On June 20, 1971, I was ordained to the gospel ministry — so the ordination certificate reads to this day. I reread it from time to time, still wondering what in the world it means to be a gospel minister. The ordination took place at the Northridge Baptist Church in Mesquite, Texas, where I was the minister of youth. My church history professor/mentor, William R. Estep, drove the 45 miles from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to preach the ordination sermon, and I remain deeply honored by his presence. At the ordaining council he asked me a question and I stumbled, I recall. For the life of me, I can’t remember the question, but I have a distinct memory of choking in his presence, a bit of recollected humiliation even yet.
But I passed — I wonder if I still would — and they ordained me. The service was simple and to the point, like Dr. Estep’s sermon. I recall little that was said, but have profound memories of that unspoken ritual, the laying on of hands, a symbolic act that over time acquired transcendent, if not sacramental, significance.
Those people trusted God and the future enough to take a chance on me as a minister. It was a gamble, to be sure; still is. Some had reservations, I suspect. I was a child of the 1960s and the fact that the first youth revival sermons I preached had titles taken from Beatles’ songs (Prodigal Son: “A Real Nowhere Man”) — I’m blushing still — made some of those Texas Baptists a bit nervous. If they were worried, they kept it to themselves.
Forty-five years later, almost to the day, I was the preacher at the ordination of Rachel Revelle at Winston-Salem’s Knollwood Baptist Church. Rachel, a recent graduate of the Wake Forest School of Divinity, selected the biblical texts from Genesis 18 and John 4. One text finds Jacob, AKA Israel, the manipulating little cheater, all alone in what seems a God-forsaken wilderness. But by story’s end, he’s confessing, “Surely the Lord was in this place and I knew it not.”All ministers should carry that text in their hearts.
The other text finds Jesus at a Samaritan water hole during the hottest time of the day, tired, hungry and chatty with a woman that there’s no way in hell (theologically speaking) he should be talking to. I’d preached on Jacob often, but never even once on the “woman at the well;” and it honestly overwhelmed me. So thanks to Reverend Revelle, 45 years after my own ordination, Jesus of Nazareth still does a job on me, remaining agonizingly relevant and radical.
In this story (at Jacob’s well, BTW), Jesus violates all the social, ritual, theological, doctrinal, racial, religious, gender, demographic, ethical and cosmological boundaries of his day, with a woman who, like Jacob the cheater, did not in the slightest deserve to be chosen. Jesus breaks every rule: talking to her; asking to share her water — oblivious to the “separate but equal” rule regarding Jewish/Samaritan facilities; takes her theological commentary seriously; and compromises his already questionable reputation by dialoging with a woman whose sexual escapades were so notorious that even strangers passing through had heard of them. She’s married five times and living with some guy now. Add drugs and handguns and she could have been Ava on “Justified!”
The disciples come back with some food, and the text says wonderfully, they “were astonished to see him talking with a woman; but none of them said, ‘Why are you talking to her?’.” Apparently they’d already learned that when Jesus engaged with “public sinners” there was nothing they could do to stop him.
“The disciples were astonished to see him talking with a woman.” And in those words grace broke through; surely the Lord was at that well, on that dusty, thirsty afternoon. And maybe we still know it not. On the way to ordaining Rachel Revelle, Jesus’ radical grace still astonishes us, transforming a Samaritan woman while challenging the religio/cultural/gender boundaries that kept her stuck, stereotyped, and, yes, lost to her real value.
Rachel Revelle is the first woman ordained in a four-generation ministerial family, with a legacy that also connects her to Antoinette Brown, Oberlin College graduate and the first woman ordained by a major American denomination (Congregationalists). On her way to ordination in 1851, Brown wrote: “Associated as I have been this winter frequently with ministers, I have not found one that has been both ready and willing to talk over the matter [of ordaining women] candidly. … Some of them around here at least begin to feel a little uneasy in their old position and are not quite ready to advocate that.” One hundred thirty-five years later, what “old position” should today’s ministers “feel a little uneasy” about?
There’s a woman in our Highland Avenue church who shows up at local jails and registers prisoners to vote just before they are released. “It’s my way of helping them realize that they’re free again; and that they are still human,” she says.
She says it’s a calling. I’m astonished.