Summary: A sermon to observe Black History Month.

“If Only…”

Pastor V. P. Oliver

2 Samuel 23:13-17

“And three of the thirty went down at the start of the grain-cutting, and they came to David at the strong place of Adullam; and the band of Philistines had taken up their position in the valley of Rephaim. And at that time David had taken cover in the strong place, and an armed force of the Philistines was in Beth-lehem. And David, moved by a strong desire, said, If only someone would give me a drink of water from the water-hole of Beth-lehem, by the doorway into the town! And the three men, forcing their way through the Philistine army, got water from the water-hole of Beth-lehem, by the doorway into the town, and took it back to David: but he would not take it, but, draining it out, made an offering of it to the Lord. And he said, Far be it from me, O Lord, to do this; how may I take as my drink the life-blood of men who have put their lives in danger? So he would not take it. These things did the three great men of war.”

This obscure episode in the distinguished and well-documented life of King David serves as an opportunity to reflect back on the rich history of African American people as we observe Black History Month. “If only…” these two words, which David sighed, betrayed his thoughts of a past time when he enjoyed, not only the refreshing water from the well at Bethlehem, but a time of peace and order. These same two words have often fallen from our own lips as we have reflected back on past times or lost opportunities. The words “if only” are uttered when looking back in retrospect on a situation or event and wishing for another opportunity to do it or experience it again. That’s because “if only” also involves 20/20 hindsight. If we knew then what we know now, things would be different or better. ”If only” also speaks of something hoped or longed for.

Not realizing that anyone was listening, David said to himself, “If only someone would give me a drink of water from the waterhole of Bethlehem.” The Bible says that three of his “mighty men” at great risk to their own lives, forced their way past enemy guards to the well at Bethlehem, filled a wineskin with water, and fought their way back to David’s camp in one of the caves near the valley of Rephaim. 2 Samuel 23 is an account of David’s men of valor. Their acts of bravery are recorded in this chapter.

There was Adino who, the record says lifted up his spear against eight hundred, whom he slew at one time.(Vs.8)

There was Eleazar who fought a great number of Philistines for an entire day until his hand grew stiff and tired from gripping the sword: and the LORD wrought a great victory that day.(Vs.9)

And there was Shammah who, single-handedly stood and defended a small parcel of land from the Philistines and the Lord was victorious.(Vss.11, 12)

These men possessed qualities that we should emulate:

Adino overcame against great odds.

Eleazar pressed his way even though he was weary and his body wanted to stop.

Shammah stood his ground - he stood for something worth dying for.

The Bible says that these three were with David when they heard his words longing for a drink from the well at Bethlehem. And because of their great personal courage and love of David, they risked their lives to satisfy their king’s request.

May I suggest to you today that recorded in our own history are the names of mighty men and women who wrought great victories and achievements because of their great courage and love of their own people. They too heard and responded to the words “if only.” They responded to the “if only” of a people who longed to be free and equal; these mighty men and women were responding to years of slavery and social injustice of people who collectively hoped for a better education, better jobs and a better life.


First of all, IF ONLY OF SPEAKS OF REGRET. When David uttered the words of our text his mouth spoke of a physical thirst, but his heart longed for the former days of his youth, a time of peace and simplicity. At the time of our text, David was not only at war with the Philistines, the perennial enemies of the Israelites, but King Saul and his army were also pursing him. The prophet Samuel had already anointed David as God’s chosen king of Israel, but his coronation and kingdom were some years in the future. And we hear David expressing his regrets as he longed for some cool water from the well of his childhood. The enemy now occupied his beloved Bethlehem and a he was a fugitive from the king. How had things gotten so far off course? David sighs, “if only…”

I believe that it was this same sense of regret that fueled the flames of courage and racial pride that caused our fore-parents to excel in the midst of the worst of conditions.

Perhaps Harriet Tubman said to herself, “It is not enough that I have gained my own freedom by escaping into Canada, "If only" I could help others gain their freedom as well.” Her response to this self-imposed burden led her on 19 dangerous but successful trips into Maryland and parts of Pennsylvania to guide over 300 slaves to freedom.

Richard Allen, a former slave, who purchased his own freedom, and answered the call to preach the Gospel, also struggled with the “if only of regret.” He was grateful that the Methodist Church of the 1790’s allowed blacks to worship with them at the same church, but they were politely ushered upstairs and confined to the balcony. Their dead were not allowed to be buried in the church cemetery and other blacks were not being given opportunity to enter the ministry. I hear him saying to himself, “If only" we could control our own religious lives as equals to our white counterparts. If only we could have our own churches and own pastors.” In 1794 Richard Allen, with Absalom Jones organized the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church right here in the city of Wilmington, Delaware. By 1816 Bethel had won its independence from its white Methodist Conference, and along with representatives from other black Methodist congregations (in Baltimore; Wilmington, Delaware; Salem, New Jersey; and Attleboro, Pennsylvania) met and organized a new denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Allen was chosen as the first bishop of the church, the first fully independent black denomination in America. Two words, “if only” charted the course for a separate and free religious identity for Black in America.


In addition to REGRET, IF ONLY SPEAKS OF OPPORTUNITY. Words that David spoke to himself in a private and unguarded moment became an opportunity for service. David’s mighty men responded to these words by risking their very lives. Our African American counterparts to David’s mighty men did no less. In 1870, more than 80% of Blacks in the US were illiterate. By the turn of the 20th century, still over one-third of the Black population had never been to school. It was against this background of systematic educational depravation that some mighty men and women of color responded to the hope, “if only things were better.”

Agricultural chemist, George Washington Carver, who discovered over 300 uses for the peanut, turned down an annual salary of $100,000 (today’s equivalent of $1 Million) to continue his research at Tuskegee Institute on behalf of black farmers in the South. He saw an “if only opportunity” and he made the most of it.

Dr. Charles Drew was one of those mighty men who, during WW II, after watching countless men bleed to death because of their wounds, thought to himself, “If only" there was a means of storing blood and transfusing or replacing it when men are wounded and losing large amounts of blood.” His introduction of a system for the storing of blood plasma revolutionized the medical profession. Drew saw an “if only” situation and transformed it into an opportunity for service to mankind. “If only” speaks of regret and it speaks of opportunity.


Finally, IF ONLY SPEAKS OF RESPONSIBILITY. David soon realized that those two little words, “if only,” had placed a great burden of responsibility on his own shoulders. Listen again to verse 16: “And the three mighty men brake through the host of the Philistines, and drew water out of the well of Bethlehem, that was by the gate, and took it, and brought it to David: nevertheless he would not drink thereof, but poured it out unto the LORD.” When David looked into the cup, he didn’t see water; he saw the blood of the three men who had risked their lives for the sake of his physical thirst. To drink that water would have cheapened the brave deed of those three heroes. Instead, David turned that cave into a place of worship and poured the water out as a drink offering to the Lord. It was an act of dedication that symbolized a person’s life poured out in the service of the Lord. The three men had given themselves as a sacrifice to the Lord to serve David.

The efforts of those mighty men and women of our rich history in response to those two words, “if only,” were just as courageous and noble as those of King David’s mighty men. Men like Malcolm and King literally poured their very lives out in the service and best interest of their countrymen. And like David, we must look beyond historical firsts, great inventions, innovations, and world records, and see their act of sacrifice. Too many of us are drinking from the cup with no regard for their sacrifice. Modern day African American athletes are drinking from the cup that Jessie Owens, Jack Johnson, and Satchel Paige and countless others have drawn from the wells of injustice and oppression.

IF ONLY SPEAKS OF RESPONSIBILITY, our responsibility. Whenever you choose to sit home and not exercise your right to vote, that means that brave civil rights marchers were hosed, beaten and bitten by dogs in vain. Medgar Evers gave his life in response to African Americans who thought, “if only” I had the right to vote.” Three young men by the names of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were kidnapped and murdered in the backwoods of Mississippi because they heard someone say “If only” the schools that my children go to were as good as the schools that the little white children attend.” “If only” I could go to the restaurant of my choice, sit down where I please and be properly served and treated with dignity and respect.” Mighty men and women of color have broken through the ranks of systemic racism because they heard our cry. The Klan couldn’t stop them, and Jim Crow laws would not deter them. Nobody made them do it, nobody told them to do it, they did out of love and concern for their own people.

And today we stand here holding our cups; cups filled with the fruit of their labor and sacrifices; this cup (hold up a cup of water) represents better jobs, better homes, and better education opportunities. In our cups we hold a bright and promising future, not just for ourselves but our children and their children.

“IF ONLY” SPEAKS OF RESPONSIBILITY, and what you do with the contents of you cup will determine the value and honor you place on the sacrifices of those who have paved the way. David poured the water out of his cup. Not out of ingratitude, but as an offering.

Go back with me for a moment to those mighty men of David. It says that Eleazar fought the Philistines until his hand grew tired from holding the sword and the LORD wrought a great victory. It says that Shammah stood his ground on a small piece of land and fought the enemy all day…and the LORD wrought a great victory. And the LORD wrought a great victory. So it was the LORD of Hosts Who was really fighting their battles. It was God Mighty in battle Who made these men victorious. And I need you to hear me when I say that it was the LORD Himself Who stood up in our mighty men and women.

So David poured out the water as an offering unto the One Who had fought the battles, to the One Who had broken through the enemy’s camp and dipped His cup into the well. When David looked into the cup he saw the blood of his mighty men of valor.

What do you see when you look into your cup today? More importantly, what will you do with the water that has been drawn from the wells of life? (Pour out the contents of the cup)

One day Jesus also looked into a cup…a cup of bitterness. But instead of pouring out the contents of the cups…He became the offering. He Himself was poured out as an offering for the sins of the world….