Out of Darkness

sermon on John 7:1-10, 8:12-20; Psalm 27

 

I’ve never yet been interrupted and cut off in a sermon, but that possibility continues to exist. So, while hoping you’re not weary of my comparisons of our Bible readings, just in case you’re ready to protest, I’ll rush ahead.

We are in Lent. Where we have the 4th Sunday of Advent or the 7th Sunday of Easter, this is the 1st Sunday in Lent. Named for lengthening days, this is for increased light over typical deadly darkness. More on that at the end.

For this 1st Sunday in Lent, the usual lectionary always features a story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness for 40 days. In Mark’s Gospel, that’s pretty much one verse. Matthew and Luke expand it as an argument or duel between Jesus and the devil about turning stones to bread and guardian angels and being king of the world. Jesus, perhaps not surprisingly, resists the temptations.

That mark of 40 days at the start of the 40(ish) day-long season of Lent, often is taken to indicate we should also be resisting temptation. That when the devil comes knocking, we say no thank you. That evil may try and test us, but we should not put the Lord our God to the test (whatever that might mean).

I don’t like that sort of message. It’s not much of an encouragement in my book: hey, Jesus didn’t give in to temptation, so you shouldn’t either! If you try really hard, you could be like him! Go give it a shot for 40 days!

It’s surprising how rarely the devil is actually in the Bible, I think, especially if we picture this as the grand cosmic rivalry, the dualism of good vs. evil, heaven vs. hell. But the negative side is pretty sparse in there. The word “God” is in the Bible over 4000 times, but Satan or devil pop up just 80 times. An eighth of that total is in a little scene crammed at the start of the book of Job. There just isn’t a whole lot. That isn’t the point of the story or of faith.

But somehow we get drawn into the darkness, to struggles and arguments, this notion of competition and rivalry, for one to win when the other loses. We want to be on the right side of the struggle, contending against sin, overcoming temptations that try to infiltrate us with evil. With broad strokes, we claim to elucidate evils as ugly and nasty, so we can confidently label them as demonic and awful.

Within the Gospel of John, though, there is no version of the devil tempting Jesus that would fit the usual pattern for this 1st Sunday in Lent. While God is embodied and God is incarnate in Jesus, there’s nothing satanic as we would ritually imagine horrors lurking in the shadows, or demons waiting to swallow you or possess you and make your eyes glow. Not much for an R-rated flick.

The devil is simply what would obscure the light of God. To illustrate, a follow-up to the Gospel of John later in our New Testament, the letter we call 1st John, is the only place we have the term antichrist (2:22). It just means those who are against Jesus, who are anti-Christ. This requires a lower case “e” exorcism, of being re-focused on the true light.

That letter of 1st John similarly says Jesus “is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true” (1:5). That’s the difference between being in the light or left out in the dark, the criterion that matters.

Again, later in today’s dialogue, Jesus has strong language against opponents, saying: “If God were your Father, you would love me…but you are from your father the devil…He is a liar and the father of lies” (8:42-44). But you’ll notice that’s no cosmic dual for the eternal fate of souls, but just what would distract us in darkness or lure us to false sources of light.

That distinction, both within and outside ourselves, doesn’t involve seeking devils and demons, because when we’re looking for a thriller and the bad guys, we get eager to categorize and label evil, quick to pass judgment and presume to know what is worse. When the Gospel of John defines the devil as “the ruler of this world,” and that the kingdom of Jesus is not of this world, it stands against our politics as usual and our lame horse races and how we crown our favorite winners.

While justice does require truth-telling, being honest and boldly saying what is wrong, not to be so lawless that anything goes and any behavior or speech or perspective has equal validity, while there are vital times to take a stand and be passionate advocates, this faith of ours isn’t primarily about that. I confess that’s a hard reminder for me especially, since I want God to be on the side of my causes and I care a lot about fixing this world.

But this isn’t about being right. It’s not about a legalism that parses into bad and good and tries forcefully or gracefully to leave ourselves standing on the correct side of the line. It’s not fundamentally best accomplished in pointing out the faults of others, much less in trying to threaten them to shape up, either with manipulative coercions or scare tactics of eternal damnation. Neither does it limit our potential when already dim hopes are quenched.

It’s so obvious to say that gun violence is bad, that school shootings are horrible, that kids shouldn’t kill kids. Nobody arrives here to debate whether that should happen. That seems like the biggest, most important thing…at least for this week.

But we could also go on, with our other violence and aggressions and uncaring: it’s clearly apparent that abuse is wrong, that no one should hurt helpless babies, or deny food to hungry schoolchildren, or abandon those who need shelter—whether on our streets or fleeing wars or after disaster in Puerto Rico. It’s clearly despicable to dump “poison into our waters, exhaust the soils, and pollute our common air.”

But what does that mean? What does it matter once we have drawn those lines? Why do we persist in these frenzies of antagonism? Why get overcome by every flash of bad news? Does it actually make us feel better? Can it manifest a light to overcome darkness and keep evil at bay, to feel like we can do something?

The Gospel of John won’t give us the fleeting satisfaction of such lists. There aren’t a set of actions to accomplish that are right. There aren’t a set of prejudices to avoid as wrong. Sin is hardly named period, much less in rankings of what’s worse, for us to qualify ourselves as a bit better insiders and harder workers.

In fact, Jesus says that he judges no one. I don’t suspect that would mean he doesn’t care, that everything is equal to him and it doesn’t matter what anybody does. Instead, the best I can figure for this morning, is that he’s trying to point us away from the notion that our task is about being judgmental, that our core identity is in labeling others as wrong. Drawing us to light, he distracts from our presumed task of ruling as arbiters and judges and shady critics who wind up so self-righteous. We don’t, in essence, come to church in order to figure out a bit more justice, to be cheered on in our little projects to build a better world. Jesus must see that as a dead-end street.

Instead we come here for what we really need, to be enlightened in our true and shared identity, as children of this everloving God, to live with God’s life, to emerge from too much darkness that permeates our world and—when we’re honest about it—our own blackly bleakly ashen uncertain lives. Unlike the fading glimmers of what we have so well figured out, from such overcast existence, we come in here to soak up the bright rays of the sun, our only source of hope.

I AM the light of the world, Jesus says.

To conclude, I hope it’s helpful to share background of this story’s setting. Jesus was at the Festival of Booths, the celebration of Sukkoth, one of three major pilgrimage celebrations for going to Jerusalem, up to the temple. And this was the biggest festival, biggest party of all.

It recalled when the people were wandering in the wilderness and built booths or huts—the Hebrew word for those gives the name Sukkoth to the festival. It was also at a place with that name that God began to appear to the people in a pillar of fire to guide their journey, as a beacon, a glowing reminder of presence (Exodus 13).

Here’s how one of my professors, Craig Koester, extends the explanation:*

Jesus’ claim to be the light of the world was made in the temple where the most spectacular rituals of the festival took place. Each evening, worshipers crowded into the women’s court, where four enormous lamp stands were erected, each with large arms that supported four large bowls of oil with wicks made from the discarded undergarments of the priests. [I was thinking of burning some of my old boxer shorts today to help you get a sense of this divine light. Not really.] Throughout the night…the light [of the burning lamps] shone incessantly. Its rays gleamed from the temple’s white stone walls and the bronze gate at the end of the courtyard, where the Levites played their harps, lyres, cymbals, and trumpets, as men noted for their piety and good works sang and danced to the Songs of Ascents [from the Psalms] with as many as eight flaming torches in their hands. [I also bypassed the hula torch dance for today, but anyway]…

The radiance emanating from the temple illumined courtyards throughout the city until the first shafts of daylight appeared over the Mount of Olives [when a procession with a ram’s horn] stopped at the gate that led eastward out of the sanctuary, then turned around to face…the temple with their backs to the rising sun. [The prophet Ezekiel had seen people worshipping the rising sun] Those at the Feast of Booths, however, were to reject this false worship by saying, “Our fathers when they were in this place turned with their backs toward the temple of the Lord and their faces to the east…but as for us, our eyes are turned to the Lord.”

[This was paired with a vision from the prophet Zechariah, revisited in the last chapter of our Bibles, that the presence of God would mean continual day, this light always shining from the temple, a perpetually restored pillar of fire.]

According to John’s Gospel [concludes Professor Koester], Jesus was the one in whom the hopes of the Festival of Booths were realized. He was the light that manifested the presence of God and the one in whom the nations of the world would come to know God.

There you have it. That is why we are here. For celebration. This is a Sunday in and not of Lent because when we are here we cannot remain downcast. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? Of whom shall I be afraid?” We have to celebrate, rejoice in the increasing light, filled with Alleluias. Here, if not to burn our underwear, turned from bright east windows, still to play cymbals and banjos and sing and have a party, oriented rightly and gathered around Jesus, the light that will never be put out. In dark days with dim hopes and false glares, that is what our world needs, and us too.

* Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, p157-8

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Vashentine Wednesday sermon

(14Feb18 – Ash Wed)

John 6:22-35, 49-54

 

We are now living into one of the most unusual gaps, what to me is among the most uncertain periods of the year. I don’t mean the season of Lent and how you’ll survive without whatever you might be giving up. It’s not the lead-up to Jesus’ crucifixion and whether we pretend the whole thing catches us by surprise year after year.

What I mean by strange times, of course, is the wait until you can see your ashes in a mirror. (Maybe I’m more vain than most this way?)

The Boundary Waters does some of the same thing to me. I wonder for the week how my scruffy facial hair grows in in patches, and what in God’s good earth is happening amid the unwashed unkempt mass of hair on top of my head, as well as what having no warm soapy water might be doing to my face.

But even that week canoeing in the wilderness and waiting to glimpse a mirror back in society is in some ways smaller than what we’re sharing right now, this gap of time with an uncertain dark smudge on your forehead and waiting to see how it looks on you.

Maybe there’s a chance you’d already forgotten that you had that sooty smear stuck above your gaze, but for me this always makes me feel self-conscious. Not quite as if the ashes are re-burning a mark on me, but just that I must be so conspicuous, and don’t know how I look to others, and can’t do anything about it.

My self-absorption extends after I’ve seen myself in the mirror, with the remaining question about whether to wash off the cross and try to scrub my face clean, or if I continue to wear it. And if others see me, is it a mark of my sinfulness? Or a bold witness to faith? How am I supposed to think about these ashes that have been imposed on my skin and on my life?

This Ash Wednesday deep black, shimmery shadow on our faces seems so penetratingly to provoke our intense self-inquiry and self-examination: What is it that others can see in us but we can’t directly see in ourselves without this opportunity to wait and reflect? Does it appear prejudiced or hypocritical? How dirty do we look to those around us, with the smears and blemishes of our imperfections? We figure we can frequently cover up those spots, but that the time of Lent lays them bare, as stark as the mark on our foreheads, to be followed by repentance, by that earnest desire to clean up our act and try to do better. That may be the intensity of how these ashes burden our brows.

Or, in a slightly more favorable light, maybe you approach Lent with the eagerness of a chance to recommit. Maybe that strong, deep cross on your forehead feels like devotion, like a badge that declares your spiritual practice, your disciplines. You may take up that cross even when it has an edge of shame and the world might scorn you for choosing this narrow path.

Or maybe in what feels like the largest and most ominous aspect of this, you feel the weight of those ashes for the sign of death, as if it’s already seeping out from inside you, that fatality cannot be kept at bay and this morbid mark is closing in on you. You are fragile and impermanent. And that terminal pressure means you’re left with an ever-more limited window of opportunity to accomplish what you need to, to be what you feel you should be, to become satisfied with what you see in the mirror.

But amid that intensity and weight, and before you get to feeling too glum, or pondering if you should feel gloomier for this day, I want to reorient us. Partly it comes from our Bible reading, and partly is emphasized by the coincidence of this Ash Wednesday with Valentine’s Day. On this V-ash-entine Wednesday (or whatever we might call it—I hadn’t come up with a great term yet), we have to consider love for this life.

So looking in the mirror for love, clearly none of us wants to be so self-centered and enamored of ourselves that we wind up like Narcissus in Greek mythology who was so captivated and enthralled by his own reflection that it forever immobilized him in selfish love. That’s not what we’d hope for as we gazed at our reflection, even if for now the view in the mirror might come with some discomfort or displeasure, even if the outlook of our reality can seem bleak.

But if it’s not only how favorably we view ourselves in the reflection, then it must be about how we’re seen by someone else, how we are perceived as beloved by another.

That’s a totally different perspective. One of the first things I notice is that others, those who love me, don’t see me the way I see myself. I’m apt to see the faults, the concerns, the errors, all of the ways I wish I were so much better. But being seen with loving eyes isn’t about how much I need to change. It’s loving me already. And even if it’s not exactly or always loving my blemishes or my brokenness, still, very clearly I am seen for who I am and still loved with celebration of my life.

And that’s certainly where we begin this season of Lent, with a reading from the Gospel of John. John over and over wants to remind you you are unconditionally loved. Much more clearly than the other gospels, for John love isn’t what you’re told to do but what you first receive. Here are just a couple highlights: for God so loved the world (3:16). Having loved his own who were in the world, Jesus loved them to the end, to the ultimate (13:1). As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love (15:9).

And, most important for today: no one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for another (15:13).

So if you’re feeling that smudge on your forehead as a sign of death, that is not primarily your death, but a reminder of a death for you, of Jesus who laid down his life in love. If you’re waiting to see that ashen smear emblazoned on your skin, you may know that it’s there as a reminder and mark of love. Vashentine Wednesday isn’t only about the sweet and romantic love of reds and pinks. That on your head is very truly a Valentine from Jesus, the cross as the image of how he loves you completely, love in black. In giving life for you to take away your death is how God’s love is manifest.

And no box of chocolates here, Jesus gives himself as bread. “I AM the bread of life, and the bread that I give you for your life and for the life of the world is my flesh.” That isn’t a mark of your rottenness or your death on your forehead. It is the mark of the one who dies to give you life, who nourishes your existence with his love, who even with this bread tonight offers himself to you, wholly, body and soul, and all.

When you go out from here, for this season, for all your days, if you look in the mirror and can see you are so loved, for any of your imperfect impermanence, then you look just exactly right.

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Passover Glory

sermon on John 6:1-21

 

This Sunday before Ash Wednesday is celebrated in Lutheran churches as Transfiguration Sunday.

Transfiguration is a story that happens in the other three Gospels–Matthew, Mark, and Luke—but not in John. In other years, that story gives a glimpse of Jesus on a mountaintop. I like to think of it as the premier mountaintop experience, because up there Jesus carries on some sort of mysterious conversation with Elijah and Moses, the two central figures embodying and summarizing the whole of Old Testament belief, the guys who definitely knew it all. Then Jesus is suddenly transfigured or metamorphosized (which is the actual Greek word in the stories) and his appearance totally changed. He and his clothes become dazzling shiny bright white and the voice of God echoes from a cloud, “This is my Son. Listen to him!” There couldn’t be a more guru-ish episode up there.

Within those other Gospels, the Transfiguration comes at a pivotal moment, a turning point in the story. Jesus begins to share that he will be betrayed, arrested, suffer, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again. And so the Transfiguration is a little glimpse of resurrection dawn. Before Jesus gets swept up by hierarchies that are out to get him, before he is abused and abandoned, before death, before it all goes bad, we get to hold onto a hint of resurrection goodness and God’s glory.

Within the church calendar, that Transfiguration reading has stood in sort of a similar place. This Sunday has the last Alleluias before they go quiet for Lent (which is why we’re singing so many), making a hurrah before the more somber season, a festival before the fasting. This Sunday, with glorious Jesus in a visionary mountaintop experience, would be a dose of sustenance to carry us through Lent and keep us pointed toward Easter joy.

That happens in the other three Gospels. But today you didn’t get to hold in reservoir that shiny white hint of resurrection. The Gospel of John doesn’t tell that. Today’s reading may seem the opposite of the Transfiguration, but still pointing to the death and resurrection of Jesus for us.

It isn’t only the Transfiguration that’s different in the Gospel of John. Almost the entire story is told differently. Though the end is remarkably similar, overall John is vastly unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John has different characters, like Nicodemus and the woman at the well, whom we’ve recently met, and dead Lazarus and his sisters whom we’ll meet later. Many of the little parables and teaching snippets from the other Gospels are absent in John, and a lot of the small details about his daily ministry.

In fact, today’s reading is among the very few accounts that John has similar to Matthew, Mark, and Luke and includes the only miracle stories told in all four gospels, in feeding the 5000 with the multiplication of bread and fish offered by a child, followed by getting away from the crowds and walking on stormy water.

Still, though these familiar stories cross all four Gospels, John tells them with some important distinctions.

First, I’ll invite you to notice that as Jesus is walking on water, he doesn’t calm the storm. In other versions, he rebukes the waves. He calls for peace. He even tells them to shut up. It’s often seen as another sign of his glory, that just as God spoke creation into being and the voice of God is a creative force, we hear that forceful word and creative potential in Jesus.

But not in John’s Gospel. In John’s Gospel Jesus walks through the waves, not interrupting the storm, but also not interrupted by it, not overcome by all that would batter him and his followers.

Some have suggested that his walking through the chaotic waves might recall the parting of the Red Sea, as Moses led the people out from slavery in Egypt, how gushing waters piled up on both sides and the people walked through the midst of them.

Besides looking back to old stories, in John’s Gospel, as the storm continues to rage and the fears of the disciples in the boat persist, we may also suspect that instead of a Transfiguration glimmer of resurrection, what we get here foreshadows the crucifixion.

Another indicator of that comes with a note that John alone gives. He says that this happens at Passover.

That again connects to Moses. On the last night of slavery, as the Hebrew people waited for deliverance, lamb’s blood marked them as freed from death. The Passover meal was a simple supper they were told to eat already dressed for the journey and with no time even for yeast to raise the bread. Instead they ate flatbread. So maybe in feeding the multitudes here, we notice that the people again eat special bread.

Or, maybe beyond Passover, for bread that surprisingly appears in the wilderness and is enough to feed everyone the correlation could be the magical manna that appeared each morning, the original biblical miracle of bread. After this, Jesus will talk directly about manna, in the reading we’ll hear at Ash Wednesday worship.

But, again looking forward besides historically, the note of Passover is also important within the markers of John’s Gospel itself. John includes three celebrations of Passover (which, incidentally, is how we date Jesus’ ministry as lasting for three years).

We’ve already heard the first, as Passover when Jesus cleansed the temple. That’s an interesting and important distinction in the Gospel of John. The other three put the cleansing of the temple in the last week of Jesus’ life, for how the authorities finally view him as a disturber of the peace or of their place in the hierarchy and dangerous threat to society.

But John puts that story at the start, already in chapter 2. And for John, with that action in the temple already at the onset, Jesus is pointing toward his death. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” he says. That was the first Passover in the Gospel. From then on, this Gospel points to the culminating crucifixion, toward Jesus’ death.

And so it is that the third Passover is as Jesus is dying on the cross. He is slaughtered as the Passover lamb, whose blood is marker and sign of deliverance as God frees the people from oppression. In dying, Jesus becomes the central element of that memorial meal of a renewed Passover.

Between those brackets, today is the middle Passover in John’s telling. Just as the Transfiguration stands at a turning point in the other Gospels, a glimmer of glory, a mini resurrection appearance, so today this story stands as the mid-point, the turn, the crux that focuses us toward the cross.

John wants us to focus on this inevitable conclusion: Jesus is going to die. That is what he came to do. That is what accomplishes God’s purpose. That is for the sake of your life. Where we might think it sad, John proclaims the death a triumph. If we wanted to point to Jesus as a victim, John declares him a victor, and you with him.

Whereas the other gospels and we ourselves might be inclined to say that death and suffering somehow separate us from God’s glory and put at risk Alleluias that we claim are how God is glorified, John says it is precisely in death that we are delivered from death, in suffering that suffering is emptied of its power, in being overcome that you shall not be overcome, and in dying that you are born again to eternal life. That makes the shameful execution on the cross itself glorious. Even that death has been redeemed for what it accomplishes.

Jesus came to deliver you from death into life. Not only to take you to heaven, but already to begin living with his life now. This new Passover, this refreshed purpose of God to free you from your bondage, is not about eating a bite of bread, but about a God of liberty and freedom for you. That is what Jesus has brought about, what he has fulfilled.

For you to understand that of Jesus and trust in him is the purpose of John’s story, the purpose we’ll continue to reiterate and keep practicing during the season of Lent. That season isn’t about feeling bad about yourself, but is being turned away again from what is old and rotten and being renewed as God’s good creation, to refocus that central core of abundant love, so that you may know you have life in Jesus, that you are released from what would confine your life, beginning eternity already now.

When you are stuck captive to the false life that nibbles on crumbs of bread and tries merely to get by and succumbs to the Empire and obsesses with pursuing your visions of brightness and fake glory, then you have been slaves enthralled to this world. Jesus died and rose to set you free from that bondage and give you life in his name. Abundant life. Not merely for a struggling sustenance, but for what can never be taken away, what never perishes, what could not be offered by Egypt or Rome or any alleged greatness, and which will not be overcome by any storms or even death itself. It is this life Jesus is renewing in you, leading you out of oppressive captivity to live in the Promised Land.

In Christ, you’ve passed over failure already into victory.

In Christ, you’ve passed over isolation already into the community of God’s people.

In Christ, you’ve passed over storms already into peace.

In Christ, you’ve passed over domination making claims against you already into the liberty of unconditional acceptance.

In Christ, you’ve passed over sadness already into joy.

In Christ, you’ve passed over death already into life.

And in Christ, that Passover happens while the journey continues. Even while the failures and isolation and storms and domination and sadness and death persist, that glory is true: in Christ you have already won. That’s why we sing Alleluia!

 

Hymn: Hallelujah! We Sing Your Praises (ELW 535)

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She & I AM

sermon on John 4:3-29,39-42

Here’s a little project a few of us already got to work on in Bible study. This Bible reading is regularly seen as a contrast or paired story with the one we heard last week of Nicodemus. So if you can recall last week’s reading (and listened today), we could make a chart comparing the differences of the two:20180204_1152161.jpg

That list helps us to see the place of this woman.

Now, we recall that Nicodemus was displaced from the center: he didn’t have an advantage in understanding Jesus or receiving blessing from him. Nevertheless, we end up feeling that Nicodemus was the insider, and this unnamed Samaritan woman the absolute outsider. Such a system that would label the man more directly the insider maintains a damaging patriarchy that makes presumptions to exclude this woman.

We continue to live into a better world with the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements against sexual abuse by powerful male perpetrators, as these continue to change the systems and change the perspective of many people, especially those who were too apt to distrust a woman’s accusations, to sweep harmful behavior under a rug, to favor predators over the innocent.

But those rotten stereotypes have often figured into this story, too. Nicodemus becomes an honestly seeking good guy, while the Samaritan woman must be the bad girl. We have too many terms for a woman who has been through five husbands and now is living with someone else, and all of those terms are singularly disparaging to the woman and ignorant of the man.

It echoes the story of the woman caught in adultery later in the Gospel of John. That story won’t be in the Narrative Lectionary this year, and isn’t in our other Sunday Bible readings, either. Yet we know this story about a woman who is about to be put to death until Jesus says, “Let one without sin cast the first stone.” The story illustrates that none of us is perfect (while still feeling like that woman is less perfect). But what is much too rarely noticed is why it’s only a woman there. How did they catch her in adultery but not catch the man she was with?! It’s a story that is based in treating the woman as the worse or even sole offender.

So it’s worth the pause today to notice that Jesus never talks with this woman about sin or forgiveness. He doesn’t accuse or address moral behavior. Instead of presuming she has bad character, we could think about those five husbands plus one in other ways. It could be that all five have died.  Her interest in connecting with Jesus may not be because she has a guilty conscience. Her difficulty could be mortality, and not morality. And maybe rather than shacking up and living in sin with her current boyfriend, her brother or a brother-in-law might have been willing to take care of her in a society where being a single woman was almost a death sentence.

For that matter, we need to remember that even if the issue was serial divorce, in that culture divorce couldn’t be initiated by the woman. So it would have been that five husbands had all dismissed her, put her out on the street, left her at risk. Again, rather than seeing this Samaritan woman as the sinful perpetrator, we very likely should understand her to be the victim of the injustice.

Jesus reaches out to her.

And he reaches out in a phenomenal way. This passage portrays what Paul said in his letter to the Galatians, that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are…heirs according to the promise” (3:28-29). All of the dividing walls, the barriers, the thoughts that would exclude this woman, that would denigrate her, that would keep her out, that would say she didn’t have as good of place as Nicodemus or any man or any insider or anybody, all of that is simply undone by Jesus, who offers her himself.

Even more, phenomenally, Jesus offers himself to her more than any other: her conversation with Jesus is the longest recorded dialogue anybody gets to have with him in the Bible.

If the quantity of the conversation still doesn’t seem phenomenal, well…I have to admit I can’t keep up with this woman’s theological acumen and her faithful pondering, her persistence and arrival at astonishing belief. She may not have been seeking him, but she can keep up.

For starters, if I met someone who “told me everything I’ve ever done,” I’d be reluctant to continue the conversation. I’m more private and don’t want anybody to know me that well. And I sure as shootin’ wouldn’t go tell the whole town to come meet the guy who knows everything about me. I’d want to keep that guy pretty tightly under wraps.

For this telling and inviting to Jesus, Nicodemus never gets anywhere near serving as an evangelist like this. Even though he pops up twice more in the story, neither time does he convey anything remotely this faithful. Once, Nicodemus’s colleagues ask if anyone believes in Jesus, and the most he will reply is that Jesus should get a fair trial. He shows up again after the crucifixion with 100 pounds of embalming oils, clearly not looking for the resurrection, but evidently wanting to be sure Jesus gets good and buried, stays good and dead.

Besides the eventual outcome, where this woman manages to help bring her whole town to Jesus—meaning not only that he transcended the barrier to make her no longer an outsider but she also brought others in—besides that, simply her tenacity in trying to understand is phenomenal.

Starting with Jesus asking for a drink, she already presses against the pious cultural conventions and wonders about the systems of exclusion, Jewish man versus Samaritan woman.

Then he goes on to talk about living water. Now, that term could simply apply to running water. It could mean that Jesus knows where there’s a good stream, or a drinking fountain. She observes that he has no bucket, which may seem a bit facile, sort of a no-brainer, but it signals to me that she’s trying to track the conversation, to get ahold of this life that he’s offering. Nicodemus by this point had thrown up his hands and simply asked, “How can these things be?” and given up on engaging Jesus, deciding this life was too obscure.

Yet for the woman, somehow she’s able to keep chasing it down so that she can throw a question back at Jesus, again about being labeled an outsider, a question about what counts as appropriate worship, about whether it needs to be in the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus speaks on behalf of his Jewish heritage (again reminding us that, though the Gospel of John tries to parse the relationship of followers of Jesus to their Jewish heritage, the Gospel is not and should not be read as anti-Jewish).

Still, Jesus goes on to locate worship not as bound to a certain location, but in himself, not a place but a person. Not a building from which we can be kept out but a person who brings you in. Worship isn’t about where we go but who finds us. This is what we heard in the cleansing of the temple story, and also what we heard last fall in the burning bush, where God revealed Godself as I AM, God’s identity as I AM.

Here for the first time in the Gospel of John, Jesus also declares I AM. We’ll get more through Lent as he shapes our understanding: I AM the bread from heaven, I AM the light of the world, I AM the vine and you are the branches, I AM the way, the truth, and the life, I AM the good shepherd, the gate, I AM the resurrection and the life. Here it is unqualified, nothing more than the straight full identity: I AM. This is the God that Jesus is revealing.

This week I’m noticing that I AM can never allow God to be turned into an object, cannot objectify God or make God other. It’s nonsense to turn I AM around to “You are” or even “You are I AM.” It makes no sense. This identity won’t work in those ways. Neither for othering I AM can you talk about I AM as a description. You can’t go back and tell others “Hey, I met I AM.” Jesus can only self-reveal. And we can only repeat, Jesus said, “I AM.”

That first person identification also means in some way that God is the subject of all verbs. I AM will not even allow us to serve or worship as if we were in control, because you can’t serve I AM. It doesn’t make sense to worship I AM (unless you’re very egotistical). I don’t think this is only playing linguistic games with this name; in this case language is highlighting a God who is always the root, the core, the source, our fundamental basis, apart from whom no one and nothing exists, and in which we all must dwell. And none can be separate from that. It is impossible to leave outsiders. Apart from I AM there is no being. So we must be joined in I AM.

If you’re wondering about all of this, if you’re a little perplexed…well, I’m with you. Like a bush that burns without burning up, it’s inexplicable. I probably don’t explain it well because I can’t quite grasp it myself. I can’t map out what we do about Jesus as God and God in Jesus, and how we fit into God’s identity. So I may be the young white male. I may be the trained professional. I may be the insider to these sorts of questions.

But this Samaritan woman certainly did better than I do. I keep looking for words, turning it over, trying to define, feeling confused. She pursued the question, then she went to testify: come and meet the one. Whatever it was, she recognized that she was no longer an outsider, could not be, that there was nothing that left her out, neither any possible sin, nor injustice, nothing of how society had treated her could finally marginalize her. She was found by existence and life itself. She was brought to the center, and so she pointed others, too, to their true identity with I AM.

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