Rev. Teri Peterson
23 February 2014, NL4-25
On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” ’ Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, ‘This is really the prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Messiah.’ But some asked, ‘Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?’ So there was a division in the crowd because of him. Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him.
Then the temple police went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, ‘Why did you not arrest him?’ The police answered, ‘Never has anyone spoken like this!’ Then the Pharisees replied, ‘Surely you have not been deceived too, have you? Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, which does not know the law—they are accursed.’ Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, ‘Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?’ They replied, ‘Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.’
Whenever something new is happening, there’s always a group of people who get on board right away. Think of the people who camp out for the new iPhone, or who are always first to download new software, or who are at the forefront of a new idea. These people hear about something and want to go for it right away.
Statistically, about 14% of any given group of people will be in this group of early adopters—people who jump right in and try it out.
And then there are the people who wait and wait and wait before trying it out—maybe they’re waiting for all the bugs to be worked out, or to see if it really works, or to see who else is doing it and what they think. If someone popular, or someone close to them, starts talking about how great it is, then a bunch of these people will jump on board.
A good example of this is Facebook. Even when it became available beyond college campuses, it was slow to take off. People trickled on, trying it out, while others mocked it as a waste of time filled with minutia. But once people started to realize it was a way to keep in touch with their children and grandchildren, and once it started to make news, then all those people who’d been insisting it was nothing more than a pointless way to share what you had for breakfast started joining themselves, and now there are over 1 billion users worldwide.
I’m pretty sure this is what we’re seeing in today’s gospel reading: early adopters and skeptics come head to head.
Jesus and the disciples are at the festival of Sukkoth—which involves both the building of temporary tabernacles and a series of offerings of grain and water. It’s a celebration of God’s presence with the people, and a thanksgiving for the harvest. There’s lots of revelry happening, and the city is crowded. When the police go looking to arrest Jesus, they find him in the midst of that crowd, many of whom are wondering about him, and trying to decide just who he is exactly. The prophet returned to prepare the way? The messiah? Someone else?
And then someone says: well, obviously not. No one important comes from Galilee.
The police, meanwhile, are back with the Pharisees, whose questions begin with “have you also been deceived?” Because no one important comes from Galilee. This guy, and his disciples, and his teaching, and his movement—they are all nonsense, ridiculous, pointless. Don’t fall into the trap of following him, because no one important does. That’s how you know he’s disposable.
And I wonder: how often do we discard people or ideas because they come in the wrong package, or because no one in a position of power is going along?
I mean, we could just as easily say: no one important comes from the projects. no one important comes from Mexico. no one important is poor. no one important has brown skin. no one in my circle of friends thinks that’s a good idea. and besides, the people with power all agree with me, so I must be right.
Like the Pharisees and other members of the crowd, we regularly value, or de-value, people based on what they look like, where they come from, how educated they are, what kind of job they have, what they have to offer us, what kind of accent they speak with. Jesus comes to wash those boundaries away, but we’re not always sure we want to let them go.
It’s easy to be a skeptic from the position of privilege. After all, there’s no need to be first to follow this guy. We can afford to sit back and wait, see if he proves himself, see if they can work the bugs out, see if anyone higher up steps out before we commit. And while we wait, to keep a close eye on whether or not he threatens our position or our security. The slightest wrong move, the slightest glitch in the system, and we’re ready to pounce.
But Jesus calls us to be early adopters—to come and see, not to wait and see. We are called to take him at his word and follow because of who he is, not because of who else does. He offers us more than certainty, he offers us the bread of life and streams of living water.
Last week we pondered what it feels like to have the life of God living in our bodies. Jesus said that when we come to him, we’ll never be hungry except for the things God is hungry for—justice, peace, grace, compassion, love. Today he tells us to come and never again be thirsty. This spring of living water will gush up and overflow and wash and cool and fill with good things. And with that spring of life inside us, we won’t be able to stop ourselves from letting God’s life flow into the world.
Once we’ve had a taste of the bread of life, we know when we’re getting empty calories instead. And once we’ve felt the touch of living water, once we’ve experienced what it’s like to offer that stream of life to others, even if only through the cracks of our own lives, we’ll know when we’re being offered something contaminated. Part of obeying God’s call and sticking with Jesus is seeing the gap between what is and what could be. And then choosing to reach for God’s vision rather than putting up with the status quo.
So to drink of this living water, we’ll need to set down the glass full of our ideas about how things should be. To let it wash over us and make us new will mean letting go of our past and stepping into God’s story as it moves ever onward. To be a conduit of Christ’s living water means setting aside our personal desires in order to seek the Spirit’s desire, relying on God more than on ourselves. It means trusting that God’s image is just as present in a stranger who comes from the wrong part of town as it is in our own faces. Picking up the cup means laying down our weapons—whether they are weapons of steel or weapons of words—and also turning the other cheek, highlighting the powerlessness of those weapons.
And you know what? Not many people are doing that stuff. Even 2,000 years after Jesus walked among us, if we do these things, we’ll still be early adopters.
What would the world look like if followers of Jesus stepped out onto his path, regardless of what politicians, celebrities, and CEOs thought, said, and did?
Jesus fed people.
Jesus healed people.
Jesus stood up to the powers that dehumanized and abused.
Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers.”
Jesus said “I came not to be served, but to serve.”
Jesus ate with all the wrong people from the wrong neighborhoods.
Jesus said “sell all you own and give the money to the poor.”
Jesus crossed the tracks on purpose and hung out with outcasts and foreigners.
Jesus said “put down your sword.”
Jesus took what looked like nothing and turned it into abundance.
Jesus said “love your enemies.”
Here’s the thing: almost no one in power is going to applaud followers of Jesus for doing these things, because they are threatening to the system we have set up. They threaten our place of privilege in that system. They make it hard for us to live with some of the reality of our world. And it should be hard to live with the reality of our world—where 20% of the children in this country go to bed hungry, where people are killed for the color of their skin or for who they love, where we have to hold bake sales to pay for cancer treatment, where nearly a billion people don’t have access to safe drinking water. What does it mean to let a spring of living water flow from us, from believers, from the body of Christ, in that world?
Because being a follower of Jesus means more than loving him silently in our hearts, and more than coming to worship for an hour a week. What if that peace like a river flowed not just in our souls, but right out into the world? Jesus says that springs of living water flow through us, which means that life literally springs forth wherever there are followers of Jesus. The water is not only for us to drink, but for us to offer to others. How often are we agents of life, agents of awesome? How often are we the light shining in the darkness? Are we offering light and life in our workplaces? In our homes? In our neighborhoods? By being in touch with people in power? In our reading of the news? By recognizing our privilege and doing our best to raise up those our culture deems disposable? By loving our enemies in tangible ways, not just with empty words? By standing up for those whose voices our system has silenced?
If we’re waiting for the early adopters to test this out for us, we’ll be waiting another 2,000 years. If we’re hanging back until someone prominent comes out and urges us all to join in this way of life, we’ll hang back forever. If we’re busy looking at all the things we think we know, we’ll miss what Jesus is doing right in front of us.
As GK Chesterton said: “the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Which leaves plenty of room for us to be the early adopters, to walk this path and find that peace, joy, and love spring up in us and through us and wherever we go. Who knows, it might even spread, one person, one action, one word at a time.
May it be so. Amen.
I think healing stories are so hard. Because sometimes, people get a miraculous healing. And sometimes they don't. Sometimes people ask and receive, sometimes people receive without asking, and sometimes...suffering, and pain, and death come anyway. I have been that person who begs, who bargains, who prays for nothing else. Sometimes the answer has been incredible....and sometimes heartbreaking. So when I read stories like these today, I come with experience of my own, and carrying the stories of dozens of others, friends and church members and colleagues and family.
Sometimes I hear people say that if we just had more faith, or we just prayed harder, or we just asked more specifically, healing would come. And other times I hear people resign themselves, saying all the suffering must be part of God's plan. But here's the thing: our Reformed tradition says neither of those is quite right. There's no magic formula for the amount of faith it takes--because scripture tells us that faith is a gift of the Spirit, not something we manufacture ourselves. And throughout the Bible we see that God's plan is never for suffering, but always for wholeness. Today's two healing stories are perfect examples of both of these realities.
In the first story, we have a royal official--other gospel accounts call him a centurion, a Roman, a gentile. He's as much of an outsider as you can get: he’s a foreigner, he works for the oppressor, and he’s of a different religion. He comes to Jesus with a straightforward request: heal my son. He doesn't make a statement of faith, Jesus doesn't grill him about his sins, just a question: heal my son. Please.
In the second story, we meet a man who has been an invalid for a long time. He is a Jew, like Jesus--an insider in the system, living in the holy city. He doesn't ask, he doesn't even know who Jesus is, he doesn't proclaim his belief...Jesus just walks up and heals him.
Both men go away from their encounter healed. Both go away and talk about Jesus. Both have big obstacles to overcome on their path to healing and wholeness...and they approach those obstacles in very different ways.
The royal official goes away from his conversation not knowing what will happen. Jesus says his son will live, but they're 20 miles away from home. It'll be many hours of walking before he knows what's happened. He turns and walks, trusting even in the midst of the fear, uncertainty, and hopelessness of the situation. Though he cannot know what will happen, he walks.
The second man, the invalid by the pool, is approached by Jesus, who asks him: do you want to be made well?
It seems a silly question--who would say no? Of course we all want to be made well.
But the man's answer is not an answer. Instead he says "well, there's no one to help me...I can't get there by myself...I'm sick, you see, and I have been for a long time, and other people always get there before me." He doesn't exactly say no, but he doesn't say yes either. It's almost as if his illness has so overtaken his identity, he can't answer the question. All he knows how to do is point out the problem and place nebulous blame.
When Jesus heals him anyway, this man too begins to walk. But his walk is very different from the other story. This man walks right back into the old ways, and finds himself rebuked for breaking the Sabbath, then passing the blame to Jesus. Rather than walking into the new life Jesus gave him, he remained trapped in the story he’d been telling about himself.
This is starting to sound a bit like the Body of Christ, not just one man’s body. And so I wonder, what if we read these stories as two options for the Body of Christ, The Church? The question is there: Do you want to be made well?
What if it means breaking the rules of how church is supposed to be?
What if it means walking into the unknown?
What if it means letting go of the story we have always told about ourselves?
What if it means trusting, forgiving, healing, listening, praying, working…with no certainty about what will happen at the end?
Do you want to be made well?
The man by the pool told Jesus "I've been here a long time, and my body doesn’t all work together properly, and there's no one to help me, and other people always get there first."
I’ve heard The Body of Christ say those things too. All over The Church, the same conversation is happening: we look at the neighborhood, at the dwindling resources, at the bigger churches down the road, at the changing demographics, and most of all at the way things used to be. We tell a story where the best days are behind us and the problems should have been solved by someone else. Our disagreements descend into gossip and hurtful words. We have no idea what could be, because our story is all about what was and what isn’t.
Jesus waltzes right into that story and offers another way. God’s vision is always for life—not just for bodies that walk and talk, but people and communities made whole and transformed. Jesus even says so flat out at the end of today’s reading: “Regardless of the rules you’ve set up, regardless of the box you’ve stuffed God into, my Father is still working, and so am I.” In fact, Jesus continues to waltz right into our stories and offer another way. I’ve seen it downstairs on Wednesday night, and upstairs every day the temperature was below zero. I’ve seen it in the library on Sunday morning. I’ve seen it in the Cosby room at 11pm on a Tuesday night. I’ve seen it in this room, and out on the front lawn, and at five sites around the neighborhood one Sunday morning. I’ve even seen it at Presbytery meetings, strange though that may seem. Healing and wholeness are possible. New life is possible. And it’s also possible to live the old story instead, complete with blinders and rose colored glasses and fault always being someone else’s.
The second man was all excuses, and even after his body was healed, he continued to live the same old story, with no peace or wholeness to be found. But this is not a “God-helps-those-who-help-themselves story. That’s not in the Bible. Instead we see that Jesus heals both of these men, before they have anything to say about him. The question is what they’ll do with that healing. Just like in creation, just like in the Exodus, just like in the call of the disciples, God acts first, before they believe…and then asks them to walk with the Spirit on a rule-breaking journey into the unknown. First their bodies are made whole, and then their spirits too. It’s that last part that has a bit of choice about it—the first man puts one foot in front of the other, every step a choice to trust and hope, rather than despair. The second man isn’t able to imagine those steps into abundant life.
Do we want to be made well? Will we walk the path even when the future is uncertain? Will we trust Jesus that life is ahead? Will we break the rules of what church is supposed to be in order to risk living the life God has in mind?
Ancient Greek philosophers said, “it is solved by walking.” Or, we might say today, “we’ll figure it out as we go along.” We may not have all the answers, or know the final outcome, but one step at a time we can follow Christ’s way…and on the way, we might just find healing and wholeness.
May it be so. Amen.