Tag Archives: Bible story

Rebecca: The Other Woman at the Well

This is a story based on John 4:1–30 (the woman at the well) and Genesis 24:34–58 (Rebecca, a wife for Isaac). 

These readings present us with two women (a few thousand years apart). They were very different from each other, but each of them went to fetch water from the well outside her village, and each met a stranger there who transformed her life.

And as I sat with the two of them and contemplated this intersection of their lives, the Samaritan woman, the one Jesus met by the well in Samaria, began to tell me her story, and I want to share it with you today. Listen to what she has to say.

My favourite character in the Bible has always been Rebecca. Probably because I was named after her, but I loved her story growing up. We lived in a small village in Samaria. We didn’t have much, and it was always my job to fetch water for the family. We girls from the village would gather round the well and chat for a bit while drawing up the water and filling our jars. It was hard work but we had such fun.

And, of course, I would dream about Rebecca, my namesake.

In my dream, I would come down to the well, and there would be a handsome stranger on a white camel. And he’d ask me for some water. And, of course, I’d say yes and offer to water his camels, too.

Then he’d put a gold ring in my nose and gold bracelets on my arms. He’d ask my father for my hand in marriage and Father would ask me, as Rebecca’s family did, ‘Will you go with this man.’

And I’d say, ‘Yes, yes! A thousand times, yes!’

But, not so he could hear. I wouldn’t want him to think I was desperate. Then he’d whisk me away to his desert kingdom, and I’d become his princess.

But, of course, that never happened. It was just a dream. Instead of a stranger on a white camel, all I got at the well was Sam and his smelly goats and Thomas’s grumpy camels pushing in.

And then, I guess, I grew up. The dreams became a distant memory, and I married Andrew. He didn’t have a white camel or shower me with treasures, but he did have a heart of gold, and I suppose that’s as much as a girl could wish for. And he reminded me of Abraham’s son, Isaac, Rebecca’s husband. Isaac, the gentle.

Like my Andrew, Isaac was quieter and more gentle than the other patriarchs – Abraham, his father, and Jacob, his son. Isaac always seemed to let others do things for him. He never seemed to do anything for himself. Even the business of finding a wife was something his father didn’t trust Isaac to do; instead, Abraham sent his servant off to his family up north.

Of course, you can’t blame Isaac. He was bullied and laughed at as a child by his half-brother, Ishmael. And then that terrible, terrible day.

He went on an adventure with his father, Abraham. They were going to make a sacrifice to God together. What child wouldn’t have been excited about that? But, suddenly his father is tying him up and putting him on top of the altar. He is going to be the sacrifice. How do you cope with that? I’m not surprised that he was an emotional wreck and couldn’t make up his own mind about anything. No wonder his father had to send off in search of a wife for him.

And, yes, Rebecca also seems to have manipulated him a bit, and his kids did their own thing. Even his servants weren’t able to stand up for him. Every time they dug a well for him, the servants of the Philistine king, Abimelech, would chase them away. Instead of standing up for themselves, they’d just go and dig another well somewhere else.

That was my Andrew, too. Never standing up for himself; always giving others the right of way. Ah, well. He died far too young. I miss him still.

It was all downhill for me after that. Andrew’s family threw me out of the house, and I had nowhere to go. I drifted back to the village I’d grown up in. I had no family left, and not many options. When Samuel asked me to marry him, I thought of the question they asked Rebecca so long ago: Will you go with this man?

I guess I didn’t have much choice, so I agreed, but he wasn’t like my Andrew. He was coarse and brutal. There was no sorrow when he died a few years later.

And then there was … well, suffice to say, there were five husbands altogether, each about as bad as the other. When the fifth one wanted to move to Sidon, well, I told him I wasn’t going anywhere.

Then I hooked up with Thomas, who was pretty much as lost as I was. Neither of us wanted to get married. Didn’t seem much point.

Of course, that put the uptight noses out of joint. But where were they when I was being brutalised?

So, I didn’t make it to the society weddings and wasn’t welcome around the synagogue. Even the well was a lonely place. I started going in the middle of the day to avoid the constant jibes and sneers of the prim and proper types. It was a lonely few years. But it was all I had.

And then ….
Well, what can I say?
One day, it happened.
My dream came true.

No, it wasn’t a man on a white camel.
But it was a man, and it was at the well.

I’d come to collect water as usual, and there he was, sitting there with a lost look in his eye; sad, perhaps, burdened. He was some sort of Rabbi, but he seemed to be on his own.

He asked me for a drink of water.

Well I got such a shock. Not because of my dream (although I did have a little chuckle to myself). But he was a Jew, and me? Well, I’m a Samaritan and a woman.

Jewish men don’t talk to strange women, even for a drink of water. And for a Jew to talk to a Samaritan woman? Well, that never happens.

And, anyway, he would have known there was something odd about me, fetching water in the heat of the day.

But there he was, against all that was holy, asking me for a drink of water.

I mean, Jews won’t even use our utensils! So, what was he going to drink my water with?

So, I said to him, ‘You’re a Jew. What are you doing asking me for water?’

Then he said the strangest thing. He spoke about God’s gift, and he said if I only knew him, I could ask him for life-giving water.

Oh, oh, I thought. There goes my dream. I’ve got a crazy here.

I should have walked away then. But something kept me. So, I told him that without a bucket he’d have trouble getting any sort of water. Or did he think he was better than our ancestor Jacob who dug the well thousands of years ago?
Sheez, these Jews!

But he wasn’t put off at all. ‘Whoever drinks this water will be thirsty again,’ he said. ‘But anyone who drinks my water will never be thirsty again. It will be a spring within you, welling up to eternal life.’

Well, I didn’t know what he was talking about, so I said, ‘Please, give me that water. Then I’ll never be thirsty, and I’ll never have to come to this hateful well again!’

Then he told me to call my husband.

Ah, here comes the sales pitch, I thought. He’d be in trouble if he tried to negotiate with a woman, so now he needs my husband.

‘I haven’t got one,’ I told him.

What he said next, shook me rigid. ‘That’s true,’ he said. ‘You’ve had five husbands, and the man you are with now isn’t your husband.’

This was getting personal, so I tried to steer the conversation into a religious debate. These Jews are always so self-righteous about their religion, I knew I’d trip him up.

But, somehow, we weren’t taking about religion. We were talking about God and having a personal relationship with him – being in touch with God instead of doing religious things.

It was exhilarating, but also frightening, as all the old rooms and hidden places of my life seemed to be exposed. But it wasn’t like he was pointing fingers. More like just opening them up and healing them with a gentle touch.

Then we spoke about the Messiah, and I said I longed for him to come, because, surely, the Messiah was the one who would explain all this to us and make it real?

Then he looked at me. And in a calm and gentle voice, he said, ‘I am he.’

Just like that.
And, suddenly, I knew.

If anyone had said to me then, ‘Will you go with this man?’ I would have jumped up and cried, ‘Yes, yes! A thousand times, yes!’ Camel or no camel.

Suddenly, his disciples were with him – they’d been buying bread or something. They didn’t say anything about him talking with a woman.

But I knew what I had to do. I left my jar and ran to the village. I called all the people, who’d ignored me (or worse) most of my life.

‘Come see a man,’ I said. ‘Out by the well. He seems to know everything about us. He told me all I have ever done. Could he be the Messiah?’

I must have sounded crazy. I don’t know why they didn’t laugh at me. But they came anyway. And they warmed to him, as I had. They even asked him to stay, which he did for a couple of days – and healing happened.

The village folk began to see in him what I had seen, and they believed as I had done.

I realised, later, that my dream had, indeed, come true.
No, no white camels, and none to ask me, ‘Will you go with this man?’
But it was my own voice calling in the same way: ‘Come see a man ….’

And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
Whenever I see someone in distress, someone in pain, someone lost or left out as I was, I tell them about Jesus. And I invite them to come to him.

So, I ask you, as they asked the other Rebecca, will you go with this man? Will you walk with Jesus?

Will you open your heart to him, as I did, and let him see the dark places, the scary places, the sad places of your life?

Will you let him bring healing and hope to your broken world? Because that’s what he did for me and my village, just as he did for my name’s sake so long ago, the other woman at the well.

Thank you for listening to my story.

[See also: Rebecca: A Prayer from the Well]


Filed under Grace and Law, Sermons, Stories

A pregnancy, a donkey, and an update

A visitThe Internet is a place full of shadows. People come and go; they visit this blog as I visit others. One or two leave a comment, which is a most welcome and tangible sign of their visit.  But most leave no more than an echo; something the system picks up to say that someone was here, visiting this page.  Who they were and how long they stayed; whether they were challenged, horrified or simply indifferent, the echo doesn’t say; they are simply shadows.

I wrote the story, “A pregnancy, a donkey, and a whole bunch of questions” for an Advent service on 28 November 2010, and I posted it here two days later.  There wasn’t much interest that year, and only 210 visitors looked at the story in the whole of 2011.  This year, 2012, must be the year of the donkey, or the journey, or whatever, because 245 people viewed the story in November alone, and another 280 in December so far.

No doubt many of those who came, left with nothing more than a quick glance.  Others perhaps stayed to read the story. What I’m interested in is whether someone out there has tried to use the story themselves somewhere else.

I used it again last Sunday at another church here in Pietermaritzburg.  The response was very good, with the general comment being, “It finished too soon. I want to hear what comes next.”

Telling storiesIt’s not often a preacher gets asked for more!  Which is why I believe that we should tell more stories.  There are risks in telling stories, which we don’t always want to take. With a sermon we lay the foundation, prepare the listeners, and then we draw them to the main point.  The message (we hope) is clear, and it can be summarised in a few words.

A story is its own message.  There is usually (as in the great stories of the Bible) an overall message of God’s grace, of God’s involvement in the world, of our struggle with God’s call, etc., but how people connect with the story is out of our hands.

In this story of Mary and Joseph’s journey, it is not the dialogue or their assumptions that matter.  The key is simply recognising that the conversation took place; that Mary and Joseph were real people like us, who would have asked the same questions we ask, with the same fears.  Yet they found a way to engage with God, and to trust him for the impossible future to which he was calling them.

When we begin to understand the people of the Bible in this way, as their experience and their encounter with God becomes more real to us (and more like ours), we can more readily engage with their story, and their story becomes our story.  We can no longer ignore the challenge that their lives present; we can no longer say “well, it was all very well for them….” It wasn’t all very well at all.  Yet as they listened and responded to God’s challenge, they began to reflect God’s glory, and their light still shines for us today.

Their story is no longer a fairy tale of otherworldly people, whose feet don’t quite touch the ground, and whose eyes are constantly raised heavenward. They are people like us. God took his chance with them, as he does with us. He loved them in their misunderstanding and lack of faith, as he loves us. He reached out to them when they were farthest away from him, as he does to us. They had the same questions we have, and God answered them as he seeks to answer us.

What has been your experience of story?  Do they help or hinder your journey?


Filed under Bible, Blogging, Stories

Plenty of Camels, Three Kings and a Baby

The following story was inspired by our minister who preached on the story of the wise men, and asked two questions.  First, which star are we following?  There are many to choose from in our over-stimulated lives.  The second had to do with the transformation of the wise men (they went home on a new road): on what new roads are we travelling?
 This story will, I hope, help you think about those questions.  For one, the wise men themselves were not always sure which star they were following, and unless our encounter with Jesus makes a difference in our lives and in our world (and leads us to new paths) then that encounter means very little. 
A photograph of three camels, taken at the Pyr...

I love camels.  Yeah, I know, I’m crazy.  No one loves camels, or no one tells anyone they love camels.  Most people put up with camels as a necessary evil, and camels certainly don’t love us; they hardly even put up with us.  Most people just use and abuse their camels; but before you start feeling sorry for the beast, rest assured, the abuse is mutual.

My father had me working with camels from childhood, almost before I could walk.  He was Master of the Stables for the late King Belzeor and I used to help him with his work.  It was hard work but I loved it and learned to love the camels too.  When I was growing up my favourites were Grouch, Rat and Sweets.  Those weren’t their real names but that’s what we called them.   Grouch was a real grouch, even for a camel, but he was a hard worker.  Rat wasn’t as bad as she sounds but when she was tiny she was skittish about rodents; rustle in the straw near her and she’d jump.  Sweets loved anything sweet—would steal dates from your pocket if you gave her half a chance; not everyone could handle that, but Dad was a master and I learned everything from him.

When King Belzeor died his son Balthazar took over.  About the same time I took over from my dad as Master of the Stables.  Like his father before him, Balthazar was a Magus, respected far and wide for his wisdom and learning.  He studied the heavens and could read the stars.  I was lucky enough just to be able to read a scroll.

A few years ago there was huge excitement in the household.  The master was setting off on a journey. That wasn’t so unusual but what was strange was that he didn’t know where he was going or how long it would take.  When we discussed the camels he would need I asked him about the roads he would follow.

“Roads?” he said. “Not roads; we’re going to follow a star.”

“Well this is going to be fun,” I thought.  Finally the stars had gone to the master’s head.  But he told me about a new star he had discovered to the west, which had appeared about four months before.  Two other Magi had also recognised this new star as something unique, and they would be joining us.  They believed the star represented a new-born king.  They seemed to think he was a Jew but why the birth of a Jew (even a king) would cause such excitement or warrant his own star, I had no idea.  My master and the other Magi seemed to think that this king would somehow be greater than his people.  Well I didn’t know much about politics but as far as I knew Jews and everyone else to the west were ruled by Rome, so this new king would have quite a mission ahead of him.

Anyway, crazy as it sounds, we followed a star.  Early each morning while it was still dark we would break camp and the master would point to the stars in the west.  “There it is,” he’d say. “Let’s be on our way.”

At first we didn’t know which one was the new one, but it wasn’t long before we could distinguish it and we would look for it in the dark.  We would follow it until a few hours after the sun came up then we would camp during the heat of the day.  Late afternoon we’d break camp and be on our way until just before it got dark.  Initially the star wasn’t around in the afternoons, and as the months progressed it would appear at different times of the day, but the Magi would do some calculations and use those for when the star wasn’t visible.

We had been on the road (not that we travelled much on a road) for about six months.  What a journey it was.  I could tell you a hundred stories—another time perhaps.

About six months after we started, the party nearly broke up.  I thought the Magi were going to come to blows.  They were usually so calm and peaceful we never heard their discussions.  This time their arguing was intense and loud.  We had crossed the Jordan River and had driven through Jericho, on our way, we thought, to Jerusalem.  That’s the Jewish capital where their king, Herod, had his palace.  But Balthazar had other plans.

“The star is not leading to Jerusalem but more to the south,” he said.

“Maybe,” said the others. “But the star is probably leading us to where the child was born; we want to know where he is now.  Surely the Jewish King will know where the next King of the Jews is, if he’s not in Jerusalem with him.”

But my master was not convinced; he wanted to follow the star. “We’re not following an earthly king, but one that’s known to the heavens,” he said. 

 “True,” the others said.  “But after so long in the desert, surely we owe it to our party to have a short rest in the city.”  I wouldn’t want to be disloyal to my master but, I must say, that sounded like a grand idea.  “And the star’s been with us all this time,” they added.  “It will wait for us.  A couple of days won’t hurt anyone, surely?”

Then they said we could hardly enter Herod’s territory, on our way to find his successor, without at least seeking an audience, and my master finally relented.  So we travelled to Jerusalem and spent a week there while the Magi met with King Herod.

I didn’t meet the King, of course, but I heard all about the visit.  It seems Herod didn’t know what his visitors from the east were talking about.  If there was a new heir to the throne he certainly hadn’t been told.  But, for all that, he was a gracious host, almost as eager as the Magi to know more and to join the search.

Herod’s wise men pointed to Bethlehem as the birthplace of this new king.  They quoted their scriptures:

“Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
You are by no means least of the leading cities of Judah;
for from you will come a leader who will guide my people Israel.”

“Clearly a gift from God,” Herod told them.  “Go to Bethlehem and find the child.  Then come back and tell me where he is so that I may also worship him.”

“Murder him, more like it,” was the reaction from the more cynical stable hands.

Jerusalem was great.  The King’s stables were lavish but the camels were restless, so it was good to be back on the road again.  We left early in the morning, well before dawn, and the star was there, just to the south-west where Bethlehem lay about eight kilometres away.  Would the child still be there?

As we reached the base of the last hill before Bethlehem, and looked up to the village, the star seemed to rest on top of the hill.  We stopped and stared.  Could this be the end of our journey?  We waited for the star to set but it didn’t move.  It seemed to be sitting on the hill, waiting for us, until it faded away in the light of the rising sun.

My master and the other Magi were very excited.  “The child is here,” Balthazar said.

I’ll never know how he did it (I’m not sure even he knows) but my master proceeded to lead the way through the village to a small cottage.  What a stir we caused.  I’m told that Bethlehem is where the famous King David was born but you wouldn’t know it.  The villagers don’t seem to have seen anyone royal or famous for the last thousand years.  They stopped and stared and followed along behind. 

But when we arrived at the cottage there was something about it, and about the couple who welcomed us, that made us catch our breath.  I can’t explain it but I’ve seen a lot of rich and powerful people, and people who like to think they are rich and powerful—aggression and contempt is what they do best.  But not this couple; they weren’t overawed by our pomp or frightened by our numbers.  There was a quiet confidence; a conviction that they were in the right place, doing the right thing.  But there was humility about them too, suggesting that they might not be too sure just what the “right thing” was.

And then there was the baby.

He was just a baby; just like any other baby.  But then, somehow, he was so different.  Perhaps it was his parents; perhaps it was the sight of these three powerful sages kneeling down in front of him, offering gifts.  Whatever it was, we all felt it—even the camels were still.

We wanted to know more, to do more.  I know it sounds strange (the whole thing was crazy from the start) but I wanted to follow this baby, this child, this…King.

I could see that Balthazar also felt it.  Tears had poured down his cheeks as he offered his gifts.  As he gave the child’s mother a gift of myrrh I heard him say to her, “I brought this gift for your son’s anointing, but myrrh is also a sign of suffering, and I fear the swords that will put him on his throne will pierce your heart.” 

I had no idea what my master meant (perhaps he didn’t either) but it was clear that the encounter with this family, this child, had transformed him.  “We are not going back to Jerusalem,” he told us that evening.  “We’re going to find a different path; a new road.”  And I felt sure that he was talking about something more than just the route we would take home.

I still don’t understand it all, but I knew at that moment that it was time to leave the star behind and follow this child, whatever it might mean.

Balthazar summed it up for me as we gathered around him.  “I don’t understand all that has happened,” he said.  “I sense that we have been in the presence of greatness, but a greatness unlike anything I have come across before.   I can’t speak for you,” he went on, “But I want to learn more about this child and tell people about him.  Where we met him, no one needs to know that, but how he has affected us, and what it means to you and to me, that’s something to think deeply about and to share with the world.  I doubt that anyone will remember a bunch of Magi coming to this place,” he said.  “But, if we follow our hearts and share what we have experienced, the world will be talking about this child long after we are all gone.”

Last week was Epiphany Sunday.  It’s the day we celebrate the coming of the wise men to Jesus, a symbol of his being presented to the world, the gentile world, our world.  This story is not meant in any way to improve on the Bible story, let alone replace it.  We have become so familiar with the Bible stories that we often fail to hear them anymore.  I hope that this (and other stories I write) will help us hear the story of the wise men differently and receive new challenges.


Filed under Bible, Christmas, Stories

A pregnancy, a donkey, and a whole bunch of questions

2303_SOTB_BirthOfJesus-1_04700300“Are you alright, Mary? Are you comfortable?”

“No, I’m not. I’m so uncomfortable. I wish we could have stayed at home. Oh, Joseph! I don’t want to go another step.”

“We’re nearly there. Just over that hill and we’ll be able to see the town.”

“Oh, how I want a bed; any bed will do; just to lie down.”

“We’ll find one soon, Mary, real soon. I’ll find you the most comfortable bed in town.” Joseph stopped suddenly. “The baby’s not going to come before we get there is he?” he asked.

“Half of me wishes he would. But I hope not,” Mary assured him.

They travelled on in silence for awhile, Mary on the donkey, Joseph walking next to her, holding the reins.

They had travelled like this all the way from Galilee. Five days they’d been on the road, having to take things very slowly. Madness to be travelling when Mary was so close to giving birth, but they were part of a mini-migration, criss-crossing the country; everyone going to their home towns. The Roman Emperor, Augustus, wanted to count everyone—a ‘census’ it was called. Why? Nobody really knew, but everyone had to be counted in their family’s home town. Joseph’s father, Jacob, was always known as Jacob barDavid (even though his father’s name was Matthan). His family had always been proud that they were direct descendants of King David, and everyone knew that David’s home town was Bethlehem. David had kept his father’s sheep on the hills outside of the town. Imagine being one of the shepherds in sleepy old Bethlehem, and you discover a king in your midst. That’ll never happen again. Anyway, that’s why Mary and Joseph had to trek all the way to Bethlehem, however crazy or impossible it was.

Mary broke the silence with a deep sigh. “Oh, thank you Joseph.”

“What for?”

“For keeping me with you; for saying you believed me.”

“But I do believe you, Mary.”

“I know. But sometimes I’m not sure I believe it myself. And the baby…it’s not…you don’t….”

“It’s my baby too, Mary. As much as God gave him to you, he gave him to me too.”

“Oh, Joseph. Thank you! It’s just that sometimes it’s feels like it’s too much. It’s difficult enough being pregnant, but with everything we’ve been through, I sometimes wonder if I made it all up. Perhaps it was all a dream.”

“Well,” Joseph chuckled. “You didn’t get that uncomfortable bump in your tummy from a dream, Mary.”

“Yes, I know, that’s what most of the people in the village seemed to be saying—so-called friends.”

Joseph smiled, “Mine too,” he said.

“But why us, Joseph?”

Joseph shrugged and shook his head.

“When Elizabeth’s little John was born,” Mary said. “I remember Zechariah saying to his child,

‘You, my son, will be called ‘prophet of the Most High God
You will prepare the road for the Lord.
God will cause his light to shine on all who live in darkness
To guide us into the Light’

“And I thought, But he’s just a baby; what can he do? But what about our baby, Joseph? The angel said…or was it just a dream? He said that this baby would be called the ‘Son of the Most High God’. He’ll be a king. What does it all mean?

Joseph walked on in silence for awhile.

“I don’t know, Mary,” he said eventually. “I don’t know what it means. But these are dark times. It’s been pretty rough for you and me these past few months and it’s not going to be easy up ahead. But it’s a pretty dark time for Israel, too. Who knows what Rome is going to do once they have finished this census—I mean, why do they suddenly want to count us for goodness sake?”

“Send us food parcels, perhaps,” Mary laughed.

“Yeah, right. But, seriously, when last did we hear anything at the Synagogue or from anyone that suggested God was interested in us, or had a message for us? Oh, old Rabbi Simon does his best, but you don’t come away thinking that God is speaking to us.”

“Are you saying that God hasn’t spoken to us?”

“No, that’s my point, Mary. When your cousin Zechariah said, ‘God is merciful. He will cause the bright dawn of salvation to rise on us and to shine on all those who live in darkness,’ I really felt that was for real, that God had spoken to him, that we were hearing for the first time something that God himself was saying to us. And remember what you said to Elizabeth when you first went to visit? You told me that the words just came bubbling up from deep inside somewhere; you said, ‘My soul is glad because of God my Saviour, for he has remembered me, his lowly servant.’ Well, Mary, God touched me then too.”

“Oh, Joseph, thank you for remembering those words. But why us?” Mary asked again.

Joseph shook his head. “I don’t know, Mary. But if God is doing something for us, however small and insignificant it might turn out to be, well perhaps he’s getting ready to something for Israel too. Maybe, at last, the light will shine again.”

Mary thought for a while. “And…‘Son of God’? What’s that about, Joseph?”

“I’ve asked the same question over and over,” Joseph said. “I don’t know the answer, but we are all children of God, aren’t we? We’ve just forgotten. Perhaps we need someone to remind us?”

Mary nodded. “And ‘King’,” she said after a while. “How can our child be a king?”

“Well I have got some of David’s royal blood in me somewhere,” Joseph chuckled. “But if we are children of God, then we are all royal princess and princesses of a much greater and more eternal Kingdom. Maybe our son will somehow remind us of our inheritance.”

“Oh Joseph. It’s so scary and so exciting at the same time. I just wish his little royal highness would stop kicking my tummy every time the donkey trips over a stone. Please tell me that’s Bethlehem I can see over there.”


I told this story at Prestbury Methodist Church on 28 November 2010, followed by the Advent Prayer.  The aim is to help us see this couple as real people on a real journey, not a fairy tale.  My prayer is that their story will touch our lives again; that their journey will become our journey this Advent as we prepare ourselves for, and as we celebrate, the coming of the Christ.

While this conversation may not have taken place at this point of their journey, I’m pretty sure it took place at some stage—perhaps over an extended period of time.

I used the story again at Scottsville Methodist Church on 16 December 2012, where it was well received.  What are your thoughts?


Filed under Stories

A tax audit, Jericho style

Zachaeus΄s sycarome in Jericho

Zachaeus΄s sycarome in Jericho (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I told this story at Prestbury Methodist Church on Sunday 31 October 2010

Zacchaeus killed my father. Every time we saw him in the street or walked past his house Mom would stiffen; Sam & I would just grit our teeth and look the other way. Mind you, no one liked him. He was Jericho’s tax collector. Like so many, power and greed went to his head and he took what he wanted, whatever the cost to anyone else. His job was to collect taxes for Rome. Whatever extra he could squeeze out of the rest of us, he got to keep. He wouldn’t rob the rich, mind you; wouldn’t do to rock the boat too much; the world is a rich man’s club after all. But the poor? What do we know? What power do we have? None at all.

Well, if everyone hated Zacchaeus, we hated him more. Zacchaeus killed my father. Oh, not directly, of course. He wouldn’t get his hands dirty. But he killed him just the same. That was ten years ago, and we still hated him with a passion. But, of course, every year when we had to pay our taxes it was, “Yes, Sir. No Sir. How much should we pay, Sir?” with stupid grins on our faces. But what else could we do? Show any sign of dissent and he’d find a reason to take another 10%.

My father had a small business in Jericho. It wasn’t much, but it kept us fed and clothed. One day some men came with some Roman soldiers and took my Dad away. My mother screamed at them. Just as well Uncle John was there. He held Mom back and stopped her doing anything violent to the men. I knew Mom could get angry; she’d been angry with Sam and me often enough, but this was wild. The men searched the house and took stuff away with them—even Mom’s special Passover pots.

“It won’t cover what he owes,” one of the men said.

My Brother Sam (he’s three years older than me) tried to stop them but the man pushed him out of the way.  “That’ll teach your father to steal,” he said.

“My father didn’t steal anything,” Sam spat back.

I didn’t know what was going on. I was only 13 and I was so scared; but I didn’t dare ask Mom, so I asked Sam.

“Dad didn’t steal anything,” he said. “Those dogs cheated him.”

“But what were they talking about? How come they took him away?” I wanted desperately to understand.

Sam told me that some men had persuaded Dad to do business with them. “Help them out,” they said. They gave him some money; he was to buy some donkeys or camels or something. Mom was furious when she heard, but Dad said it was ok, there was nothing wrong.

“Then that thief heard that Dad had money,” Sam said.

“What thief?” I asked.

“The tax collector, Zacchaeus, of course. Dad tried to tell him that it wasn’t his money but he wasn’t interested. I mean, have you ever tried to reason with a tax collector? He made Dad pay tax on it and forced him to pay more because he said Dad had obviously been hiding extra income.

“The men who’d given it to Dad weren’t anywhere around. But they came back last week and they demanded their money. Dad tried to explain, tried to take them to Zacchaeus, but they weren’t interested. And Zacchaeus wasn’t interested; he had his money. Now they’ve thrown Dad into prison until he pays up.”

It was a huge shock for us all. Mom struggled to keep everything together. Uncle John and Aunty Martha helped, but they couldn’t pay off the debt. Worst of all was the shame—especially for Dad. He couldn’t take being branded a thief. They wouldn’t let us visit him. Eventually he just stopped eating and he died of shame. That was about four months after they took him away. I cried and cried. Mom just seemed to turn in on herself.

As I said, that was ten years ago. The men who started it have long gone but Zacchaeus is still here. He must have known. And I hated him because he didn’t care. My family was destroyed in front of him but, instead of admitting his mistake, he turned his back. He killed my father.


Sorry, I didn’t want to tell you about all that. I wanted to tell you about Jesus. Like most Jews, well among the poorer classes anyway, we longed for the Messiah. The rich said all the right things of course, but they wouldn’t want a Messiah to come and free us from the Romans. People like Zacchaeus, and even the Priests, depended on Rome for a living and for their power.

But we prayed often, and longed for the day that God would rescue his people. Then Jesus came. He wasn’t like any of the others who had raised our hopes, and nothing like we imagined. He never said anything about the Romans; just got angry with the Priests and Pharisees. But it wasn’t about who he was against. That’s what was so different. It was about what he was for. He really cared. He cared about the sick, about the poor, about sinners, about ordinary people. He seemed genuinely to love them all. He never recruited a following; people just followed him. He never tried to raise money.

We first met him when John was baptising in the Jordon about three years ago—“John the Baptist” they called him. We were there when Jesus came to be baptised. John was clearly in awe of Jesus, and for John to be in awe of someone; well, he didn’t care a fig for King Herod even, and he called the Pharisees, “Snakes”!

Later we were up in Galilee and saw Jesus a few times. Then he came to Jerusalem for one of the festivals and we heard him there. Sam went up to Galilee and spent the whole summer there last year. He went around with the crowd that followed Jesus. He came back full of amazing stories.

Jesus was so different from the religious leaders. And, although he was also different from what we expected the Messiah to be like, he made such sense. He spoke with such authority. He didn’t go for an outward show of religion but spoke of a real relationship with God.


“He’s a true friend of sinners,” Sam said once.

“Friend of sinners?” my Mother queried.

“Yes,” Sam said. “Friend of sinners. He doesn’t mind who he mixes with: the poorest of the poor, lepers, even Samaritans.”

“Friend of sinners,” I thought.

“Is he going to get rid of the Romans?” Uncle John asked.

“I don’t think so,” Sam said. “He keeps talking about the Kingdom of God, but not like it’s a rival to Rome. It’s like a relationship. It’s like we’re all in God’s Kingdom together. Not fighting each other, not pointing fingers, just forgiving and accepting each other.

“They brought a woman to him once,” Sam continued. “She’d been caught in adultery.”

“What about the man?” I asked.

I don’t know,” Sam said. “It wasn’t really about them; it was about catching Jesus out. Anyway they said that, according to our law, she should be stoned to death.”

“What did Jesus say?” I asked.

“He said that the one who was without sin should cast the first stone.”

“What did they say to that?” Uncle John chuckled.

“Nothing!” said Sam. “They just crept away.” 

“And then?”

“Then Jesus asked the woman whether there was anyone to condemn her, and there was no one. So he said, ‘I don’t condemn you either. Go and sin no more.’ ”

I look at Sam, amazed. “Friend of sinners,” I said.


When we heard that Jesus was coming through Jericho on his way to the Passover, we went to meet him. The whole town seemed to be there. We even saw Zacchaeus. He was trying to get through the crowd.

“Always pushing in,” I thought. I must confess that I was glad to see no one let him through. Why he was there I couldn’t imagine. Then Jesus arrived and everyone was so excited to see him.

Suddenly Jesus stopped just under the sycamore fig tree near where we were standing; the one by the Synagogue. He was looking up into the tree. I looked and couldn’t believe my eyes.

“It’s Zacchaeus.” My mother hissed in my ear.

He was up the tree. Why was he so desperate to see Jesus? Was he going to tax him for passing through?

The crowd stopped. For a few seconds there was silence; you could feel the tension in the air. One word from Jesus and I think the crowd would have gone wild and torn Zacchaeus down and trampled him underfoot. I’m pretty sure the years of pent-up hatred would have overcome the fear, and Zacchaeus wouldn’t have survived.

After what seemed like ages, but was only a second or two, Jesus greeted Zacchaeus like an old friend.

“Zacchaeus,” Jesus said. “Come down. I’ve come to visit you. Let’s go to your house.”

We were stunned. Did we hear him right? Did Jesus really just invite himself to the home of the most hated man in all Jericho? What was he thinking? Of all the people…..?

We were too shocked to talk and we walked home in silence.

“How could Jesus do that?” I later demanded of Sam, as if it were Sam’s fault. “There are so many good people here; people who’d love to see Jesus. There was so much excitement. Why did he throw it all away?”

Sam thought for a while. “They call him ‘friend of sinners’, you remember?” he said.

“But…” I tried to protest but the words wouldn’t come.

“If he’s going to befriend the adulterer, the Samaritan, us, then I guess he’s could even befriend Zacchaeus,” Sam suggested.

“But do you think he knows who that…man is and what he’s done.”

“Oh, yes,” said Sam. “I reckon Jesus knows a whole lot more than you think.”

“Well then,” I said. “It’s all very well befriending ordinary sinners like us, or that woman caught in adultery, but…but…him! There’s got to be a limit somewhere.”

“Maybe Jesus thinks there’s hope even for Zacchaeus?”Sam tried.

“Oh, please! He’s so hard-hearted nothing will make a difference to him. Not even when he dangles over the fires of hell.”

I went to bed angry. I woke the next morning realising we had expected too much from Jesus. Not the Messiah after all; just an ordinary man overwhelmed by the temptations of power and wealth.

“Oh how sad,” I thought.

We had just finished breakfast when there was a knock at the door.


It was Zacchaeus!

“He saw us in the crowd.” I panicked. “He must have seen the hatred in our eyes or something. Now he’s come to punish us.”

In spite of my fear I heard myself saying, “What do you want?”

“I…I’m sorry to disturb you,” he said. “…I know I’m not welcome here, but…I’d like to talk to you all please.”

“Why?” I asked, still shocked.

Sam joined me at the door. Mercifully my mother had gone to Aunty Martha’s.

“I saw you yesterday with Jesus when I was up the tree,” Zacchaeus said. “I guess I must have looked a bit stupid.”

I didn’t trust myself to reply to that.

Something in Zacchaeus’ voice made Sam invite him inside; he was carrying a satchel. We sat down very uncomfortably.

“I don’t know why I so badly wanted to see Jesus yesterday,” Zacchaeus said. “But I just had to. Did you follow the crowd to my house?”

“No,” Sam said. “We came home.”

I thought, “Well, at least he can’t blame us for anything that happened there.”

“Jesus came to my house,” Zacchaeus said. “And he sat down with us to eat the mid-day meal. He picked up the bread my wife had baked for us and he broke it. Then he looked at me…and passed me the broken piece.”

I was expecting pride in his voice but was shocked to see tears in Zacchaeus’ eyes as he recalled the scene.

“As I took the bread I thought of all the people whose lives I had broken, and how their brokenness had fed me, clothed me, and made me rich. And right there in front of Jesus, I did what I haven’t done in 40 years; I broke down and cried.

“I looked at Jesus and told him I wanted to heal some of that brokenness. I don’t have any great talents but I could use the one thing I do have, my money. I told Jesus I’d give half of it away then use the rest to repay those I’d particularly harmed.”

He looked up at Sam and me and he said, “And when I thought about those I’d hurt, I thought about you. I can’t hope to fix the hurt I’ve caused, and I can’t bring your father back. But I have been to the Rabbi to clear his name at the Synagogue; they know your father wasn’t a thief. And I have begun investigations to find the men who loaned him the money that started all this. While it was almost certainly stolen money they wanted to avoid taxes on, I shall pay them back what they gave your father when I find them.”

Zacchaeus got up to go.

“And I want to leave you this,” he said, handing Sam the satchel; it was clearly very heavy. “There is a formal letter there confirming that the contents have been fully taxed. I am sorry I can’t do more. Perhaps, one day, we will meet…not as friends, perhaps, but as friends of Jesus, who certainly seems to have a way with sinners.”

With that he left.

We sat in silence for a while, then I heard Sam whisper, “Friend of sinners.”


Lord, we have turned our backs on some of your friends. We have shunned some and ignored others because their sins are too great for us, their pain too much for us, their burdens too heavy for us.

 Oh Jesus, friend of sinners, thank you for carrying our burdens, sharing our pain, and dying for our sins. Show us how to love your friends, to open our hearts to them, to welcome them into our circles, so that your Kingdom may come in our time, in this place.


Year C – 23th Sunday after Pentecost

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10

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Ten Bridesmaids: A Soccer Story


This story was first told at Prestbury Methodist Church on Sunday 18 July 2010

   SCRIPTURE: Matthew 25:1-13

“At that time the Kingdom of heaven will be like this. Once there were ten young women who took their oil lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. (2) Five of them were foolish, and the other five were wise. (3) The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any extra oil with them, (4) while the wise ones took containers full of oil for their lamps. (5) The bridegroom was late in coming, so they began to nod and fall asleep. (6) “It was already midnight when the cry rang out, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come and meet him!’ (7) The ten young women woke up and trimmed their lamps. (8) Then the foolish ones said to the wise ones, ‘Let us have some of your oil, because our lamps are going out.’ (9) ‘No, indeed,’ the wise ones answered, ‘there is not enough for you and for us. Go to the store and buy some for yourselves.’ (10) So the foolish ones went off to buy some oil; and while they were gone, the bridegroom arrived. The five who were ready went in with him to the wedding feast, and the door was closed. (11) “Later the others arrived. ‘Sir, sir! Let us in!’ they cried out. (12) ‘Certainly not! I don’t know you,’ the bridegroom answered.” (13) And Jesus concluded, “Watch out, then, because you do not know the day or the hour.


What were ten bridesmaids doing waiting around in the middle of the night for the bridegroom?  Why was the bridegroom so harsh?  Ok, they weren’t ready; they didn’t have enough oil; they messed up.  But you and me, we’d know these foolish bridesmaids. We’d probably say, “You bunch of skelms.  What you doing out in the dark?  Get inside!”  And later, no doubt, we’d tell our bride about her dilly friends.

 The other stories and illustrations Jesus used were all taken from everyday life and were very easy to understand.  So we assume this one would also have made sense to his hearers at the time.  But what is clear to us is that these bridesmaids had a responsibility.  We might not know what that was, but it was important enough to impact on a number of people, including themselves, and to have serious consequences.  It is also clear that relationship with God is not about who we are, but about what we do.

 Given those truths, how would Jesus have told the story if he was speaking to us, in South Africa today, after a most successful soccer world cup?

And what if, instead of talking about the people involved, Jesus told it from the point of view of one of the characters?

 Let’s listen….



I was always mad about soccer, ever since my folks gave me a soccer ball when I was two years old. I’d make my Dad play with me. Where I grew up soccer was everything, and being able to play like Lucas Radebe was every kid’s dream.

By the time I hit high school there were ten of us in the neighbourhood. We used to kick a ball around together in someone’s yard, or on the street, or down in the park. We were at different schools but we had all grown up together. Well, except Midget—he was the shortest of the group, obviously—he came later, but in spite of his height, he fitted in pretty quickly.


Phillip and I would compete for best placekicker. We could hit anything at 20 paces. We also did trick shots like scissor kicks. I know we were just showing off but, hey, if you’ve got a talent there’s no point hiding it under a bowl. Phillip would practice like mad but I was lucky, more of a natural. I could usually beat him and tackle the ball away from him. It made him really mad. I think that’s why he worked so hard; he was determined to get the better of me but I could still hold my own. Whenever I went to his place I’d find him kicking the ball or bouncing it on his feet like the soccer stars do. And when I left him after we’d been playing in the park, or wherever, I knew he’d go straight back to practicing—sometimes spending an hour or more at it. I’m so glad I didn’t need to do that. It would have taken all the fun out of it.

We were going to play professional soccer one day. We dreamed of the day a talent scout would come to our neck of the woods and spot us. We’d be the talk of the town. What a life we’d have!

Phillip also worked pretty hard at his books. Me? I just did enough school work to get by and keep my folks off my back. “Could do better,” was a regular comment on my reports but I didn’t care. Once I became a soccer star no one would care about my grades. 

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