Talking to Those in the Ditch


It was back when I was a pastor in Indiana and I was granted my first sabbatical. I had stuffed those nine weeks to the gills and now it was my last Sunday before returning to work. I was going to spend my last day of my sabbatical by attending worship in a church in a neighboring town. I wanted to go to this particular church because I heard that their pastor had been invited to sit on a committee of clergy to advise President Bill Clinton. Now for us clergy in Indiana, this was not the kind of thing any of us were ever requested to do. I figured that if the President of the United States had heard of this pastor, that I should probably go hear what he had to say.

I found a seat in the pews towards the middle of the sanctuary and waited for worship to begin. A woman got up to do the announcements and started with, “We thank Deacon Dodge for bringing the message today.” Then she said with such obvious pride in her voice, “As you know Pastor has gone to D.C. to advise the President and so he asked Deacon Dodge to fill in.” Great. I had chosen a Sunday when the pastor I came to hear was doing the very thing I had heard he had been invited to do. I was stuck with Deacon Dodge.

When it came time for the sermon Deacon Dodge got up and said, “I didn’t prepare a sermon for today.” I wondered if anyone around me could tell that I had stifled a groan. Then Deacon Dodge said, “Instead we are going to act out the story of the Good Samaritan. I am just going to choose some people out of the congregation to participate. None of this has been rehearsed,” he said with pride. I did an eye roll and began to make a mental grocery list. Then I panicked and prayed, “Please God, don’t let him choose me to participate in his play.”

I shouldn’t have worried. He chose all men to play the parts. He chose a man in a well-worn navy suit to walk down the aisle, and he chose two big guys to come along and beat him up and leave him in the ditch on the side of the road. He selected two well-dressed looking men, whose shoes were so polished you good see yourself in them, to play the parts of the priest and the Levite. When he chose the one to play the Good Samaritan he picked a guy sitting by himself in the far side of the sanctuary. He appeared to be a man treated like a foreigner in his own church. The people around me seemed nervous or perhaps perplexed by his choice. I couldn’t tell which it was.

When the poorly acted little vignette was over Deacon Dodge went up to the man who had been left for dead in the ditch and rescued by the Samaritan and started a conversation with him. Now, I’m a pastor. I figured I knew where this was going. He was going to do a little dialogue sermon with this man about how we should all go out now and follow the example of the Good Samaritan. I have preached that sermon more times than I care to remember.

Instead he looked at the man and said, “John, you know what it is like to be in the ditch, don’t you?” “You know I do,” he said. “John, what’s it like to be in the ditch?” “It’s so bad I don’t want to remember it.” Suddenly I felt like I had been invited into private therapy session. But I was so mesmerized by what was happening I couldn’t look away.

“John, who helped you out of the ditch? Was it the people you expected to care for you?” “No it wasn’t”, he said. “It was the people I least expected.” Then Deacon Dodge turned his eye back on the congregation. “You’ve all been in the ditch. You know what it feels like to be helped out of the ditch. Go and do likewise.”

As I collected my purse and headed home I realized that this story had multiple things to say and what you hear depends on your view. Are you viewing this story from the road or from the ditch?

It made me ask myself, just whom was Jesus talking to that day when he told the story of the Good Samaritan? Remember that Jesus told this parable during a conversation he was having with a lawyer in the crowd. The scripture tells us that the lawyer was testing Jesus. “Rabbi,” he said, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This was a softball question. Any good Jew could answer this question. We all expect Jesus to say, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer was preparing to lead Jesus down a path so he started with the question that had an obvious answer. It is a well-known art of cross-examination. But Jesus refused to play.

Jesus turned the question back on his examiner, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” Suddenly the lawyer is the one on the stand. How did this happen? So the lawyer gives the answer we all expected Jesus to give. “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” But that wasn’t the end of this interaction. The lawyer was committed now. He had wanted to prove that Jesus had nothing new to teach this crowd. He wanted to prove that everything that Jesus was teaching them they had already learned at Sabbath School. This guy wasn’t anything unusual…just another Rabbi. There is nothing new here, folks. Move on.

The lawyer couldn’t quit now that he was the one on trial. The lawyer felt the need to justify himself, the scripture says. So he asked Jesus a second question, “Who is my neighbor?” He was trying to take back control of the questioning and he knew that the answer to the question would justify his own righteousness. The lawyer was a person who lived an honorable and virtuous life, according to society. He knew the answer to his second question. It was another softball question. He expected Jesus to say, “The scripture teaches us that our neighbor is not just our kin but the stranger, the sojourner, the orphan, the widow, the one living in poverty.” Then the lawyer, the one now on the hot seat, could say, “I do treat those people as my neighbors, so I guess I will inherit eternal life.” In this question he would justify himself and let the crowd see that Jesus had nothing new to say.

But that is not what Jesus said, nor did he congratulate the lawyer on his obvious reward of eternal life. No. Jesus told a story that starts like this, “A certain man was going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho…” We hear that story and we think it is a story of generic man on a generic journey. Actually, the lawyer would have heard it like this: “Imagine you were heading from Jerusalem to Jericho when you found yourself beaten, robbed and left for dead in the ditch on the side of the road.” To answer the lawyer’s question he made him an actor in his story. “You don’t get to be the righteous man viewing this story from the road, you are the victim in the ditch,” Jesus tells him. The view is so different when you are in the ditch than when you are sailing along on the road of health, happiness and safety.

It was a dangerous road, the winding road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Jesus invited the lawyer into an experience…to imagine himself in a situation in which he was in trouble and all of his expected resources were suddenly of no help. Only the Samaritan stopped to help him…the despised foreigner….the one who bastardized his religion….the one he would have neglected to list when he described his neighbor. Jesus didn’t want the lawyer to leave feeling even more self-righteous. He wanted him to leave with a wider circle of mercy and love….and so he knew he had to invite him to spend time in the ditch.

It’s a dangerous journey, this up and down road of life. Odds are pretty good that all of us will spend some time in the ditch and the view is very different there. Imagine yourself in the ditch. I know you have spent time there because there are so many ditches….the ditch of cancer or a dying loved one….unemployment or depression…broken relationship or addiction. Who was your neighbor when you were in the ditch? Did you even care? It could have been anybody as far as your were concerned…anybody who would stop and help you out of the ditch. The ditch is a lonely, frightening place. When you are in the ditch you yearn for a little love, a little mercy….anyone….someone to stop and reach out a hand.

Once you’ve been in a ditch you can’t help but think back on all the times you had judgment about those people who experienced the ditch before you. Mercy looks different from the ditch. It gives you a whole new perspective. You think back over all the times you walked past someone in the ditch because you thought you were just too busy or not the right person or you would catch them on the way back or you didn’t have the right words or you thought they deserved the ditch. When you are in the ditch you remember back to all the inadequate or inappropriate or perhaps even harsh words you spoke to someone in the very same ditch you now find yourself.

That is what the ditch does for us. It changes everything we thought we knew about God, politics, enemies and the way the world works. Old enemies become neighbors once you’ve spent time in the borderlands. The point of this story isn’t told to the righteous so that they can justify themselves and go and imitate the Samaritan. The point of the story is that only when we have witnessed the view from the ditch….spent time in the borderlands….been truly vulnerable….found ourselves in need of mercy…only then can we become like the Good Samaritan…only then do we understand what it truly means to be Christ-like. It is through suffering…through soul-searching heartache that we find solidarity with others. The ditch actually brings us together…not because of our righteousness but out of deep empathy. Suffering is what makes us neighbors.

Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan and then he asks the lawyer a final question. “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man in the ditch? Was it the priest or the Levite…people who stand for righteousness but don’t have the needed empathy? Or was it the Good Samaritan…the one you treat with such distain…the one who picked you up and tended your wounds when you were too down to do it yourself.”

The lawyer says, “It was the one who showed me mercy.” “Go and do likewise, then. Go and treat others the way you were treated when you were in the ditch…Go be a like the one you met when you were desperate for a neighbor.” Amen.