In the 1985 classic, Back to the Future, Marty McFly, a 17-year-old high school student, is accidentally sent thirty years into the past in a time-traveling DeLorean invented by his friend, the maverick scientist Doc Brown.
The fascinating thing about the movie is how it came into existence. The idea for the movie came from Bob Gale. He co-wrote the script after coming across his father’s high school yearbook. He wondered if he would have been friends with his dad if they were in school together. This idea was the beginning concept for Back to the Future.
I have asked similar things about people of history. Would I have like the music of Elvis if I was hearing it the first time? Would I have thought going to the moon in 1969 the greatest of ideas? Would I have stood up for the Jews in Hitler’s Germany? Would I have marched for Civil Rights in the South during segregation? Would I have shouted “Crucify him” or claimed him as Messiah when Jesus walked among us? Would you?
It is a tough question to answer without actually being present in those moments. Our hope is that we would be on the side of love and justice. We hope that we would stand on what is right. We like to think that we would have saw something in Jesus that would have convinced us that this travelling rabbi truly was the savior of the world.
We can’t travel back to the past and place ourselves in those situations to see what type of response it provokes from us but we can know something about how we would respond by examining our current actions toward the injustices and hatred in our current world.
What is your response to the brokenness of the world? What is your answer to the division that exist? Is your first response one of blame? Ignore? Hide? How intentional are you in trying to understand the issue from all the different sides? Have you ever attempted to put yourself in the shoes of the other person? Tried to see the struggle from their perspective? Examined an issue from the viewpoint of the person you disagree with?
There is a story in scripture where Jesus finds himself in the middle of the day at a well located in the Samaritan city of Sychar. The scripture says, “Jesus tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’” (John 4: 6-7). A lot is going on in this passage. First, Jesus is in a place of needing something from someone else. He is tired. Secondly, the person available to meet his need is someone his culture considers nonredeemable and unacceptable. The person is also a female that is not a relative and that makes this conversation all the more shocking. She acknowledges the situation: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria” (John 4: 9)?
This encounter turns out to be a life changing experience for the woman. In the end she goes back to her hometown and says, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he” (John 4: 28)? We are told that many Samaritans – those considered enemies of the Jews – believed in him because of the woman’s testimony. And it all started because Jesus – the Son of God – expressed a need for water. This place of intimate vulnerability allowed him to connect with her on a level that gave him permission to speak into her need for living water. The story gives us a powerful image when we are told that before she goes into town to tell the townspeople about Jesus, she “left her water jar” (John 4: 28). If her empty water jar represented her lack of connection, she no longer needed it. She found connection through the vulnerability of Jesus. If Jesus is willing to take this approach to connecting with someone his culture considers wrong, how much more should we?
A young expert in Jewish law comes to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life” (Luke 10:25)? Jesus replies by asking him what does the law say and the young man says, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Luke 10: 27). There you go, says Jesus. Do that and you will be alright. But needed to justify himself – justify why we are not required to love the minority, the liberal, the conservative, the Republican, the Democrat, the immigrant, the Muslim, the one so different than me – wanting to justify himself, he asks, “Who is my neighbor” (Luke 10: 29)?
Jesus tells a story. A story that makes the main character and the hero of the story a Samaritan – someone his culture would not consider a good neighbor. It was the Samaritan that takes care of the Jewish victim. There were righteous people in the story but they passed by on the other side when they saw the pain of the man in the ditch. It was the Samaritan that restores him back to life and gives him back his dignity. At the end of the story, Jesus asks, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers” (Luke 10: 36)? The Jewish religious scholar could not even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan.” He just said, “The one who had mercy on him” (Luke 10: 37). Yea, go do it like that, live your life like that, Jesus says.
The question is how? How do we begin to love the neighbor that is so different than us? How do we begin to make a connection with someone who is not like us? How do we build the bridge necessary for reconciliation to happen? The key is in how Jesus tells us to love our neighbor. He says, “Love your neighbor as yourself. The “yourself” phrase brings to mind a powerful tool that we have as human beings. It is the power of empathy.
Our Summer at the Movies series we will be looking at the power of empathy. How do we possess it? How do we identify it? How does it make us better human beings? Today’s message is simply an introduction to the need for empathy in our lives. The next two weeks we will explore how do we live from a place of empathy. This is going to enrich your relationships – marriage and friendships. It will help you in getting along with your co-workers. But most importantly I believe this lesson is exactly what we need as a society today. How do we begin to connect with the “Samaritans” of our world and build a bridge to better understanding and deeper compassion? Empathy will be our guide.
Let’s start with a definition of empathy. Empathy is connection. Empathy is the ability to feel our way into another’s place of pain and hurt. Empathy empowers love. It creates a moral demand on the heart. Brene Brown says, “Empathy is a vulnerable choice because that means I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.”
Empathy doesn’t require a “fix it” approach. Empathy is simply about the connection. When someone is facing a challenge or dealing with a difficult situation, they are not usually looking for a magic response that will fix everything. They are looking for someone who can help them not feel alone. They know you don’t have the answers. But what they want to know is do you have the connection. This is what it means to show empathy. Empathy is what it looks like to love your neighbor as yourself.
In the end, Marty has gotten his parents back together. But before he could do it he had to live in their world and connect with his dad. George McFly thanks Marty for all the advice but in reality all that Marty did was help George live into his true self. Before the scene closes, Marty encourages his parents to show some sympathy to his 8 year old self.
Empathy is being able to see the world as others see it. We will be talking about how to actually do that in the upcoming weeks. But my challenge for you this week is start the practice of looking at the world through a different lens. Everyone was given glasses on their way into worship today. I want to invite you to put those on. As you watch the news, scan twitter, or question why your Facebook friend puts all their intimate business online, simply ask yourself the question, “Why does he or she act that way?” “Before you rush to judgment ask yourself, “What is it in them that is causing them to respond in that way?” Before you give your opinion ask yourself, “What would you do if that was your child? Spouse? Friend?” Empathy is being able to see the world as others see it. Now look around. See how much cooler everyone looks when we all look at the world through empathetic eyes.
Next week we will dig deeper into empathy and examine steps to practically live it out. Let’s pray.
(Sermon preached at Gainesville First United Methodist Church, Gainesville Georgia on Sunday, July 21, 2019)