that wasn’t Mary and Laramiun; that was Mary and O’Shea. Mary will not see her son, Laramiun, again in this life. But in O’Shea—the hardest-for-her-to-love person in the world, the very man who made it impossible for her to not see her son any longer—she is able to experience once again the joy of having a son who loves her. All of this because of a simple—if incredibly difficult—decision to reach out with love to someone who was hard-to-love. Love transforms even the hardest situations.
Friends, if loving a hard-to-love could transform a whole community; if loving a hard-to-love could restore the joy taken by the loss of a child, imagine what it could do in your hard-to-love situation. Look, I know it’s hard to believe sitting where you are on this side of that valley, but don’t you think it was pretty impossible to believe for Mary too? What’s your hard-to-love situation? Is it with a friend? Is it with a family member? Is it with a child? Is it with a parent? Is it with your spouse? What is it? What are the ways you could let love loose in it? Like Mary, it may need to start by extending forgiveness. You’ve been hurt and you’ve been holding on to the pain that caused for years. You haven’t really let it out and it has made your heart hard. It’s hard to the people in your life and it’s hard to God. You don’t get hurt very often anymore, but you can’t love well either. The only way to break that shell and start living again is to reach out with forgiveness to whoever it is that has hurt you. It’s a big risk to be sure because it means opening up yourself to the possibility of being hurt again, but if you want to enjoy life again—including eternal life with your heavenly Father—it’s a risk you’re going to have to take. Like Mary did, when you reach out with love like this into a hard-to-love situation you will experience the lifting of that burden in a way you never have before. Love transforms even the hardest situations.
On the other hand, like O’Shea, you may need to seek and receive forgiveness. You are the one who did the hurting and made yourself hard-to-love for someone else—which almost always results in their becoming hard-to-love for you as well—and you need to make the first move. It may be that your initiative will pull the block keeping them from experiencing the full sweetness of life as they once did. It is a hard-to-love situation and you are the one who is hard to love. Inject some love into it and see what happens. Love transforms even the hardest situations.
Or maybe there’s something else you need to do here. Maybe you need to have a conversation. You need to put down a habit. You need to take up a habit. You need to go to this place or see that person. Whatever it is you need to do in order to reach out with love in a hard-to-love situation my challenge to you this morning is to do it. The possibility for transformation is just too good to pass up. Love transforms even the hardest situations. And when love has transformed you, the incredible life of the kingdom of God is the only thing that lies before you. There you will know the joy, the hope, the peace, and, yes, the love of the Father that will lead you to the life you’ve always wanted. It’s not an easy road, but if you’ll walk it, I can promise you this: you’ll be glad you did. Love transforms even the hardest situations. Let it transform yours.