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…he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. -John 4:3-4
There are just moments in scripture that make me feel bad for the disciples.
In John’s gospel, the disciples’ call story follows directly on Jesus’ baptism. Those first disciples are present, there at the Jordan, and they take John’s word for who Jesus is, and follow accordingly. From there, more join in, following the word of mouth invitation to “come and see.” And goodness, do they see! Those first experiences with Jesus were exhilarating: the wedding at Cana, where he turned water into wine must have felt like a joyful, easily appreciated sign. And even as Jesus, in Jerusalem for the Passover, drove out the money lenders and vendors from the Temple, it must have been fun to be behind him, watching this moment of purification. It seems like a moment that would be almost as intoxicating as the wine.
If what you knew of your teacher was wisdom, power and wine, it strikes me that it would be pretty easy to follow. And so I wonder if these new disciples didn’t relax a bit, as they traveled Judea and Galilee? I wonder if they didn’t get a bit lulled into ease and abundance?
And then they went home. Back to Galilee.
And Jesus had to go through Samaria.
It seems like a throwaway line in the Gospel; it’s not part of the lectionary text in this story, after all, how important could it be?
Samaria is the land between Judea and Galilee, home to those utterly despised by Judeans and Galileans alike. Contact with a Samaritan would render a Jew ritually unclean; travel through the region was therefore unsafe. Although the direct line to Galilee could go through Samaria, no practicing Jew at time would take that particular route, but would go up the far side of the Jordan, so as to avoid the Samaritans. So as to avoid contamination.
But Jesus had to go through Samaria
I wonder what the disciples thought of this. What did they think, as they approached Sychar and went to buy food from those whom they would have shunned, normally? What did they think, when they arrived back to find Jesus talking with a Samaritan – and not just a Samaritan, but a woman! A woman who had the audacity to look Jesus in the eye, to express her own opinions, to ask theological questions, to push and prod and examine him? We’re only in the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel, and the honeymoon is already over.
For us, here and now, this scene is not surprising. This is, after all, the Jesus we’ve come to expect: the one who doesn’t abide by social graces but lives in God’s grace, in every interaction. I think sometimes we forget that the disciples didn’t have the full picture. They didn’t know how the story would end. They didn’t entirely know what they had signed up for when they had been invited to “come and see.” They didn’t know the grace, the power, the resurrection, as we do. So they are far more shocked than we are to find Jesus hanging out with a Samaritan woman (not an immoral one, as tradition holds, but still a woman from a despised people). We are not surprised that Jesus’ first illustration of the words he spoke, just one chapter before, “God so loved the world that he sent his son…” should remind us that the world God loves includes Samaria. We are not surprised and how the story develops from there, and chuckle tolerantly at the surprise of the disciples for whom this is a startling development; who might be just starting to question who it is that they have chosen to follow.
We are not surprised when it happens to the original disciples, when it’s told in hindsight, when it’s a story. So why are we surprised when it happens to us?
That Jesus had to go through Samaria was as shocking to the disciples as it would be to us to find that he had to go through Syria, or Iran, or Sudan, or Somalia, or Libya, or Yemen, to find someone who would recognize the presence of God. I feel bad for those early disciples, shocked out of the joyous honeymoon phase, because I am a disciple myself who sometimes wishes that being church was all water into wine and turning the tables of corruption. I feel bad for them, because often enough, I don’t want to go through Samaria.
It’s a hard thing, to see the folks whom we’ve pushed to the margins as being beloved of God, as being part of the world God loves, as being able to make known to us the presence of God in ways we had not yet fully understood. It’s a hard thing, when those we follow call us to walk a path we’ve resisted all our lives, a path that feels unsafe and uncertain. It’s a hard thing, when discipleship calls us to question our assumptions, calls us to love those we have been taught to despise, calls us to choose compassion over sectarianism, calls us to risk our status in polite company – to choose the company of the “unclean”, uncomfortable, and often unwelcome. It’s a hard thing, when following Jesus takes us to the margins, to the place where we are called to see the humanity of those whom we may have long excluded, whom we have called dangerous, or unworthy, or simply “other.” It’s a hard thing when being the church that follows Jesus makes it feel like the honeymoon is over, and leads us through Samaria.
It was a hard thing for the disciples then, and it is hard for us now. The call into the places we fear and avoid is every bit as hard to discern for us as for the disciples. But we who chuckle at the discomfort of the disciples could learn a bit from them, as well: these people who followed, even when it meant going through Samaria; even when following took them into uncomfortable, unclean spaces. We could learn from those who were taught how to accept hospitality from the “other”, the despised and rejected. We could learn from those who, against all their instincts and learned prejudices, followed Jesus, whom they were still learning to trust.
Even into Samaria.
The Samarias of our world might not look as they did to the disciples, but they will still be the places that we have written off, or the people that we have rejected. Our own walks through Samaria will be the ones that call us to question our assumptions and check our privilege. And they might just make us as confused as the disciples; just as uncertain of our path, and those who lead us along it.
There will be times when we look at our leaders – our pastors and modern-day prophets – and say, “You’re going to make us go through Samaria?” And we will long for the simplicity of wisdom and wine, of sweetness and abundance, of truth spoken to external powers, rather than to our hearts. I hope, that when those moments come, we will remember that sometimes it is only in Samaria that we find the presence of God revealed, that we see the full extent of God’s love for this world.
Because it is when we allow ourselves to be led into Samaria, when we find that we have to walk that path, that the expansiveness of God’s grace is truly revealed. It is in the Samaritan woman that we remember that God’s love exceeds our human limitations, and includes those whose exclusion we justify. It is in the Samaritan woman that we remember that the Body of Christ, the world that God loves, cannot be contained by human borders or judgments, but that God is present among those on the margins, among those whom we consider irrevocably “other.” It is in the Samaritan woman that we see God as God, rather than as a reflection of ourselves, and we remember why, despite our discomfort, we had to go through Samaria.
My prayer for us all is that we will end up spending a lot of time in Samaria; a lot of time seeking God in places we have not dared to venture for a long time. My prayer is that we will trust in one another, and in the God who is beyond our understanding, and in so doing create anew a church in which grace abounds, in which love abides beyond all that we have experienced to this point, and that you will accept the hospitality to stay in the margins, the unexpected places where God is revealed.
Even if it means going into the places of uncertainty and discomfort.
Even if it means going to places you’d rather avoid.
Even if it means going through Samaria.
When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ John 2: 3-5
For years, common knowledge among pastors and theologians has been that the Gospel of John must be of much later origin than the others, because of its high christology. Doing away with the big words that those pastors and theologians tend to enjoy, this simply means that it has long seemed that this Gospel focuses more on the divinity of Christ – the God-attributes, than on his humanity.
But this would seem, on its face, to give lie to that claim. Miracle aside, this is a very human moment: a parent-child interaction which, but for the water-to-wine specifics, probably feels familiar to anyone who has children, or anyone who has ever been a child. Certainly, the snarky interaction in which Jesus insists, “I’m not doing anything, this is not my problem,” and his mother replies, “You’ll do something, because I said so,” is a familiar refrain to many.
This moment, like so many in this Gospel, speak not to John’s supposed “high Christology”, but to the incredible importance, in this narrative, of the incarnation – the Word made very human flesh.
Because it is only humanity that requires prophecy.
It is only humanity that requires the voice of the prophets: those who try to bridge the gap between the human and the divine; those people of clear eyes and relentless truth-telling; those who shine a bright light into the many places that we’d really prefer to avoid, or at least keep secret, even from ourselves. Prophets are those who call out our shadows – our failures of conviction and courage – and who will neither rest, nor let us rest, until we let our own light shine. Prophets make us face the real needs of the world around us, the world that God loves; they call us into the light to face the fears that we use to keep those needs at a comfortable distance from our neat, orderly lives.
Humans need prophets to make us see clearly who we are, in relation to world. But we also need prophets to make us see who we might become, if onlywe dared to let go our fears.
And the human Jesus needs a prophet every bit as much as any of the rest of us.
This Jesus, who is (in John) more than simply one of those who shine a light; who actually is the light itself: even Jesus needs a prophet. Even Jesus needs this moment of vision. Even Jesus, the Word made flesh – very human flesh – needs a prophet… and needs one who knows better than anyone else ever could his particular uncertain, anxious, fearful flesh. Becuase the role of prophet is not to show us previously unknown abilities, but to call us to action. And so Jesus’ mother doesn’t tell him what to do, she simply tells him to do, and leaves the rest in his capable hands.
Because it turns out that his abilities are not at issue. There is no question in her mind or his whether or not he is capable of turning water to wine. Rather, at issue is his readiness to start down this road, the end of which he sees so clearly before him. At issue is his readiness to be the light, knowing how very much people fear to see even that which is right before them; knowing the lengths to which they will go to keep from seeing. At issue is his readiness to be Good Shepherd, the one who will lay down life for his sheep.
The human Jesus, the word incarnate, needed his mother’s prophetic light on his own fear. He needed that reminder of who he is, and who he will become.
I suspect that this, too, is familiar to us. For we, too, with our fully human flesh, all too often need that light turned on us, revealing our own readiness, our own willingness to use our abilities. We still need our prophets, as uncomfortable – and snarky – as they might often make us. We, too need to have our failures and our fears exposed; we, too, need to see clearly who we are, and who we might become. For we, too, push back against the calls to do and to be in this world; we, too, hide in the shadows of our own making, reluctant to admit that the problems before us might be ours to resolve.
However we imagine ourselves responding to the prophets in our lives: when the moment of prophecy actually happens, and the light lays us bare, that exposure inevitably makes us anxious, and anxiety makes most humans lash out. Unvarnished truth, however flattering to our own abilities, can be a terribly hard thing to hear. Which is why our response to prophets is consistent, throughout human history: in the face of prophecy, we become deflective, defensive, dismissive.
This is the response we saw with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: the wait-and-see, don’t-rock-the-boat, not-our-problem attitude of whites, anxious at the bright light that Dr. King and his colleagues shone on the systemic racism of the mid-20th cenntury. It was this response that prompted his Letter from Birmingham Jail – the jail into which the white authorities had put him, in the hopes of dimming or extinguishing his prophetic light.
Our response to prophets is neatly summed up in FBI label placed on Dr. King: “threat to National Security”.
Our response to modern prophets is visible in the deflective, defensive, dismissive tone that so many privileged folk take toward the Black Lives Matter movement; towards the plight of Syrian refugees, towards those in our own communities who are struggling with addiction.
What concern is that to me? we say, toward the modern-day prophets who are working to shine light into our current failures of conviction and courage; those prophets who are right now exposing our anxieties, made manifest in our snarky answers, in the refusal to use our obvious abilities to help.
Our response to prophets, major and minor, public and private; to friends and family, colleagues and church members who call us to examine anew who we are and who we might become is the most basic human survival response, which privileges anxiety over compassion:
My hour is not yet come we say, although not in quite those words. Often, it sounds more like:
They should have done what they were told.
What can you expect from that generation?
We’ve always done it this way before.
Whatever the words we choose, the response of separation and refusal speaks to the anxiety of being exposed.
Our response to prophets is splattered across pages of history, beginning well before Jesus attended a wedding in Cana of Galilee. He knew this history, and I do not at all blame him for his anxiety.
But we come after.
The response of deflection, of defensiveness, of dismissiveness speaks loudly to our continuing need for those prophets who will call us anew, in this time, out of our human-flesh anxiety and into divine witness and Christian conviction.
For we follow in footsteps of this Word made flesh. We follow in the way of the one who set aside anxiety for the sake of compassion; the one who learned from his mother that prophetic love will triumph over the shadows of fear.
And we are called, again and again, to listen to that prophetic love. We are called to follow the light, to follow the one who is light, even when it exposes us. We are called to set aside anxiety and fear for the sake of following the one who understands perfectly that very anxiety and fear, but who embodies for us a different response, a faithful response to prophecy. Out of the human-flesh anxiety of prophetic clarity, we are called to embody the extravangant signs of divine abundance, grace, and mercy that lift our abilities beyond all human fear.
Jesus, having gotten over his knee-jerk defensive “what concern is that to me?” response; having moved beyond the snarky anxiety of “my hour is not yet come”, starts willingly upon the trajectory to which the prophet called him. Jesus, exposed by prophetic clarity, gives us a new response: one which starts with the sweet taste of the best wine in abundance; one which starts not just with grace, but grace upon grace, both received and given.
It is clear, in this Gospel account, that he never forgot his own initial moment of very human fear, his own need for prophecy and light. For the only other moment in John’s Gospel where Jesus’ mother appears is right at the end, when we find her standing at the foot of the cross, with the unnamed Beloved Disciple – that character in the Gospel in whom we are to see ourselves.
And that mother, that prophet, is told to mother us; to prophesy to us, the Beloved Disciples, the disciples whom Jesus loves still.
And we are told to care for that mother, that prophet, however she might appear to us; whether as a voice on television, as a writer in a magazine or on social media; as friend, as family, as coworker, as churchgoer. We are called to care for that prophet as our own; to care even for that one who holds the exposing light, who shows us who we are, who we might become: purveyors of God’s abundant, extravagant grace, as sweet as the finest wine, poured out still, for us all.
Sometimes, God sneaks up on us.
Certainly, we expect to hear God speaking here, where we gather.
We come for just that purpose: to listen, to worship,
and sometimes it is enough.
But sometimes we get hungry;
listening attentively is hard work!
And sometimes the word doesn’t quite cut it,
doesn’t give us enough to chew on,
doesn’t fill the gnawing, empty place within,
but only makes us more aware of feeling
It is tempting to sneak off,
to rush away from the speaking,
to answer a different call than the one that brought us here.
We plot our escape, absently
massaging our empty bellies,
not noticing, at first,
for the taking, not the giving.
The basket, from which we pull, grab,
we fall back, sated, filled, overfilled,
and, finally, aware:
uncomfortably aware of the hungers of others.
Watch, you who gather here,
as all are filled by the God who slipped in;
in Word, yes,
but in the word that spoke the simple word: eat.
And we are joined in satisfied hunger,
feeling together the relief from emptiness,
pulled from ourselves into a greater Body
in the experience of abundance
in the experience of grace.
One Body, taken within our own.
One Body consumed, incorporated,
giving life and sustaining us,
God incarnate abiding, within us and through us,
the Word made our flesh,
devoured, renewed, eternal, enough,
surprising us in bread, in flesh,
in Word, in Body,
When grief hits – really hits
when finality folds in upon you
with all its echoing emptiness
Some people run, just for the sake
of having something to do
with still-living flesh
arms and legs that cannot contain
And I watched as the men looked
rummaged, flailed, fled
I, whom grief turned to stone
unmovable but for the flood
pouring down my cheeks
clinging to my lashes
until the world blurred:
lost its form in a haze
of light and water.
Movement again, yet not
with the speed of whirling grief.
My eyes, half-blind, streaming
saw first the dirt
upon the stranger’s hands
as though he’d been entrusted
with coaxing new growth
from fertile earth.
Between tear-shimmer above and below
walking through the garden
in the cool of the morning
radiant with the first light of day.
“Where is He? For I know
and I promised to follow.”
And he spoke, and the world became
as on the first Day.
One word, and I was made new.
Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ -John 20: 27-29
Although it seems odd, after last week’s resurrection, with the bright, glowing light of the rolled-away stone and angelic apparition, we find ourselves, now, in Eastertide, back in the dark. We find ourselves closed in with the disciples, who are still hiding, still fearful, still locked up together even though they have experienced the resurrection and witnessed the risen Christ. They remain behind closed doors, venturing out as needed, but furtively, carefully, it seems.
These ideas of light and darkness are traditional in Christian language, and have been used in just this way for centuries. As Barbara Brown Taylor notes in a recent op-ed for Time Magazine, “From earliest times, Christians have used “darkness” as a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness, and death.” That’s precisely the darkness that these disciples are in, even after the resurrection. Which is, perhaps, normal, when the light doesn’t look like we expect it to.
Now, certainly, this metaphoric language of light and darkness is problematic: it has negative implications for those who are physically blind, as well as for people of color. Both groups have felt the weight of being labeled inherently sinful, an experience that we need to state and have on the table, before we dissect the language any further. For it is problematic language on another level, as well; Barbara Brown Taylor continues: “It divides every day in two, pitting the light part against the dark part. It tucks all the sinister stuff into the dark part, identifying God with the sunny part and leaving you to deal with the rest on your own time.”
It is easy – and done many times over, in our lives and in our tradition – to divide light and dark into God and non-God. It is easy to see God, and feel the divine presence, only when life looks a certain way, only when that presence is expected. So what do you do when you’re a disciple of the Risen Christ, but still feeling bereft of God? When things didn’t go as you’d thought they should have? When death and grief had been so present, and you are still trying to understand how they might be reversed, and what that might mean for you, hidden away in that room? What do you do when fear still seems more palpable than joy? How do you encounter God in that unexpected place, especially when you’ve made sure to lock the door?
How do any of us encounter God when we’ve locked the door for fear of the dark?
It is not surprising, that this metaphorical language of light and darkness should gain such traction within our religious traditions – for it is not just present within Christianity. We humans are diurnal creatures, and our senses are made to best function in sunlight. We tend to feel off kilter in the darkness; to be disoriented, less confident in our abilities, more aware of our limitations. We fear the dark because it shows us as we really are: vulnerable creatures who are not as independent as we prefer to believe ourselves. We fear the dark because it renders us helpless, reliant upon one another for comfort and security.
When’s the last time you went out for walk at night, in real darkness? No streetlights, no light pollution, no iPhone to light your way? It’s disconcerting. Even when our eyes have adjusted, we are less likely to see danger coming. Even if we are in familiar territory, we are more likely to trip, to walk into things, to get hurt. And so our use of the metaphor seems reasonable: for how can God be someplace so inhospitable, so fearful to us? How can we be sure where God is, if we don’t even know where we are?
Brené Brown is a professor of Social Work at the University of Houston, who specializes in the study of shame and vulnerability. Part of her research regards those people who seem to have the ability to love wholeheartedly, fearlessly: across the board, such people tend to be confident, lacking in a sense of internalized shame, believing themselves to be inherently worthy of love. All these are qualities – confidence, clarity, vision – that we tend to associate with light. Brown asks the question, in an interview with Krista Tippett: “does this mean our capacity for wholeheartedness can never be greater than our willingness to be broken-hearted?” In other words, our capacity to dwell in light can never be greater than our ability to endure darkness; to be vulnerable, even wounded, and to seek God in those places of fear and disorientation. Our willingness to risk ourselves, to be heartbroken, to be courageous, depends entirely on our willingness to dwell in vulnerability: “think of the last time you did something you thought was really brave… as a researcher, 11,000 pieces of data, I cannot find a single example of courage – moral courage, spiritual courage, leadership courage, relational courage… that was not born completely of vulnerability.”
I wonder what Thomas would think of that.
Thomas, Jesus’ disciple, who is still sitting in darkness, fearful and bereft. Thomas, who alone turned away from not one, but two chances at vulnerability; whose fear, whose wounds kept him not just from hoping for the promised resurrection, but even from belief in the testimony of his closest colleagues. Thomas, who was called to be the first demonstration of courage in this post-resurrection ministry; who was called to faith; to believe despite darkness and disorientation; to strip away the confidence born of human senses and human judgment; to trust that God is equally present in our darkness; to see Jesus, even unexpectedly, even without seeing him.
Thomas was called; and so are we.
As we are reminded in this parable, we are called to be people who believe without seeing, without the necessity of light. We are called to be people who believe from within the darkness, from a place of vulnerability; and then to believe in ways that make us vulnerable, that do not shut and lock the door on God. We are called from that vulnerability to be people of courage; risking ourselves for the Gospel: the good news that is the light and life of the resurrection.
And that is hard. We see it in Peter’s speech to the crowd, on that Pentecost Sunday in Acts, where he is already back in the light, already in a place of power, already entirely dependent upon the confidence of human perception. Just fifty days after the resurrection, Peter is already in the midst of the crowd, rather than on the margins where his Teacher spent so much of his own ministry. I wonder what Thomas would have preached, in that moment. I wonder what any of us would have done, or said; where we would have taken that light, and Spirit, and linguistic ability.
We, who are called to vulnerability, and to courage. We, who are called to be the ones who see God in unexpected places; to hone our senses until we can have the confidence to walk in and with the dark. We, who are called to walk in all those places of fear, of disorientation; places where we may stumble or where our hearts may be broken, and seek, there, the Christ who was raised in darkness of tomb. For Christ’s return to the light did not heal his woundedness, or remove the vulnerability of his spirit, but touched and healed the woundedness of the fearful disciples.
We are called to find God in the brokenness from which we may be made whole; in the broken-heartedness from which we may love more fully; in the darkness in which we can find God’s light, even where we least expect it.
“Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.'” -John 9:41
I’ve been catching up on my reading recently, trying to get through the stacks of books on my desk and beside my bed. Among those, and certainly one of the most enjoyable, has been Pastrix, by Nadia Bolz-Weber. It’s a memoir of her ministry, from one whose path was a little less… obvious, perhaps, than many. The story she tells of her call is particularly poignant: after about 15 years of sobriety, she received a call about the death of an old friend. They had met while both were doing stand up comedy; they had been in recovery – affectionately termed “the rowing team” for many years together. But whereas she had married, had children, and gone back to college, he had contested with the roller coaster of mental illness, before finally taking his own life. The call informing her of PJ’s death carried with it a request: that she officiate his memorial service:
My main qualification? I was the religious one.
The memorial service took place on a crisp fall day at the Comedy Works club in downtown Denver, with a full house. The alcoholic rowing team and the Denver comics, the comedy club staff and the academics: these were my people. Giving PJ’s eulogy, I realized that perhaps I was supposed to be their pastor.
It’s not that I felt pious and nurturing. It’s that there, in that underground room filled with the smell of stale beer and bad jokes, I looked around and saw more pain and questions than anyone, including myself, knew what to do with. And I saw God. God, right there with the comics standing along the wall with crossed arms, as if their snarky remarks to each other would keep those embarrassing emotions away. God, right there climbing down the stage stairs after sharing a little too much about PJ being a “hot date”. God, among the cynics and alcoholics and queers.
I am not the only one who sees the underside and God at the same time. There are lots of us, and we are at home in the biblical stories of the antiheroes and people who don’t get it; beloved prostitutes and rough fishermen. How different from that cast of characters could a manic-depressive alcoholic comic be? It was here in the midst of my own community of underside dwellers that I couldn’t help but begin to see the Gospel, the life-changing reality that God is not far off, but here among the brokenness of our lives. (p.7)
Among the brokenness of our lives. Among the marginalized. And not only when we are there to bring God’s light.
That one is an old idea, a relic of our colonial past, so ingrained in us that we barely notice it’s presence: the idea that we bring light to the dark corners of the world. On its surface, it’s one of those holdovers that still gives evangelism a bad name for us; yet even when it’s not about Jesus, we still often consider ourselves the “haves” – the knowledgeable, wealthy, powerful, “blessed” – and them the “have nots”, or even the “wants” – because who wouldn’t want what we have? Certainly, the income disparity is there, and often it is important. We give to those on the margins, via some very good and reputable causes. We give to places where human corruption or natural disaster – or both – have caused tremendous suffering; we give so that the marginalized will not be hungry, will not be cold, will not feel forgotten… for a little while, anyway.
But it behooves us to remember: we give to where God is already.
Although sometimes the setting is so unfamiliar that we have trouble seeing; although we are often tempted to see ourselves as the light-bearers, the love-bearers in horrible situations, we are not God incarnate in these settings. It is not entirely up to us: God’s light and God’s love are present whether we, the privileged, notice or not – whether we recognize it or not. Our experience of God, through the often-necessary gifts that we give; this experience of God as moving from the privileged “middle” out to the margins, is not the only experience of God… nor, perhaps, even the most powerful experience of God in that moment.
Yet if we were to experience of God in the margins – to experience God in one who dwells on the edge of our society, our comfort… would that not make us question, like the Pharisees? Would that not leave us uncertain, rattled, dismissive?
The blind man, in this story, lived his entire life on the margins. The question that the disciples asked was not, actually, as mean-spirited as it seems; theirs was the common understanding of the day, that physical deformity was the result of sin, either of the parents or of the individual. If the body was “imperfect”, it was the mark of embodied sin, rendering a person inherently unclean, ritually impure – and therefore marginalized, unfit for the society of the “perfect”. He begs because it is his only option for survival, cast out from society, bearing sin in his body.
It’s odd though, in this story: it is not his healing that removes the question of sin from the equation. The mixture of dust and spit that Jesus places on his eyes does not suck out his sin, for that had already happened. The disciples asked Jesus, “Whose sin made him blind, his or his parents’?” Two choices, the two given by society and religious understandings. Both of which were refused. Of the two choices, Jesus picked a third, unbinding sin from the body, deformity from purity. Before sight was restored, God’s presence was invoked in this marginal space, this “inappropriate” body. God’s presence was invoked within the blind man – within the “imperfect”, within the “other”. And when his eyes were opened, God’s light came pouring out from this man, casting into stark relief the social and religious ideas that had kept him out for so long.
For vision, in first century understanding, had nothing to do with sunlight being absorbed and reflected and bouncing into our eyes and onto our retinas. Vision came from within us; reached out and understood the world and brought the information back. Light came from within, demonstrating God’s presence. Jesus’ answer, Jesus’ actions in this moment turn the whole notion of blindness on its head; for it is not merely that deformity is cured, but that light is kindled within the one who was dark; God is present in the one who had been abandoned. The one who was in darkness is ablaze with radiance, there in the margins; and his light – his vision – slams full force into the solid, shadowed images of the law, and notions of purity; into the fiercely held beliefs about who God is and how God acts: ideas that block the light, and make people turn away in fear and confusion, finding it easier to follow in the ways of power and vanity – to see God in the middle, rather than the margins.
There is something still true in the notion of vision from within. No matter what photons might reach our retina, we still see what we want to see, in any given situation. Richard Rohr, in his book Falling Upward, puts it this way: “Now much of modern science recognizes the very real coherence between the seer and what is seen or even can be seen. Wisdom seeing has always sought to change the seer first, and then knows that what is seen will largely take care of itself. It is almost that simple, and it is always that hard.” (p. 151)
We still see what we want to see.
What do we see, when we look for God? Where do we go, to find God? Is it God’s light, breaking in upon us, breaking us open to truths and experiences not our own? What is at stake for us in our seeking, and perhaps in our finding?
What is at stake for us, as for the Pharisees, when God is at work in the blind beggar, right in front of our eyes? What is at stake for us whe God is at work in an itinerant preacher and his rag-tag group of fishermen, tax-collectors, women – the poor, the unclean, the marginalized?
What is at stake for us, to see God in an “unacceptable” body, at an “unacceptable” time? What is at stake for us, to see God through the lens of brokenness, or in the body that we would consider inherently other?
What is at stake, when we dare to allow God to speak, not to those who dwell in the margins, but from those very people, in their voices and out of their experiences?
What is at stake when we allow ourselves to hear God speaking the truth of a heavily-tattooed, recovering alcoholic, female pastor? When we allow God to speak the truths of a black teen in a hoodie, just walking home from the store? the truths of a gang member with blood on his hands, trying finally to turn his life around? the truths of a mentally ill homeless woman, who seems from our perspective to be little more than a disruption to our nice, orderly lives?
What is at stake for us, to allow God to speak not of the margins, but from them? And how will we respond? Will we listen, and allow ourselves to be broken open to other experiences and understandings of God? Or will the distance from our own experience cloud our belief, and dull our vision? Will we, with the Pharisees, refuse to own that God might be bigger than the lens through which we are accustomed to seeing?
What is at stake for us when the blind see us clearly, and speak to our truths: to the uncomfortable truths that check our power or privilege;
to new and different understandings of God, embodied in ways we’re tempted to call sinful? Except we, as progressive Christians, tend not to use that word… we prefer other, less religious ones that function in the same way; words like “defensive”; “hysterical”; “angry”; “bossy”. Words that we, like the Pharisees, use to dismiss others’ experiences of God. Words that keep from having to see God in new ways; that keep God from stretching us; that allow us to stay in our comfortable, privileged notions of who God is, and how God works in this world.
Jesus isn’t much in this chapter of John’s Gospel. In a lot of ways, that makes this a good story for us, later followers who don’t tend to have the direct, mud-in-our-eyes experiences of Jesus that dominate the Gospel narratives. It is a story of what happens after we experience Jesus; after we experience God. It is a story of what it is to be a Christian, speaking truth to power, even when our experiences are dismissed, and we are marginalized. Yet it is also a cautionary tale for us: a story of what it is to be powerful, to be fearful of allowing God to break us out of our happy lives in the privileged middle, fearful of what God might say to us from the margins.
Yet worth noting: the story doesn’t end with fear and dismissal. Jesus, unusually, comes back. This is one of the rare times when we don’t have the one who was healed immediately following Jesus, or being left behind to who-knows-what-fate. Jesus comes back, in the end, to the one who was healed and then rejected. Jesus comes back for the one who experienced God, and light, and refused to conform to “acceptable standards” for such an experience; refuses to allow anyone else to dictate the terms of his faith. Jesus comes back for the one willing to see, even if he doesn’t quite understand: the one who is not trying to make God in his image, but who allows himself to be remade in God’s. Jesus comes back for the seer, remade in wisdom, with the clarity to see God in the margins:
In the broken.
In the cynics, and the alcoholics, and the queers.
In the despised, and the rejected, and the crucified.
Shall we let the blind lead the blind? Shall we, finally, let the broken lead the broken?
Shall we allow God’s light to break us open – a process which can hurt! – to new truths that stretch us and our understanding of God? Shall we allow God’s light to shine upon us: to be light-receivers, our fears and privilege cast into stark relief before the ones we’ve cast aside? Shall we, finally, hear and follow the voice that calls us to the margins, to the new life that might be possible if we are simply willing to leave our shadowy safety, and step into the light?
In the margins of our world, and in the margins of our own lives, God calls to us; remakes us in wisdom after God’s own image, until the blind become visionaries and the broken become the ones who have invited God in through the cracks. Until the one who was rejected and killed brings us to new life, and calls us to follow. For it is only in acknowledging out brokenness that we may be made whole; it is only from our blindness, that we might finally see.
[The Samaritan woman] said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” John 4:29
Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome in this place.
I say that every single week, at both services. It is said by UCC pastors around this country; an intentional phrase of inclusion, a correction of the historic church exclusion that has harmed so many, and made so many wary of entering our worship spaces. It is an intentional response to the judgment that so many churches practice.
It is not, however, a response to Christian exclusion. For that has never existed. This new, modern, liberal position is, in fact, none of those things, but is one of oldest tenets of our faith. Because our faith calls us to extend our ideas of who we count as neighbor, as worthy, as Godly, as recipients of grace. The extravagant welcome, the extravagant forgiveness that we work so hard to embody are not the products of modern Christianity, but ideas that Jesus himself espoused and practiced.
It seems like whenever Jesus wants to really drive this point home, the story would involve a Samaritan. There’s the parable of the Good Samaritan, found in Luke’s Gospel, which has become so embedded in our culture that it has lost a great deal of its power. And there is this story, of the Samaritan woman at the well, only mentioned here in John’s Gospel, and where we are more likely to remark upon the protagonist’s gender and sexual history than on her geographic origins. But these are important; perhaps more important than anything else about her; for it is the fact that she is a Samaritan that makes her so totally “other”, so totally despised by the Jews. Because you never fight with anyone so badly as with your own family.
The region that in Jesus’ time was called Samaria had been, before the Babylonian exile, the Kingdom of Israel – the northern half of King David’s realm, which had broken with Judah to the south and become its enemy. The battles of these kingdoms are recorded in the historic books of the Hebrew Bible (2 Kings 17), as was their eventual fall to the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Still: Samaria and Judea had a shared history, through the lineage of David, and earlier, of Abraham: the well from which Jesus proposed to drink was the well of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson. The Samaritans, too, were people of the covenant, with the same scriptures and the same commandments and many of the same practices as their neighbors – their cousins – to the south. But to the Jews – Judeans – there were inexcusable differences in practice that rendered the Samaritans “impure” and “fallen”: notably here, that the center of their worship was Mt. Gerezim (in Samaria) rather than Jerusalem (in Judea). The Judeans despised the Samaritans for having received the same revelations of God, the same covenant with God, and responding to it in a different manner.
So to have this woman, so very “other” from the average reader of – or listener to – John’s Gospel as the protagonist, let alone the intelligent, perceptive protagonist that this woman is… it would have been nothing short of mind-blowing.
But it would not have been an accident.
John’s Gospel was the last of the four to be written, around 120CE. It is the only one in our Bible to include an innovation of written storytelling: a strong sense of narrative and structure. Far more than just strings of parables and sea crossings over the course of three years, like the other (Synoptic) Gospels; John is intentional in its placement of stories and parables. Today’s reading is a good example: the internal structure of John 4 contrasts Jesus’ conversation with the woman, and the results of that, with his conversation with the disciples. To both, he talks about physical needs as metaphor for spiritual ones – hungers and thirsts have both superficial and larger meanings. But this story is also placed in a larger context, and draws another contrast; this time with the character we met in the previous chapter, the Pharisee Nicodemus – the Jewish man rather than the Samaritan woman, who came to Jesus in midnight darkness rather than noonday sun. John’s careful use of story and narrative not only gives explicit examples, but drives us towards an implicit understanding of God’s love and grace; God’s extravagant welcome.
So we find Jesus at noon at a well in Samaria, having left Judea because it was prudent, for the time being, for him to put some distance between himself and the authorities in Jerusalem. And in his travels, he found himself in need of water; at a well but without a bucket. It is one of the rare references to Jesus’ humanity in this Gospel, yet a good reason to situate this story at noon; an unusual time for anyone to visit a well and draw water. Why the woman should come to draw at noon is the subject of speculation, but it seems prudent not to read too much into it. Things happen that we couldn’t predict when we went to draw water in the early morning, not least of which is that God calls us and moves in us in unexpected ways. Not to mention that the Gospel writer needed Jesus to be alone with the woman; to get no external clues about who she was or her history.
So: noon. Not midnight, as with Nicodemus; for the woman, there were no shadows to hide in. Nothing except the bright, clear light of the desert sun; nothing except clarity, and the vision that allowed Christ to see the woman entirely: to see the precariousness of her position as a woman in society, to see all she would have had to do to survive. There was only the vision that allowed Christ to see the sharp intelligence, the quick grasp that this woman – so very “other – had of all that he was telling her. And the clarity that allowed woman to ask shrewd questions in return, to examine what Jesus really meant by his offers of acceptance and grace. She asked the questions that any might ask of us, when we assert that all are welcome here: what does that really mean? “Am I allowed even if I don’t worship as you do? In Jerusalem? Am I welcome even as a Samaritan? even as a woman? No, seriously, what’s the catch? What conversion or change is required?” The Samaritan woman stood before Jesus in the brilliant, shadowless light of the noonday sun; in the light that allowed her to stand vulnerable but unafraid before the one who could see her entirely, in the light that allowed her to see him clearly as well, and to name Jesus as prophet and Messiah, in the light that allowed there to be nothing hidden between them at all.
It takes courage, to achieve such clarity. It takes courage to come to such intimacy as we usually reserve for few, if any, in our lives. We, who turn away from bright lights, who shield our eyes and our hearts from the rawness and pain of human life; we, who protect ourselves in shadows; we are uncomfortable with that level of light, of vision, of clarity. We are uncomfortable with the idea of being seen entirely, of being broken open, with all that we would rather hide made made suddenly visible. We are afraid of having on display the fears, the insecurities, the desperations of our lives; of being vulnerable, especially to one whom we suspect despises and judges us (and whom do we not suspect of judgment and derision?) And so we remain in shadow, fearful of being seen; fearful as well of seeing.
For what might it mean for us to see the fears and desires that drive someone else? to see and understand the root of their hurts, their shame? What might it mean for us to see that none of us are really all that different, despite what we’d rather believe: despite the superficial, created differences of race, or class, or gender? Despite the equally superficial differences of politics, practices or beliefs? Despite the all-too-human desire to be special, unique?
What might it mean to see ourselves in the mentally ill? In the addict? In the young woman on welfare, or the young man whose unemployment insurance has run out?
What might it mean to see ourselves in those whom we might otherwise judge so harshly?
Is it any wonder we prefer shadows, w what we might see in the light?
The problem is that we tend to think God prefers the shadows, too. We, like Nicodemus, think we can find full understanding of the love that welcomes us so extravagantly, yet without having to see or be seen. We hide our fears and our failings, as though we might be hiding them from God, as though these might be the deal-breaker that excludes us from love and grace. We keep to the shadows because it enables us to continue believing what we would really prefer to believe, despite our fear: that there are those who are, in fact, not welcome, not worthy: a Fred Phelps, an Adam Lanza, a one who has gone so far from love as to be cut off from grace… as we fear we might be, if we were truly and clearly seen.
We, like the disciples, prefer to focus on the human, the mundane, the safe. We concentrate on human hungers and human thirsts. We dwell in the places where it’s comfortable to look, without too much light, lest it hurt our eyes and our hearts. We hide ourselves in the the dappled shadows of otherness and difference – the human reassurance that “we” are not like “them”, but are worthy of love, and of acceptance, and of grace… if no one looks too close.
We talk fairly regularly about God’s light at work in this world, banishing the shadows that would hide us from one another. It’s pretty frequent imagery for mainline churches, but we talk about it rather like we talk about the coming Kingdom, as a sorta-now-but-mostly-later thing; a let’s-look-for-signs rather than a let’s-help-it-arrive thing. We rejoice in God’s Kingdom… as long as it doesn’t mess with our comfortable, happy lives. We look for God’s light, as long as it doesn’t expose us too badly; as long as we can use it to banish other people’s shadows, over there, away from us, where we can’t actually see.
We look for God’s light, as long as it doesn’t make us see clearly that which we’d rather not see, as long as it doesn’t open our hearts to that which we’d prefer to not understand, as long as it doesn’t make us see ourselves in those whom we’d rather despise.
We pray for God’s light, as long as we can still seek Jesus from the shadows, like Nicodemus, as long as we can stay safe, and not actually risk ourselves in the process.
God’s light is in the world, and we throw up our hands to shield our eyes. We create shadows in which to hide while urging the light to dispel other shadows, somewhere else. We create shadows from which we can claim not to see, blinded as we are by the brightness beyond our reach. And we survive on pale excuses for sustenance: busyness and diet and causes that fall within our comfort zone; we settle for being full, rather than nourished.
But the light is there – brighter than the desert sun at noonday. The grace is still there, that knows us and still invites us out of the shadows. The grace that invites all of us – our fears and insecurities and shame included. The grace that invites all of us: humanity in all its varied forms, with its most basic, shared needs for food and water, unconditional love and extravagant welcome. The grace that invites all of us: Fred Phelps and Mathew Shepherd; Adam Lanza and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; victims and offenders, the fearful and the…. fearful.
Grace invites us: all of us who fear that God’s love might actually have limits – because we don’t worship in Jerusalem; because we are Samaritans, we are “other”; because we have hurt one another; because we are broken, and fearful, and hurting.
Grace invites us, still, to live by God’s abundant love, to live in God’s extravagant welcome. Grace invites us, even in our fear.
God’s light is in the world, and we need not hide, for what shadows can hide us from God? What shadows can hide us from the one who knows everything we have ever done? We have been seen entirely, and are beloved despite it all.
God’s light is in the world so that we might see one another, and be seen by one another… and in the clarity of that light, we might recognize God in our midst: even by the well at noon; even in the Samaritan woman; even in person who is so “other”, that we would far rather they simply burn in hell.
God’s light is in the world, in the hopes that we might stand within it, vulnerable and unafraid, to accept the living waters of grace; to nourish ourselves on the food that is light, and grace, and love spread throughout this creation. God’s light is in the world, and we are welcomed by grace – whoever we are, and wherever we are on life’s journey.
So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe.” John 10: 24-25
I think it’s safe to say that this has been an incredibly tough week for everyone. This has been a week when the unthinkable happened, close to home. This has been a week of grief: a week in which we lost a little bit more of our innocence. I think that all of us wanted to believe, in those first minutes and hours, that this was an accident, that the manhole covers had blown up, as they had in Harvard Square a couple of years ago. But the words came up, as they were going to; not as much on Monday but over the course of the week. This was an act of terror, with all of the baggage that the word now has attached to it, whether or not we ever wanted it to, about race and ethnicity and nationality and motivation. But this was an act that did, in fact, terrify us; we who live close to Boston, who have ties to the city, many of us who knew people who were at the race.
But by far the most terrifying thing, to me, at any rate, was listening to the rampant, unbridled speculation in which every noise was the next bomb, and every backpack was suspicious, and every nerve was kept on edge for as long as possible. Over the course of the week every possible motivation was aired, and everyone who looked suspicious was wrongly accused.
We don’t do well with not knowing. We are vry curious creatures, and there are days when I wonder if God knew what God was doing when adding “curiosity” to the human mix. I wonder if God realized before we ate the fruit off that tree in Eden just where curiosity would lead us. BEcause you can’t really blame the snake for that one – human beings would have eaten that fruit eventually because we just had to know what it was that was so cool that we couldn’t have it. We have to experience things first hand. We have to touch and grab and taste, and if you don’t believe me, think about this: how many times have you taken a bite or a sip of something and said to the person with you, “Oh, this is so awful, you have to taste it!” And the thing is, we do.
We have to know, we have to experience.
Curiosity isn’t all bad – it isn’t all bad tastes and experiences – it got us this far, for better or for worse. We are innovative, creative people who build beautiful churches, lighted with electricity, with sound amplification and everything. We are constantly asking, constantly seeking, constantly striving, and that is not always a bad thing. But we’re like toddlers, inevitably asking “but why? but why?” I think the reason that the continual toddler questioning drives us so crazy is that we want to be doing the same thing; we’ve just learned how annoying it is. It’s not annoying because we don’t want to know, ourselves, but because we don’t have the answers despite the curiosity. It reminds us of all the things that we don’t know. Sometimes the constant asking “why” is a good thing: it allows us to get to know one another better, it allows us to get to know our environment. But sometimes it’s not quite the right question; sometimes it’s that we’re too impatient for an answer; or more likely, that the answer we get does not fit our own worldview. All too often, we pit our intellect against emotion and experience, weighting one more heavily than the other, as we seek the answer. And inevitably, we do ask why, but equally inevitably, we answer that question within our own minds and our own hearts, and those answers can be very hard to change.
Jesus is in the Temple on Hanukkah. That’s what the Feast of Dedication is, in case you were wondering, in case that helps you locate this text, within the Gospels. Hanukkah is the feast in which we celebrate not only the liberation of an occupied city – because Jerusalem was occupied, and the Temple was used to worship gods other than the God of Israel – it was totally desecrated, according to the Jews. Can you imagine how violating that must have felt? And then a rebellion, lead by Judas Maccabeus, drove out the occupiers, and they were able to cleanse and rededicate the Temple. That is what Hanukkah celebrates, that’s what Jesus was in the Temple to celebrate, and that’s the context for the question he was asked. And within all of that is the fear that prompted the question in the first place. Remembered fear, re-experienced fear, is every but as real as current fear, and we have the same responses to uncertainty and not knowing: this time, shouldn’t we be able to do something? Shouldn’t we somehow be ready?
That is what was running through the heads of those Jews in Solomon’s portico, face to face with Jesus: these Jews in an occupied Jerusalem, worrying that once again, their Temple might be desecrated, might be destroyed again. Wondering who might rescue them this time. So: Jesus, tell us plainly, are you the next Judas Maccabeus? Because we’d really like it if you were. Could you go on, get a move on, get the Romans out of Jerusalem, maybe before the Temple gets desecrated this time? They don’t know the answer to their question: they hope, they desire, but they don’t know. The problem is that there is still a correct answer to their question, even though it wasn’t the one Jesus gave.
This text was very much stuck in my head all week. It’s not a totally uncommon thing to have happen, I do read the texts through several times during my sermon preparation, and during Bible Study… but I think it goes deeper than that. Because it resonated, this week, as I followed the news cycle, as I listened to the press conferences, and to what people were saying about what happened this week, and as time and time and time again people asked, “Why?” And it occurred to me that when we ask “why”, when we ask questions like that, we’re not really asking questions. What we’re saying when we ask “Why”, is “Well, isn’t it because…”; we’re suggesting answers, and giving leading questions that only really serve to display our own biases for all the world to see. And we become angry when we don’t hear what we expect, when we don’t have our own biases and opinions confirmed. Every press conference, all week long. Every interaction on social media, all week long. And it shouldn’t surprise us. This is not a new, human reaction to the events of this one, past week. We’ve been hearing these same, leading questions; these same, expected answers, for the past several years around climate change. All those climate scientists who have been questioned, and poked, and prodded, and held up to ridicule and scorn among those who want human ingenuity and human innovation to be always good and never bad – we didn’t mean any harm, after all. Among those who do not want to give up the comfort and convenience that this modern life can offer us, for the responsibility that might be involved in actually hearing those scientists. It’s the same thing we heard from those who questioned Jesus; when his own answer didn’t satisfy them, in the next verse – the part we didn’t read – they took him out to stone him. It’s a pretty gruesome, horrible scanario: “we didn’t like your answer, we’re going to kill you now.” It sounds like overkill, but how many stones have we cast upon climate scientists? And how many stones have we cast upon the media, when we, ourselves, have forced them in to a rapid-fire, twenty-four-hour news cycle, where being first is far more important than being accurate; where the reporting is fraught with cynicism, with biases showing from every which way, where rumors are what are reported until they are proven entirely false. And heaven forbid we do not hear what we want or expect to hear.
So what do we hear?
What do we hear in those moments when we actually sit, quietly, and listen? What do we hear in Jesus’ response to those who would have him be the next Maccabeus? What do we hear, but the still, small voice of God who is still speaking, calling us to open our hearts and our minds to the movement of God right here and right now. We hear a reminder that God is present among us, right here and right now; that God is always present among us. That when we don’t know, when we don’t understand – which is frequent – that it might be because we are asking the wrong question, and that we are more intent upon ourselves than upon God.
Maybe the question isn’t whether the climate is changing, but whether we are treating the Earth as we would treat God incarnate. Maybe the question isn’t whether the climate is changing, but whether we are honoring our relationships with one another, humans and non-humans, really holding those and honoring those relationships, and only using that which we really need, rather than that which we simply desire.
Maybe the question to be asked is not “So, where were you on Monday anyway, God?” although that is one being asked. Maybe the question is what it is that God requires of us, on a day like Monday. Because I think that we’ve all come to the point now where we are learning to see God present in moments like that, to see God in the flashing lights and the first responders and the many, many people who ran towards the danger. To see God present in those who finished a 26.2 mile marathon and then kept on running to the hospital to give blood. But if we’re all affected, and I think we all were, this week, doesn’t that make each and every one of us first responders? And doens’t htat call into question where we see God?
Maybe the question isn’t, actually, “Why?” Maybe the question isn’t, actually, “Why would anyone do this?” But the question is how any one person could get to such a deep place of pain and isolation. The desire to inflict pain can only come out of a place of pain and fear. It is easier to dehumanize the perpetrators; it is easier to see them as monsters, to see them only as they currently are. But I defy any one among you to look into the eyes of a baby, and to claim that they are a monster and born that way. I defy any one among you, sitting here with Christ as our head and cornerstone, and say that any one human being is irredeemable. Because that’s what you would be saying, if you said that these men were nothing but monsters.
It is a lot easier to create a category of “other” – of “not like us” – by virtue of race or ethnicity or immigration status. To make these people different. It is far easier to do that than it is to love our neighbors as ourselves. To weep for their fear and their pain as we would for our own, even when we don’t understand it. But let’s face it: who else really does understand our fear, or our pain?
It is easier to say that they don’t deserve our love; that they don’t deserve our prayers, that they don’t deserve even our system of justice. All of that has been said this week. But God doesn’t see things the way we do. God doesn’t act on merit. If God did, we would not be sitting here right now. We would not be Christians; there would be no Christians, because there would have been no Christ, sent to a people who we cannot say deserved to have love incarnate walk among them.
Maybe the question is not, now, how we keep ourselves or our own cities safe. But it is the same question that it has always been: how do we love our neighbors.
Maybe the question is not, now, about national security – that’s not our job, after all. It is not about how we intercept the next plot. Because maybe the question is not about this realm at all, and never has been. Maybe the question is about bringing God’s realm – that is our call, that is our discipleship. Maybe the question is about how we fill the next broken heart, how we soothe the next wounded spirit. Perhaps it is the one sitting next to you, today.
Maybe the question we should be asking is the one for which our scriptures give the same answer over, and over, and over, and over, until you’re sick of hearing it preached from the pulpit every single Sunday. But maybe it’s the answer to the question that we should be asking. And if we listen, then the Kingdom might be a whole lot closer than any of us know.
And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” John 2:4
My three year old son has come to that age where trouble seems to find him all too easily. OR maybe he goes seeking after it. Either way the results are not pretty. And along with getting into trouble on a fairly regular basis, he’s been learning, slowly, how to say he’s sorry. Occasionally, that’s just a way to try to avoid consequences, but he is actually learning, and beginning to feel remorse. It’s interesting to me, however, that it tends to be when he is the most truly remorseful that he is also least inclined to apologize for his actions. He’s embarrassed, and I get that. There’s a certain odd dynamic in being told to do what you already know is the right thing, in being called out for something you haven’t quite gotten to yet yourself.
No matter how old you get there are inevitably going to be family dynamics at play. It’s very amusing to watch a whole bunch of adult siblings get together with their parents; and everyone suddenly reverts to being seven. And so I find this particular gospel passage fascinating. In it, we find the adult Jesus, he’s about thirty at his point, with his mother and his brothers. It’s a wedding – a huge family gathering. And the family dynamics just come pouring out. In this very human moment of stubbornness, really, where Jesus turns ot Mary and says, “Mooooooooommm… don’t tell me what to do…” She called him out in front of others – in front of the servants, at any rate, and probably in front of some family members, and he’s embarrassed. It’s a very familiar scene to most of us – Mary and Jesus, not as depicted in Renaissance paintings with their glowing halos and serene, all-is-right-with-the-world expressions, but as any mother and son. All that glitz and glory stripped away, and it’s a woman and her son dealing with dynamics.
Jesus in this moment is very human, uncomfortably like us. This is a rarity in the Gospel of John, and it’s worth noting. And he’s making excuses.
Mary says to him, “Hey, they’re out of wine. You should really do something about that. yOu know you can.” But what does he say back to her?
“Hey, that’s not my problem, really. That’s not our concern. It’s not convenient.”
“This is not what I had planned,” he said to her. We see here in Jesus that very human desire to plan, to control a situation, to think about what the reaction is going to be to the things that we do. These are excuses that we make on a regular basis, this reaction is uncomfortably familiar. These are excuses that we make to keep from doing what we know we should, what we know is right. Even when the timing feels off. Even when the reaction might no be the one that we wanted or expected. We can understand that Jesus might be thinking, “This would be my first miracle, and I wasn’t thinking I would do that in front of a bunch of drunk people at a wedding… really, Mom, this isn’t what I was going for.”
It’s especially awkward: these are the excuses we make when we feel like we are alone in our actions, like what we’re doing might be unpopular, or merely a drop in the bucket or less. These are the excuses we give when we really want accolades for our actions – or at least not unwanted, undesired attention. And so it’s very easy for us to set aside what we know needs to be done, to say “My hour is not yet upon me. The timing is not right. Let’s wait for a more opportune moment, shall we?”
As I was preparing this sermon, I found myself drawn more and more, not just because of the day but because of the text, to Dr. King. And in his Letter from Birmingham City Jail, maybe one of his most famous pieces of writing, he addressed this exact question:“For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’ “I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say wait. But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your 20 million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisting and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see the tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness towards while people; when you have to concoct and answer for a five-year-old son who is asking in agonizing pathos, ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; … when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tip-toe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’ – then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”*
This, in a letter to clergy: “I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”
The language seems a little antiquated, and we can give thanks for that, but the emotion is not. We could substitute in this day and age, any number of groups and examples that would turn this into a very modern document.
The cry rings out, “Wait!” and the answer immediately forms, “Wait for what, exactly?” Wait until it’s convenient? Wait until it’s popular? Wait until we get the reaction we’re seeking? Wait until we can use our gifts? What are we waiting for?
We all have gifts. Whether or not we know it, whether or not we’re ready to use them, we all have them. They’re not all the same; I very much doubt there’s anyone reading this who can change water into wine (if there is, leave a comment); but we know there are people in our lives who have the gift of hospitality; the very gift that Mary was trying to encourage in her son. We know there are people in our lives who have the gift of organizing and delegating, people who can see what needs to be done, and know how to do it – people who can be like Mary. We cannot all be preachers and teachers, cannot all speak words that will continue to resonate, as Dr. King could, but we can still march, and we can still protest, and we can still write letters and we can still boycott that which needs to be changed. We can still stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed and mistreated. And we can still educate ourselves, because there are those who have the gift of teaching. There are those who have the gifts of storytelling, and we can listen with open hearts and open minds, recognizing our own reactions and our own prejudices.
If there is one thing that we do all share it is that we can recognize that we all do have gifts, and we all do have life and that it is all Spirit-given and God-given. What we do have is not of our creation, it is not merit-based or somehow within our own control. The gifts we have are not things that we can use as we desire, or that we can take for granted if we so choose, or that we can manipulate for a reaction. Because even when the desired reaction is “Wow, isn’t God amazing? Water into wine? WOW!” producing our reaction is not up to us. OR to our fallible sense of timing.
Opportunities are going to present themselves, they do so every single day, and all we can do is be ready. Whether or not it is convenient, whether the response will be good or popular or any of those things that we want, whether we feel like our hour has come, that the time is right, even that we will be safe or accepted in our choices. Because when we do, finally, allow ourselves to give rein to the gifts that God has given to us; when we cease to fear, that is when we receive abundance.
So imagine it for a moment. You’re standing at the wedding feast, the revelry is ongoing – heaven knows, they’ve already run out of wine! – and Mary turns to Jesus and mentions that little fact to him. And then she goes on to ignore the dynamic. To ignore his reaction, his reluctance; she turns to the servants and says, “Do what he tells you to.” She may have glared at him first, in good maternal fashion; possibly she even rolled her eyes, and he may well have rolled his. It’s a mother-son relationship, after all.
But she made him act. She made him do the right thing. Despite his initial protest, despite the dynamics, despite the embarrassment of being called out in front of the servants and possibly his brothers (who knows?), he accedes to her request. And there is abundance in that gift: that was 180 gallons of wine that he made. A lot of wine, even for then.
But it’s not just the abundance of liquid in a jar. It’s the abundance of good wine. Of the best wine. Of the kind of wine that the steward comments on to the bridegroom. It’s the abundance of the sort that God reserves for those who use their gifts willingly, and selflessly. It is the sweetness and the abundance of love for those who give of themselves in the service of others, who give of their gifts without counting the cost, who recognize and encourage the gifts of others, as Mary did for her son. Who do not make excuses, but who recognize that with God-given gifts comes God-given responsibility. The responsibility to strive in all of our days for the oppressed, the needy, the unloved. The responsibility of discipleship, to bear the light of God’s Kingdom – we are still in the season of Epiphany, we are still talking about light! To overcome human dynamics; to overcome human embarrassment, and reluctance, for the sake of doing what is right; for doing what we know is right.
That we might never again say “wait.” That we might never again put off the rights, the equality, or the dignity of anyone; but that we may strive for a dream too long deferred; for justice too often and too long denied. That we might take upon ourselves this very Gospel, this very Good News that we are here to hear and to follow. That we might be able to say, with our heads held high and with certainty in our voice that the Kingdom of God is at hand.
That is our call. That is our gift. That is the gift that God has given to each and every one of us.