Rev. Ben Campbell | 8.21.21

Give your donkey water on Sunday

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. [Luke 13:10-17]

Give your donkey water on Sunday.
That’s the lesson from today’s Gospel story. That and one more thing.

Give your donkey water on Sunday.
Jesus, it seems, was in the synagogue on the Sabbath. There was a lady there who was bent over. Seeing this, and knowing how she could be healed, Jesus declared to her that she was free from her affliction. She carefully stood up straight – for the first time in 18 years.

You know the rest of the story. The rabbi got mad. He told Jesus he’d broken the rules by healing the lady on the Sabbath – and in religious services, to boot. But Jesus looked him in the eye and said, “I know if your donkey was thirsty on the Sabbath you’d break the rules and give him some water. Do you mean to tell me you won’t break the rules when you see a human being, — a lady in physical despair — and know you can heal her?” Give your donkey water on Sunday. But for God’s sake, heal that lady too.

It’s a little story. But it’s a big deal. Carried through to the end, it’s about the coming of the kingdom of God. It’s what Isaiah prophesied in the passage we read a couple of minutes ago:

if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;

Give your donkey water on Sunday – and take just one more step. You shall help to raise up the foundations of many generations.

Give your donkey water on Sunday. And one more thing…
Our daughter Susanna teaches International Relations at American University in Washington. Susanna spent a number of years in Burundi, in East Africa. She wrote her dissertation on what she had learned, and it was published. Then she became a consultant. For some time now, she’s been working with international aid groups – non-profits, the UN, and governments – that give aid to countries in trouble.

Susanna’s discovery was this: she learned to measure and quantify what every good foreign aid worker she met knew: the aid programs that were successful were nearly always the ones where field workers broke the rules imposed on them by headquarters. I asked her last week to text me the principle she discovered. It was this: It takes bad behavior to bring good performance.

Here’s the reason. No matter how elegant the best practices required by the staff at headquarters were when you got to the field the ultimate success was what was worked out by the aid workers and the persons being aided. That represented a transfer of health and power, lively and genuine. Aid workers who were bound to the insistent demands of their supervisors often did more damage than good.

The same, of course, is true in the misery that teachers face in the test-dominated classrooms of public education today. And we could give many more examples. Just like the synagogue on that Sabbath. With generic, physically absent supervision, it is often only a practitioner’s officially bad behavior that can bring good results.

For God’s sake, even though it’s not written in the Sabbath rules, give your donkey water on the Sabbath. And take at least one more step. Then you shall do your part to raise up the foundations of many generations.

Give your donkey water on the Sabbath. And one more thing…
Look, this story isn’t about behavior in church and on Sunday. It’s about behavior in Virginia and Henrico and Richmond on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. It’s not about church religion – which Jesus seems to think will take care of itself. It’s about Jesus’ religion — city religion – which is the only genuine purpose of church religion.

Take those two steps – giving your thirsty donkey water on the Sabbath and doing one more thing – and you’re stepping into the world of real religion, — city religion, life religion.

Real religion is so clearly stated in the Scriptures. It’s in Micah 6:6-8 — you all know it: “What does he Lord require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your god?’

It’s stated in this lesson we read from Isaiah today. “If you if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” As you keep doing this, ultimately, Isaiah says, “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt, (and) you shall raise up the foundations of many generations.” [Isaiah 58:10, 13]

That is to say, when you start on this road by giving your donkey water on the Sabbath and doing one more thing, you will find that the road leads to something even more majestic, even more comprehensive. It leads to the healing of the city and the building of a healthy society.

This is Jesus’ religion – not church religion, but city religion, community religion, real religion. In Real religion, the church is always secondary. The church exists not for its own sake but for the sake of promoting, strengthening, building, praying and infecting people with the deep disease the Hebrew prophets described as doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. The success of the church happens when its members change and break the rules of society to bring about the healing of the community. The only healthy church religion is a church religion that is secondary to its city religion.

Give your donkey water on Sunday. And one more thing…
A lot of people look at stories like this in the New Testament and say this proves Jesus was the Son of God because he could heal this lady who was bent over just like that, with some kind of spiritual zap.

I don’t know what to say about this. I don’t really know what this lady’s problem was, or how she was healed, or how Jesus knew how to heal her, or whether it was something that only he could do, or whether you had to be the “son of God” to do it.

But I do know this. When he saw her and thought he could do something to help, he did it. When you and I look at Jesus as God’s Son or his representative, we are not saying that he had some kind of magical zapping power. That’s not the main thing about God. We are saying that he represented God’s love and determination for the healing of the world. We are affirming that’s the main thing about God. We are saying we believe that God is like Jesus – he wanted the bent-over lady in the synagogue to be able to stand up. Jesus sought the healing of the world. God is like him.

Jesus broke the rules of the synagogue and facilitated the healing of the woman who was bent over. He saw a little piece of brokenness and, knowing he could affect it, stepped forward to heal.

What about us? Isn’t our call the same as his? To do what we can with what we have? To take whatever steps we can to respond to the sons and daughters of God. We can give the donkey water on Sunday, — but that’s only practice. It’s the life of our brothers and sisters that calls us.

Give your donkey water on Sunday. And one more thing…
This is not the First Century A.D. This is the 21st Century. A lot of water has gone over the dam of human and social development. Jesus’ teachings have had a lot of effect. All of us have power that the people of Jesus’ time, bound by convention, by totalitarian government, and by dogmatic religion, did not have. We have social and political power, although we never know how much. We have policy power. We have economic power. Our exercise of that power is what we have available when we look across the metropolitan city. Jesus can heal the lady bent over. We can all respond to the person across the room. But most of us can respond to the person across the city as well.

This morning’s newspaper talks about the eviction crisis – the people across our city who work full time but cannot afford housing in this twisted and distressed economy. It’s a democratic society and a capitalist economy. You have healing power.

I’m sure, if you have a donkey, you’ll give him water this Sabbath. But what about that lady across the city being made homeless by our eviction laws? Ought she not be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?

Take care of your donkey. But one more thing…
These ancient ruins shall be rebuilt. And you shall raise up the foundations of many generations.