The Fields are Ripe for the Harvest
Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference
June 8, 2016
Peoria Civic Center
Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
When I reviewed the Daily Proceedings of the Thursday Morning Session of the 1996 Jurisdictional Conference held at Ft. Wayne, IN, it brought back memories. My Garrett classmate, the late Jean-Cramer Huerman chaired the Committee on Journals. In their Daily Proceedings for July 18, 1996, Jeannie’s committee recorded this notation: “Report of Seventeenth Ballot” Ballots cast 380; invalid ballots 9; valid ballots 371; needed to elect 223. There is an election. Jonathan D. Keaton (Northern Illinois) received 238 votes and was elected a bishop of the United Methodist Church at 10:07 a.m. (EST).” (p.45 of the NCJ Journal). In the chair, Bishop Woodie White made the announcement. Today’s gospel reading, John 4:35 provided the biblical theme for the conference: “The fields are ripe for the harvest.” Through the election process, the church harvested me and three others on God’s behalf.
Now that it’s just about time for me and my beloved Beverly to say goodbye, I want to talk about “the fields are ripe for harvest. It’s a subplot buried within a famous Bible story of the woman at the well. By the end of my talk, sermon or witness, I hope to tie the two together, i.e., the woman at the well and the fields ripe for the harvest. When I share the negative realities in American United Methodism, remember these positive denominational statistics. “The UMC has a worldwide membership of 12.3 million, a 24 % increase over the past ten years. Our membership numbers have shifted globally …with growth in Africa and Asia and decline in the U.S. and Europe.” (from a pamphlet distributed at the 2016 General Conference entitled FUTURE-FOCUSED, MISSION DRIVEN)
In the past 50 years Methodists in North America have been losing members. Causes vary depending on the observer. If one identifies reasons where opinions seem to be of one mind; here are familiar justifications: no baptisms, no confirmation class, no new members received by profession of faith and a steady procession of funerals. Another Bishop is not making the right appointments. Another pastor and/or their family have issues. Still another debate and state on the church’s stance on human sexuality has remained a red hot issue since 1972. Evidence of this reality was everywhere during General Conference 2016 in Portland, Oregon.
Yet, we dutifully articulate the mission of the church driven by the belief that sheep are out there. We just have to go catch them. At General Conference we said it again. “Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all I have commanded of you, and lo, I am with you always even to the end of the age.” Do we really believe that “the fields are ripe for harvest”? If so, why did a May 16, 2016 letter from Rick Van Giesen read, “IGRC membership is down again by about 1%...typical in recent years? Worship attendance is down by 2%. Who can explain a 16% decrease in confirmation classes?” We have some fine preachers, gifted musicians and dedicated laity in IGRC; “what’s up?”
John’s gospel questions our so-called dilemmas. In John 4:35, our Lord offers advice that the late twin sisters Ann Landers and Dear Abbey emulated. “Do not say, four more months then the harvest comes. But I tell you (IGRC) look around you and see how the fields are ripe for harvest!! “Red, yellow, black and white,” they’re ready to be harvested in God’s sight.
Is this good news hard to believe? So much of what we hear these days wrongly convinces pastors and laity that the fields are not ripe for the harvest. For example, a growing percentage of Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), Gen-Xer’s (ages 33-50), Millennials (ages 18-34), or a combination of the three call themselves Nones!! With Nones, no religious affiliation is normative. Where there is involvement, “Have it your way” is the main determinant.
Already the millennials have replaced the Baby Boomers as the largest living generation. (Pew Research) Allegedly known for their pursuit of happiness and individualism, millennials tend to be less tied to religious affiliation than their Baby Boomer parents. On one hand, that is sad. On the other, millennials represent a field ripe for harvest. The church must go after the Nones without throwing the Great and Baby Boomer Generations under the bus evangelizing Millennials!
In case you think that hand wringing over the loss of churches and Christians is a U.S. phenomenon, consider the Holy Land. Christians are diminishing in the Holy Land. Munser, one of the top EO guides has been lamenting that fact the last two or three times I’ve led a group to the Holy Land. Recently, Dr. Amnon Ramon wrote a book on Christianity and Christians in the Jewish state. Ramon claims that Christians living in Jerusalem have decreased over 50% since 1946. Ramon summarized the Christian dilemma: To the Jew, I am an Arab, an enemy. To the Arab, I am a Christian, an intruder. In the United States and the Holy Land, , disciples of Jesus must hear the word of God afresh. “The fields are ripe for…harvest.”
Over two thousand years ago, Christ’s new movement faced the same dilemma we face today. His new movement had little or no impact on Samaria. Why? At first, no one made a move to evangelize the Samaritans. We do that all the time. We do not speak to them. We avoid eye contact with them. We do not like their smell, their money, their politics, their theology or culture. We’re stuck. Our scripture pointed out several places where folk were stuck.
First, the woman at the well couldn’t believe that our lord did not know the first law. Jews had no dealings with Samaritans. Samaritans were half-breeds, racially and religiously contaminated. Intermarriage had been forced up them by a host of conquerors; Rome being the latest. Neither she nor Jesus had anything to talk about.
Jonah was stuck. Jonah rejected God’s call because he firmly believed that Jews and Ninevites, non-Jews, had nothing to talk about. A cross-cultural assignment was out of the question. Why should he try to bring salvation to a people who had a history of conquering and destroying Jews? As we know, Jonah didn’t go to Tarshish. After a whale of a time, Jonah made it to Tarshish. God used him in such a powerful way that Nineveh repented and was saved. Jonah’s deep resentment and anger that God saved the Ninevites was further proof of his stuck-ness.
Other divides separate the people of God too. Black lives matter; the role of Methodists in the Sand Creek Massacre of Native Americans. Who was responsible for 911? There are ongoing battles between North and South Korea, the U.S and Cuba, theological battles on guns, human sexuality, climate change, women preachers, electing bishops ad infinitum. Doing the same old thing, we get stuck.
Second, the woman at the well mentioned theological differences that caused a rift between Jews and Samaritans. Most Jews thought they were better than the Samaritans. Is that why our Lord told the story of the Good Samaritan? Probably. Nevertheless, Jews believed that God resided in the holy temple in Jerusalem. There, all the earth kept silent before him. There, the Ark of Covenant held the most precious gift to the Hebrews, namely the Ten Commandments. On the other hand, the Samaritans or the outsiders built a temple on Mt. Gerizim. There they worshiped and fed on the word of God found in the Pentateuch, specifically Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. In a bitter squabble over the temple where God resides and what books form the Hebrew Bible, no love was lost between Jew and Samaritan.
We got stuck on Rule 44 at General Conference. Before it was defeated, nearly three days of rancorous debate held up work on mountains of legislation. What happened? Responding to a request of the 2012 General Conference, the Commission on General Conference created an alternative to Robert’s Rules of Order with respect to controversial legislation. Once the Commission declared Rule 44 could be used to deal with legislation related to human sexuality, it was DOA (dead on arrival).
Third, relationships between Jews and Samaritans had become a matter of religious law. Personal discourse between the two was strictly forbidden, especially between a non-Jewish woman and a Jewish man. To maintain those boundaries, Jews never traveled between Judea and Galilee by going through Samaria. Custom and culture directed them to cross the Jordan in Judea and travel on the other side of the Jordan till they reached Galilee. Then they would re-cross the Jordan into Galilee. Given that set of circumstances, I understand how Christian Jews concluded the fields were not ripe for harvest in Samaria.
Mr. Wesley confessed to a state of stuck-ness about evangelism until a clergy colleague invited him to think afresh. A son, a straight laced clergyman par excellence, John Wesley astounded himself by engaging in what George Whitfield called “Field Preaching.” “I could scarcely reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he set me an example on Sunday; I had been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.” Preaching in the field, Wesley’s worship attendance jumped dramatically. Audiences of five hundred, a thousand, fifteen hundred and three thousand flocking to hear him were typical. Field preaching resulted in a dramatic increase in Methodists.
Via his thought processes and/or prayer life, Christ discerned that his ministry was stuck. Growing up our Lord attended Sabbath worship at his hometown synagogue. He studied and learned his Bible. When Passover, the Feast of Weeks, Purim, Yom Kippur, known as the Day of Atonement, our Lord was present and accounted for. Jesus made numerous pilgrimages to Jerusalem for encounters with God in God’s holy temple.
Like a typical Jew, our Lord learned to travel to and from Jerusalem and Galilee avoiding Samaria and Samaritans. Yet, something changed when he focused on his mission to preach good news to the poor and deliverance to the captives. Something changed when our Lord laid out his mission and ministry in John 3:16. To talk about how God so loved the world and emphasize that whosoever believeth in him should not perish was to come face to face with the Jonah question - why won’t we go to Samaria? Why am I avoiding ministry in Samaria? They are a part of my mission and ministry. On that significant day when Jesus’ journey took him north to Galilee, he ignored what convention had taught him-take the Transjordan route. Instead, Jesus took the route through Samaria. Jesus was clear. He had to go through Samaria in order to minister to persons not like him. The New International Version described that commitment as urgent by writing, “Now he had to go through Samaria.” BMCR’s mantra has captured that sense of immediacy our Lord communicated to his disciples: “Our Time under God is now.” (In UMC lingo, one must go through the Samaria of Jurisdictional Conference in order to be elected a bishop.)
Last but not least, let’s rehearse the powerful experience of two people religious law says should not be having a conversation. At high noon, Jesus is at the well outside Sychar. The Master is dry bones thirsty. When a Samaritan woman comes to draw water, Jesus asks her for a drink. “I don’t believe this. Are you serious? Don’t you know a Jew is not supposed to ask a Samaritan woman for a drink? It’s against the law.” Jesus: If you knew the gift of God and who was saying to you Give me a drink; you would have asked him and he would have given you living water. Woman: you don’t even have a bucket. And the well is deep. Where do you get this living water? Are you better than our ancestor Jacob who gave us this well years ago? Jesus answered her “whoever drinks of this water that I shall give will never thirst again. The water that I give them will become a spring of water in them gushing to eternal life.” “Sir, give me this water that I may never have to come here again.” See what happens when you have a little talk with Jesus. “Go call your husband,” Jesus said. “I don’t have one,” she remarked. “That’s true,” Jesus said. “You’ve had five husbands and the man you have now is not yours.” “Again, you are right. Sir, you must be a prophet,” she said. “Tell me this. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain. But you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place to worship God.” “Forget about confining God to one place,” Jesus said. “The time is coming when you will not worship God on this mountain or in Jerusalem…But the hour is now coming when the true worshippers will worship God in spirit and in truth.” Challenged about her faith stance, the Samaritan woman said to Jesus, “I know the Messiah is coming. And when he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Then Jesus rose up declaring, “I am of whom you speak.”
Before she could reply, his disciples returned with food. And they were flabbergasted that Jesus was speaking to a woman. The woman dropped her water jar. Back to town she ran saying to her friends, “Come see a man who told me everything I had ever done. Can he be the Messiah?” They left the city and were on their way to meet him.
Meanwhile, our Lord read his disciples the riot act regarding his mission and ministry. His ministry was not a ministry of exclusion against the Samaritans. He had come to save Samaritans as well otherwise John 3:16 was would be diminished value. Recall the words of Jesus said: Ya’ll have a saying “Four months and then comes the harvest. But I tell you, look around you and see how the fields are ripe for harvest.” Eugene Peterson’s Message puts it bluntly. “These Samaritan fields are ripe. It’s harvest time.” The neighborhoods around your church are ripe. It’s harvest time. Some of people you know at home, at work, at play live in Samaria. It’s harvest time. Change your way of thinking, it’s harvest time.
In closing, society connected the woman at the well with a lot of negative names in the first century e.g. half-breed, polytheist, in love with marriage and cohabitation, despised, second class citizen and drawer of water. Not Jesus. He saw her as a woman to be valued and respected. They talked about life and faith. Plus, Jesus expressed his willingness to give her living water. Moved by his presence and person, the woman at the well brought a number of people from Sychar to Jesus because of her personal testimony. Because of this harvest, numerous scholars and theologians have concluded that the woman at the well was the first evangelist in the New Testament. Best of all, our Lord took a laywoman, who had five husbands and admitted cohabitating with another, and gave her a historic role in his church. One more time, Christ brought a woman of low estate to a high place of prominence in scripture that time cannot wash away.
Fill My Cup Lord. I lift it up, Lord,
Come and quench this thirsting in my soul.
Bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more.
Fill my Cup. Fill it up and make me whole.
The fields are ripe for harvest! The fields are ripe for harvest!! The fields are ripe for harvest!!! Amen.