Mud in the Eye | 4th in Lent

John 9:1-41

1 As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. 2 Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?”

3 Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him. 4 While it’s daytime, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming when no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 After he said this, he spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and smeared the mud on the man’s eyes. 7 Jesus said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (this word means sent). So the man went away and washed. When he returned, he could see.

8 The man’s neighbors and those who used to see him when he was a beggar said, “Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?”

9 Some said, “It is,” and others said, “No, it’s someone who looks like him.” But the man said, “Yes, it’s me!”

10 So they asked him, “How are you now able to see?”

11 He answered, “The man they call Jesus made mud, smeared it on my eyes, and said, ‘Go to the pool of Siloam and wash.’ So I went and washed, and then I could see.”

12 They asked, “Where is this man?”

He replied, “I don’t know.”

13 Then they led the man who had been born blind to the Pharisees. 14 Now Jesus made the mud and smeared it on the man’s eyes on a Sabbath day. 15 So Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see.

The man told them, “He put mud on my eyes, I washed, and now I see.”

16 Some Pharisees said, “This man isn’t from God, because he breaks the Sabbath law.” Others said, “How can a sinner do miraculous signs like these?” So they were divided. 17 Some of the Pharisees questioned the man who had been born blind again: “What do you have to say about him, since he healed your eyes?”

He replied, “He’s a prophet.”

18 The Jewish leaders didn’t believe the man had been blind and received his sight until they called for his parents. 19 The Jewish leaders asked them, “Is this your son? Are you saying he was born blind? How can he now see?”

20 His parents answered, “We know he is our son. We know he was born blind. 21 But we don’t know how he now sees, and we don’t know who healed his eyes. Ask him. He’s old enough to speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they feared the Jewish authorities. This is because the Jewish authorities had already decided that whoever confessed Jesus to be the Christ would be expelled from the synagogue. 23 That’s why his parents said, “He’s old enough. Ask him.”

24 Therefore, they called a second time for the man who had been born blind and said to him, “Give glory to God. We know this man is a sinner.”

25 The man answered, “I don’t know whether he’s a sinner. Here’s what I do know: I was blind and now I see.”

26 They questioned him: “What did he do to you? How did he heal your eyes?”

27 He replied, “I already told you, and you didn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?”

28 They insulted him: “You are his disciple, but we are Moses’ disciples. 29 We know that God spoke to Moses, but we don’t know where this man is from.”

30 The man answered, “This is incredible! You don’t know where he is from, yet he healed my eyes! 31 We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners. God listens to anyone who is devout and does God’s will. 32 No one has ever heard of a healing of the eyes of someone born blind. 33 If this man wasn’t from God, he couldn’t do this.”

34 They responded, “You were born completely in sin! How is it that you dare to teach us?” Then they expelled him.

35 Jesus heard they had expelled the man born blind. Finding him, Jesus said, “Do you believe in the Human One?”

36 He answered, “Who is he, sir? I want to believe in him.”

37 Jesus said, “You have seen him. In fact, he is the one speaking with you.”

38 The man said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped Jesus.

39 Jesus said, “I have come into the world to exercise judgment so that those who don’t see can see and those who see will become blind.”

40 Some Pharisees who were with him heard what he said and asked, “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?”

41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains. (CEB)

Mud in the Eye

Some scholars hold that the Gospel of John plays out on two levels. In one sense, it’s telling the story of Jesus. In another, it’s using the stories of Jesus to tell us what’s happening to the early Johannine Christian community. The story of the man born blind is one of those events that speak to the reaction of synagogue leadership to those Jews who confessed Jesus to be the Christ. It reveals the struggles of the early church which was, by and large, a Jewish group. Verse 9:22 tells us that those who confessed Jesus as the Christ were being expelled, or cast out, of the synagogue. John even used a word that is unique to his Gospel, ἀποσυνάγωγος (aposunagogos), to explain what was happening.

Now, this was no small thing. The synagogue had become, in many ways, one of the centers of Jewish life. We Americans like to compartmentalize things. For us, there’s religious life, work life, and family life. There’s personal time, entertainment time, and games and programs (often having to do with children). If you’re a kid or youth it’s simpler: it’s just school life, and not-in-school life.

There are probably a few more categories in there, but you get the picture. We compartmentalize these things as if they’re separate from each other. That was much less the case in first century Judaism. There was no compartmentalization of work, family, and religious life because faith and religion defined those things and how you did them. They were a part of your religious faith. The synagogue would have been the center of your community. It was an extension of your family. Everyone was part of the local synagogue. To not be part of the synagogue meant you didn’t have the connection and protection of the people around you. So, for a Jew to be cast out of the synagogue would have been devastating. It would have expelled such a person from everything.

There are two possibilities for expelling people. If we want to give the synagogue leaders the benefit of the doubt, we might consider that it was meant as a tough love kind of thing for the good of the person being expelled and for the community of faith. Much like excommunication, which the church practiced later on, expulsion from the synagogue may have been intended to make the expelled persons repent and come back to the kind of life, correct belief, and faithfulness the synagogue leaders expected. The idea of excommunication from the church was that, if we refuse to allow this sinner to be in communion with us, they’ll realize what they have given up by choosing their waywardness over our community, and they’ll want to come back. It was an oddball way of taking care of church members and the faith community through forced separation. There’s little evidence that it was particularly successful, and I doubt Jesus—the one who welcomed prostitutes and other sinners into the kingdom community and demanded that we forgive seven times seventy—would have particularly approved of the practice, but the church did it anyway.

The other possibility, is that expulsion from the synagogue was meant to squash the spread of Jesus’ teachings and discipleship-making through fear. Unfortunately, in the context of John’s Gospel, exercising control through fear was exactly what the synagogue leaders were doing. We’re told that the parents of the man born blind, feared the Jewish authorities… because the Jewish authorities had already decided that whoever confessed Jesus to be the Christ would be expelled from the synagogue.” (John 9:22, CEB). So, even if the authorities meant for the expulsions to be an oddball way of caring for their members and faith community—like excommunication became in the church—the result was that people were afraid. The practice of expulsion forced people to choose between their established community whose leaders refused to believe Jesus is the Christ, and belief in Jesus as the long-held Messianic hope that their religion had been expecting since the days of Moses. (c.f. Deuteronomy 18:15).

It’s not entirely unbelievable that the authorities dismissed the man born blind and his testimony. One of the prevailing theologies of Judaism is Deuteronomic theology. It’s the idea that there is a reason for everything. And let me tell you, it’s not a Methodist theology. It wasn’t the theology to which Jesus adhered, either. As the disciples are walking by the man born blind, they asked Jesus to explain the situation. “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” (Jn. 9:2 CEB). You see, according to this kind of theology, there had to be a spiritual explanation for the man’s blindness. Deuteronomic theology does not allow for happenstance. Someone had to have sinned for this to have happened. The Jewish authorities assumed the man born blind was a sinner who was being punished by God with blindness. His blindness was evidence of his sin and probably that of his parents.

So, they assumed someone was at fault for the man’s blindness. It’s similar to the question we ask every time there’s a bad diagnosis or when some terrible accident happens: What did I, we, he, she, they do to deserve this? It’s the same theology of Job’s friends. They insisted that Job must have done something really bad, and that he absolutely deserved all the horrors that came upon him.

The answer Jesus gives his disciples is this: Nothing. No one caused this man’s blindness by sinning. It’s not about how bad people are. Yes, sin is something we can do, but sin is also an infection that affects the whole world. The whole of creation has been disfigured by sin, and that is what led to sickness, maladies, and death. The effects of sin touch each and every one of us, whether we actually do sinful things or not, because we’re human and we live in a broken creation. Bad stuff just happens because of the adverse effects of sin. That’s what Jesus has come to fix. This bad stuff won’t exist in the restored creation where we’ll be gathered together in a new heaven and a new earth.

To prove his point, Jesus spit on the ground and made mud, which he applied to the man’s eyes. Then, Jesus told him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. The man obeyed, and he could see. Can you imagine his amazement at being able to see for the first time in his life? It should have been a joyful moment, a moment of restoration to a full life in the community. He could see! And no one would be able to hold him at arm’s length because they assumed he or his parents were sinners whom God was punishing with the man’s blindness.

But that’s not what happened. What’s interesting is that the neighbors and people of the city no longer recognized him. They asked the question: Isn’t this the guy who used to beg? And he kept insisting, “I am the man” (John 9:9, CEB), but the people weren’t convinced. Some of them suggested it must be the guy’s doppelganger. I mean, these people must have walked by him for years and never actually looked at the beggar sitting in their midst. This is an example of a community failing to be what it should have been for this man when he was a blind beggar. They didn’t know him. To not know this man when he could see means that they so completely ignored him in his blindness that he was never really a part of their community anyway. I imagine there are probably people in our community whom we ignore like that.

Then, enter the religious authorities: people like me. When the man born blind was brought before them and had relayed his story of his sight being restored, some of them got bent out of shape because Jesus healed this blind man on the Sabbath. Some said, Jesus didn’t follow the rules, therefore, he could not possibly be a man who is faithful to God or who is doing works on behalf of God. Others questioned how a man who is a sinner could perform a sign like this. So, the authorities defaulted to not believing the man born blind really had been born blind. It tells us they had been no better than the neighbors who, apparently, never really saw this man in his blindness and never took the time to get to know him. He was born blind, but every day that he begged for alms in their midst, everyone else was unseeing.

They had to call his parents in to verify that this really was the same person who used to beg on the street. Can you imagine this happening? The ridiculousness is beyond belief. But the possibility of its reality makes me ask myself who I might be ignoring in the same way. Who are the people I don’t see due to whatever circumstance of theirs differs from mine?

What follows is this wonderful conversation between the religious authorities and the man born blind where he uses their own logic against them. They declare that they know Jesus is a sinner, and the formerly blind man sings Amazing Grace. They demand to know again what Jesus did to him and he, interpreting their wanting to know as desire to become disciples of Jesus, says, “I already told you, and you didn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?” (John 9:27, CEB), which tells us this man has already chosen his path to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

The authorities had nothing left but insults and arrogance. They said: “You are his disciple, but we are Moses’ disciples. We know that God spoke to Moses, but we don’t know where this man is from.” The man answered, “This is incredible! You don’t know where he is from, yet he healed my eyes! We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners. God listens to anyone who is devout and does God’s will. No one has ever heard of a healing of the eyes of someone born blind. If this man wasn’t from God, he couldn’t do this.” They responded, “You were born completely in sin! How is it that you dare to teach us?” Then they expelled him” (John 9:28-34, CEB).

They expelled him, but it seems like he was never really a part of the community anyway. How does our Christian community at First United Methodist Church measure up to that one? Who are the people we don’t see? We are called to be disciples of Jesus Christ who live in community that seeks out and welcomes everyone. If there’s any judgment of who is in or out that needs doing, we can trust God to take care of it in God’s own time. Our response to God’s acceptance of us is to accept others. A community that confesses Jesus Christ can do nothing less.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Lenten Daily Readings 4

Fourth Sunday in Lent: 1 Samuel 16:1-13 | Psalm 23 | Ephesians 5:8-14 | John 9:1-41

Monday: Psalm 53 | Leviticus 23:26-41 | Revelation 19:1-8

Tuesday: Psalm 53 | Leviticus 25:1-19 | Revelation 19:9-10

Wednesday: Psalm 53 | 2 Kings 4:1-7 | Luke 9:10-17

Thursday: Psalm 126 | Isaiah 43:1-7 | Philippians 2:19-24

Friday: Psalm 126 | Isaiah 43:8-15 | Philippians 2:25-3:1

Saturday: Psalm 126 | Exodus 12:21-27 | John 11:45-57

Lenten Daily Readings 3

Third Sunday in Lent: Exodus 17:1-7 | Psalm 95 | Romans 5:1-11 | John 4:5-42

Monday: Psalm 39 | Jeremiah 11:1-17 | Romans 2:1-11

Tuesday: Psalm 39 | Ezekiel 17:1-10 | Romans 2:12-16

Wednesday: Psalm 39 | Numbers 13:17-27 | Luke 13:18-21

Thursday: Psalm 32 | Joshua 4:1-13 | 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:5

Friday: Psalm 32 | Joshua 4:14-24 | 2 Corinthians 5:6-15

Saturday: Psalm 32 | Exodus 32:7-14 | Luke 15:1-10

The Samaritan Woman | 3rd in Lent

John 4:5-42

 5 He came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, which was near the land Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there. Jesus was tired from his journey, so he sat down at the well. It was about noon.

7 A Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me some water to drink.” 8 His disciples had gone into the city to buy him some food.

9 The Samaritan woman asked, “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” (Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate with each other.)

10 Jesus responded, “If you recognized God’s gift and who is saying to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would be asking him and he would give you living water.”

11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you don’t have a bucket and the well is deep. Where would you get this living water? 12 You aren’t greater than our father Jacob, are you? He gave this well to us, and he drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.”

13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life.”

15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will never be thirsty and will never need to come here to draw water!”

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, get your husband, and come back here.”

17 The woman replied, “I don’t have a husband.”

“You are right to say, ‘I don’t have a husband,'” Jesus answered. 18 “You’ve had five husbands, and the man you are with now isn’t your husband. You’ve spoken the truth.”

19 The woman said, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you and your people say that it is necessary to worship in Jerusalem.”

21 Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you and your people will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You and your people worship what you don’t know; we worship what we know because salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the time is coming– and is here!– when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way. 24 God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth.”

25 The woman said, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one who is called the Christ. When he comes, he will teach everything to us.”

26 Jesus said to her, “I Am– the one who speaks with you.”

27 Just then, Jesus’ disciples arrived and were shocked that he was talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” 28 The woman put down her water jar and went into the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who has told me everything I’ve done! Could this man be the Christ?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to see Jesus.

31 In the meantime the disciples spoke to Jesus, saying, “Rabbi, eat.”

32 Jesus said to them, “I have food to eat that you don’t know about.”

33 The disciples asked each other, “Has someone brought him food?”

34 Jesus said to them, “I am fed by doing the will of the one who sent me and by completing his work. 35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘Four more months and then it’s time for harvest’? Look, I tell you: open your eyes and notice that the fields are already ripe for the harvest. 36 Those who harvest are receiving their pay and gathering fruit for eternal life so that those who sow and those who harvest can celebrate together. 37 This is a true saying, that one sows and another harvests. 38 I have sent you to harvest what you didn’t work hard for; others worked hard, and you will share in their hard work.”

39 Many Samaritans in that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s word when she testified, “He told me everything I’ve ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to Jesus, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. 41 Many more believed because of his word, 42 and they said to the woman, “We no longer believe because of what you said, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this one is truly the savior of the world.” (CEB)

The Samaritan Woman

One thing that I’ve learned as a parent is that no two human beings are alike. Even children of the same parents are strikingly unique. Kara is naturally honest and fair-minded. When she would get candy from preschool, she wouldn’t eat it. She would wait until she got home so she could share it equally with her little brother. To her mind, it would not have been fair if James didn’t get an equal portion of the candy she received. James, not so much. He was the kid who would eat all his candy immediately so he wouldn’t have to share. In his mind, it wouldn’t be fair for him to have to give what was rightfully his to anyone else.

Potty training with Kara was a breeze. She loved Altoids mints. All we had to do was set a tin of mints on the bathroom counter. We told her, if you go and flush and wash your hands, you can have one mint. And she basically potty trained herself. She would even show us the mint before putting it in her mouth. Joy and I thought we were the best parents on the planet. Potty training is easy. So, we tried the same thing with James. The first time he walked out of the bathroom, his mouth was so full of mints that he couldn’t get his lips closed. Drool was oozing down his chin, and he was making this troubled buzzing sound like he was speaking through a kazoo. Why take just one mint when he can eat the entire container-full at once?

Most of us know siblings who are as different as night and day. My brother and I were like that, too. He was the sports guy who played football and baseball. Our mother had to coerce me to run cross country and track. When I got into trouble, Mom would ground me from going to Youth Group. When my brother got into trouble, Mom made him go.

Last week, we looked at Nicodemus, who went to Jesus by night. This week, we hear about a woman who met Jesus during the day. These two figures could hardly be more different from each other. She was a Samaritan, he was a Jew. It appears she had a checkered past, while he was a respected moral and religious leader. She was presented as a beginner and learner when it comes to religion, he was a teacher with vast knowledge. She was a woman in a male-dominated world, he was a man who had every advantage of power and autonomy. It appears that she might have been somewhat of an outsider in her own community, whereas he was as accepted as one could get within his. In the eyes of everyone, this woman is a nobody who doesn’t even get her name recorded. Nicodemus was a somebody, and his name is attached to one of the most well-known verses in the Bible.

Yet, it’s the Samaritan Woman, and the story that is recorded about her encounter with Jesus, that presents one of the best portraits of the Gospel. In fact, it gives clearer context to what it means that “God so loved the world…” (John 3:16) than what the encounter with Nicodemus provides. In the first few verses of John 4, which the Revised Common Lectionary skips, we’re told, “Jesus had to go through Samaria” (John 4:4, CEB). And that’s true on two levels. First, he was going back to Galilee from Judea so, geographically, the shorter trip is to travel through Samaria.

Second, he was making more disciples than John the Baptist in Judea, so he had to move on if he was going to show what it meant that “God so loved the world.” The world is much bigger than Judea or Galilee. So, Jesus traveled through Samaria and had this marvelous encounter with a woman at Jacob’s well. There are some really remarkable things that happen.

Firstly, the differences between this woman and Jesus—she: a woman, he: a man; she: a Samaritan, he: a Jew—are, according to every social convention of the day, insurmountable. Jesus asks for a drink of water, and the woman’s response is incredulity because she immediately recognizes those two social barriers Jesus is breaching by even speaking to her, let alone asking for a drink. This woman has her place, and Jesus has his. The Samaritan Woman asks Jesus what in the world he’s doing when she poses her own question in return: “Why do you, a Jewish man ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” and the Gospel writer makes a side comment—our English translations put it in parentheses—so we understand the social dynamics at play, “(Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate with each other)” (John 4:9).

In typical Jesus fashion, he starts into a religious discussion. “If you recognized God’s gift and who is saying to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would be asking him and he would give you living water” (John 4:10, CEB). At first, the woman misunderstands and comments that Jesus can’t give her any water, let alone living water, because he doesn’t even have a bucket.

Now, here’s where we can misunderstand, too. Living water wasn’t necessarily a spiritual term. Living water was water that moved, like water that bubbles up from a spring, or water that flows in a stream (c.f. Jeremiah 2:13; 17:13). So, it’s likely that the Samaritan Woman was already skeptical of Jesus who suggested he could provide living water for her from a well. You don’t get living water—moving water—from places like wells or cisterns, and especially when you don’t even have a bucket with which to draw it.

She pushes Jesus even further by saying, “You aren’t greater than our father Jacob, are you? He gave this well to us, and he drank from hit himself, as did his sons and his livestock” (John 4:12, CEB). We already know what she thinks because rhetorical questions in Greek are constructed in such a way that we know whether the questioner expects a positive or a negative answer. The Samaritan Woman’s question uses the word μὴ, so it expects a negative answer. She’s stating that Jesus is not greater. In a sense, she telling this Jewish man that this well-water was good enough for their ancestor, Jacob—whom God named Israel—and it was good enough for Israel’s sons for whom the twelve tribes of Israel were named, so it’s good enough for her and him. She doesn’t need living water and neither does Jesus.

The Samaritan Woman knows the historical and religious disagreements between the Samaritans (the remnant of the northern tribes and Kingdom of Israel) and Jews (the remnant of the tribe and Kingdom of Judah). By pointing out their common ancestry, the Samaritan Woman deftly points out that Jesus can keep his Jewish arrogance to himself and drink from the well because Jews and Samaritans are part of the same family tree. His people are no better than her people, despite the fact that Jews believed otherwise. For a woman of her time, it is, honestly, rather forward of her to speak like this to a man. She knew way back then that a woman’s place is in the Rebellion. What she says is defiant, and I love it! (#Resist)!

But, Jesus continues to engage the Samaritan Woman with much more patience than he showed Nicodemus. He says, “Everyone who drinks from this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up to eternal life” (John 4:13, CEB). This is where the Samaritan Woman begins to understand. She takes baby steps, and Jesus encourages her to keep walking. She wants this water so she will never thirst again, and not need to draw from the well. She’s teetering on the edge of grasping that Jesus is talking about spiritual matters, but she’s still somewhat stuck in a physical understanding. It’s the next gentle push Jesus gives that brings her understanding to fullness.

Now, people have tried to read into Jesus’ words about the Samaritan Woman’s marital status for centuries, and most of them conclude that she’s living in some sinful or less-than-moral situation. But the truth is, we don’t know. It’s not as though a woman in her culture would have had any control over her own marital status anyway. It could just as easily be the case that this is a woman who has been abused, used, and hurt. So, for any one of us to judge her and declare that she is a sinner or assume she must be a prostitute is not only unfair, but it’s wrong to the point that we might be in danger of sin for doing so. Jesus never accuses her of sin, nor does he demand that she repent, nor does he offer her forgiveness. In the Gospel of John, sin is not so much a behavioral thing as it is unbelief and unwillingness to recognize Jesus for who he is.

Jesus’ question about the Samaritan Woman’s husband is meant to prod her to understand who Jesus is. He knows her life. He knows her sufferings. He knows her situation. It’s that intimate knowledge of her that makes her realize that this Jewish man is more than he appears. She recognizes that he is a prophet, and engages him even further in the discussion that has turned thoroughly theological. She says, “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you and your people say that it is necessary to worship in Jerusalem” (John 4:20, CEB). The mountain in question is Gerizim near Shechem, which had a long history as a place of worship. Abram built an altar to the Lord at Shechem. (Genesis 12:6-7). Jews, however, believed the Lord could only be worshipped at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Her theological comment really contains a question about God’s location. Where does God dwell? Where can a person worship God? The response Jesus gave surely surprised the Samaritan Woman. “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you and your people will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You and your people worship what you don’t know, we worship what we know because salvation is from the Jews. But the time is coming—and is here!—when true worshipers will worship in spirit and in truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way” (John 4:23, CEB).

As the conversation continues about the coming of the Messiah who will teach her people everything, Jesus speaks the first of his I AM statements to the Samaritan Woman. “I Am—the one who speaks with you” (John 4:26, CEB). The beauty of how this conversation plays out is that the woman, who is already bold, is further emboldened. She leaves her jar and goes into the city to bring her people to Jesus. In fact, she speaks the very same words that Jesus spoke to his disciples when he first invited them to follow him, “Come and see” (John 1:39, CEB). “Come and see a man who has told me everything I’ve done! Could this man be the Christ?” (John 4:29, CEB).

There’s still a trace of skepticism in her words because her question expects a negative answer. Nevertheless, she goes and calls people to come and see! The Samaritan Woman becomes a witness to the Gospel, a witness to God’s salvation, and her perfect, beautiful response is to invite her entire village to come and see Jesus for themselves. Wouldn’t it be awesome if we were that amazed at what Jesus offers us that we dropped what we were doing to share the Good News and invited everyone we bump into to come and see?

John records this amazing statement: “Many Samaritans in that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s word when she testified, ‘He told me everything I’ve ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to Jesus, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days” (John 4:39-40, CEB). Now, remember that verse from earlier that said Jews and Samaritans don’t associate with each other. This is another barrier broken.

Many more of her fellow townspeople came to believe because of what Jesus taught them. Later, they told the Samaritan Woman, “We no longer believe because of what you said, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this one is truly the savior of the world” (John 4:42, CEB). It’s impressive, don’t you think, that an entire city came to believe because Jesus took the time to have a patient, gentle, kind conversation with a stranger—even a Samaritan woman who was so different from himself—about a drink of water? God so loved the world, not just people like us, not merely people who agree with us, but the world. Do we?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Nicodemus | 2nd in Lent

John 3:1-17

1 There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”

3 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”

4 Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”

5 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. 6 Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

9 Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”

10 Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? 11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up
15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (CEB)

Nicodemus

The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is one of the best-known sections of Holy Scripture. It is the story that has the most often quoted Bible verse: be it in Sunday School, Youth Group, Confirmation Classes, Camp, or NFL Football Games. Everyone knows John 3:16. It’s never fun for a preacher to preach on something so well-known because everyone already thinks they know everything about it. It’s so well known that there is the question of whether anything fresh can be gleaned from the text and put into a sermon. It is certainly more challenging to preach on than lesser known texts. But, I’m going to preach on it anyway.

Nicodemus’s comprehension of the way God works seems to be rather shallow and sterile. It is a misunderstanding that is unfortunate, but very typical of so-called ‘literalists’ who inhabit all of the world’s great religions, including Christianity.

Nicodemus is a man who embodies the perspective that faith based on miracles is more than adequate faith. He’s obviously impressed with Jesus’ miracles and healings, and acknowledges that they are proof that Jesus is a teacher who has come from God, “For no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

It’s clear that Nicodemus is curious about Jesus, but we can also see that he is cautious. He goes to the right place: he goes to Jesus, but he does so “by night.” Maybe he doesn’t want the word to get out to his fellow Pharisees that he’s meeting with Jesus, or maybe his day was all booked up with other important appointments. We don’t know, but it seems that his visit to Jesus is overshadowed with a degree of hesitancy.

Nicodemus’s faith in God comes from weighing the evidence of what he has seen—signs, miracles, healings—and what he has studied in the Scriptures and traditions of the Faith, and then drawing logical conclusions from that evidence. With this kind of Missourian faith—you know people from Missouri, the Show Me State where they need you to show them or they won’t believe it—there is no risk involved. There is no risk that you will have to be changed or transformed in ways that might be uncomfortable. Nicodemus can run with his conclusions about how life and religion should work and no more. It is a very comfortable kind of faith, but it’s not a very deep faith. There is no commitment beyond one’s own conclusions.

Jesus didn’t really trust these kinds of people. John 2:23-25 says, “When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.” Jesus did not entrust himself to people who believed only in signs—things they saw—because he knew the shallowness of their faith, and he knows ours.

Nicodemus has put the issue of faith the wrong way. Something more than just fascination with signs or amazement at Jesus’ healings and miracles is needed. Fascination and amazement are not the same things as being born again, or born from above, which allows a person to enter the kingdom of God. That takes something else entirely: it takes an act of God that will re-organize Nicodemus’s perspective on life and religion. Such an act of God requires openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit, something that is indefinable and unpredictable. Nicodemus is stuck in the religious world of definitions, evidence, and conclusions. And, while these things aren’t entirely bad, God and God’s activity are bigger than any definition into which human language could package them. People like Nicodemus don’t want to hear about the strange and unpredictable movements of the Holy Spirit because it might change them. People don’t like change!

As a pastor, I have never gone into a church for the first time and had the people say to me, Pastor, we would like you to change everything about what we do here. Wherever the Spirit leads you, that’s where we want to go. No way! What I usually hear is, This is the way we do things. This is what we’re comfortable with. If you want to change anything, you’ll probably have to do it over my dead body. Seriously, people don’t like change, which is why so many of us resist the movement of the Holy Spirit to change us, change our behavior, change our lives.

Jesus uses a bit of word-play in his response to Nicodemus, and Nicodemus trips all over it. He says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above or born again.” The Greek word anothen has multiple meanings, and Jesus uses this double meaning in his demand for a rebirth so that a person might see the kingdom of God. This kind of sight requires a complete reordering of how we perceive the world. No one can see the kingdom of God without first allowing God to open our eyes to the possibilities of the kingdom.

Nicodemus thought he already had the kingdom of God nailed down in his neat definitions and conclusions drawn from evidence, and here is Jesus telling him to set his beloved definitions aside for a moment and be open to the idea that God might just transcend everything he has heretofore believed! No wonder Nicodemus fell on his face over the notion of having to be born again and born from above to see the kingdom. It was just too much for him to take in. He couldn’t grasp it.

Nicodemus’s faith is lived out in terms of its own power. It’s organized according to things which are specific and believable, but it’s a faith that is somewhat immune to the renewing power of God. There is plenty of room for religion in this kind of worldview. Nicodemus represents it in every regard. What is lacking is the Spirit of God and openness to the movements of that Spirit. We look around us and we can see plenty of people who have room for religion, but are lacking entirely in openness to the movements of the Spirit. Our pastor at the campus church at The University of Findlay, Pastor Larry White, had a saying: “If you only have the word, you will dry up. If you only have the sprit, you will blow up. If you have both, you will grow up.” Nicodemus was one who seems to have had only the word, and his religion was rather dry.

The term ‘Spirit’ represents an entirely different world, where the blowing of the Holy Spirit causes people to be entirely re-created and made new: born again, born from above. It is a world vulnerable and open to the untamed Spirit of God. The Greek word pneuma also has a double meaning: wind and spirit. The word, by its very definition, suggests movement. Wind moves. If the air isn’t moving, then it isn’t wind.

In the Chronicles of Narnia books, it is said of the Great Lion Aslan, who is a Christ-like figure, over and over again, “It’s not as though he’s a tame Lion.” Aslan is good in every sense of the word, but he is not tame. The Spirit of God is good, but the Spirit is not tame. The Spirit is not like a pet that can be housebroken and trained to do as we command, and then thrown a biscuit and told, “Good Spirit.” The world of the Spirit opens our eyes to incredible and breathtaking new views.

Flesh cannot give birth to Spirit. Nicodemus cannot move from his one-dimensional world of the flesh to the mysterious world of the Spirit apart from an action from above: an act of God. Nicodemus’s canons of knowledge, religious though they are, cannot grasp the strange ways and movements of God who persists in making all things new. Nicodemus has come to Jesus to have an intellectual discussion. But Jesus is having a Spiritual discussion, and the dynamic of the Spirit thoroughly eludes the Pharisee in him.

What is the character of God’s kingdom, this world that we need to be born again and born from above in order to see? Well, we can catch a glimpse of this kingdom by looking at the action of the Son. Jesus tells us that his own revelation about heavenly things is unique. None of Israel’s great teachers, priests, or prophets had ever ascended into heaven, seen the heavenly secrets, and returned to reveal them. No one has ever ascended into heaven and come back. There is only one who has come down from heaven, and he alone is able to reveal God’s kingdom to us.

Here, again, we have another word with a double meaning. The word hupsosen means to physically “lift up” or to “exalt.” The lifting up of Jesus is analogous to Moses’ lifting up of the bronze serpent in the wilderness. Do you remember that story from Numbers? (c.f. Numbers 21). Whenever someone was bitten by a poisonous snake, they looked upon the bronze serpent and were saved from death. The lifting up of Christ is both exaltation and humiliation. Jesus was to be lifted up on the cross so that all who look upon him might be saved. This is the character of the kingdom of God, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

By the way, Nicodemus wasn’t stuck in his dry faith forever. He became a disciple and helped prepare the body of Jesus for burial with Joseph of Arimathea. The Spirit got to him, somehow, which I think gives us hope that the Spirit might just get to us too. Maybe we’ll even look forward to the changes that will inevitably take place in our lives when the Spirit gets a hold of us. We need the Spirit and the word if we’re going to grow up and be the disciples that Jesus has called us to be.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Lenten Daily Readings 2

Second Sunday in Lent: Genesis 12:1-4a | Psalm 121 | Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 | John 3:1-17

Monday: Psalm 105:1-15 [16-41] 42 | Exodus 33:1-6 | Romans 4:1-12

Tuesday: Psalm 105:1-15 [16-41] 42 | Numbers 14:10b-24 | 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Wednesday: Psalm 105:1-15 [16-41] 42 | 2 Chronicles 20:1-22 | Luke 13:22-31

Thursday: Psalm 63:1-8 | Daniel 3:19-20 | Revelation 2:8-11

Friday: Psalm 63:1-8 | Daniel 12:1-4 | Revelation 2:8-11

Saturday: Psalm 63:1-8 | Isaiah 5:1-7 | Luke 6:43-45

Lenten Daily Readings 1

A lot of people talk about what they’re giving up for Lent but I want to encourage you to add something. Part of what we do in Lent is rededicate ourselves to practicing various spiritual disciplines. Reading the Scriptures is one spiritual discipline that is fairly easy to do. Below is a list of the Lenten daily readings following Ash Wednesday (the Ash Wednesday readings are in a post HERE) through the first full week of Lent. I included readings for the days past in case any adventurous souls want to catch up. If you want to start with today’s readings, however, look for Tuesday.

Except for the Sundays in Lent, Ash Wednesday, and Holy Week, the daily readings begin with a Psalm that is the same for three days in a row. The readings continue with an Old Testament and a New Testament reading which change every day.

If you have questions about any of the texts, you can always post below and I’ll do my best to respond in a timely manner.

Thursday after Ash Wednesday: Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 | Exodus 5:10-23 |  Acts 7:30-34

Friday after Ash Wednesday: Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 | Exodus 6:1-13 | Acts 7:35-42

Saturday after Ash Wednesday: Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 | Ecclesiastes 3:1-18 | John 12:27-36

First Sunday in Lent: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 | Psalm 32 | Romans 5:12-19 | Matthew 4:1-11

Monday: Psalm 17 | 1 Chronicles 21:1-17 | 1 John 2:1-6

Tuesday: Psalm 17 | Zechariah 3:1-10 | 2 Peter 2:4-21

Wednesday: Psalm 17 | Job 1:1-22 | Luke 21:34-22:6

Thursday: Psalm 27 | Genesis 13:1-7, 14-18 | Philippians 3:2-12

Friday: Psalm 27 | Genesis 14:17-24 | Philippians 3:17-20

Saturday: Psalm 27 | Psalm 118:26-29 | Matthew 23:37-39