Preachers as ordinary as I am are planning funerals for fourteen-year-olds. So I thought, join them. Treat this service, this scripture, in light of the week their town and our country are having. How are we doing, as a people? As a country? Overwhelmed with hopelessness?
“Overwhelmed with hopelessness” doesn't really preach that well. I doodled a few pages before remembering no new words are required. We preach the same sermon at every funeral – for 94-year-olds and for 14-year-olds: Jesus died and rose again, once and for all people, of every time and place.
Knowing full well how we can be when we are at our worst, the same words hold – “Jesus died and rose” – for the hopelessness that overwhelms us now. So that from within all this sadness and horror, we have this one quiet, powerful, everlasting, deeper-than-deep promise of God: those children fell straight and gently into the loving arms of Jesus. None of which relieves us, who call ourselves God's people, of our collective duty, our shared responsibility, to follow Jesus where and as he leads, to follow his mandate of radical hospitality to welcome and include the people on whom the rest of the world has given up.
How does a 19-year-old boy get so lost in an ordinary American town that killing seems a reasonable thing to do? What if someone had made the effort to love him well? What if a church had loved him well? People like us – people not in the very midst of the crisis and where the pain is terrible but not personal – can take this moment to pull the camera back for a wider view. Kids die every day of human greed and violence. They are shot and sold and starved like animals, usually for money. Usually so somebody somewhere can get a little bit richer.
And by that same wide lens, there we are as well – waking up each day to call ourselves God's own. Christian. Gathering to call ourselves the church. Each new day a brand new day to take one person's – one congregation's – measure of responsibility for tending the brokenness that leads to the evil, that results in the horror, of weeks like these this side
of Heaven. And however hopeless we feel, friends: We. Are. Not. However hopeless a situation appears: It. Is. Not. Because God is at work.
In our text today, we've come to Jesus' last sign in the gospel of John. His point of no return, if you will. He raises Lazarus from the dead, and his enemies commit to his assassination. At the end of John, chapter 11, the Passion of Christ is in motion.
Lazarus was Mary and Martha's brother. We know these three were a household. Maybe it was just the three of them, or maybe they also had spouses or kids. Households can end up in all kinds of arrangements. We know Mary, Martha and Lazarus were Jesus' chosen family, if you will. Theirs was the house to which he retreated. They were the people with whom he could chill out – be off the clock for a while. We also know that their house was the last place Jesus got any rest, or was treated with any gentleness, any real human kindness, before his arrest, torture and crucifixion.
So it makes sense to me that, when Lazarus was so sick he might die, Mary and Martha sent for Jesus right away. Assumed he'd drop whatever to get there. Everything they know of him bolsters this assumption. "We've seen him do more for people he loves less. Of course he will come." This is faith. Utter confidence in what God will do. Of course he'll come. Except he didn't.
Readers of the text get a special view, a split screen of sorts: Mary and Martha in one frame planning their brother's funeral; Jesus sketching out his plan for the human race in the other. We get a theological window Mary and Martha do not. Jesus isn't ignoring them – he has a plan! He has a good reason for not answering their prayers. “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Blah, blah, blah, like Charlie Brown's teacher talking.
Nothing anyone wants to hear when their brother is dying. When they are terrified. When they know God could good and well fix this, if God wanted to. They don't want a theological window – they want their brother. They want this horror not to be happening. Grief will do that to a person: make us ask for the unreasonable, the irrational. Grief is like severe sleep deprivation. After a while nothing makes any sense, but you're too tired to care anyway,
so . . . whatever.
Finally Jesus does arrive. Lazarus has been dead four days. Four days is a long time to be dead in a desert climate where embalming is not a thing. My golden retriever once had a pet squirrel carcass that he played with in our backyard every day for more than a week. When I called him to come inside he'd hurry up and rebury it.
Once the dog started smelling like the carcass I made Ben (my son) watch where Cody hid it, to get rid of it once and for all. He carried it to the creek and tossed it in. Cody then had a wet pet squirrel carcass – which Ben then tracked down and told no one what he did with it.
John wants us to know that Lazarus is really and truly, all the way, nasty dead. Buried in a tomb, John says. Don't think “roomy cave." Think MRI machine. I have to have MRI's of my brain every few years. They put an IV in my arm, earplugs in my ears, a white washcloth over my eyes; they bolt my head to a very skinny table, then slide me into a tube barely bigger than the table and me. Then, hilariously, they tell me to stay perfectly still – which is harder than you would think, because I start twitching.
I wonder if Lazarus started twitching when he heard Jesus' voice. I wonder if Jesus sounded close up, like a voice in his head, or far away like the radiologist. I wonder if Lazarus was afraid. I wonder if he smelled terrible to himself. I wonder if it was hard to crawl out with his arms and legs still bound up in linen. And folks thought Jesus rubbing spit mud on a blind man was something. The very people seeing Lazarus wiggling out of that hole are themselves struggling – to believe. Then Jesus says Unbind him.
Only about a hundred sermons in those two words in which Jesus does the heavy lifting – resurrection! – then calls his people to do the rest: bring the reborn person home again and nurse him back to strength, back to community, back to hope, back to faith. But let's back up, back to when Jesus finally shows up in Bethany. Shows his face to Mary and Martha – his best friends, remember – who cannot imagine why he is so phenomenally late.
I want to offer Mary and Martha as two ways faith gets humanly embodied at times of overwhelming hopelessness. The difference between the two ways of faith are nuanced, and yet profound in their functional difference. Each determines the course of life for the believer, the course of life together for a community – and the quality of life for those touched by such a community. Only one, however, leads from life to life to more life. And thus, only one is gospel faith.
One way of faith – what I'm calling If-Only faith – is embodied by both Mary and Martha. If only you had been here, Lord, our brother wouldn't have died.
❖ Faith rooted in the idea (where did we get this idea?) that what God had done for others God will do for us. God made a blind man see; could he not have healed their brother?
❖ Faith that assumes that what we have seen and heard is all there is to see and hear – of God, of God's mercy and goodness and generosity and grace, that what we haven't seen ourselves God can't or will not do.
❖ Faith that flows inevitably to disappointment when God does not respond in the way that we expect, and so we assume God has not responded at all. Is that what it means to make God in our image? To confine God to the limits of imagination? If we cannot think it, God cannot do it.
The sisters have never known that a four-day-old dead body could rise. If only you had been here, they lament, because they haven’t the faith to pray anything else. They cannot get outside of their own heads and hearts. When Mary gets to Jesus, she says the same: If only you had been here, Lord; if only you would do for us what you did for others; don't you love us, Lord? How come for them and not for us, Lord?
Martha has a second sentence though, and that other, gospel kind of, faith: Even-Now faith. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him." She tacks on even now, this nuanced, altogether other kind of faith.
I can't imagine Martha knew what she was asking. Had Jesus asked her what she wanted, I expect she might have said, "Not this. I want this not to be happening." She's the one who questions opening the grave, for how bad it was going to smell. She believes in the future resurrection of the dead. She believes he is the Messiah. And still, she doesn't see this coming.
She fetches Mary. They go through the conversation again. Jesus cried – another twenty sermons in that verse. One little tiny one here: he is about to watch a crowd of people see a dead man walking for the first time in history and it not change them a lick. That’s worth crying over.
He cried. He prayed. Then he yelled, “Lazarus, wake up and come out of the grave!" I picture it like a grown man being born from the side of a hill. Only there's no midwife to help pull him out. I picture it taking awhile, with lots of scratching and grunting and dust, while a crowd of people gets more and more twitchy and nervous, trying to make sense of what they are looking at.
If she'd known what Jesus was about to do, Martha would have torn the rock away herself. But I don't think she did. I don’t think she knew what she was saying when she said, “even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him." Those were just the only words she had for what she couldn't see but suspected in her heart of hearts, because of having been so near him for months and months and months.
That knowing him germinated in her the sense, the faith, that more was going on here than could be seen and heard, and that he could be trusted even now, even in the darkest, scariest, saddest moments. Moments for which she had no words, just the urge to ask and trust that she didn't have to know precisely what God might do to believe that God cared about them, about what was happening to them, and that God would do what God deemed best.
Friends, this is not a story of resuscitation. Lazarus didn't stop breathing for a few seconds. This is a four-day-old corpse. Of course his opponents didn't believe for a second Jesus really did it. They believed he had convinced others he'd done it. Which made him all the more dangerous to the order of things. What if death has no sting? What if the threat of death has no power over the people whose bodies the Empire needs to control?
Curing blindness is one thing. This, however, is positively intolerable. Resurrection is not good news all around, friends. Folks who don't fear death, for whom the threat of death contains no sting, really muck up the wheels of economic imperialism, not to mention social, political and religious control of the masses. Currency loses its value really quickly. This Mary is the same one who will dump out an entire jar of expensive perfume (a working person's wages for a whole year – $35-$100K, by today’s measure) to anoint Jesus for his burial.
Even-Now faith includes all the same grief and anguish, of course. Martha was as heartbroken as Mary. But she was not hopeless. She was not overwhelmed in the face of the unknown, because knowing Jesus was enough. His nearness, her history with him, his love for her gave her cause enough to say some words of faith she herself did not quite understand: Even now I know.
Have any of you a story of receiving from the Lord what you'd have never known to ask for? Solutions and resolutions to situations that, had they turned out as YOU hoped, would have turned out far worse than what God chose to do? Amen? Anybody ever screwed a situation up or made it even worse, because you couldn’t leave well enough alone; could not keep your mouth closed? your hands to yourself? Amen?
As an “extremely helpful person” myself, it can be a hard lesson – this even now strain of
faith. All it really asks of us is patience – waiting to see what God will do in situations where we can do nothing. Discernment matters, of course, and courage. And humility. And patience. But overwhelming hopelessness is for folks who don't know better, who don't believe better, who imagine God can't do something we never saw God do yet.
Is that who Jesus taught us to be? Is that who Jesus has called us to be? I think not. Friends, if the people of the living Christ give in to overwhelming hopelessness, this world is done for. No wonder the Lord weeps. But we are not them. We are Christ's own people and church. Death itself is what's done for – along with the heavy lifting there. We've only to live out this life in hope and courage.
I'll end with this prayer by Thomas Merton. He sums up Even-Now faith pretty well. I expect you've heard it. You are now going to hear it again. Let’s pray.
"My Lord God, I have no idea where I'm going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, I will trust you always; though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death, I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone." Amen.
The eyes of justice don't need to squint. When we act out of grace and mercy and the assurance of God’s unconditional love for every human being, we never have to narrow our focus down to the minutiae of a situation in order to convince ourselves of what is right.
Biblical Justice is big, and it flows with grace.
Biblical Justice declares that the human creature is God's best and favorite feature of creation, destined for full relationship with the creator God; that human creature is a designation without margin, if you will. One is fully human by being born human, by divine design – a design impossible to undo and unjust to redefine.
Humans do not define one another as more or less human, as though some perfect human prototype exists somewhere by which all the others can be measured. Heaven knows humans have done our best to the contrary.
Every little tribe in every little corner of every era of human history has had its prototype, with categories organized from closest to the furthest from it. The anthropologists and social scientists can tell you all about it. As can any black kid in America.
In Jesus' time and place, a well-born, healthy Jewish man lived fairly close to the prototype – closer still if he had some money and all sons. Healthy sons, that is. For a son born blind he'd take a hit, since the disfigurement indicated moral failing somewhere in their family.
Were he religious, the man might have heard the prophecy about Messiah which said, “He will bring sight to the blind." And he might have thought it was only about eye-balls that didn't work.
But not until the time and place of Jesus would he have discovered “he will bring sight to the blind” was as much – if not more – about people's hearts and minds. Hearts and minds so blinded to God's intention for the human creature, they lived in near constant darkness – darkness that had them creeping through life like a blind man on his hands and knees feeling for the edge of the world.
Remember, in John's gospel seeing is theological activity. In chapter 9 two people can see. One of them has eyeballs that do not work. The other, Jesus, I assume had 20/20 vision. Only these two are able to see precisely what is happening and to name it. Fearlessly, without squinting to squeeze out the part of the view that doesn't fit with their deeply held, very organized, and profoundly comforting View. Of. Everything.
Of the rest, who can say what they could see? “It’s why I came,” Jesus says in verse 39: to sort out those who can see from those who can't. He calls it a matter of judgment or justice, and what they see or don't see in moments like this man's healing is that very justice at work, in real time – whether the unseeing or the squinting onlookers believe it. Or not.
Jesus sees the man. The disciples see Jesus see him. But what they choose to see is a talking point, a theological proof, if you will. Jesus won't be baited. He insists that the man is a man, a human being in whom God's activity is visible.
He spits – a picture of creation reenacted in real time, the clay of the ground and mouth of God. Add water from the place called “Sent." Jesus is the Sent One; remember, nothing ever means just one thing in John. The man born blind can see.
Now the neighbors are rubbing their eyes. And squinting. To admit this is the man they've always known requires they shut out so much else they've always known.
I think it IS him.
Nah, he just looks like that other guy.
While the only one not squinting just repeats, "It's me." They nearly torture him to confess something other than the truth, lest they have to change their hearts and minds. Anything but that.
But the truth is stubborn to the core. "The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, 'Go to Siloam and wash.' Then I went and washed and received my sight." John stubbornly calls him the man who had formerly been blind, rather than the man given his sight. Everyone can only see what they NEED to see to keep the world as they know and need it intact.
Because, think about it: if this guy CAN see, after all those years of NOT seeing, because a country preacher spit in his eyes and said some words, then the whole world is pretty much up for grabs, right?
Is it not so sad that not a single person is happy for this guy? They don't have a party; they have a meeting. An emergency meeting. They haul the poor man before the Pharisees – maybe they can get to the bottom of this; figure out if this is ACTUALLY the blind man they used to see or if he really ever was blind in the first place.
Look how much effort is going into NOT seeing, how hard everyone is squinting in order NOT to see what the Lord is doing. The Pharisees’ first concern is Sabbath rules: God would never heal someone on the Sabbath – what an audacious contortion of faith!; and, a sinner – meaning Jesus – could never perform such signs!, which is hilarious given that they themselves cannot perform such signs.
But again, the contortions they are going through NOT to see are audacious. They ask the blind man himself, What do you think of him?
"Oh, he is a prophet." The Pharisees now call in his parents, through whom we learn that anyone who confessed Jesus as Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Keep in mind, this is not like church membership. More like being run out of town. Exiled.
The Pharisees give the parents the opportunity to say their son was never blind in the first place. Is it any wonder people think religious people are idiots? Jewish leadership is literally willing to believe he could see all along, rather than consider changing their minds in the light of new information or, as we call it in church, “new revelation.”
To their credit, the parents at least tell the truth about his identity and birth. He is ours. He was born blind. But they won't celebrate his healing. It's the most heartbreaking thing I've seen in all my years of ministry: people are more afraid of their religion's approval than they are of losing their own child. As if Jesus calls us to make such choices.
With one last-ditch effort, the Pharisees try to get the man born blind to change his story. "Give glory to God!" they say. "Everyone knows that man is a sinner." See how they don't ask him to give up his sight, just his version of the truth? Agree with us so nobody has to change, they beg him. He won't. I love his answer. “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciple?"
Naturally they are enraged and attempt to pull rank, claiming Moses as their leader. This guy is practically a comedian.
"Now here is an astonishing thing. You don't know where he comes from and yet he opened my eyes! We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing."
At which point they gave up and drove him out.
Jesus found the man and asked if he believed in the Messiah. Who is he? The man wants to know. “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he."
“Lord, I believe." And he worshipped him.
Who sinned? is the first and last question asked by people who cannot see what God is doing in the world. Who sinned? is the language of a religion rooted in guilt, a religious system that assigns theological statuses to different groups of people based on this religiously-defined guilt that is graded by some measure other than the belovedness of the human to the Creator. So that those assigned statuses take on religious power that becomes so profoundly embedded in our way of thinking, feeling, breathing, they can seem to us as true and real as anything else in this world. As true and real as breathing, even.
They become equated with moral right and wrong. I expect to some of those around this man, it felt deeply, morally wrong that a stranger could come to town and upset the order of things as Jesus did when he healed this man. Maybe as if Jesus himself were some kind of criminal, to cause such stressful upheaval of ordinary life. So stressful that it actually seemed easier to believe the man had never been blind in the first place, absurd as it sounds to us so far from that place and time.
As if we aren't tempted toward the same. Tempted to pretend we can't see what the eyes of our hearts tell us is absolutely true. As if figuring out who’s at fault in any particular moment isn’t our own way of avoiding our own personal upheaval or the really hard church and community work we don't want to do. Amen? Two recent examples: Hurricane Katrina and Ferguson, Missouri.
Like when my kids were young and I spent half my breath saying, "I do not care whose fault it is, I want you to clean it up." What I was really saying was, "I do not want to clean that up!" But when Jesus sees the blind man, he doesn't fuss – he gets busy. He works. He does the will of God. Prefacing it with a tiny little sermon: We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.
Nothing in John ever means just one thing. Night is coming is a plain reference to his death, as well as a broader reference to any place where Jesus isn't. Nicodemus tried to follow Jesus in the dark and failed. The woman at the well found him in the day and led others to him. No one can see in the dark. Only the man born blind is willing to say what he knows to be true about Jesus: that I was blind and now I see. For everyone else it's just too risky, so all they can do is squint.
What does the world know best about the church? What she hates, who she hates; what she condemns, who she condemns; what is right, who is right; what is wrong, who is wrong. It's too bad they don't think, "Wow, all those church people ever do is celebrate and have a good time."
What are we so afraid of? What are we trying so hard not to see? Or are we just too busy trying to figure whose fault the world's troubles are – so that we don't have to change; so that we don’t risk any losses; so that we don’t have to work any harder than we already are, and we don't have to do the work to which God has called us?
What if John is speaking to the church as Jesus spoke to his disciples? Though they might not have named it so, a man forced to beg for his bread because he is blind is an injustice – particularly in a neighborhood full of people who profess to love the Lord.
If those of you professing to love said Lord are asking, Who is at fault for this situation? then Jesus has a word for you: You are asking the wrong question. You are squinting and hoping for someone to blame. Open your eyes and see what God can do. You live and breathe in the presence of the living Christ. Choose to see that.
See that, and you'll see there isn't anything in this whole wide world to be afraid of. Whatever is going on here may or may not be your fault, but it's not yours to fix all by yourself. God isn't that crazy! Look! Look and you'll see what God is doing. And then, get to work, working while the sun shines.
I do love that! “Working while the sun shines” – let it be our prayer. Let it be the word of the Lord, for today. Amen.
How come, in chapter 1 of John, when Nathaniel is so amazed that Jesus knew him before he met him, nobody assumes Nathaniel had a sordid sexual past? But when Photene says, "Come see the man who told me everything I ever did," Christian history assumed she was a prostitute?
Oh yes, “Photene." Some Christian traditions have a name for her: Photene. It means “bright as the sun” or “enlightened one” – a name NOT based on the notion that she was a bad girl of the Bible. Which I knew had to be a book title – so I amazoned it.
In fact it’s a three-book series: Bad Girls of the Bible; Really Bad Girls of the Bible; and Slightly Bad Girls of the Bible. “Photene” is NOT based on her “bad girl” status, but rather on the rapid-fire, historically informed, theologically rich discourse that she and Jesus maintain over several paragraphs.
Woman at the Well is how I've always known her, her entire personhood summed up in a verse-and-a-half: five marriages and currently living with someone – a character sketch that requires us to believe that Jesus slut-shamed a woman to make no particular point. It's not as if he called her to repentance. He drops it as soon as he says it. I don't like the sound of the sentence any more than you: Jesus slut-shamed someone. Know a better way to say it? How about don't say it? Nope. Sorry. Actually, not sorry.
If we grow up blaming her, believing she was such a bad girl, we can at least admit that Jesus is the one who brought it up. The fact is, we don't know anything but the barest information, nothing of the why and the how – the parts of any story that explain a person’s life and history.
I assume Jesus knew everything there was to know. And he didn't blame her. He didn't judge her. All the moral innuendo has been injected into the story by the church since. And if this is the sliver of text chosen to build her character, why does the assumption have to be scandalous? Why can't it be tragic?
Alternatively, we COULD go with the abundance of other verses in the text. This is Jesus' longest recorded conversation in the gospel. This is his first self-revelation as The Christ. Everyone else up to this point – including the official disciples – have only been given signs. She gets the straight-up truth. "I can see you are a prophet," she says. Remember that nothing ever means just one thing in John. Seeing is always a theological activity. Seeing is believing. Seeing is faith. Seeing only happens in the light.
Unlike Nicodemus, Photene meets Jesus in the daytime – the brightest time of day, high noon. She was as ready to meet him as any disciple anywhere so far. No wonder Jesus HAS to go through Samaria. Samaria was part of Israel, a region between Galilee to the north and Judea to the south. Judeans and Galileans traveling back and forth generally went around, not through, Samaria, intentionally avoiding contact with the people there. Why?
Racism. Segregation, plain and simple. Judeans and Galileans believed themselves better Jews than Samaritans, to the point they didn't really consider them Jews at all. Remember all those years – 700, 600, 500, 400 years before – when one group after another invaded and occupied Israel? Jews from Israel and Judah were both carted off into exile in Egypt and Babylon?
But most Samaritans stayed put and were occupied by the foreigners – Assyrians especially, who took them as slaves and wives. They maintained Jewish faith and practice as best they could, for generations. Then King Cyrus of Persia, in the 5th century BCE, began allowing exiles to go back. A few did, the ones who had not intermarried with Babylonians.
They intended to rebuild the Temple at Jerusalem. Jews in Samaria assumed they'd be integrated back into Jewish religious life. They assumed wrong. (Please know that I know I am skipping enormous swaths of Bible text and history.) Jerusalem was a wasteland. They might have welcomed the help. They didn't. "Y'all are nasty people," they told the Samaritans. "We don’t want anything to do with you." And were still treating them that way 400 years later, into the time of Jesus.
We know Jews did business in Samaria and vice versa. The story of the Good Samaritan tells us that. Money rarely respects racial segregation, since it's all green! Amen? Socio-political, but mostly religious, history drove the racism and segregation between Judean-Galilean and Samaritan Jews in Jesus' time.
I would offer that this same religious history drove Jesus through Samaria instead of around it; that Jesus went through Samaria out of theological necessity; that he could not and can not be the Savior of the world, nor even the Savior of Israel, without tending to this profound injustice called Samaria.
Israel proper can ignore it, pretend that it is in the past, that they have much greater concerns these 400 years later. But so long as they have neighbors who still know themselves marginalized, disenfranchised and dismissed from their own faith and country, Jesus will not go along.
Samaria. As I read her now I realize that is her name. John has embodied and given voice to all of Samaria in the woman at the well. I have this notion of Jesus taking his disciples on a field trip, and likewise John his church – a local tour past their own people's history of apathy and injustice. Only it isn't ancient history, because we carry our history within us. It is here in all our relationships. They cannot escape it, pretend it is over and done. Not on Jesus' watch.
On Jesus’ watch these modern Galilean men will not ignore or deny the damage done to their southern neighbors, damage that affects them in the here and now of their life together as believers in the same God and citizens of the same country. 400-year-old damage is not history, when modern neighbors cannot walk through each other's neighborhoods. Therefore Jesus had to go through Samaria.
His disciples’ utter shock at seeing Jesus speaking with a woman is telling of their own deeply embedded bias, their prejudice. Not necessarily the kind one is proud of. Sometimes we are shocked by our own prejudice, aren't we? They have no language at all for what they are seeing. Seeing is theological activity, remember.
Feeling the anxiety of having no language, they decide to eat instead – and try to get Jesus to eat with them. I'm sympathetic to this idea. Eating has often been my go-to plan in such situations. But Jesus refuses. That is the thing about Jesus: he never does what we think he should do, only what HE wants. Going where HE wants. Talking to whomever HE wants. Paying no attention to the rules everyone else is trying to follow. Jesus seems to have his own set ideas about everything: politics, society, economics, gender and religion.
His disciples fall silent and have a picnic, which is not the escape they wish it was. Because when they stand up again, they'll be in a crowd of Samaritan brothers and sisters in Christ – which is going to make it really, really awkward to keep walking around Samaria, having seen what they've seen, knowing what they know now. While Samaria, for her part, is all in.
Compare her to Nicodemus for a minute. He came to Jesus in the night, but she meets him in the day. He just sort of faded out when Jesus started talking, but she keeps up with him as well as any rabbi would. I told you Nicodemus lapped the Sons of Thunder (Peter, James and John), but that took three years.
Samaria lapped Nicodemus in three hours! Became a preacher and led a village to the Lord! Three hours, and a lifetime of heartache, prayer and faith – faith that starts out as suspicion that the world as she'd been told it was could not possibly be all that God intended for God's people and for her. Suspicious faith that can get really hard to keep carrying, when everyone around you acts like you might be crazy and you end up lonelier than you'd like to be.
But not so lonely you can give up hope for the greater part that you can almost taste in one prayer out of a hundred. Something I don't get: if Jesus was so progressive on gender matters, how come he didn't just get his own water?
And why didn't Samaria just get him some water without being so sassy? “Give me a drink," he said. She said, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" These two lines are charged with each person's awareness of his privilege. He is inviting her to join him in that world-view she has only suspected might be true, for God knows how long. And she takes to it like a duck to water. Likewise, John invites the church to Jesus' view – of everything, including the past.
As per the gospel, friends, we know where Jesus is headed: the cross, the grave, the skies. He didn’t ask the disciples’ input on that plan. Sometimes we forget he also chose the route, including Samaria: the events, history, traumas, injustice that we've tried to convince ourselves are over and done, that have nothing to do with us, that have no force in our lives or our life together today – our personal lives, our community life, our national life. He would not let his first disciples keep pretending, nor does he call his church to pretend either.
In this new day, as we face the meaning of biblical justice, may we also find the courage to face the truth of our past and do our best, with God's merciful help, to make it right. Would you pray with me?
Before moving into the passage proper, I want to review what we’ve learned of biblical justice in the last two weeks:
A Pharisee and Jewish leader named Nicodemus came to see Jesus at night. There's a whole lot to preach right there. Pharisee Jewish leaders are the folks who, a few chapters from now, are going to be plotting to kill Jesus. And it’s night time. Night is the opposite of day, the opposite of light. Darkness and light are persistent themes in John: dark is the arena of evil; Jesus is the light.
Why does this potential enemy of Jesus want a late-night appointment, and why does Jesus give it to him? Nicodemus might be a spy for the Temple, except it's kind of early for that; he might be trying to recruit Jesus for their side; or maybe, Nicodemus himself is going rogue. His introduction is suggestive of all three: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Jesus, interestingly, treats the statement like ordinary rabbi-talk – rhetoric, like professors on a dais pontificating back and forth, using their words strategically to score against each other. When Nicodemus wants to know if “born again” is what Jesus really means to say, he is asking about the words – not whether a child could actually re-enter a womb. They go back and forth a bit until Jesus drops the rhetoric. Suddenly his words are personal, very personal.
How can you profess to be a man of God and not know what I am talking about? Why, do you suppose, Nicodemus doesn’t answer? I think it’s because he did know. He knew, and Jesus knew he knew; he just isn’t ready to know what he already knows in the way he must know it to take the next step before him: the step toward or away from faith in Christ. Because one cannot follow Jesus in the dark, can he? Jesus is the light. Nicodemus is not ready to know what he knows: that to follow Him means to follow Him. He is the Light.
We also know that Nicodemus already knows what Jesus is talking about, when he says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” He speaks the straight-up truth of Jesus the Messiah. Out loud and plain as day, Nicodemus tells Jesus, I see the spirit of God at work in the words and deeds You say and do.
Have you ever known some truth that you knew only in the dark, that you did not share with anyone else? -- something that you knew inside you and wished like anything you could not have to know it in the daylight too, because of how it was going to mess up your life and the lives of people around you? Ask any Baptist kid who ever knew he or she was gay.
Here are some of my truths: As a little girl, I would rather read than play or talk to other people in my house. As a young woman, I came to think I’m supposed to be a preacher. Most recently, I’ve come to know that white privilege is a thing; that if everything else was still equal, just being white makes life in this world easier for me than for my neighbors who are brown and black. It’s like cruise control on my car. I have the choice to take advantage of it – or not.
Discipleship is a journey, friends – full of confession and repentance – that begins with knowing what we did not know before and continues with deciding what we shall do with what we know. The particular truth Jesus accuses Nicodemus of not knowing has to do with flesh and spirit, ways of knowing and living long discussed by philosophers and cognitive scientists. None of which I am, of course.
I am a preacher. Preachers tell stories. I've told you this story before. A little girl's grandma died when she was six years old. One windy day a few weeks later the front porch swing was banging hard against the house. The mother went to check the noise and the little girl looked up from her coloring and said, "Oh, that's just Mamaw on the swing. She sits there sometimes." "Is that right?" the mother asked. "Do you see her other times too?" "Oh sure," the little girl said, matter-of-factly. "If you put your hands close together she'll come put her hand in between, like this." And she went back to coloring.
The poets and the mystics speak of flesh and spirit too, more like the five-year-old we all once were, before modern, Western Protestantism and public school hammered the notion into us that truth, that what is real, is formed of that which we can see and hear and smell and taste and touch (beginning, coincidentally, at about age six). And that's true; it's just not ALL that's true.
We are not just flesh and bone, but spirit too. And we forget it at our peril, because biblical justice always accounts for the spiritual, for the reality that God is at work, always at work in our lives, our life together and the world around us, as much at play in the course of things as any force that human beings bring to bear. In any given situation of injustice, no matter how dim the prospect for change or healing or correction or vindication, there is also and always grounds for hope.
Nicodemus is biblical evidence for that hope. He disappears from the passage after verse 10. How does Nicodemus think he came to know what he knows about Jesus? NO other Pharisee told him (though he does say “we,” interestingly). Might the spirit of God’s own self have led Nicodemus to know this? I would dare to guess, yes. So, he knows here in chapter 3. What he does with what he knows, we know from chapters 7 and 19.
In chapter seven Jesus was back in Jerusalem teaching in the Temple, causing all kinds of trouble for the things he was saying. Jews send police to arrest him. They are too afraid to do so. The other Pharisees are outraged, and Nicodemus speaks up, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” To which they respond, “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” See how they instantly throw him in with Jesus?
It's easy to miss Nicodemus being brave right there. But he was – getting himself identified with the radical. Even when we stammer and can't say all we wish we could, speaking truth to power is still speaking truth to power. With just that sentence – quoting their Bible back to them, mind you – Nicodemus took a big step away from his own institutional religion, when it was acting out of fear of Rome/this world rather than faith in God.
In chapter 19, after all of Jesus' real disciples had abandoned him, leaving his dead, broken, bleeding body to the care of strangers, Nicodemus stepped up. He was half of all the people with the courage to associate themselves with the crucified Christ. Think of all you know about Jewish rules against touching the dead; layer on the shame associated with the cross and the fear of the Romans thinking you are one of Jesus' followers. No one to this point has more closely, more personally associated himself or herself with Jesus than Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. Not even Peter, James and John were willing to do this for their friend.
I like this Nicodemus character. He starts out thoughtful, intentional; the way I wish I was, instead of so jumpy and impulsive. He's significantly more cautious about discipleship and faith than the way I was raised to think was right, where one could reasonably be expected to move from disbelief to full-blown faith in the time it takes to sing a four-verse hymn.
I like him for showing me here on a Bible page that the transition from knowing the truth to living the truth is more complicated than simply wanting to. Nicodemus was a human being, with people to please and fears to overcome. And Jesus gave him space for that – more space than Nicodemus’ own community was willing to give him.
I like thinking Jesus let Nicodemus make a late-night appointment, knowing full well why: because it is a huge decision to follow Christ – a dangerous, risky, life-transforming decision, in which a person can lose friends, lose status, lose a job, lose the life she had before she followed Him. Because some things cannot be kept, if Jesus is going to be received.
However timid Nicodemus seems here in chapter 3, he more than came around. He lapped those Sons of Thunder when it came to courage – not that it's a contest, I know. But it's cause for hope for all of us, amen? We who already know there's more going on than what we see with these eyes and hear with these ears, we know that the pursuit of biblical justice in the world today is up to us – but not to us alone.
The spirit of God which moves the wind and gives us breath is also here – within, among, and in the world around us – giving us cause for hope and courage. For there is much work to do, and we are called to do it.