I love Johnny Russell’s songs, and my favorite Johnny Russell song is “The Baptism of Jesse Taylor” (click here to listen). The first person I ever baptized was a man who, in many ways, reminds me of “Jesse Taylor,” so, I’ll just call him “Jesse.”
Jesse lived a hard life. Just a few years older than me, I’m not sure if he even finished high school. He did a lot of things he shouldn’t have, got involved with things he shouldn’t have, and he spent time in jail.
But eventually, he started to put the pieces of his life back together. He was a very good handyman, especially at painting.
People in our town, who had known Jesse since birth and knew his entire family, were willing to help him out. He stayed busy – some people needed some rooms painted in their house. Some needed outside painting done on their house. The church needed some painting here and there. A trained electrician, people called on him to help with some wiring, lighting and things. A good plumber, he installed new faucets for us at the church parsonage.
Jesse carried his tools around town in a pick-up truck and was accompanied by his trusted sidekick, a loyal and very sweet old dog named “Yeller.” Jesse seemed to truly enjoy his work, and he was very good at it – which meant he was often a dirty, unkempt, rough-looking handyman.
But, “Jesse Taylor” was one of the gentlest, kindest, most soft-spoken people I had ever met. And, he was one of the most gracious and merciful people I have ever met.
Jesse was thankful. Jesse was thankful everyday just to be alive. Jesse was thankful everyday that he didn’t have to be in jail anymore; thankful that God loved him when he was at his very worst; and thankful that God loved him when he trying as hard as he could to be his very best.
There were still a few folks in town, and even a few folks in the church, who still looked down on Jesse and treated him suspiciously. In their eyes, he simply was always going to be somewhat of a “lesser-than” person, a bit of an outcast.
Jesse, though, didn’t hold anything against anybody. Jesse became as accepting of and gracious to people he encountered as Christ had been so totally accepting of and gracious to him.
Luke’s Gospel tells about ten lepers who called out for mercy as Jesus was walking by. He instructed them to get up and go see the priests. As they were going on their way to do just that, they were healed. Luke stresses the ethnicity of one of those ten now-ex-lepers – a Samaritan. When the Samaritan realized that he was healed, he turned around and returned to Jesus, praising God the whole way. Jesus makes sure everyone knows that the other nine did not return; but the one who did was considered of a lower race, second-or-third-or-fourth class person who probably deserved to have leprosy anyway.
It is to this one that Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.” The other nine were healed, to be sure, yet it is implied that only this one was “made well.”
I often wonder if many of us as Christians are like those other nine … taking our grace for granted; maybe because we secretly believe we deserve it – even when we say we don’t. How can we tell? Perhaps by how much grace we are willing to extend to others, or how much we withhold from others whom we “know” do not deserve it. I wonder if many of us as Christians, like those other nine ex-lepers, may be healed or redeemed, but we do not have the faith through which we will be “made well.”
Clearly, to me, “Jesse Taylor” was like that one who returned. Like the Samaritan, he was always going to be considered “not good enough” by some standards – always a convict, or “white trash,” or worse. Yet it was Jesse, far more than many of us, whose faith had “made him well.” How can we tell? By his giving out grace and compassion to others without restraint; just as God had poured out unrestrained grace and compassion upon him.
And it all starts with awe-filled gratitude to God. There’s something about being overwhelmed by God’s unconditional love that leads a person to unconditionally accept and love others.
The Samaritan wasn’t just healed; his faith had made him well. “Jesse Taylor” wasn’t just redeemed; his faith had made him well.
Here’s that we, too, may not just be healed, but that by our faith we may be made well.
And, thanks be to God for both Johnny Russell and “Jesse Taylor” who are now fully welcomed, loved, and healed, in heaven.
© Bert Montgomery, October 2010