The Samaritan woman can see someone at the well as she approaches…a man, she realizes, as she gets closer. The text doesn’t say, but given the time of day it’s not unlikely that they would have been the only two people at the well. Most would’ve already done their water fetching in the early, cooler hours of the day. Why is she there? Based on what we “learn” about her life later in the passage – that she has had multiple husbands – she may be a scorned woman on the margins of society. It’s not necessary to extrapolate from this that she would have been seen as a loose woman or even a prostitute, because in first century Palestine a woman couldn’t initiate divorce, so her five former husbands must either divorced her or died, leaving her possibly with no stability or support in a deeply patriarchal society. And here sits another man, and not just any man, a Jew. Why is she there?
Jesus can see someone approaching the well as he sits, resting his aching dusty feet. It’s a woman, he realizes, as she gets closer. He knows he’s in Samaria so the fact that she’s a Samaritan woman doesn’t surprise him the way his Jewishness surprises her. We know why Jesus is at the well, because the text does say. He’s tired and thirsty, and he’s alone because his disciples have gone to find food. But why is he at this well? In the two verses that come before today’s reading, John tells us that, “[Jesus] left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had go through Samaria.” Judea, in the southern kingdom, inhabited historically by Jews, with the capital city and center of worship in Jerusalem. Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, where worship centered on Mt. Gerizim. And Galilee, up here. So of course Jesus had to go through Samaria to get there. And yet, the animosity between Jews and Samaritans in this time was so deep, so imbedded – for centuries’ worth of reasons that can be summarized as, “They worship God wrong” – that most Jews would say, “I’m going to Galilee but of course I have to go around Samaria, over the Jordan, through the Decapolis and back over the Jordan into Galilee finally. You know how it is.” But Jesus, a Jew, had to go through Samaria. So why is he really there?
Why are they there, together?
They are there for a conversation.
Last week’s Gospel reading was also about a conversation, between Jesus and Nicodemus, and when we have back-to-back stories with a similar setup – a one-on-one conversation between Jesus and another person – there’s an opportunity to ask what we can learn, not just from today’s story but from comparing it to last week’s. There are two things in today’s story that I want to highlight.
First, the questions. Nicodemus opened his conversation with Jesus with a statement. The Samaritan woman opens with a very cut-to-the-chase question: how are you talking to me? And the questions continue, from the minor – how do you plan to get water without a bucket? – to the major – should we worship in Jerusalem (remember, where the Jews worshipped) or Mt. Gerizim (where the Samaritans thought worship should be centered)? And finally to the most incredulous question of all, the one she asks not of Jesus but of her fellow villagers – “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” She is curious and persistent; she wants to know. In addition to the contrast with Nicodemus’s statements, there’s a contrast with the disciples who, when they return with food, are, reasonably, shocked to see him speaking with a Samaritan woman but who keep their mouths shut, who don’t ask the question that John tells us is running through their heads – “Why are you talking to her?” Imagine what they might have learned from Jesus about crossing boundaries, about the inclusivity of the good news, had they asked. But their lack of curiosity kept them from knowing more about Jesus and more about God in this moment.
The second distinction in this conversation is their vulnerability. Jesus is naturally vulnerable – he needs water, something the woman can get for him. As a woman alone with a man, the Samaritan woman is culturally vulnerable. In order to make his point about living water, Jesus needs her questions; he’s vulnerable to how she interacts with him. And, as her eyes are opened to the living water Jesus offers, she shows her vulnerability in how deeply she needs it, saying, “give me this water.” As Jeanne told us last week, Nicodemus is also in a vulnerable position coming to Jesus. He’s well-respected, in a position of influence among the Jews, and Jesus is a radical. But rather than embrace this vulnerability, he diminishes it by coming to Jesus under cover of darkness. This is such human behavior, it’s so relatable. Feeling vulnerable, we hide in order not to be exposed, not to be truly known.
And yet, when the moment of greatest vulnerability comes – when Jesus tells the woman that he knows about her husbands – she doesn’t flee, she doesn’t accuse Jesus of being wrong, she doesn’t defend herself. She has been exposed, and yet because Jesus too has been vulnerable, and because she has practiced vulnerability already in this conversation and had it rewarded with more conversation, she gets the gift of knowing and being known.
She is known to Jesus. He knows about her husbands, yes, and about her current living situation, yes. And at the risk of being flip or even sacrilegious, Jesus knowing that is sort of like a “cool Jesus trick.” But it’s how he responds to knowing this about her that really shows us and shows her who she truly is. She is known to Jesus as one deserving of this living water. I’m so glad last week when Jeanne read John 3:16 during her sermon that she didn’t stop there but kept going through John 3:17: “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.” Jesus’ knowledge of this woman leads not to condemnation but to the offer of eternal life, living water, Godself.
And then Jesus is also known to the woman. There’s a Greek phrase ego eimi, and while it’s typically translated “I am” its meaning is something more like, “I always have been, am and always will be.” Capital I, capital A, capital M. John, as the Gospel writer most explicit about Jesus’ divinity, has Jesus speaking this phrase 24 times in his Gospel, considerably more than any other Gospel. And the very first time it appears in John is here when Jesus responds to her saying “I know that Messiah is coming,” by saying, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” This way of saying “that’s me,” (ego eimi) would be familiar from the Torah – for example, Moses encounter with God in the burning bush – and the writings of the prophets like Isaiah. Knowing now what she does, she leaves her water, the reason she came there in the first place, to share this knowledge.
As Jeanne mentioned last week, John loves a metaphor. And there may not be a better metaphor for the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ – the knitting together of spiritual and earthly – than the simple act of communication. Sitting face to face with another human, over a well in the hot sun, in a hallway at work, in the dark, over dinner. Talking gives embodiment to our thoughts and feelings and instincts. It takes all of those things, none of which are tangible, all of which are spiritual, and turns them into words that another person can hear and share in and by which we are known. When the woman leaves the well, without her water jar, she has not had her physical thirst quenched. When the chapter ends, Jesus has not eaten the food the disciples brought back. Perhaps John is telling us that they have been filled by these encounters.
A final word that needs to be said in a sermon about how conversation makes us known to each other, in the midst of a global pandemic, which we now know requires us to stay apart, to keep our bodies away from each other. I’d like to suggest two things. When you do have occasion to safely talk with someone ask questions and be vulnerable. Are you feeling worried? Lonely? What are you missing, and how are you staying connected? Get to the good stuff; let deep conversation become as second-nature as singing happy birthday twice while washing your hands. Stay known to each other. And second, talk to God, pray, meditate, write, whatever that looks like for you. Become known to God and yourself as one deserving of living water.
Life begins in water.
Life begins in the dark.
This is true biologically. Our lives all begin in the water and darkness of our mother’s bodies. We are water creatures first, floating with eyes sealed shut as our bodies are knit together cell by cell, being prepared for the first sharp intake of breath that is our very first act on this earth.
Life begins in water.
Life begins in the dark.
This is true biblically. The first creation story in Genesis describes darkness over the face of the deep, with God’s first creative act the sharp exhale of breath which inspires and inspirits cosmos.
Today’s Gospel begins in darkness. We are not accustomed to encountering Jesus in the dark, especially in the Gospel of John in which, from the very first verses of the prologue, Jesus as the very essence of God is described as the light of life, a light which the darkness would not overcome.
But Nicodemus arrives in the dark. Certainly there may be practical reasons why Nicodemus seeks out Jesus in the night. He is a prominent and well-respected leader and perhaps he does not want to be associated with this radical teacher who just created chaos in the temple, upending tables and chasing people with whips.
Maybe, and I like this more generous reading of one scholar, Nicodemus is a dedicated and diligent scholar and teacher who took seriously the rule of his community to study always, even in the darkness of night as others slept
And because this is the Gospel of John and the author never met a metaphor he did not like, the darkness might symbolize Nicodemus’ lack of understanding, his confusion about who and what Jesus is.
But honestly, it is hard to understand why Nicodemus is there that night. And maybe he does not know himself. Something called Nicodemus out in that night, maybe an itch, a sense that this man, this strange shaggy man from Galilee has something to offer him, a well-respected teacher. Maybe Nicodemus had heard or seen firsthand this Jesus: seen a dove alight on his shoulder or was a wedding guest at Cana and had sipped an extraordinary vintage and marvelled at the story of where it had come from.
I suspect even Nicodemus did not know why he came. He opens the conversation with a statement not a question, and does not even seem to be speaking for himself. “We know you are a teacher who has come from God” he says. I wonder if he is afraid to ask what is really on his heart. Afraid to own his own wonderings.
Nicodemus does not ask a question but Jesus seems to sense his yearning. And there is a wildness and poetry to Jesus’ responses here, like he has been waiting to start sharing about how everyone is invited to experience the kingdom of heaven. “Amen” he says, “no one can see the kingdom of heaven without being born from above.”
But Nicodemus does not follow, he can not keep up. He responds to the poetry and metaphor of Jesus with literalness and fact. And I get it, I really do, I understand Nicodemus’ dogged earnestness is trying to translate Jesus’ words into something he can grasp….into the physical experience of literally being born again.
And also, to be honest, there is something so radical in Jesus’ language that it is no wonder Nicodemus does not follow….eventually he throws his hands up with the response “How can this be?” when Jesus continues to double down on this image of birth as an explanation of how we come to have life in the Kingdom and life in God.
Because what Jesus is doing, quite remarkably, is painting an explicitly feminine image of God. Jesus does not correct Nicodemus for responding with the language of birth and wombs, but only corrects the literalness with which he takes Jesus. The metaphor still stands….that being born into the kingdom means being born of water of water and spirit of God just as we are born of water and breath of a woman.
So no wonder Nicodemus did not get it. I mean, given his cultural, social, and religious location and gender…why would he? And, when he responds “How can this be?” perhaps it is out of confusion and frustration, or perhaps it is out of comprehension and disbelief. Perhaps, at some level, he gets what Jesus is saying but it is so radical, so beyond his imaginings, all he can say is “How can this be?”. How can it be that being born into the kingdom, that being born as a child of God, can be at all like being born of a woman?
And while certainly I am employing a 21st century feminist lens to this reading, there are echoes of Jesus’ language in the Hebrew scriptures with Wisdom personified as female in the Book of Proverbs and images of God giving birth to creation in the Books of Deuteronomy and Job. In Deuteronomy God rebukes Israel saying “You were unmindful of the Rock that begot you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth.”
This birth language not only points to a feminine image of God, but an earthy one as well. John’s Gospel is often labeled as the most ‘spiritual’ Gospel, and certainly the author of this Fourth Gospel often describes Jesus as if he is already half-way back up to heaven.
But I would suggest that what the Gospel writer might be trying to do here, what Jesus might be trying to do, is to knit together the heavenly and the earthly, the spirit and flesh, and suggest that it is in our very earthiness, in these very bodies, that we encounter God. Like we are born of through water and woman we are born through Spirit and God.
When our son Seth was born it seemed he never stopped crying. While he was born full-term, it always seemed to us that the harshness of this world was too much for him and he could have used a couple of extra months in the womb before he came into the world.
But in the world he was and he was none too happy about it. The best way I found to comfort him and end his tears and screams was to take him into the bathroom and turn out all the lights and turn the tap of the bathtub on full blast. Somehow the combination of darkness and the sound of water was familiar to him, reminded him of where he came from and there he found peace.
Maybe that is what Jesus was doing in today’s Gospel, trying to remind Nicodemus where he came from, from the womb of God and to get him to feel that in his heart and in his body, not just try to reason it out with his mind. Jesus is calling Nicodemus, calling all of us, to encounter God in the physicality of this world, of our bodies.
And maybe that is why God gave God’s only son, to paraphrase John 3:16, not so that Jesus could atone for our sins and guarantee a place for us in the afterlife but rather so that we could physically encounter God in flesh and bone and learn that what is Spirit and what is flesh is inextricably knit together.
I think Nicodemus learns something of this. We encounter him two more times in the Gospel of John. A few chapters from now Nicodemus, in the light of the day and in front of his fellow leaders, defends Jesus and calls for a fair trial for him, a trial he never has.
And finally we encounter Nicodemus in the most unexpected of places, the foot of the cross. He, along with Joseph of Arimathea, take Jesus’ body down from the cross. The Gospel tells us that Nicodemus brings 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. I imagine them, together, washing Jesus’ body so tenderly with water
Life begins in water.
and then burying him in the darkness of the tomb.
Life begins in the dark.
This is the story of the man, the woman, the snake, and God.
God has set up this garden, this paradise. In it, there is everything a human being could need, everything that a human being could want. The weather is so pleasant and the conditions otherwise so favourable that it doesn’t even occur to anyone to wear clothes. And the food! If you want a carrot, just pull it out of the ground. If you want a smoothie, pluck a mango and turn on the geothermic-steam-powered blender. If you want a BLT, go to the bacon bush.
But God says: Do not do one thing. Everything but this one tree you may touch. This tree, you must leave alone.
But our heroes can’t do it, won’t do it. In what is officially a staple of folk tales and horror movies – don’t look in the room in the back of the house, don’t open the box, don’t read out loud from that alarming leather-bound book that you found in the cabin’s basement – the delay between God’s command and humanity’s breaking of that command is measured in minutes.
The serpent shows up and says: God doesn’t want you to touch that tree, to eat of it, because God knows how awesome it is. And God doesn’t want to share that awesomeness with you. Which is totally selfish of God.
To which the woman replies,
But God said that if we ate of that tree, we would die.
The serpent smiles in a serpent-like way. You aren’t going to die.
You’re just going to know things.
And so the woman eats. And she gives the fruit to the man and he eats.
Thanks to oil paintings, this is the moment in the scene when we maybe hear the crunch of apples. But actually, the text just says fruit tree. If you want to imagine the man and the woman peeling oranges or the juices of cherries running down their chins, you totally can.
They finish eating. They look at one another. And everything changes.
The serpent was telling the truth. But he wasn’t telling the whole truth or nothing but the truth. Our heroes do indeed know things now. And they don’t die, not this instant. But they do know about death and they know that it applies to them. And this knowing itself is a kind of death. And they know as well that they are naked. And so they sew themselves clothes out leaves.
This is the beginning of fashion. It is the beginning of shame.
What is the moral of this story?
Here are three possible morals.
One. This is a story about the origins of sin.
Maybe you know how this one goes. This is the moral that you will get if you are hearing this story while sitting on Saint Augustine’s knee. In Uncle Auggie’s telling, this is when sin shows up, even though that word appears nowhere in the text. Even more specifically, this is when original sin shows up.
Things were perfect. And then through our sin we ruined it. Or if you’re feeling misogynistic (and let’s tell the truth, the institutional church knows a thing or three about misogyny), things were perfect and then the woman ruined it. Either way, God leaves this wonderful tree, this dessert, in the middle of the garden. And like a kind of crappy, passive-aggressive parent setting a test-slash-trap, God leaves the room and says:
Don’t touch the dessert.
But they do touch the dessert.
And because we are reading this story paired up, thanks to the lectionary, with Paul talking about sin and with another story in which Satan tempts Jesus, we get point and counterpoint. Adam and Eve, the dessert eaters, are the problem: Jesus is the solution.
Now, lest we be too, too hard on Augustine, there probably is something to this reading. (Not the misogyny part but the sin being loose in creation and Jesus being the solution to that part.) This world is not as it ought to be. Most of us, maybe all of us, sense that. I was in a waiting room on Thursday morning and I glanced at a newspaper, the headline of which announced that there were children fleeing Syria who were freezing to death in refugee camps.
That kind of horror: it ought not to exist.
And maybe we need a story that explains how the selfishness and violence that makes that horror possible came into being. Augustine has an answer for us: the very first people broke things and their very first sin is still echoing through the world.
Whether or not we need that explanation, we assuredly need to know that Jesus is present in that refugee camp with those children. We assuredly need to know that Jesus is, indeed, the solution, that as Jesus’ hands and feet in this hurting world, we can change things. There is something unexpectedly and profoundly moving about that old icon in which Jesus, who has descended to the dead just like the creed says, is grabbing Adam and Eve by the wrists and pulling them, like two people on the verge of drowning, out of death and into life.
But let’s also acknowledge that this reading is a huge trip hazard for a whole lot of folks, that for many people this is the reading that makes Christianity incoherent. Why did God put this tree in the garden which, as the text tells us, the man and the woman desire? And what does it mean that once they eat they discover nakedness? Throw into the mix Augustine’s understanding of sin, and many people’s understanding of sin, which is to say that sin overlaps heavily with sex, and you can see how God and God’s church don’t come out of this story looking very good.
As the wonderful singer-songwriter Josh Ritter puts it:
Eve ate the apple because the apple was sweet
What kind of god would keep a girl from getting what she needs?
That’s a fair enough question. And if Augustine’s moral is right, it may be a question that proves the antitheists right when they say that we should shake off the handcuffs that are belief in God so that we can get on with enjoying our lives and enjoying our sexuality in particular.
Two. This is a story about God, about the one whom Jesus will one day call Father, acting like the most loving of parents.
There is probably nowhere in the Bible where God is more like a human being than God is at the beginning of Genesis. Later on in the Bible, God is a pillar of cloud, a burning bush, a whirlwind, a still small voice, a sound from the sky that might be words and might be thunder. But at the beginning of Genesis, in one of the most beautiful images to be found anywhere in scripture, God walks through the garden in the cool of the day, just the way that you or I might. God is enjoying God’s creation, with all of its beauty and wonder.
And God, for reasons that make sense to God and may or may not make sense to us, God has allowed danger into creation, evil into creation. And into this world, God has brought children.
To bring children into the world is to have no fewer than two goals in tension with one another. The one is that you want your children to have a good and a complete life, full of love, meaningful challenge, friends, learning, and so on. We want, in other words, our children to know the world, know themselves, know God. The other goal, the one in tension with the first, is you don’t want your kids to get hurt, whether hurt means the bruising of their bodies or the bruising of their hearts.
And so we try to insulate our kids from hurt or, at a minimum, to delay as long as possible the time when hurt will come. We try to see if we can postpone the day of disillusionment or disappointment. That’s because we know that, when that day comes, something breaks. When the day comes, for instance, when a child understands that their parent cannot solve every problem there is, it is the end of a kind of beautiful innocence.
What if that is what God is doing when God says, Don’t touch that tree, the one that will tell you about death? What if God is saying to the man and the woman, I just want childhood, your childhood with its fleeting, fragile innocence, to go on a little longer?
Three. This is a story about the importance, the holiness even, of accepting boundaries and limitations.
Earlier, we talked about how the man and the woman desired the tree – or, in the strange, passive voice that the New Revised Standard Version gives us, that the tree was to be desired. But here’s the problem with reading stuff in translation. The very best translatuins give us, maybe, 85% of the sense of the original text. The English translation of this story doesn’t let us know that the Hebrew is full of puns, so that this story in origin has a whimsical, playful feel to it. And other nuance gets lost: the word that the NRSV renders as desire in this passage, nehmad, is precisely the same word that in the final of the ten commandments, it renders covet. As in:
You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s spouse, nor their servants, nor their animals, nor anything that belongs to your neighbour.
You shall not nehmad these things.
The tree was nehmad.
So, if we are going to use the same translation here in Genesis as in the tenth commandment, the tree was coveted. Or, in less awkward English, maybe something like: The man and the woman coveted the tree.
God says to the human beings: Here is paradise. Here is abundance. Here is enough.
And then God adds: But if paradise is going to work, if you and everything else are going to thrive, you must be content with enough. You must not take too much. You must not cross the boundary into covetousness. You must not nehmad.
Suddenly, this is a story for our time. For you and me, right now. Because there is enough on this earth for everyone to live, for everyone to thrive. Be content with that, says God. Be happy with that. Because what there is not are the resources for everyone to have too much. Do not nehmad more than you need. Or you will bring death into this world.
But the snake, who these days goes by the name consumerism, smiles and says: God is just kidding. God knows how much fun it is to nehmad. And God doesn’t want you in on that fun. Go ahead and eat. And if you break the tree or something else in the process, never mind. You can always buy another one. It might even be covered by warranty.
And we have eaten. And we have brought death into this world by doing so. We are perilously near to breaking this earth and breaking ourselves. It is not too late to make a different choice. But it is dangerously close.
Three possibilities. A story about sin, a story about love, a story about healthy limitation. Probably a story about still other things. Assuredly a story about us. A story about how God has given us paradise and said, This one tree you must not touch or you will die. A story that offers us a choice between the advice of God and the advice of a snake. A story that asks you and me the question, whose advice will we take?
Have you ever had the chance to work with an improv group? They have this technique for working together, a way to communicate and support each other live onstage in order to move the action forward. It’s called YES AND. Let me give you an example. Two people walk onstage and one of them says “well here we are at the grocery store!” and looks expectantly at the other person. The other person can do one of two things – first, they can stop everything in its tracks. What would that look like? They can say, “no we’re not! We’re at the zoo!” and then the first person either has to double down on being at the grocery store (and then the improv becomes a power struggle for determining the reality of the scene) or change everything and suddenly be at the zoo when they and the whole audience thought they were at the grocery store. This is not the preferred way to engage in improv. The preferred way is YES AND. “Here we are at the grocery store!” says person 1, and then person 2 says “Yes, and we better get to aisle three right now!” To get through a good improv, you have to let go of control and look and listen to what’s going on around you.
Every day we have the opportunity to say YES AND within the world around us.
Here is a difficult truth that I am asked to recall every once in a while: remember you are dust, and to dust you will return. In a moment, a priest will take ashes and make the sign of the cross on my forehead and I will need to respond to this in some way. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return” No, I do not accept that I’m going to die, just as Christ died? Or YES AND? Reality calls me to respond to what I have been given with YES AND. SO here’s my yes and:
I’m not sure exactly where this happened, or how this happened, but at some point in my faith journey, a priest made the sign of the cross on my forehead and said to me “remember your baptism and that God has always loved you”
Remember your baptism and that God has always loved you. We must suffer and we must die. YES AND we don’t have to do those things alone. God has always loved you. Look around you. We face this together. This is our YES AND.
Let’s switch focus for a moment and talk about healing.
I see the idea of healing conflated with the act of getting rid of a lot.
The medical model, which is dominant in western healthcare, treats human conditions through a process of assessing, diagnosing and treating, so maybe that’s why we think healing means locating, targeting, and making go away.
Sure we assume our lives will be better for it, but to an extent we still treat the process of healing as something that has to involve rejection and destruction. There is a problem, we want it gone. Sin comes to mind. Even as we say words like acceptance and surrender and compassion, the energy with which we speak them exposes an undercurrent of will, dominance and control.
At the other end of the spectrum there is an option to think about healing as generative, constructive and life-giving.
So rather than seeking to impose our will over the things we struggle within ourselves and others, we aim for a kind of intentional participation with those things. YES AND is not just for improv. YES AND is what we are doing when we say yes to God, when we say yes to our neighbor, when we are paying attention to the world around us.
We can get what we need to live, heal, die and transform but only under one condition: That we learn to listen and receive. The great work that is before us is about moving toward peace, alliance, harmony and collaboration with life, with God, and with one another. We don’t get to set the scene. In many ways we are not in control. We have to find a way to relate with what reality gives us.
what is. Rather than seeking to bend the world to our will we should approach life from a stance of curiosity. Rather than exclaiming, “I’m sorry I was told we were going to the zoo, and I must insist, here in front of a live audience, that you are wrong, and that we will not go to the grocery store” Instead we ask, “what’s being offered, here?” YES AND is constructive, not destructive.
Let us take the proper time to understand what is happening. Maybe 40 days where we, as our verse said earlier, we rend our hearts and not our clothing.
Let us grapple in this holy Lent with our ability to open our hearts and minds and to be receptive to what this soul searching provides. The good. The bad. The deeply delightful, the hideously grotesque. All of it in ourselves, in others, in the world.
You’re probably thinking, be receptive to the bad, hideous and grotesque? No thank you. I mean, what kind of world would it be if we all received the fruits of hatred, violence and oppression with arms outstretched? If we smiled lovingly at our hearts when we were greedy or petty or controlling, when we moved in fear and not love, when we were harsh or critical or downright mean. Would we not just be reinforcing destructive, antisocial and all around bad behavior?
Those concerns are legit if receptivity is synonymous with passivity and resignation, but it isn’t. Not here. Here, receptivity is the state from which acceptance is possible.
Life is dialogue, not monologue. We step onto the stage, the scene is set, and we say YES AND…
That means that part of it is speaking, but part is also listening. If you are not listening, you are not able to receive. If you’re not able to receive, you’re not able to accept. If you cannot accept, and you cannot receive, then you cannot do your part right. Your capability to speak and act appropriately is compromised.
Life is not that different. How many times do we refuse to listen to what’s really going on around us, take zero cues, and then grow indignant when we’re not cast in the roles we want?
Reality has to be the context in which you do what you do. If it isn’t, it’s because you haven’t accepted what you’ve been given.
Remember that accepting doesn’t mean liking or agreeing with. It means giving yourself permission to move forward properly, which is a lot more likely to happen when you have accurate information.
You get to take part; you do not get to take whole.
So with that, Lent begins. YES AND what does that mean for you? What is your part in these holy mysteries? You have some time to think about your answer. You have 40 holy days to pray and to fast and to remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. All things come to an end. Don’t they? Yes. And, all things come to a beginning.
Let’s get ready for it.
It is very near the end of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness, very near the end of the forty years that the twelve tribes have spent wandering and searching, now lost and now found, always somehow guided by God. And the aged Moses, 120 years old and near death but, the story tells us, his vigour unabated, gathers the tribes together. Within sight of the promised land, the land that they have longed for all of these years, Moses speaks to them on behalf of God.
I have set before you today life and death. Blessings and curses.
And then, maybe because the Israelites hesitate, pausing in uncertainty like a contestant on a game show invited to choose between two doors, Moses goes on:
This scene is beautiful and awe inspiring. But is it also just a little absurd? Is there an element of ridiculousness to it? Because surely the old man’s question, Would you prefer life or would you prefer death? is not one that the Israelites or anyone else should need to think about for very long.
Would you prefer an envelope full of cash or would you prefer to be pushed off the roof of a building?
Would you prefer a new pair of shoes, comfortable and fashionable in equal measure, or would you prefer botulism?
Would you prefer curried rice with asparagus, squash, and a garden salad on the side or would you prefer mayonnaise-flavoured ice cream?
Would you prefer life or death?
Of course you are going to choose life.
But maybe the absurdity, the stark obviousness of the choice that Moses offers God’s people is precisely what makes this story powerful. Maybe it is precisely how it tells us the truth.
Because life is the obvious choice.
And we don’t always choose it.
We all know people – maybe some of us here this morning have been people – who chose booze or pot or gambling or sex or whatever over their marriages, over their jobs, over their children, over God, over everything else. There is a dark joke that goes something like this:
There is no such thing as addiction. There are only things that we like doing more than being alive.
In a similar vein, we all know people – and here I will remove the maybe and say that we all, 100% of us, have been people – who have chosen selfishness over life.
When I take an inventory my life so far, one of the things that I have done or left undone that I might be most ashamed of, that I kind of don’t want to tell you about, came sometime late in my adolescence or early in my adulthood. It was Hallowe’en. And my folks were away. I don’t remember where or why but I do know that I was, like an aged Macaulay Culkin, home alone. But because my Mom was and is a meticulous planner, she had laid in bags and bags of miniature candy bars.
As the joke goes, I had one job. It was my job to open the door and praise the children in their costumes and drop candy bars into their bags.
But did I do my job?
I did not.
What I did was to turn off all of the lights in the house, go down to the basement, and watch Star Wars on VHS.
While eating all of the candy myself.
When I think of the word pathetic, I remember that moment in the basement.
Now, maybe what I’ve just shared with you is a moral triviality. Nobody got hurt, the few children who came and knocked on the door of our dark house and shouted Trick or Treat may have felt some fleeting disappointment. But I imagine that they then went on with their night and filled up their bags and everything was fine. It is likely that I am the only one who remembers that, on Hallowe’en circa 1990, the lights were turned off at 3824 West 1st Avenue.
But I remember. And maybe I feel as ashamed as I do by that memory because what I did that night feels like a parable, a parable for choosing something other than community, other than life.
When you and I live in a city in which, notwithstanding our manifest wealth, we tolerate human beings having nowhere but the pavement on which to sleep, we are doing something like eating candy in the basement with the lights off. When you and I tolerate a scenario in which refugees on our southern border fleeing the worst kind of violence are met in the Land of the Free with cruelty, we are doing something like eating candy in the basement with the lights off. When I and you tolerate more and more extreme weather and console ourselves that the stock market is booming, we are doing something like eating candy in the basement with the lights off.
In these moments, we are choosing that which is not life. The choice between life and death may be obvious, comically so. But that doesn’t mean that we choose life. Because curses and death are familiar and predictable, addiction and selfishness are familiar and predictable. We know how they work, we know the rewards that they hold. We don’t know anything about the new land that waits across the Jordan. We know nothing. Except that God has told us that it is full of life.
And we’re not sure that we trust God’s word.
We are closing in on Lent. Ash Wednesday is in one and a half weeks. And it is that time of year when talk about giving stuff up and when we talk about sin.
Both of these things – giving stuff up and sin – are pretty significant and pretty regular sources of shame.
Giving stuff up is a source of shame because it swerves so easily out of spiritual practice and into that suspicious category that we call self-help. It is common, for instance, to give up some kind of treat during Lent. And maybe that practice would be okay, maybe it would be edifying. Except that a whole lot of us have baggage around food. And so this Lenten practice turns pretty easily into a diet, with all of the sad baggage that diets entail. As a friend of mine said in one of those jokes that tells the truth:
I’m so glad that Lent comes before swimsuit season. Maybe I can lose a few pounds.
Sin is often a source of shame because we regularly understand sin – or, and I want to insist on this, we regularly misunderstand sin – as being about self-loathing, often locating that self-loathing around our bodies and our sexuality. For the record, if anyone here this morning needs to hear it, masturbation and other healthy and loving expressions of sexuality are not and never were sins. Being gay is not and never was a sin. Being trans is not and never was a sin. Having a body that will not get you onto the cover of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue or Men’s Health – having a body that, in other words, is normal – is not and never was a sin. We could keep on going.
But what if we don’t need to define either of those practices – either giving stuff up or sin – in such a screwed-up way? What if they both could have good and life-giving meanings?
What if giving stuff up – or in the language of the Bible, fasting – is just what we heard God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, said it was just last week:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
What if that is what a fast looks like? What if that is what giving stuff up looks like?
And what if sin is just an ancient word that means selfishness?
What if therefore, when we speak of repenting from sin and when we speak of giving stuff up what we mean is that we are repenting of and we are giving up alienation, giving up indifference, giving up apathy, giving up selfishness, giving up sitting by ourselves in a dark basement eating candy? In doing so we are choosing community, we are choosing service, we are choosing love, we are choosing God. We are choosing life.
Now here’s the gospel, the amazing news: coming out of the basement isn’t just good for the people knocking on our door. It’s good for us. On that night thirty years ago, coming out of the basement not only would have given some costumed children a little more delight, but it would have given me so much more delight. I would have had a way, way better night if I had encountered those children’s happiness and wonder. And if I wouldn’t have had the sad tummy that came of eating all of that candy by myself. Repenting of sin, giving stuff up: what if the secret is that these things aren’t shame-filled sacrifices but, rather, they are joys?
Here we are. Here we are, gathered with Moses, looking across the Jordan and into new land, a land of uncertainty and possibility. I set before you life and death, the old man who is speaking on God’s behalf says. And then, because this never was a test, because this never was a trick question, because God never wanted us to fail, Moses opens up the teacher’s edition. He shows us the page with the answers written on it.
Moses and God whisper together,
It feels a little like Christmas to me right now.
Maybe it’s the candles. Maybe it is the story we heard from Luke this morning, this story of the baby Jesus. Because we really only encounter baby Jesus at Christmastime.
We even have on white stoles and there is white on the altar. It is a feast day and we hear this wonderful story of the presentation of Jesus at the Temple.
And one of the reasons I love that we are celebrating the presentation, Candlemas, on this Sunday (and as I mentioned in the parish hall this feast day always falls on February 2 but rarely on a Sunday) is because we get to encounter the baby Jesus again, outside of Christmas. And we get to hear a story that we do not often get to hear together in this place.
And this makes sense because most of the stories we have of Jesus, most of the stories in the Gospels, are of his ministry. Most of the stories begin when he is about 30 and he is baptized and he is out preaching and teaching and healing and liberating.
We do not have many stories of Jesus as a baby, or as a child, at least not in our canon, the scriptures as we received them. There are other stories written about Jesus as a child that we do not accept as canonical but that are really great stories. Stories of Jesus being quite a handful as a young person. One of my favorite stories is of Jesus as a 4 or 5 year old, who went out to play in the mud, and who fashioned with his hands out of mud these little birds and he brought them to life and they flew off into the sky.
And I think, because we only spend time with an adult Jesus we can default to seeing him as a kind of social justice warrior type, or that is a trap we can fall into. That Jesus is important because of these things he does and that Jesus is important because of these things he says. But today’s story reminds us that Jesus is important because of who Jesus was and who Jesus is. Jesus is the Christ, the messiah.
And Simeon had been waiting for the messiah, for a long time it seems.
Simeon was tired.
Simeon was old.
He’d had enough of this life, it seems.
But he held on to a promise whispered to him in a dream, perhaps. Whispered to him as a prayer. Whispered to him by the Holy Spirit which, today’s passage from Luke tells us, ‘rested on him.’
What a beautiful turn of phrase, right? The Holy Spirit ‘rested on him.’ I imagine the Holy Spirit like a cat curled up in his lap, like an infant sprawled out and snoring on his chest, like a prayer shawl gathered around his shoulders keeping you warm and safe.
And that day had come it seems. No angels proclaimed this baby Jesus, no heavenly chorus pointing this way like we saw in the earlier part of Luke in the account of baby Jesus. Just a whisper and a nudge, perhaps. So Simeon moved his ancient, stiff, aching bones and arrived at the Temple, perhaps as he did every day, to look for the one who was promised to him in a whisper.
I wonder what turned Simeon’s head that day. Because, honestly, there was not much to look at, in this little family weaving their way through the crowds in the Temple of Jerusalem. Just another devout Jewish mother presenting herself for ritual purification, 40 days after giving birth. Just another devout Jewish family ritually pledging their first born son, like Hannah did with Samuel, to the Temple in thanksgiving and praise to God. There was nothing noteworthy about this family, they were poor (the text tells us that by describing their offering, 2 pigeons, the least expensive, most basic offering allowed) and from the country, likely overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of the Temple that day.
But something caught Simeon’s eye, something about this unremarkable family, and he picked that baby up and he began to sing. This is one of the church’s most treasured pieces of scripture, this song of Simeon’s, also known as the “Nunc Dimmitis” which is the Latin translation of the beginning of this song, “now you dismiss” your servant in peace.
And he sang. He sang in joy. And I also wonder if he sang in surprise because I am not sure this is what he expected to find. I wonder if this is what Simeon expected to see, what Simeon thought God’s promise might look like, this Messiah he had staved off death to see. I wonder if Simeon had expected to see a king, or at least a show of wealth or power or strength. And this makes a whole lot of sense, given the kind of messiah a devout Jew would have been looking for in the 1st Century, someone who would have returned exiled Jews to their land in Israel, who would have ended poverty, war, disease, and empire, and who heralded the resurrection of the dead. I suspect he did not expect to see an infant, or at least this kind of infant, one from a poor and unremarkable family.
And I wonder if he is singing out of joy, and out of surprise. A lot of people seem surprised in this text. The Gospel tells us that Mary and Joseph were ‘astonished’ by what they heard from Simeon that day, which is weird because they have heard the same thing from Gabriel and shepherds and wise men all proclaiming their son Messiah.
But they were astonished. And maybe they are surprised because of what Simeon goes on to say next after he sang his song. He starts to prophesy. And this prophecy, it is hard. It tells of people rising and falling, of Jesus being opposed, of people’s inner most thoughts being revealed, and of a sword piercing the soul of Mary. I am not sure that is what Mary expected to hear.
I think sometimes God does not show up like we expect, and sometimes when God does show up God brings hard truths to us, and so we turn our head the other way, we close our eyes, so we do not notice God, do not notice Jesus. So instead we think God is not showing up at all.
Since coming to Grace I have spent some time with the youth on Friday evenings. The rhythm of the evening is often the same: we gather, we laugh, we eat, we check in about the highs and lows of our weeks, and we also share if we have had any ‘God sightings.’ When have we seen God in our lives this week?
There has been great conversation about what this expression, God sighting, actually means. Does it mean we are stopped in our tracks and hear a heavenly chorus above our heads like the shepherds in the fields did earlier in the Gospel of Luke and the world starts to glow and we realize yes, yes, this is God?
And maybe some of y’all have had that experience, and if you have I totally want to to hear that story, but we have shared that God sightings are often much quieter than that, much more fleeting, more ordinary than that. They are, as the theologian Frederick Buechner described, more as if an angel beats their wings over our head and we say “Wow, I wonder where I got the courage to do that?” or “God, what a gorgeous day to be alive.”
The young people in youth group share God sightings like that, and man are they wonderful. Their God sightings include having a realization that their dog is getting older and may die soon and feeling sad about that but knowing deep in their hearts that everything is going to be ok. Their God sightings include realizing that someone they follow on social media because they are funny and dark is also a human being who just lost a parent and they feel sad about that. Their God sightings include someone being kind to them in class or realizing their parents might be having a hard time. Their God sightings include a really, really, really good burrito.
This kind of God sighting requires us to slow down, to notice the little things in our lives, This is kind of God sighting requires close attention, requires patience. And I think there is something interesting that in today’s Gospel and these stories of the youth that the people who are most tuned in to these kind of God sightings are people at the first part and the latter part of their lives. I think there is some awareness about being those ages, maybe it is about going a little slower, maybe at those ages we just spend more time thinking about what this life is about and what God is all about..
But I think we are all capable of those kind of God sightings, if we slow down, if we look around us, we start to notice that God is everywhere my friends.
One of the things that I love about this story of the Presentation is that Jesus holds the baby Jesus, brings the baby Jesus close to him, rests the baby Jesus on him as the Holy Spirit rested on him and then he begins to sing.
I think that tells us something. I think that tells us that we have to gather God close to us, that we have to lean in, we have to pick God up with our very arms and rest God on ourselves in order to encounter God sometimes.
And so, my friends, my invitation to you this morning is to slow down, to notice, to gather Christ in your arms and pull Christ close to your heart. And to sing.
I’ve been happily retired for a year and a half now, with no plans to go back to teaching, but somehow this September I ended up back in the classroom at my old school, for a three month substitute job. When the offer came up I thought a lot about it and decided in the end that I was called to do this. I knew just what was expected and knew the people I would be working with – plus I knew it had a clear end date.
The disciples whom Jesus called by the Sea of Galilee didn’t know any of those things: what they were being asked to do, how long it would last, or even what the mission was. So I try to imagine how they ended up accepting Jesus’ call.
Jesus was the new guy in town – he had come down from Nazareth, in the hill country, to the shores of Galilee. He didn’t know these guys, so why did he choose them? Did he look at them working on their boats and think, well, these look like hard-working fishermen, so they’d probably be good helpers? Or did he think – and I kind of like this idea – as they’re sitting around mending nets, these guys don’t look like they’re doing much, I’ve got a real job for them?
And why did these men – Peter and Andrew, James and John – decide to pick up and follow Jesus? They don’t know him. Maybe they’d heard there was a new wandering prophet in town. But when Jesus says, “I will make you fish for people,” what does that even mean?
In retrospect, now, the statement makes sense to us, because we know the whole story. But what could they have been thinking? As I imagine the scene, I picture one of them looking at the other, not saying anything. The other one looks back, maybe shrugs and grins. There’s an unspoken agreement, “Well, what the heck, there’s not a whole lot happening here, why not check it out?” And maybe one of them turns to a boy nearby and says, “Watch our nets for a while – we’ll be back.”
Notice what’s happened: they had no idea what they’re being called to do, or how they’re going to do it, or where they’re going to go, or even what the goal is.
Why do they do this? There must have been some sense of trust in Jesus – the way he looked, how he spoke, maybe what little they’d heard about him. And then they had one another. You know how it is when you’re with friends or family and someone suggests doing something, and you say, “Well, I’m in if you are.” Also, there’s the very human sense of curiosity and adventure, the desire to try new things.
I think this is a good example of how God’s call actually works. It would be nice to think that God’s call to us would be obvious, like the blast of a loudspeaker, “Attention! I’m talking to you.”
But that’s not how it works. God is always broadcasting to us – God is like a 24 hour radio network – but most of the time we’re not paying attention because we’re too busy, too preoccupied with immediate concerns. It’s only when we can create a little space in our lives that we can really tune in to what God is saying.
And God calls to us daily: sometimes about big, potentially life-changing things, but most often about daily concerns. Maybe it occurs to us one day that it might be good to get in touch with someone we haven’t seen for a while, and it turns out we make contact at a critical time.
But we often resist the call. When I was thinking about ordination, I thought to myself, “I’m not the right person for this, I don’t know that I have the right gifts, it’s not the right time for me.” I think these are all pretty common responses to God’s call. But God doesn’t really care if we’re prepared, or if we think we can do what’s asked.
In the end, after much pondering, I decided to answer the call. I trusted that God would show me the way, I had friends who supported and encouraged me, and finally I thought, “Well, why not?”
In our lives as Christians, and in our common life, we are often invited to the unexpected, called to do things or follow paths that we feel unprepared for, that we hadn’t planned on, that we don’t think we have the gifts for. God doesn’t care.
In the life of our parish, maybe someone has suggested you’d be good on Vestry, or someone has said that Altar Guild could use some help, or you have a nagging idea that it would be fun to try cooking for the Friday dinner. If we trust that God will guide us and that others will support us, even if we’re not sure how we’re going to do something, maybe it’s still worth a try. The same is true for our parish ministry as a whole. If God is truly calling us to something new, even something that seems beyond our abilities, then, well, “What the heck.”
I know that in my life, when I’ve been able to say “yes” to God’s call, trusting that God will guide me, trusting that others will be with me, and with an openness to new possibilities, I have been richly blessed.
If you have ever taken an acting class – maybe in high school, maybe in university, maybe somewhere else – then you will likely have done the exercise of selecting a short line of text and seeing how many different ways that you can say it. The line might be something that your teacher made up or it might be a famous line from a famous play. For the sake of exploration, let’s say that the line in question is what might be the most famous line ever spoken on the stage.
To be or not to be. That is the question.
How many ways could we say these words that Shakespeare gives to Hamlet?
Well, maybe we could lean hard into To be and then go soft on the rest of the line:
(or not to be). That is the question.
Maybe we could borrow the technique of the late German actor, Bruno Ganz, who according to lore said:
and then paused and paused and paused, waiting, legend has it, for more than two minutes of silence before concluding…
or not to be. That is the question.
Or maybe the first sentence with its contrasting choices isn’t as important as what comes next. How about:
(To be or not to be.)
THAT is the question.
We could keep on going as long as we wanted, as long as our imaginations lasted.
Scripture, like Shakespeare, doesn’t contain a lot of stage directions or other descriptions. Most of the time, folks in the Bible just say stuff. Their words are generally not followed by, “…she said, angrily” or “…he told them, with tears in his eyes and shaking hands.” The text does not volunteer whether their eyebrows are raised, whether they are speaking through gritted teeth, Clint Eastwood style, whether they are slurring their words, whether they are giggling as they talk.
And so here is my question for this morning. We are in the Gospel of John, right near its beginning. Jesus has just been baptised. And then the very first words that Jesus speaks go like this:
What are you looking for?
How shall we read Jesus’ words?
Let’s try out a few possibilities.
What are you looking for?
So, this is a Jesus who is aggressive, accusatory, and maybe wary. This is a Jesus who sees you glancing his way on the street and says, “What do you think you’re looking at?”
Now, stay with me here. Because we are so accustomed to Serene Jesus that we may want to reflexively rule out the possibility of Cranky Jesus. But I want to suggest that this is a thoroughly plausible reading of these words.
Because John the Baptist has just seen Jesus and announced to Andrew and his friend:
There goes the Lamb of God.
And what do we know about lambs? Well, we know that, as the old expression has it, they are led with some regularity to the slaughter. This is particularly true in Jesus’ time, where the sacrifice of animals is woven into the life of the temple. John is saying a lot of things when he announces that Jesus is the Lamb of God – there is a theological complexity to this statement that could and has filled up a few books. But one of the most basic things that it means is:
There is the one who is going to die in the service of the Lord.
Before Jesus predicts his own death – and as we know, Jesus predicts his dying early and often – John the Baptist predicts it.
And so we can understand why Jesus might speak with hostility, why he might say to Andrew and his friend:
What are you looking for?
Are you two here to watch me die? Are you like the people who slow down going past the car accident, equal parts horrified and titillated, both fearing and hoping that you will see blood on the asphalt?
Are you staring because I am a dead man walking?
What are you looking for?
Let’s try another possibility:
What are you looking for?
This is Jesus as the guru with the big beard on the mountaintop, this is Jesus as Yoda. Jesus is asking a question to which he already knows the answer. The purpose of the question is not for Jesus to learn anything, not for Jesus to find anything out. The purpose of the question is for the one being questioned to learn, for the seeker to learn. For you to learn.
This is maybe the Jesus with whom we are most familiar. And I can understand why: in a lot of ways, this is a reassuring Jesus: the Messiah who is in control, who is stable and powerful, who has something like superpowers.
Jesus asking the question in this way is like a guide on a journey. He knows the path on which we walk backwards and forwards, he cannot get lost. While he is on the journey with us, he shares in none of our discovery and none of our uncertainty. When we wander off of the way and into the briars or the poison ivy, he does not follow us. He stays on the path and asks his question: What are you looking for?
When Jesus ask his question, he is really saying: I know what you are looking for. Do you know what you are looking for?
Maybe there is a trace of a smile on his face as he speaks.
What are you looking for?
So, this is Jesus as genuinely curious. Not angry and challenging but not all-knowing either. This is the Son of God, shortly after his baptism, the day after the dove has descended and the voice of the one whom he calls Father has said:
This is my Son, the Beloved. In whom I delight.
This is Jesus wandering around in stunned wonder, standing in the wake of this profound mystical experience and not sure what is supposed to happen next. In the Synoptic Gospels (so, Matthew, Mark, and Luke) this is the moment when the Spirit drives or maybe leads Jesus out into the wilderness. Here in the Fourth Gospel, this is the moment when Jesus notices that two people have left John’s side and begun to follow him.
Picture him, blinking in the sunlight, his clothes maybe not entirely dry from that day before, the silt of the Jordan still in his hair. He looks at Andrew and his friend and says:
What are you looking for?
This is Jesus who is, himself, not sure what he is looking for. This is the Jesus who shares with us in our search. We are lost and hoping to be found. And so is Jesus.
Which reading is right? Which one is true? Is it one of these three or still another? How does Jesus sound when he looks at you and he says:
What are you looking for?