Shepherd and Guardian | 4th of Easter

1 Peter 2:19-25

19 Now, it is commendable if, because of one’s understanding of God, someone should endure pain through suffering unjustly. 20 But what praise comes from enduring patiently when you have sinned and are beaten for it? But if you endure steadfastly when you’ve done good and suffer for it, this is commendable before God.

21 You were called to this kind of endurance, because Christ suffered on your behalf. He left you an example so that you might follow in his footsteps. 22 He committed no sin, nor did he ever speak in ways meant to deceive. 23 When he was insulted, he did not reply with insults. When he suffered, he did not threaten revenge. Instead, he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24 He carried in his own body on the cross the sins we committed. He did this so that we might live in righteousness, having nothing to do with sin. By his wounds you were healed. 25 Though you were like straying sheep, you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your lives. (CEB)

Shepherd and Guardian

One of my seminary professors at Duke once said “Bible translators are spineless weenies who never let the Bible say what it actually says” He made the comment because, in his opinion, translators seemed to be too worried that people would read their translations and be scandalized if the actual meaning of certain texts came through. Like those places where Saint Paul suggests that certain people should go to hell. Apparently, the translators can’t have Saint Paul saying something so… harsh. Therefore, the translators lean toward Greek instead of English to water down the translation. Yes, the Greek might say, “let them be accursed,” but that isn’t how we speak in English. We don’t say, You know, you’re a real jerk. Be accursed. No. We typically tell them exactly where they can go, which is the English vernacular equivalent of what Paul was saying in Greek.

While I find the lectionary to be an invaluable tool for preachers and the congregations, the Consultation on Common Texts, which produced the Revised Common Lectionary, seems to have a similar penchant for displaying spineless weenie-ism. They often cut difficult texts out of the lectionary readings so they don’t get read. (Or, so pastors and congregations don’t have to deal with them). They do that with Psalm 139, for example. Everyone loves Psalm 139 with its intimate and flowy language.

“Lord, you have examined me. You know me. You know when I sit down and when I stand up… Where could I go to get away from your spirit? Where could I go to escape your presence? If I went up to heaven, you would be there. If I went down to the grave, you would be there too! If I could fly on the wings of dawn, stopping to rest only on the far side of the ocean, even there your hand would guide me; even there your strong hand would hold me tight… You are the one who created my innermost parts; you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb… My bones weren’t hidden from you when I was being put together in a secret place, when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth…” (CEB).

Those are a few excerpts from the Psalm that the lectionary provides. Of the four times that the lectionary offers Psalm 139 as a reading, however, none of them include verses 19-22. You see, those verses get angry. Loud. Vicious. They are verses that say, If only, God, you would kill the wicked! Don’t I hate everyone who hates you? Don’t I despise those who attack you? Yes, I hate them – through and through! They’ve become my enemies too” (CEB). These verses are omitted as if there is no place for righteous anger, as if we cannot handle hearing them, as if preachers are not trusted enough to interpret them adequately.

Rather than ignore the difficult stuff, I think we should hear it, consider it, and wrestle with its interpretation. My reasoning is simple: the difficult parts are Holy Scripture, too, just as much as the easy-to-hear parts are Holy Scripture. We don’t get to ignore the hard stuff as if it doesn’t exist.

If you’ve ever read First Peter, you might recognize one glowering omission from the text I just read. Verse 18 is where the reading should actually begin, and it says this: “Household slaves, submit by accepting the authority of your masters with all respect. Do this not only to good and kind masters but also to those who are harsh” (CEB). This is where Biblical interpretation comes into play, and it’s incredibly important. We need to understand the context of those Christians who originally heard it. What did it mean to them? We also need to understand how it might have been used and abused throughout the centuries, and what it ought to mean to us.

It also begs the question: what do we do with texts from the Bible that have been used to harm people? Verse 18 is one of them. There was a time in American history when black slaves only heard sermons on 1 Peter 2:18 and a few other texts that talked about submission and accepting one’s lot. It was a way of keeping control over those they had enslaved. In fact, this was used against the abolitionist argument as Biblical justification for slavery. But that kind of interpretation is an abuse of the Biblical text. Any time the Scriptures are used to keep people down, shut people up, or makes us think better of ourselves and less of others, it’s an abuse. That’s called oppression, and God entire plan of salvation is one of liberation.

Despite how some have tried to twist these words through the centuries, Peter is not suggesting that suffering is the norm we should all accept for those who are belittled, abused, oppressed, or enslaved. Nor is Peter suggesting that those in positions of power are free to abuse, oppress, or enslave others. It is not God’s will that the oppressed should suffer. Even a cursory reading of the Pentateuch, the Prophets, or the Gospels should make that clear.

Even if we leave verse 18 out, as the lectionary does, another incorrect interpretation would be to read this text as if it is praising suffering for the sake of suffering itself. It almost sounds like Peter is lifting suffering up as something that we should seek out for its own sake. There have been overzealous people throughout history who have done all manner of things like this so they could attain suffering: whipped themselves, frozen themselves in the snow, etc. As if you can get closer to God by smashing your thumb with a hammer. (Believe me, I’ve done it accidentally with my 20oz Estwing, and the words that spewed from my mouth did not bring me closer to God). That’s not what Peter is talking about.

He says, “But if you endure steadfastly when you’ve done good and suffer for it, this is commendable before God” (1 Peter 2:20b, CEB). In the 1980s there were refugees from El Salvador who sought shelter in the United States. These were people with written death threats and scars from torture from their own government. The response of the United States government was to send them back to El Salvador into the hands of their torturers and those who wanted them dead. The Carter and Regan administrations saw the government of El Salvador as an ally and refused to recognize the human rights violations against the people of El Salvador. So, some American citizens took those refugees in and hid them. Some of those American citizens were arrested and prosecuted for doing it because it was illegal. But it was also the kind of civil disobedience that was the right thing to do. That is what it means to suffer for doing what is right. They were willing to be arrested and prosecuted to save lives.

In the context of 1 Peter, the comment about suffering may have had to do with worship. If a household slave was ridiculed by their master for worshipping the God of Christianity rather than the gods of Rome, they were suffering for doing what was right. The thing is, suffering is something the early church leaders told their flock to expect. If the incarnation of God could experience suffering, even death, at the hands of God’s own creatures, then why should Christians expect anything else? In fact, later in 1 Peter, he writes, Dear friends, don’t be surprised about the fiery trials that have come among you to test you. These are not strange happenings. Instead, rejoice as you share Christ’s suffering. You share his suffering now so that you may also have overwhelming joy when his glory is revealed. If you are mocked because of Christ’s name, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory – indeed, the Spirit of God – rests on you” (1 Peter 4:12-14 CEB).

That Greek word, hupogrammon (example), is only found here in the New Testament. For those of us who had chalkboards in our elementary school classrooms, do you remember the alphabet that was usually written across the top? That’s what a hupogrammon is. It’s the perfect example which we copy and copy and copy until we can write those letters perfectly. We are to follow the example of Jesus Christ and follow in his steps. We are to pattern our lives after the example of Jesus Christ.

That pattern includes suffering. Suffering is something we should expect, not something we should see as abnormal. It’s a bummer when it happens, but it shouldn’t come as a big surprise. The possibility of suffering exists because of the transformed life we live as followers of Christ. It is counter-cultural to entrust ourselves to God; to not seek revenge and return abuse for abuse, but trust that God will make everything right in the end. It is counter-intuitive to love our enemies and pray for those who harass us. We have been healed by the wounds of Jesus Christ on the cross so that we can live in righteousness and free from sin; so that we can live for God.

Verse 25 serves as a reminder that there is a difference, a dichotomy, something irreconcilable from life before Christ and life in Christ. Before Christ, we were going astray like sheep without a shepherd. But in Christ, we have returned to the shepherd and guardian of our souls. One of the reasons the sheep-shepherd imagery is so predominant in Christianity is that sheep are utterly reliant upon the shepherd. Who defends the sheep from predators who would devour them? The shepherd. Who leads the sheep to good pasture land and sources of water? The shepherd. Sheep are not self-reliant creatures. They need a shepherd. And so do we.

The story of Christians who experience adversity for doing right is not new. It’s actually the backbone of apocalyptic theology, which expects that those who are allied with God will suffer at the hands of the world because the world loved darkness rather than light (c.f. John 3:19). We are to keep our eyes on the light, and trust that the shepherd and guardian of our souls is watching over us even when we are in the midst of our sufferings.

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


I Have Seen the Lord | 1st of Easter

John 20:1-18

Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” 3 Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. 4 They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. 5 Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. 6 Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. 7 He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. 8 Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying.

11 Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. 12 She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. 13 The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 14 As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.

15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).

17 Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”

18 Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her. (CEB)

I Have Seen the Lord

The resurrection story tells of an event that is foundational to our Christian faith. The very first sermon in Christendom was preached by a woman named Mary Magdalene who proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus by shouting, “I have seen the Lord!” To most of us, this story contains an element of holiness which draws us to this building and this community of people so we can hear, see, and maybe even touch or taste something of the divine. We know the story: Jesus was raised from death to a new kind of life. Yet, the story seems hard to believe. Perhaps the question lingering at the back of our minds is a simple longing to know: Is it true?

It’s an honest and fair question to ask when you consider what Mary Magdalene proclaimed here. Someone was raised from the dead? Seriously? We’re modern people who like to think we’re advanced beyond the primitive naivety of our ancestors, but the truth is that ancient peoples were not stupid. In Luke’s version of events, when the women told the apostles that Jesus had been raised from the dead, the men dismissed their words as nonsense (c.f. Luke 24:11). But, as it often is the case, the women were right and the men should have listened to them. Later, when Paul proclaimed the Easter story to the Athenians on Mars Hill, they laughed and ridiculed him when he mentioned Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (c.f. Acts 17:32). Stuff like this didn’t happen. They had seen people die and the dead never came back to life. They didn’t believe it any more than we might be expected to believe it.

So, what are we to make of this story? Kurt Vonnegut had the idea that all stories have shapes which you can draw on a graph by marking the highs and lows that the character experiences along the plotline. Some of you know that I write fantasy. Some of it’s historical fantasy. Some it’s high fantasy. Some of it’s fantasy with Sci-Fi elements. Most of my stories start in the middle, somewhere between life is horrible and life is amazing. Then, bad things happen and they drop low, with a few more ups and downs thrown in for good measure. Finally, good things happen and they end on a high note. Why? Because I’m the author and I like happy endings.

The resurrection story starts low on the scale due to the recent tragedy of Jesus’ death. Then, it rises on the scale to a happy ending. One of the curious things about this story from John’s Gospel is how strongly it resembles the format of ancient Greek comedy such as that of the great playwright, Menander. John crafted the resurrection story with all the comedic elements necessary for a great laugh. Seriously, William Shakespeare couldn’t have written a better short-story comedy. We’ve got the mystery of a missing body, confusion on the part of the mourners, a frantic race to the tomb, bewilderment from the witnesses, sudden appearances of heavenly beings who are not recognized as such, mistaken identity, sudden recognition of the formerly dead person as alive-and-well (that’s the comedic resolution), and a race back to share the good news that everything is better than it was before.

Mary Magdalene is the story’s hero with whom we, as the audience, identify. She’s the one who holds the story together. The plot begins and ends with her, and she has the last word. Mary goes to the tomb and finds the stone has been removed. She runs back and tells Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved that someone has taken the Lord out of the tomb and she doesn’t know where they have laid him. The disciples run and find the tomb empty and leave. We’re told that the disciple whom Jesus loved “believed” but we’re not told what he believed. Did he believe Mary’s account that Jesus’ body was missing? Did he believe in the resurrection? Or, did he believe Jesus had ascended, which is kind of the emphasis in John’s Gospel? We’re left as confused about what this disciple believed as the disciples were at the missing body.

Mary, who must have run back to the tomb with the two disciples, stays there, weeping. Finally, she bends down to look into the tomb but finds it is no longer empty. It’s the kind of surprise twist that was a hallmark of ancient comedy. One angel is sitting at the head and the other at the feet of where Jesus’ body had been. And, they ask her why she’s weeping. Mary is so distressed that she doesn’t freak out, which is also part of the comedy of it. Without missing a beat, she answers their question by saying, They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him” (John 20:13, CEB).

As soon as she says this, she turns around and sees a man who wasn’t there a moment ago. We’re let in on the secret. It’s Jesus, but Mary Magdalene doesn’t recognize him yet. She supposes he’s the gardener. Disguise is another hallmark of ancient comedy. That’s why Shakespeare’s comedies had women disguising themselves as men and men disguising themselves as women all the time. Because it’s funny when the reveal comes and the disguised person says, Surprise! I’m a dude, not your wife, but thanks for thinking I’m pretty. The man whom she thinks is the gardener asks Mary the same question, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?” After all, she’s peering into an empty tomb, or a tomb with two living people inside of it. What is there to cry about?

Mary’s only concern is finding the missing body of her Lord. She’s so desperate that it doesn’t matter if the gardener is the guilty party or not. But if he was the one who moved Jesus’ body, she begs him to tell her where he is so she may get him. The disguise falls away when Jesus speaks her name: “Mary.” In that moment of familiarity when she hears her name on her Lord’s lips again, as she so often had, she knows him, speaks to him, and reaches out to take hold of him before he manages to get away again.

We have to admit that there is something in this story that lends itself to doubtfulness by those who hear it. It sounds like nonsense precisely because it goes against every experience of death we have ever encountered. I have presided over a lot of funerals in my nearly 14 years as an appointed pastor, and I have never seen a dead person get up out of their casket and walk away.

Yet, something about this story touches the deepest parts of us and tugs on the strings of our hope and faith. It reaches into the recesses of our hearts and minds where doubt and faith mingle and vie for our attention. In fact, I would argue that the very doubts we have about this story speak to the scale and power of the Easter proclamation that God raised Jesus Christ from death. What we proclaim in this story is that God has given us a miracle of love and forgiveness on such a massive scale that it calls to our hopes, is worthy of our faith and is, thus, open to our doubt. The resurrection is so big, so powerful, such an unbelievable example of love and forgiveness that how can we not question it? How can we not wonder if God would really do such a thing for us and, at the same time, experience wonder that God would do such a thing for us?

Easter is so big of an idea that our imaginations almost require us to relegate it to fantasy. That’s part of the beauty of Easter and the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection. The promise of Easter has, throughout history, stood the juncture of the greatest doubt and the deepest faith. I wonder if that’s the reason why churches are so full on this day. We come because we’re looking for the answer to that question, Is it true? Easter, with its proclamation of God’s victory over death so that we can live, might just be a story large enough to reveal God to us and the measure of God’s love for us.

At the end of this story, Jesus tells Mary not to hold on to him, but to go and tell Jesus’ brothers and sisters that he is going up to his Father and their Father, to his God and their God. So, Mary lets go. She does as Jesus asked of her and declares, “I have seen the Lord!”

Ancient comedies often ended with a marriage, which is always the beginning of another story. We can ask, Is it true? We can also ask if we might see and believe, too. That’s actually the theme of the next passage in John’s Gospel. We know that Easter is a big Sunday. But every Sunday is a little Easter. Like any good story, the story of Jesus’ resurrection and the promises of Easter continues, and the journey between doubt and faith is what we wrestle with together as a community of faith called Church. Today, even amid our lingering doubts and questions, we proclaim that Jesus Christ is risen. It’s a claim big enough to be worthy of our faith. Especially when we know that the promise of Easter is that we, too, shall rise.

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


Lenten Daily Readings 4

Fourth Sunday in Lent: Ezekiel 37:1-14 | Psalm 130 | Romans 8:6-11 | John 11:1-45

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

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!


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!