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… he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. -John 3b-4
God so loved the world… That famous verse, John 3:16, the verse that folks put on signs at football games. I will admit: I don’t entirely get it. It’s a beautiful verse, yes, but there are a lot of beautiful verses, especially ones about God’s love. Why does this one get all the attention?
Reading Carol Howard Merritt’s new book, Healing Spiritual Wounds, gave me a hint. In the book, she tells a story from her time in conservative Christianity. She went to Bible College, and one of the assignments was to go out and convert people – to get them to say the sinner’s prayer along with the student, and thereby accept Jesus in their heart. The version she prints says:
Jesus, I know that I have done bad things. I want to change. Please forgive me. I invite you to come into my heart and live there for the rest of my life. Amen.
That’s it. A conversion could be done, as Carol attempted, at an airport, in the time between getting coffee and getting on the flight. Just these few words – this brief profession – could mean salvation from an eternity of fire. Just these few words, without any real context – no real preparation, no real follow through – are sufficient in order to be “born again,” in order to cross the line of belief.
I want to be clear: these words are fine, there is nothing wrong with them. These words could be very meaningful, in the right context – they could be just the words that a person needs to say as they step into a life of faith. But airport conversions, like John 3:16 signs, point to a thread in modern Christianity – and not just in the conservative parts of it – that hold belief as the most crucial element ; that hold an individual’s direct connection with God, or Jesus, as the clearest indication of their salvation. It’s the idea that God loved the world enough to save believers, the ones who had made a choice – in an airport, or on a street corner, or in church – to accept Jesus, to be born anew, to get right with God.
It’s a compelling idea that there is a formula, that there is a key, that there are a few words that can turn everything around. It’s a compelling idea that belief is all we need: belief in one who loves, belief in one who does not condemn. It’s a compelling idea, possibly because it’s an achievable idea; because professing belief doesn’t really require much of us except, perhaps, acknowledging our imperfection and inviting Jesus to love us anyway.
It’s almost a shame that John’s gospel doesn’t end right there, with this lovely verse.
But it doesn’t.
Jesus tells Nicodemus, this learned religious man, about God’s profound love for this world, about God’s promised kingdom and our place within it. Jesus tells Nicodemus that God so loves the world that God’s own flesh will bring rebirth, renewal, salvation.
And then it goes on.
And then it goes on through Samaria.
We are told that Jesus, returning to Galilee from Jerusalem, had to go through Samaria. But that’s not geographically true. Really, no practicing Jew would have willingly gone through Samaria, would have risked encountering the enemy, or becoming ritually unclean, when it was just as easy to go up far side of Jordan River and into Galilee that way. But Jesus had to go through Samaria because no one loved Samaria. Jesus had to go through Samaria because everyone knew God loved Judeans and Galileans best, these ones who worshiped correctly, in Jerusalem. Jesus had to go through Samaria, not because of geography, but because of theology. Jesus had to go through Samaria, this land the despised and demeaned, to remind us that it’s not all about us, to remind us that belief is just the first step. Jesus had to go through Samaria because God so loved the world, not just our little corners of it.
These early verses in John 4 are a needed corrective, then as now, to the desire for a simple faith, to the desire to think that God loves us, took on flesh for us, and that our acquiescence – our acknowledgement of that – is sufficient. These early verses in John 4 are a needed corrective that points us from what Dietrich Bonhoeffer termed “cheap grace” (or, perhaps in John’s parlance, cheap love) which is that grace, that love which allows us our weaknesses, our prejudices, our failures, our animosity. Cheap grace tells Nicodemus it’s okay to despise Samaritans because God will forgive him. Cheap grace tells us that it’s okay to prioritize convenience over justice, because God will forgive us. Cheap grace justifies our actions, our human weakness, by telling us God understands – God was human too, once! – so we can just keep on keepin’ on. Cheap grace holds up the sign for John 3:16, but doesn’t move on to verse 17, and certainly doesn’t feel the need to go through Samaria.
Cheap grace doesn’t follow Jesus, once we know he loves us.
The grace that follows, that takes us beyond those stadium signs, is costly. The grace that speaks the words of the Sinner’s Prayer from the heart: that invites God’s love to come through us, as through Samaria, is going to ask something of us in return.
It is not uncommon, in reading this passage, to be a little condescending to poor Nicodemus: to think he doesn’t get it – of course Jesus isn’t talking actual rebirth! – to watch him walk away from the faith that we profess so easily on any given Sunday. But I wonder if that’s fair. I wonder if maybe he didn’t understand quite well what was being asked of him, the cost of the love that was being offered. I wonder if, perhaps, Nicodemus didn’t see the breadth of the world he was being asked to love, the need to expand his heart and change his perspective entirely? I wonder if Nicodemus didn’t understand that belief in one individual heart is a great starting place, but that it will necessarily compel us away from individuality, into relationship, into community, into the world? Maybe Nicodemus walked away because he understood better than we do that belief in a God who loves the world will make us go through Samaria, will make us love those we have been taught to despise, will make us choose compassion over sectarianism, will make us risk our status in polite company, will render us “unclean”, uncomfortable, and often unwelcome.
Belief in God is not for the faint of heart. Because believing in God, and the only begotten Son leads us out into the world that God loves… even into Samaria, even into Syria, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, even into the neighborhoods in our own nation where we drive with doors locked and windows up, even into cheap motels and encampments of our own city – these shelters of last resort, these unshelters of no resort. Belief in God and the only begotten Son leads us to see God’s love for the world reflected in those we despise, in those we fear, in those we shunt to the margins and exclude from “polite company.” Belief in God demands our hearts be broken, demands that our failings not become our excuses. Belief in God requires that that Sinner’s prayer become, not the words of our lips, but the deepest desire of our hearts, the one that impels us out into this beloved world. Belief in God calls us to salvation, but we have to go through Samaria.
This is the grace that will cost us, that will change us entirely, that will plunge us, not once but over and over into the waters of rebirth, into the spirit of renewal. This is the love of God for the entire world that will call us, again and again, from a faith we profess to a faith we live and to a belief that lives through us. This is the faith that will call us out into the Samarias of our world where Christ is present, if we have eyes to see. This is the faith that reaches deeper than stadium signs and airport conversions. This is the belief that reaches into our hearts and pulls us outward into the kingdom that awaits.
We just have to go through Samaria
Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” -Luke 19:40
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem has got to be one of the great stories of our faith. I know this, because I remember coloring in the pages in Sunday School; the pictures of the palms – bright green crayon – cloaks spread out; the semi-condoned “borrowing” of a donkey, which we assume got returned later. The Hosannas, the cheering crowds, the wondrous procession – this huge parade through throngs of people shouting out, as though all of Jerusalem had shown up at the foot of this hill on the outskirts of the city. As though this were some sort of a spontaneous demonstration of the populace that served to make the events of later in the week all the more devastating.
And I can see why the narrative developed in this way – why we tell the story the way that we do. I can even see why we call this the “Triumphal entry”: as though Jesus were some sort of conquering hero or warrior, the Messiah that we all wanted Jesus to be. As though he had overcome Roman legionnaires and all that Herod and Pilate could throw at him. As though he simply were just another temporal leader. Or as though we ourselves had some stake in the Roman occupation of Palestine.
It makes for a better holiday, to have a narrative like this; it makes for a break in the depths of Lent during which we stop saying “Alleluia”. Having a day when we can shout Hosanna feels pretty good after nearly forty days of discipline, and fasting, and repentance. Moreover, it makes for better pathos later in the week – it makes for a more poignant moment of betrayal and desertion, when it isn’t only twelve who vanish but an entire city that just days before had been shouting Psalms, singing hymns, spreading their cloaks on the ground.
The narrative doesn’t surprise. At some level, it makes so much sense. We know Jesus could draw a crowd, we’ve seen it before. How many did he feed with loaves and fishes? Three thousand? Five thousand? That’s a big crowd! How many were gathered on the coast of the Sea of Galilee as he sailed across? How many gathered to hear the Sermon on the Mount?
But there is a difference between being out in the Galilean or the Judean countryside, and being on the outskirts of a major city – even on the outskirts, in the poor neighborhoods, away from the seat of power. There’s a difference. There’s a difference between going out to hear good preaching, and participating in an overtly political act. We’re not totally off our rockers to see, in this triumphant entry, the movement of a temporal leader, the movement of a powerful human. That’s not an accidental maneuver, that’s not something we added to the narrative later on to make Jesus into the Messiah that we expected. That was Jesus’ choice: to make the entry that way. It was not accidental, but it does point to something other, something much larger. Jesus is, in this moment, using the lens of the familiar, the hoped-for, the expected, to point beyond all of those things. This is, for all intents and purposes, a parable writ large, and acted out for all the world to see.
What we have here, though, is not a popular uprising, but a political stunt. This may look like a large crowd: according to the Gospels a lot of people were there, but let’s remember that a lot of people followed Jesus around. Not just those twelve disciples, but all of the followers, all of the hangers-on. Let’s remember that there were women in the crowd. It would not surprise me that Lazarus – not one of the twelve! – but Lazarus, who had been resurrected, had followed to that moment, and Mary and Martha with him. We know Mary Magdalene was there. We know Joanna was there, we know Salome was there. This was a large crowd, just his followers.
And they came into Jerusalem – not for the first time, but for the most potent time. In a way that looked like what it was: a mockery, a challenge to the powers-that-be. But in a way that went so far beyond that, and we hear it in the words they chose, because that wasn’t accidental either. I don’t think they called it “Psalm 118” in the way that we do, but they chose that scripture deliberately. The Psalm invokes the promises God’s abiding love, that tells us that God’s steadfast love endures forever. That verse is repeated throughout the Psalm, and that is not accidental. They chose a scripture that reminds us that God’s ways are not our ways, that the chief cornerstone shall be the one that was rejected. And in that, how can we see anything but a challenge. Not a challenge to the Romans – we hear this and we know that this isn’t really about the Romans. As much as we want it to be, as much as we want to have a stake in overthrowing occupation, that is not what is happening here. When we read this and we read the Psalm that goes with it we realize that this isn’t even about Herod, or Pilate. This isn’t even about the Jewish establishment and the Temple practices, this isn’t even really about humanity at all.
The past couple of weeks, we’ve mostly been preaching out of the Gospels. It’s not unusual, during Lent, as we are working our way towards a particular, expected end. But we’ve also been hearing quietly from the prophet Isaiah, and Isaiah has had a consistent, clear message these past couple of weeks: that God’s ways are not our ways. We heard that in Isaiah 55, a couple of weeks ago. That God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. That God doesn’t see the world in the way that we do – we need that reminder on a pretty regular basis, I think. Last week, we heard that God is preparing something totally new, totally different, that we can’t count on previous experience to be our guide, that we must simply be prepared for whatever is forming, whatever will be coming.
And so the fact that we see Palm Sunday as triumphal rather than subversive, as somehow being somehow in opposition to Good Friday, rather than otherwise, strikes me simply as a failure of human imagination enshrined in tradition and coloring book pages.
It strikes me as a failure to understand that the God who requires our death and rebirth in the waters of baptism; the God who requires our continual renewal in repentance and grace might just, it strikes me, have something beyond-the-normal-human-scale of revolutionary in mind.
We know the end of the story. Why is it so hard to see?
But if you look at it, and the way in which we have traditionally viewed it: that failure of human imagination to grasp and to comprehend, the failure to put ourselves honestly into the narrative. It makes you wonder where in that story we really would be. It suggests that we would not, actually, be among the disciples, throwing our cloaks down and shouting Hosanna and quoting the Psalms. Rather, it suggests that we would be with the Pharisees, running up to this loud and boisterous procession, entering the city in such a mocking and challenging fashion, and fearing for Jesus and for ourselves. It strikes me that we would be with the Pharisees shouting, “Be QUIET! Don’t you know what could happen to you? Do you have any idea what it is you’re doing?”
Which sounds harsh. Because we all want to be the disciples, right? We all want to have those palms, throwing them down before him, and shouting praises and singing Psalms but… really? Can we honestly say that?
It sounds harsh, but I stand here before you, someone who has been told many times to be silent because of what might happen, and so it rings true.
It sounds harsh, yes it does, but we had a reminder just a couple of weeks ago: when it took 50 years for the Chief of Police in Montgomery, Alabama, to apologize for what had happened during the Civil Rights Movement, when a bunch of people came in on a bus and the city had turned its back, knowing full well that those people had been attacked and beaten in every city in the South where their bus had been. The Montgomery City Police refused to even show up at the bus station. And so those people got attacked, and beaten, and terrorized yet again. And those who might have followed them were silenced. “Be quiet, you, do you know what might happen?”
We got a reminder this week – like we needed another? – in Steubenville, Ohio, of what happens to women on a regular basis. Of how often women are silenced and shamed for being victims. Of how they are re-victimized after the crime for daring to speak the truth, for daring to ask for justice. And that that second victimization, the social victimization that happens afterwards, only serves to silence hundreds more who might have spoken up themselves. “Be quiet, little girl, don’t you know what’s going to happen to you? Don’t you say a word.”
We have reminders daily of how hard humans will cling to the status quo. Of how fierce is our resistance to change, even when change is for good, and change is for love, and change is for justice. We have reminders on a daily basis, and it is not hard to find them, of what happens to those who do work for love, and for justice: of what happens to those who seek to live the Gospel message.
So where do we stand, in that story?
We have reminders as well, that God’s ways are not our ways; that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. And we have reminders of the power of God who is not like us, the power of God to break through into the story and to break us open. The power of God to refuse to be silenced, no matter the cost. “Silence these,” Jesus said to the Pharisees, “and even the stones will cry out.” All Creation shall sing Hosanna, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. All Creation shall sing praises to God, but let’s remember that we’re silencing that, too.
Where are we, in this story?
We have reminders on Palm Sunday, of the radical and subversive nature of God. OF the radical and subversive nature of the one whom we are all, here pledged to follow. Of the responsibility that we all accept as disciples, to participate in what is, inherently, a political – not a partisan, but a political – act. Because if we are to be partisans to anything, to anyone, it should not be to those who have temporal power and human soapboxes, where stone will not stand upon stone; but to the one without whom those very human structures cannot stand, who will break the stones apart as they sing out. It shall be to the one who builds the things that humans would otherwise reject; who takes the least, and lays it as the cornerstone of the strongest foundation. It shall be to the one who rides a donkey through back roads, knowing exactly what he is doing. Knowing the cost of that act, and the cost of those Hosannas, knowing the cost of speaking out.
We have reminders, each of us in our hands, of the real triumph of this entry and of this day. Take your palms, carry them out into the world unafraid to shout Hosanna. Go out into this world, disciples of subversive love and radical vision. Preach the Gospel. Live the Gospel. Live it out loud, and refuse to be silenced.