Last week Jesus anticipated going to his death, in order to prepare a place for us, for many people, and talks of coming back from his death, in resurrection, in order to be with them, in the Father’s house, to be the Way in which we live with the Father.
In this week’s reading Jesus promises them the Spirit
What does it mean that we have the Spirit? Is it about warm feelings in our heart? Is it about special gifts or powers? Maybe… maybe its about both of those things… We have no idea about the limit’s of human possibility set free by the presence of God – or what a truly human life would look like in the power of the Spirit of God (except of course we know that it is in Jesus own life)… But today I want to suggest something more specific… rather I think our text from John suggests something more than both of these things.
Jesus says “I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever… This is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot receive.”
Jesus is our advocate… but he promises another advocate
Let’s take that word Advocate. Some translations have ‘comforter’ and ‘helper’ and ‘counsellor’. Some don’t even translate it at all. They just put the Greek word paracletos into English and invent a new word, Paraclete. You may have come across that term. The fact is paracletos (in its basic meaning) simply means Advocate, or perhaps even better, ‘Public Defender’. Many commentators don’t quite know what to make of Jesus claim to send a ‘public defender’ an ‘appointed lawyer for the defence’ to be in us. It just seems a bit weird. What does he mean?
I suspect very few, in any of us here today, have actually been on trial and in need of a defence lawyer. And yet at a deeper level, how often do we feel the need to defend ourselves. Say, for example, Jan says to me, “I wish you could help more with the housework”, I can feel like I’m on trial. I have these antennae that are very sensivitive to possible trials. Even if she says it to me in a nice way. Even if she is quite justified and the request is reasonable, which it probably is, that still doesn’t stop me feeling like I need to defend myself. I wonder how much of our lives do we spend trying to justify or defend ourselves with others? Our desperate need for the approval of others means we are constantly trying to justify ourselves to them. Maybe it’s your boss, or someone you work with, or your parents or your spouse, or your minister. Do you find yourself lying awake at night, thinking up the big speech you’re going to deliver in order to defend yourself the next day?
And how often is defense hard to distinguish from attack and accusation. How often do we find that psychologically, with our worries about our place in the world, our significance, war is a way of life – for fragile people like all of us are.
I was listening to National Radio this week and I heard a program about soldiers who were in hospital during world war 1 and the British soldier got to know the German soldier and they developed some mutual respect and one day the German soldier said to the British guy, something like “It’s crazy that we are at war, two of the finest military nations in the world. Think of what we could do if we joined forces against the rest of the world.” [hmmm]
At some point defense and offence merge into a world-view where the struggle for superiority is just taken for granted. Whether it be in our personal life, or in our empire.
Jesus says, into the world of accusation, self-accusation, and self-justification and defensiveness, I will send an Advocate who will be in you – the Spirit of truth.
The Spirit of Truth… They say the first victim of war is truth. You know the main reason we struggle to really listen to one another well? We are busy trying to compose our defence speech while the other person is still speaking. We need the advocate, the Spirit, who takes away our self-defence… so we can listen… and as we can listen to one another and to God, truth happens. Truth and war don’t mix at a political level… nor at a personal level.
Imagine the weight coming off our shoulders (the peace of mind) when we realize (not just in our head, but in our hearts) that we really and truly do not need to defend ourselves!
A spirit of truth who creates a difference in the world – a Jesus-difference. Hear the difference. Jesus says of this advocate “The world cannot receive [him], because it neither sees him nor knows him”
The world is blind to the Jesus-difference … Why is that? Not needing to justify ourselves… is other-worldly… it makes no sense because the world runs according to a different system altogether. According to the Testament the world is under the sway not of the counsel for the Defence but of the Prosecution (Satam = Accuser). According to this system, according to the ‘real world’ of the ‘accuser’ (Satan), Jesus is invisible… we would say ‘unrealistic’. And apparently what we need most is to be realistic.
We, on the other hand, according to Jesus, know the Spirit within us. We will have spiritual vision. We will see Jesus in the world. Do you see Jesus in the world? Jesus, still alive, in other human beings, particularly among ‘the least of these’.
I will not leave you orphaned!… [advertising opportunity for the Tom Waite album] (parentless) He will continue to parent us spiritually.
A few years ago a guy called Mark Skelton [see picture above] wrote this very simple and stark story in the Guardian about his life. It was entitled ‘Our daughter will be an orphan’. He told how his life was going along swimmingly with his beloved wife and daughter, and one day he went to the dentists for a pain that wouldn’t go away and he discovered his sinuses had a rare form of cancerous tumour. He talked about how he tried to remain positive and how his 11 year old daughter encouraged him with her optimism and how he began to prepare for his death. And then a few months later his wife Amanda went to the doctor with a back pain and she also had an inoperable cancer. He goes on to tell how he is relating to his wife and his daughter who will be an orphan possibly before her 12th birthday.
What this incredibly powerful story made me think about was the closeness of parent child relationships… we live in each other, we live in our children and our children live in us, we live in our parents and our parents live in us. Even our rebellion against our parents is a kind of ‘living in’, it’s because the other has formed us so profoundly in our identity that we react so strongly. Our children live in us and we in our children. And it’s not just in our family, we live in other people. None of us is an island. To be human is to be formed in our innermost being by significant others.
Jesus says to them and to us in a world of struggle and accusation, in a world where we internalize that accusation and start to accuse ourselves. In a world where, on the other hand, we might dare to imagine and practice another way… “I will not leave you orphaned… I will come to you. Because I live, you will live also.”
Not just live physically of course, but live in him as children live in their parents.
“On that day you will realize,” says Jesus, “that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”
What the Spirit in us means for us is that we will live in Jesus and he in us, something like the way parents live in their children and children live in their parents. Not just in our DNA, deeper still, in our identity as people.
Because he lives we will live, in his presence and in the presence of the advocate our lives will take on a new quality, a freedom
Today’s text is one we have heard many times at funerals. Its also a text which does not spare us the big theological questions. Today I want to invite you to explore it more deeply with me.
Jesus is saying goodbye. Have you ever been with someone who is dying and they are saying goodbye. Jesus is dying. He is not on his deathbed. He’s with them in a room, washing feet, sharing food. He sees what is coming (his death) as a moment of glory. “Now is the Son of Man glorified”. And the disciples will be unable to take up their cross. They will be unable to follow him. Jesus says to Peter, ‘afterward you will follow’ but for now they are unable.
Where are you going? says Peter. And in that question he articulates a deep truth. We might call it ‘heaven’, we might call it the ‘kingdom of God’ but it lies beyond the capacity of our imagination. Lesslie Newbigin comments
“We have no map of what lies beyond the curtain, though theologians – and others – often use language which suggests that we have. We do not know the limits of the possibilities for our personal lives or for the life of the world”.
I like that way of putting it. There are possibilities for human beings that we have no idea of. We do not know the destination.
Chapter 13 ends with a stunned silence. Jesus has just told Peter that he won’t be able to follow, that he will deny him three times. It’s a great conversation stopper.
So today’s reading (Chapter 14) begins, Let not your hearts be troubled... there is plenty troubling them. You believe in God, believe in me also… or a better translation You entrust your life to God, entrust it to me also. That’s a wonderful summary of the faith, entrusting our life to the God who makes room for us in Jesus.
They don’t know the destination, they can’t follow just immediately… and yet they know the way. That’s the point of todays lesson. The destination may be a mystery… but the way is with them. The way will, in Jesus words, ‘come back and take you to myself’ and thus into the house of the Father.
This is where I think we need to clear our heads of clutter. This is not the rapture Jesus is talking about. I don’t think this is even the return of Christ at the end – the final judgement or parousia. Jesus, according to John’s gospel, is concerned with his resurrection, and the way that builds the Fathers house, not just after death but before death in this life. Jesus (the Risen One) is coming back from his death (his preparation work – at the conclusion of which he declared ‘it is finished’) … to be with them as the ‘way’ to the Father’s house. Not to provide a ticket… but to be with them ‘as the way’.
The other time the phrase ‘my Fathers house’ is used in John, he is talking about the temple, the holy place, place of intersection between God and the World. He has just staged a demonstration protesting about the money changers in the temple with the words “stop making my Fathers house a marketplace.” The Jewish leaders challenge his authority to act like this and ask for a sign and Jesus, without blinking changes the topic from the temple in Jerusalem to his own body and says ‘Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days.” In others words the temple that really matters for Jesus (the intersection of heaven and earth, the Father’s house) is his own bodily life, and the life that will flow from it with his resurrection. Destroy this ‘Father’s house’ and I will raise it up in three days.
In other words the risen Christ (gone away and come back) has done the preparation. He has prepared a place, many places, many rooms in the house of the Father, and he has done so by giving his life up in a brutal death and receiving that life back as a gift from God. He has done so by making peace with a war-like humanity. And in coming back to them in forgiveness he makes space, room for them also in the life of God, in the house of the Father.
In my Father’s house there are many rooms... its a very evocative phrase. Are they rooms like the upper room where Jesus is meeting with them to say goodbye. Rooms where bread is broken again and again and wine drunk in celebration and remembrance. Are those the rooms Jesus means? Is he talking about rooms for many people… the house of Israel opened up to include people of all nations and tribes and cultures and diversities that they or we might barely imagine. Whatever he means, there is space for many, perhaps even for all. After all John begins his gospel by telling us that Jesus is the light that enlightens all people.
Whatever happens after death, Jesus will be with us now on the way, but not just alongside us, he will be with us ‘as the way’… so that where I am, there you may be also”. To be with him, is to be on the way…. and to already have a room in the Father’s house.
Jesus says “You know the way to the place where I am going” Jesus agrees with Peter, they don’t know the destination… but they know the way. Thomas pushes back on this “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus reinforces his point. “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me you will know my Father also.” If we are going to live in the life of God, if eternal life means life in God, the giver of life… then now, on this side of death it means living in the Son, in the way opened up by his preparation, in the place that he has prepared… in the room, the many rooms that he has prepared for us to live in. And Jesus says it’s not just about words, its also about action. Jesus does the works of the Father. And those who come after and live in him will do “greater works still”. Its not that Jesus comes with a message. The main thing is that he comes with is the action of God, the works of God. He is like God in his action. And those who live in him and the rooms he has created, will in turn be Jesus-like in their action… and therefore like God also.
But here, for many people, it gets a bit uncomfortable. “No one comes to the Father but by me” Is Jesus saying that only Christian’s are saved? (an awfully loaded and confusing way of putting the question). Is he saying that only Christians have a positive relationship with God? Does Jesus mean that some are automatically excluded because he is the way to the Father?
Some people walk away at this point. They say ‘Yes Jesus we liked the lovely comforting bit about the Father’s house and the many rooms and the preparation. But you are just wrong about no one coming to the Father except by you. We make our own way to the Father’s house. So they abandon ‘The Way’, or what we call the Christian Gospel.
Others say, Yep, only Christians go heaven. There’s no point even getting to the end of the funeral service and committing your loved one to the love and mercy of God, if, because of some decision they have made, they are automatically excluded from the Father’s house.That committal would be a lie. For these people funerals do two things. They either farewell Christians to the Father’s house, or they ‘sell life insurance’.
Let me offer instead, two responses to this dillema which, I think, together represent a ‘third way’ – a third way of understanding this passage.
1. All of us need to be set free from the warlike humanity that is built on its victims and is demonstrated in the action of crucifying Jesus. All of us need the preparation work that Jesus has done. All of us need the way of reconciliation that he has prepared. All of us need to be saved from ourselves (our distorted selves) and from the world that has formed us and which is so alienated (so different) from the gracious Father and creator whom Jesus called ABBA. We ALL need this way to the Father.
2. There are many in that way, in those prepared rooms, who neither understand the work that Jesus has done nor think of their lives in those terms. Nevertheless their life shows signs of being formed in his way – their actions correspond to his life, his way. None of us are in the business of judging another person, or even another group. And yet as John says in the beginning of his Gospel… the light of Christ is enlightening all of humanity. The Way can be found in surprising places. The Way is not the property of the church. The church is the property of the Way.
The Way is not the property of the church. The church is the property of the Way.
And in case all that makes you feel desperately inadequate, about whether you life reflects this way… we need to begin again at the beginning of the Chapter. Let not your hearts be troubled. You entrust your lives to God, entrust them also to Jesus. Death is not the end of the story, either for us of for anyone else. God has prepared and God makes God’s Way in the world and in us.
It’s certainly creating a bit of a discussion around the world and sending people, at least some people, back to their bibles to revisit that iconic childhood story to notice things they didn’t notice before.
I really like the movie. One of the things I like is that it sees the story with fresh eyes and reminds us that it really belongs in that strange mythological world of the first few chapters of Genesis. One obvious sign of this is the monsters, the giant creatures that Genesis 6 calls Nephilim.
Aside from that, what has struck me this week as I reflect on the story of the resurrection in todays text… is how this and the Noah story address the same theme – is there a new beginning for humanity?
Let’s start with the Noah movie. Aronofsky’s twist on the story concerns whether God’s promised covenant with Noah would actually result in the survival of any human beings at all, or just the innocent animals. It’s clear that Noah and his family will survive, but will they have offspring or just die out? Will there be a new beginning? In the Aronofsky version only one of Noah’s son’s has a wife before the rains begin to fall and she is barren. Suffice to say this is not how things remain. However, Noah is convinced that his vision of God’s will, of destruction by flooding means that God is determined to visit vengeance on humanity and that even if he and his family survive the flood, humanity will only die out. For Aronofsky’s Noah it is the will of the creator that matters above all else. Creation is God’s treasure and humans are destroying it. Violence fills the earth, violence against fellow human beings and violence against creation itself. God gives Noah a vision of a flood and for him it is a vision of justice. God’s justice requires the destruction of humanity. The question for Noah is whether there is any place for mercy in this divine justice.
For Noah there seems to be no alternative… but the movie pushes against this… It might make some sense if those outside the ark were all totally bad those inside the ark were all good, however, as in all good stories, this is not the case. Noah’s second son Ham knows that there is goodness outside the Ark, in the person of the girl he nearly took to be his wife – a girl who died in the flood. Ham is angry and is tempted to channel his anger in the way of Cain and to take revenge on his Father Noah and on Noah’s God. Will the violence of God perpetuate itself in the violence of Ham? What choice will Noah the purist make? And if Ham survives will the new beginning really be a new beginning?
This ancient story leaves us with this dilemma. Is there another way? Is genocide one of God’s tools of justice? And if it’s not, what does God do about a world filled with violence where creation is being destroyed.
This is not just an ancient story. It remains contemporary for us who have lived through two world wars and are currently complicit in the destruction of species and people groups through processes of environmental degradation and incredible economic inequality – same world!
Noah flips on its head the question we sometimes ask, and asks, Is there room for a God who loves not just the non-human creation, but the human creation as well? What will God do?
In our Easter reading from John 20 I wonder if, at a very personal level, this is precisely the question those disciples were asking themselves as they sat in the locked room, their hearts thumping, worrying about the Jewish authorities… but more importantly worrying about the news that they had heard from Mary Magdalene that God had raised Jesus from death.
If he was the Messiah, if he is God’s solution to a violent and violated world … albeit completely unlike any Messiah they had imagined … then the resurrection is the time of the justice of God’s Messiah… what will the justice of God look like? So when Mary tells them Jesus is risen they are frightened in that room. Is this the God of floods and genocide? What will God do? They wonder… as they sit together and remembered the way they deserted Jesus in his hour of need.
Jesus basically does 3 things to those frightened disciples. He greets them, he shows them his hands, feet and side and he commissions them with the breath of God (God’s Spirit)
Shalom says Jesus… It’s a big word.. Shalom – the harmonious welfare of all creation is what it means. It’s a big word and yet its also a very small word. It’s the Jewish word for hello. From a translaters point of view it should probably be translated. ‘Hello how are you’. An everyday greeting between friends. But John mentions it three times in this chapter. He knows that hidden in this small word is the big word… Peace… Peace be with you. I am reminded of St Therese of Lisieux’s writings about what she called ‘The Little Way’. The great thing about Therese is that there is nothing heroic or ostentatious in her life. She has this profound sense of how the most important things are hidden in the little things… the greatest saint might be the person on the checkout at Pak N Save. She looks at the detail of her life in the monastery and notices for example that some people are much admired and others in the monastery she finds irritating, crabby ill-mannered, lacking in respect, touchy about things… and she decides that for her Christian way this simply means making a decision to seek out these people in her recreation and spend time with them. A little thing perhaps. But enormous. Hidden in that little word Shalom (hello how are you) is all the bigness of God’s shalom – a new beginning for the human race. Jesus makes friends with those who deserted him and betrayed him.
The Second thing he does is show them his hands and his feet. Why the focus on his wounds? It’s not about proving his identity. Sure it works like that for Thomas later on. But here there is no question of doubt, just fear. And here we see the depth of the friendship Jesus is creating. He is not saying, ok so you deserted me and left me to be killed but lets forget about that now. Jesus places the signs of what went wrong at the centre of their new relationship. This is my body. Not just a piece of bread, but a wounded body. They took his body from him. He gives it back to them. And at the centre of this new friendship are these signs which remind them of what they have done – hands and sides – sign of what went wrong. Signs of the destruction of creation – God’s most glorious creation, the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Interestingly in the Noah story there is a talisman, a snakeskin, passed down from Adam through Seth to Noah. And you could think of it similarly, a sign of what went wrong. When one of God’s good creatures, a snake, became a vehicle of temptation.
Finally, Jesus breathes the breathe of God into them and commissions them to forgive sin. Why? Because this is how the new world begins… not through a flood of vengeance… not through a mercy that simply forgets what went wrong… but through a costly work of building friendship, in the full acknowledgement of what went wrong and continues to go wrong. The disciples are called to imitate precisely what Jesus is doing to them on resurrection morning. We sometimes say that only God can forgive sin, but clearly Jesus calls his people to act exactly as he did. To do this they will need all the power that God can give them. They will need the breath, the Spirit of God.
The new beginning is friendship, it’s living together (not necessarily in the same house or bed) but in the same depth of relationship that Therese calls the Little Way. The unity of church is ‘community’ – it doesn’t begin with the Pope in Rome or decisions of the General Assembly, but with the annoying person in the other pew, the irritating person who shares bread and wine with me (this is my body, my wounds), the person who’s upsetting my plans for the church. After ANZAC day when we have talked about and remembered the brutality of wars upon wars (as it was in the days of Noah) today we remember not wars but the arrival of Shalom. Peace be with you. The big thing is right there in the Little Way.
I want to take you back for a moment to your childhood. How is it that children go about deciding who to bully? [take answers] They find some distinguishing characteristic that makes someone stand out as different. It may be that the child has red hair. It may be they are overweight or have a health problem. It may be that it is a boy who acts like a girl. It doesn’t really matter what the distinguishing characteristic is. The kids don’t sit around and try and justify their decision with questions like ‘who sinned that this girl was born a ginger… or gay… or whatever’. Kid’s just go ahead and start talking about the person rather than to them. They just start calling them names or, in all sorts of little ways teasing or ganging up on someone. They group together and find unity in the way they relate to the child who is different
Who sinned that this man was born blind? is the opening question for today’s reading. Somehow this person abandoned to the roadside to beg must be to blame for his situation… if not him then his parents.
John’s gospel says to us today: Let’s talk about sin. It begins and ends with the theme of sin.
John is like that. He takes a story from the life of Jesus and tells it to us as a reflection on a theological theme. Today’s theme is sin. Sin, says John, is not being born with a particular condition that makes you stand out from the crowd – like blindness. Sin is not breaking the rules – like working on the Sabbath. Sin is crucifying people.
Let’s look at how the story demonstrates this conclusion.
Jesus begins quite directly. Neither this man nor his parents sinned. You are simply wrong! This man’s situation is not about sin at all. It is simply an opportunity for God to continue to create the world afresh.
So Jesus in a very symbolic act, reminiscent of the story of the creation of Adam from Mud (adamah) goes ahead and heals the man’s eyes with mud. He says that in doing this he is demonstrating the work of God… and he does it on the Sabbath, the day of rest, not work. Challenging the very heart of their religion. As he is recorded as saying in chapter 5 when accused of working on the Sabbath ‘My Father is still working and I also am working’. The work of creating the world, according to Jesus, is unfinished. Creation is an unfinished symphony.
Where the Pharisees and the Disciples see in a man’s condition an occasion for exclusion – a chance to put him outside the human circle as a ‘sinner’. Jesus sees an occasion to celebrate the fact that God continues to work on all of us. All of us are God’s works in progress. This is the Sabbath in which we live. So Jesus doesn’t just break their Sabbath rule, he challenges their whole understanding of Sabbath.
Jesus is like a bomb in their marketplace. He comes out of nowhere, fits into no formula… and brings this kingdom of God, this Abba-experience of God alongside sinners… alongside those the society is busy bullying. Jesus is messing up the playground.
Which simply means that he is about to become, himself, the focus of their bullying. And it’s fascinating how it happens. At first the Pharisees are divided. Some say. “These miracles must be from God” and others say. “No way! Breaking the Sabbath rule, can’t come from God”.
They need to solve this problem of division in their ranks so they go to the ex-blind man and then they go to his parents and then they go back to the man himself, desperately hoping that it’s all a mistake, perhaps the man wasn’t really blind? As the story progresses the Pharisees get more and more serious and the blind man gets more and more confident. The man who was once a nobody finds his voice.
So they come to him with the phrase you use when you about to begin a public hearing in a courtroom ‘Give glory to God’ they say, ‘We know that this man is a sinner’… and before they can complete their judgement he replies with delightful courage ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner or not. One thing I do know, that though I was blind now I see.’ He is not interested in their bullying game. He has no comment on their exercise in dividing the world up into goodies and baddies. But they press him… “But how did he open your eyes? Then the blind man really lets rip.
“I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”
But the blind man is on a roll and nothing will shut him up now, so he continues:
“Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
The bullying process is in place again… he is an outsider again. The Pharisees are now united. Problem solved. The ex-blind man may not be literally crucified… but the truth is they have excluded him from the circle of the human. They have socially and symbolically killed the man.
You might remember two Sunday’s ago we read the story of Jesus conversation with Nicodemus – also from John’s gospel – where Jesus is talking about the fascinating story of the ‘serpent on the pole’ and likens his own death on a cross to that story. What is on the pole is a symbol of what is killing the people. In looking at what is on the pole they see the truth about their own affliction. In seeing Jesus on the cross we see the truth about our own sin, that the essence of our sin lies in the process that lead to crucifixion.
As Jesus is summing up… we read that some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind are we?’
That’s the other great line in this story. Modern people understand that line… because we pride our self in our knowledge of our self. We think we know ourselves better than others do. The events unfolding in this story demonstrate that the participants are unaware of the processes going on in themselves and in their group which lead to crucifixion. They need the serpent on the pole, God on the cross, to learn to see clearly.
Jesus concludes, ‘If you were blind (like the blind man) you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘we see’, your sin remains.
Jesus has re-defined sin for them:… as the processes whereby we exclude others from life and community, banishing them to death, and manage at the same time to turn a blind eye to it.
What does this text say to us today?
Who sinned that this couple were born gay… and now want to marry… like normal people marry. What would Jesus say, do you think?
Would he also say, no one sinned neither these men nor their parents?
Would he also see a Sabbath opportunity? Would the same man who said ‘Sabbath is made for man and not man for the Sabbath’ also say ‘marriage is made for man and not man for marriage’?
Is marriage a sabbath opportunity for the God who continues to work on the sabbath. Is it an institution in which we are given space to learn the discipline of loving one another as Christ loves the church. What do you think the God who continues to create Adam would say to Adam and Steve?
John 4: 5-42
In Jesus day, in Israel, there was no such thing as a “good Samaritan”. ‘Samaritan’ was a term of abuse. When Jesus told the story of the ‘good Samaritan’ it was an act of profound courage. He was speaking to a community’s deepest hatreds and making a hero of their traditional enemy.
Today we find Jesus visiting Samaria. Something traditionally avoided by Jews. And more than that, seeking hospitality from a Samaritan woman. A rabbinic ruling from a period a little later than Jesus time (which no doubt reflects the general culture) forbids marriage with Samaritans because of their impurity [quote] ‘Samaritan women were viewed as perpetual menstruants from the cradle to the grave, conveying uncleanness to everything they touched or overshadowed’. As Rabbi Eliezer used to say “one who eats bread baked by Samaritans is like one who eats pork”
In spite of all of this Jesus asks the woman for a drink of water. He transgresses all the boundaries. The tension in the conversation must have been enormous. The woman is deeply aware of that, puzzled by it. Jesus says to her
“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you ‘Give me a drink’, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
“If you knew…” The only thing that could have possibly persuaded her to do the unthinkable and ask something of a Jewish man is ‘the gift of God’… something bound up with the identity of the man standing before her at the side of the well.
What Jesus knows is that God is a God of gifts.
When we celebrate Harvest each year we are reminded that God gives life, freely, indiscriminately. That was one of Jesus great and deep insights.
When we read the story of Jesus we are reminded that the “gift of God” transgresses all the boundaries that human beings erect and that the gift of God is a gift that keeps on giving (sorry if that sounds like a cliché)… but what else does he mean by saying that the living water he gives ‘will become… a spring of water gushing up to the life to come’. Those who know God as the giver, will become themselves transformed to become givers themselves of divine life. The gift of God will flow through us too!
If the woman had known this about God… she might have initiated the conversation… But she didn’t, so she doesn’t. [pause]
Tell me… what do we actually know about this woman who turns up to carry water in the midday sun? The common story that is told about this woman is that she is a prostitute (or at least an adulterer), who is converted from a life of immorality to one of morality. But it’s just not there in the story. Instead we have a story of tragedy. A woman has been divorced (the male prerogative in Jesus time), abandoned, or perhaps widowed… 5 times – five times discarded on the rubbish tip of life. This story asks us to stop for a moment and imagine how that would be for her. Furthermore she could now be living with someone that she was dependent on, or she could be in what was called a Levirate marriage (Ruth – childless woman married to her deceased husbands brother for the sake of providing children, but not technically considered his wife). We simply do not know.
David Lose argues that there are all sorts of ways of seeing in this story not a scandal but a tragedy. But we tend to like the excitement of scandal. Nowhere does Jesus call the women to repent or announce her forgiveness.
Jesus sees this women for who she is. He sees her in all her discardedness. He sees in her every word and deed… abandonment… broken heartedness.
And the woman does not feel condemned by his response. You can tell by what she does next. She sees no criticism or judgment. She just knows that he is someone who can see clearly, has god-given insight, insight that comes with compassion.
A German friend of mine has a signature which he appends to all his emails that goes “Love is not blind. It is the only thing that truly sees” It’s true isn’t it. Genuine love is focussed on the other person. It is not distorted by my interests or prejudgments.
British philosopher Donald McKinnon, says, and I paraphrase, that to see ourselves as God sees us … truthfully… is a rare and fleeting thing… not because we fail to be scientific enough… but because we struggle to love enough… Love in the presence of the reality of we actually are is terrifying
Jesus saw her for who she was. And she in turn saw the truth about him. And in John’s gospel the word for ‘seeing’ has a deeper connotation – it is associated with believing. So she declares her confession: “Sir, I see that you are a prophet”
Emboldened by her new-found acceptance she continues with a theological question. Where should we worship? “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem”.
Preachers have often dismissed her question… I suspect because they have already dismissed her… as a kind of red-herring. But if you think about this question in its original context it is a deeply important question. It’s the ancient equivalent of the modern question “Where is God?” Where is the intersection of heaven and earth? A few weeks ago I talked about the Hebrew worldview like intersecting spheres – the transcendent God beyond all things is not simply elsewhere but intersects with the creation – Jews thought in the temple and in the hearts of the poor among other places. So you see the temple in Jerusalem was very important as a place of intersection, of worship.
Jesus acknowledges this Jewish heritage and then offers his own radical challenge – his challenge to the temple. “The time is coming, and is here now, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth”. Jesus messianic claim here is to announce the demise of the temple and its replacement with a living worshiping community of the Spirit.
The woman has dignity. She is a theologian to be listened to. She asks a good question. And the answer is dramatic.
Something new is happening. Just as this women is set free from her own past. So the communities of Jerusalem and Samaria will be set free from their pasts. The temple is not sacred space any more, according to Jesus. The great monuments to the past no longer define the future. Buildings do not define the church. The worship of God will move through time and morph and change with the living breathing community of the Spirit. The key point of intersection between God and creation is not a building (or a mountain) but an activity. The activity of the Spirit in the lives of human beings.
The woman’s response is immediate, she leaves her water jar, her job, the symbol of her past life, all the discardedness that had characterised her life till that point… like the disciples who left their fishing, their job, for a higher calling. There is a kind of break in the fabric of the everyday. Not that she will never fetch water again. But today something more important casts a new light over everything. She goes back to her town as a bearer of good news.
Today the messiah has found a theologian, and the theologian has become an evangelist.
Let’s put ourselves in her shoes a moment. Have we been discarded or abandoned… rejected, ignored?
Do we, like her, have big questions just waiting to be asked? Waiting for someone to come along who can see us for who we are and will give us the space we need to ask our question?
She left her water jar. Today Jesus is here and is creating the space for us to leave our water jars and ask our questions.
[liturgical action using paper as Water Jar - put in it something from your past that you simply need to leave behind… or put in it your Big Question h/t David Lose]
Because we have been corrected by God’s faithful action of grace towards us in Jesus Christ we are now at peace with God. And we even boast that we have this hope of sharing in God’s glory. Not only that, but we boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Sprit that has been given to us.
Just at the right time Christ died for the ungodly – while we were still weak. For it’s truly a rare thing for anyone to die for a righteous person – though someone might actually dare to die for a good person. But God proves his love for us, in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.
So now that we have been corrected by his bloody death, we will surely be rescued through him from our wrath. For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, we can be even more sure that now that we are reconciled, we will be rescued by his life
Nicodemus… is a religious leader, but compared to Jesus he is a bit of a flat-earther. He’s a seeker. He’s curious. He seems to be among the people referred to in the previous chapter of John’s gospel, who ‘believe in his name because of the signs he did’ but about whom we are told, Jesus himself was quite skeptical. So chapter 3 introduces us to him, as one of these doubtful-believers-slash-hangers-on. He came in the dark of night to talk theology with Jesus.
Jesus launches straight into the topic that all theologians of his time were interested in – ‘the kingship of God’. You won’t see the ‘kingship of God’… you won’t see the mysterious power that is God’s power, unless you are born from above. To those like Nicodemus who were impressed by ‘outward appearances’ – the signs that Jesus did – Jesus points them in the direction of something invisible… or visible only under certain conditions.
For the mysterious ‘power’ of God to be visible to you, ‘you must be born from above’.
You need another birth…. As Jesus puts it the word ‘above’ is ambiguous. It could also mean ‘again’. Some translations put it that way. You must be born again. That’s how Nicodemus takes it. As I said before he’s a bit of a flat-earther. He sees the world in a one-dimensional manner, on a timeline, so all he can think about is going back into his mother’s womb and starting again.
So Jesus says it again but slightly differently. You can’t enter the kingdom of God unless you are born of water and the Spirit. Notice the changes. He has moved from talk of merely seeing the power of God, to entering into the domain of that power. For Jesus seeing God at work and participating in the work of God go together. This ‘birth from above’ is also an entry into a way of life.
What it isn’t, according to Jesus is a kind of natural development, or evolution. It’s not as if with a bit of time those who are born from the physical womb eventually with some kind of maturity and learning and discipline and are reborn spiritually.
6What is born of the flesh is flesh, [says Jesus] and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
The point is that those who are born spiritually are not in control. The Spirit of God is free… like the wind. There is no technique to be mastered which will make us spiritual people. Faith is not a technique for self-improvement. There are no rules to be followed which build a ladder from earth to heaven.
And here we touch on the paradox of prayer. Because the Spirit of God is free, the only technique that has anything to do with this birth from above, with life in the Spirit, is the technique whereby we lose control of our life, lose our mastery and have our deepest desire caught up in God’s desire. We call this prayer – the practice of losing control in the presence of God. Prayer has less to do with ‘intending’ and more to do with ‘attending’ to God.
Nicodemus’s last words are ‘How can these things be?’ Nicodemus the sceptic! As open-minded as he might appear to be – his flat-earth account of what is possible leaves no room for the Spirit of God. He comes close. But his philosophy, and maybe his fears, have determined in advance what is possible.
Again Jesus appears to be changing the topic slightly, but not really. He moves from talking about the ‘kingship of God’ to ‘heaven’. But in actual fact the language of ‘heaven’ is common language for the very spiritual realities we have just been talking about. Heaven is where God rules, not just somewhere else, but on earth. Where the Spirit blows there is heaven’s coming.
Even though we talk metaphorically about ‘ascending’ and ‘descending’ to and from heaven, and Jesus does that here, the language of the New Testament is much more complex than that. So let’s not get hooked up on “vertical” metaphors.
Jesus describes himself as an ambassador who has come ‘down’ (descended, as it were) from the invisible realm of divine power (the power of love) into a realm where are very different power is at work. And in bearing witness to the ‘kingship of God’ (to the divine power) he tells them he will be lifted up ‘like Moses lifted up the serpent on the pole’ for the healing of the people.
It’s a fascinating reference! The story in the Old Testament tells of a plague of serpents killing the people. But the interesting thing about the story, that gets you thinking… is that to heal them of the poisonous (or fiery) serpents God tells them to put an image of a serpent on a pole and to look at it – the image represents the reality of what is killing them and in looking to the serpent on the pole the people are healed.
The people know the power of God’s healing at the point when they see the truth about their own problem. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free”.
Jesus death shows them what is killing them. They are being killed by their own violence. But they keep telling themselves lies to deceive themselves about its justification. The only thing that will save them is to see God himself crucified by their violence.
Jesus may not literally come down from a heaven that is located somewhere up in the sky. But what he does do is “descend” into our hell. Jesus life is a journey into the hell of violence and selfishness and struggle. Knowing the power of divine love (the invisible power that God’s Spirit draws human beings into), being born, as it were, from above, by God’s Spirit, he takes that power to its final destination, into enemy territory. He takes it to a roman crucifixion. In taking it all the way into the heart of human violence he is then lifted up, so we can see our own self-deception for what it truly is.
God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
This is the Christian gospel… that God’s power to love has gone all the way into our power to kill and has set us free from this power… a power that become not just a power we wield but a power that controls us.
Jesus died for us!
Today we baptized Amy with water as a sign of the Spirit. The same Spirit that took Jesus into the heart of the worlds mess and self-deception and violence, will take Amy all sorts of places too. Amy is being born from above. Amy will come again and again to the cross of Jesus to see her own self-deception (like a serpent on a pole). Amy will not only see the power of God at work (see the kingdom of God), she will enter into that power (enter the kingdom of God) and become herself a living witness with others to the power of God’s love in a violent world.
Thanks be to God