The title of my sermon this morning is The Power of Grief. As you heard, my uncle died this past week. And it's been hard on me and on my family. We have a small little family. We only had four baby boomers in our family. And we've lost my aunt and my uncle in less than a year. And then my mom just about two and a half years ago. So it's been a lot for little family. A lot of loss and a lot of grief.
And I think in order to begin to understand what I would like to try to say this morning, I have to define a difference between mourning and grief. Mourning is a period of pain and an experience of pain over a great loss. Grief is not just the experience of pain over a specific loss. Grief is a confrontation with the power and the reality of death and suffering in our world at a much larger scale than one particular loss or one particular death. Grief is bigger than mourning in the sense that we're asked to confront the whole reality of pain and loss in our world. And I want to talk to you about the power of that confrontation and what it can do for us once we’re on the other side of it.
I will never forget the moment that I was sitting with my mom in her hospital room—she had been admitted to the hospital because the tumor in her abdomen, the largest tumor in her abdomen, had sucked up all the blood in her body so that she had no blood left anywhere else for all the things that blood needs to do. And so she went into the emergency room on the verge of death, and they pumped her full of liters and liters of new blood. And she was admitted to the hospital for a number of days as the doctors were trying to stabilize her and figure out what they could do for her. And I went to visit her and we had a long conversation about life and death and our relationship. And at the end, she said to me, “You know, I think that I would be better off in hospice than here in the hospital. I think I'm ready to die.” And what a heartrending thing that is for a son to hear his mother say! And at the same time, I felt so much relief because I knew in that moment that my mom was going to have a good death. Not a painless death, not a griefless death, not a death without any kind of resistance or fear But it was a good death because in that moment, she had confronted the reality of what had to come. She accepted it. She was willing to live with it. And I think that our scripture reading this morning is not a story of resurrection—not primarily, not fundamentally. That is the end of the story, but it is a long scripture reading that is primarily about the confrontation with death, the acceptance of death, the wrestling with grief that must come before the miracle can come, before the resurrection can come.
The story of Lazarus’ resurrection, it doesn't pull any punches at all, does it? One of my favorite depictions of the raising of Lazarus in art is a painting from the 1400s by Nicholas Froment. And if you want to Google Froment and Lazarus, this painting will certainly pop up on your phone. You can see it, you'll see a picture of Lazarus rising from the grave. And it is so clear that this is the resurrection not of a happy body, but of a cadaver that's been in the ground for four days. And you see Martha over on the left hand side of the painting, and she's got a handkerchief over her mouth, and she is swooning because of the smell that she had warn to Jesus about. And Lazarus rises, stiffly from the grave, absolutely stiff. His face is held by a death rigor. He's smiling like a corpse. And no one in the crowd who is watching this looks happy at all about what they're witnessing. Many of them have averted their eyes. They can't look at it directly, and it looks much more like a scene from a haunted house or from a horror movie than it does like a miracle story from the Bible. Because I believe that Froment understands that the story is a meditation on death as much as it is a meditation on resurrection. I think that this is a story about Jesus' own struggle in his life and journey to face death so that he can live more fully to be the person he has been called to be, to live that fearless, selfless life of service to others that he's been called to.
So I want to just talk a little bit, trace that out, this struggle with death in the text—it is not an easy resurrection; it is not an easy journey. When Jesus receives the word that Lazarus is ill, he says to the disciples, “This illness does not lead to death.” Well, he was wrong about that, wasn't he? He says it's for God's glory so that the Son of God may be glorified through it. Well, that may be the end of the story, but Jesus is not being realistic about the fact that he is actually going to have to confront death, really confront death. And we'll see that in a moment—that he does that. This illness does lead to death, and it is only by leading to death and to dealing with that death and that grief that we get to whatever may come beyond it, the glory, as Jesus calls it. So Jesus, in fact, is maybe fooling himself a little bit here, and he ends up, it says, staying two days longer in the place where he was, even after hearing that Lazarus is ill. And we'll talk a little bit more about that delay in a moment here and what that was all about.
Then Jesus, after two days of delay, he begins to talk to the disciples about the need to go and visit Bethany. And he says, our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep. And that's an interesting euphemism for death. And it makes me wonder about the fact that Jesus can't say right away that Lazarus has died, that he has to that he has to use a euphemism, that he has to say he's passed, he's fallen asleep. He can't quite get all the way to death. And he does it in such a way that it even confuses the disciples, and they don't know what he's talking about. What do you mean he's fallen asleep? And Jesus says, “No, all right, fine. I'm trying to tell you that he's dead. And let me tell you something else for your sakes (for your sakes!) disciples, I'm glad I wasn't there. But I'm not so sure that it was for the disciples’ sakes. I wonder if it's for Jesus' sake—Jesus' own nervousness, his own fear about the process and the prospect of facing this grief. And the disciples seem to understand that Jesus is struggling with something here that is bigger than just Lazarus and Lazarus's death, that Jesus is in some way facing his own death. They're saying, “Oh, please don't go back to Judea. Everybody in Judea was just trying to stone you, the temple authorities and the Pharisees. Please don't go there.” And he says, “No, I've got to go.” And so the disciples say, “All right, we're going to go too, so that we may die with him.”
Now we get to this interesting note here that Jesus arrives, and Lazarus has already been in the tomb for four days now. Jesus delayed for two days before heading to Bethany, and he seems to suggest that he does it because he doesn't want to get there while Lazarus is just sick, he wants to make sure he’s good and dead for the miracle Jesus wants to perform. But the math says that that can't possibly be true because when Jesus arrives, Lazarus has already been in the tomb for four days. And that means that if Jesus hadn't delayed for two days, when he arrived in Bethany Lazarus would've been in the tomb still for two days, which is plenty dead to perform a resurrection. So we begin to see that Jesus's resistance here is not about the miracle that he is going to perform. It's about his own fear of facing that tomb, that reality and that grief.
And so when Martha runs out of the house, she says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And Jesus has a very logical, composed conversation with her about the fact that “I am the resurrection in the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” It's a little cold. And then Mary runs out of the house and Mary, of course, is the one who is most distraught. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” The same phrase. And this time, Jesus doesn't give her a theological response. This time, Jesus gives her an emotional response. He sees all the mourners weeping around her, and he, it says, “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, where have you laid him? They said, Lord, come and see. Jesus began to weep.” Then Jesus again, “greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.” This is the confrontation that Jesus has been avoiding, the one that he was afraid to speak of, the one that he was afraid to feel. It is only now that he is ready at the tomb to roll away the stone, to face the death that's inside, and to call Lazarus out.
Some biblical scholars have written that Mark and Matthew and Luke leave the story of Lazarus out altogether perhaps because they may have felt that it took away from the impact of Jesus's own resurrection story which follows so closely on the story of Lazarus's resurrection. Because it's a really big story, so why would those three gospels leave it out entirely? Such an enormous miracle, such a big moment in Jesus' life? But I would argue that John includes the story of Lazarus, not as a foreshadowing or a distraction from the resurrection to come, but as a confrontation with the pain of death before Jesus' own coming crucifixion. The point here is that even Jesus must face death. And even for Jesus, it's difficult to do. And as Christians, I think we need to accept the full lesson of the text—that Jesus is, yes, the resurrection and the life. And yes, those who believe in him will never die. And that to really live into that reality and to one day die a death that surely rests in that faith we (just like Jesus) have to get uncomfortably close to death: to see it, to feel it, to grieve it. We must accept it, and we must not think that we can do that without paying a price, without a struggle of some kind. And that struggle is grief.
Jesus says, blessed are those who mourn. And I've come to believe in my own confrontations with death and in my own grief and mourning, that the truest Christian is the one who most deeply mourns the pain and the suffering in this world. Because it is only from the perspective of mourning and from deep grief that the veil of this world is pulled back and we see life in it’s the truest reality of it’s fragility and vulnerability—the deep, deep pain that we've all felt and that we all know. It is only from the perspective of mourning that we can really hear (emotionally) the calling to serve this world and all of its deepest needs. When we grieve, we begin to learn how to live. That's the gospel message. If we want to experience and participate in God's greatest power, then (just like Jesus) we need to travel physically and emotionally into grief to get to the place where death is. Now, this has been the theme of many of my sermons this Lent, because it's a theme of Lent. I think it's certainly the theme of Holy Week and Good Friday. If we want to experience God's power, most fully, we need to get close enough to the suffering places of our world so that we can feel it for ourselves. Instead of avoiding the hardest realities of existence, we need to pick a fight with them, wrestle with them, heal them, and accept them.
Those who do not follow Jesus' command, to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to visit the prisoners, I don't think that they don't do it because they're just lazy. We don't do it because we're afraid. But when we get close enough to heal and to comfort, and to feed, and to clothe, when we come to the tomb, we have come to the place where God's power and activity is most visible. If we're unwilling to deal with death, we can get stuck in a life that is way too safe, way too small to ever act out these incredible words of faith and triumph, “Unbind him and let him go.” Avoiding death, not knowing grief, limits our lives. But faith facing death frees us not only to a good death, but to a fearless life of love and service. So blessed be those who mourn. They will get so close to God's power that they may be comforted.
Well, I thought that I knew that I would be preaching on one of my favorite topics this morning. Jesus' love of disrupting the status quo for the gospel and the difficulties that we have with feeling good about the results of these disruptions to our world. But then on Tuesday night, here at the church, thanks to Tatsuo and Emiko Homa, we had a showing of the powerful documentary, The Vow from Hiroshima, the story of the life and work of Setsuko Thurlow who survived the atomic blast at Hiroshima at 13-years old. Listening to Setsuko's story and the horrors of what happened to her, an innocent 13-year-old girl, to her friends and her teachers, to her neighbors and her family when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, shifted my thinking this week. The disciples’ opening question to Jesus at the beginning of our scripture reading this morning, it began to stand out to me: Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?
And I began to hear it, not just as a judgmental question about sin, not just as a question biased against disability, but as a version of one of the human race's oldest questions. Why do bad things happen? You know, if God is an all-powerful, all-good, all-loving God, what is the justification for disaster and suffering and evil? How can an innocent baby be born blind if God is good? How could innocent babies be incinerated at Hiroshima? If God is good, why the Holocaust? Why 9/11? Why COVID-19? Why the earthquake in Turkey and Syria?
Scripture has a number of different perspectives on this question. And all of them, I think, ultimately leave us a little dissatisfied. Perhaps, back in the furthest reaches of human history, the gods were seen as a bit capricious. So the gods would do all kinds of strange and unexpected things, and sometimes it was good for us and sometimes it was bad for us. That was just the way things worked. The gods were chaos, and sometimes terrible things happened, and sometimes good things happened. When we get into the oldest layers of Hebrew scripture, we have a slightly different perspective. In that perspective, God is the one who rewards the good, and God is the one who punishes the bad. And by extension, if you are suffering, if something horrible has happened to you, you must be being punished for something. You've caused it in some way. You've brought it upon yourself. You might not know what it is, but you can be sure that you have offended God in some way. But then in those same Hebrew scriptures, there is the story of Job. And Job's story, and is a direct repudiation of this whole way of seeing things. Job is a blameless person who suffers more than anyone could ever be expected to suffer. Everyone tells him, Well, you must have done something wrong! And he is sure that he did not. And he holds the line and says, I did not sin. I didn't do anything to deserve this. I don't know why I am suffering. And in the end, after all that enduring of suffering, he calls God down and says, God, you are going to make an explanation to me of why there is suffering. And God comes out of the whirlwind and God says, Look, I could explain it to you, but you wouldn't be able to understand it. So just be quiet and endure. That is your job. It’s not my job to explain things to you that are beyond your capacity. It is your job to be mortal, to endure, to do your best to survive. So it is no longer the case, according to Job, that if you suffer, it's because of sin, but it also doesn't provide an ultimate answer for why there is suffering and evil and pain in the world, which is very dissatisfying in some ways, isn't it? So, there are further developments and explanations. One of the developments (it's also there in Job) is that, well, there must be a good God and a bad God, right? And they're in a battle, a cosmic battle for the world. And there's good and evil because of this battle, and we have to choose sides. But as you get into the theology of the Hebrew scriptures in the New Testament, well, God is all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing, there is only one God. And so, even though we have a character in Christianity called Satan, who we like to blame a lot of the bad things in the world on, ultimately, since God is all-powerful and all-good, God could presumably stop Satan from doing the bad things. God could stop an Satan-inspired earthquake the same way God could stop a purely tectonic earthquake. And so when God becomes omnipotent, it becomes very difficult to understand how bad things are allowed to happen, especially to the most innocent of people.
And in our culture and in our day and age, we understand deeply that terrible things happen to people who do not deserve it. There have been so many cultural moments through the 20th century and into the 21st century of just horrible, terrible suffering that has rocked the foundations of our entire culture's belief in goodness and belief in meaning and belief in God—the Holocaust, as one example of the kinds of events that have rocked us culturally and spiritually so that we can't get around them. We can't avoid them. We can't stop looking at them.
In Setsuko's story from the Vow from Hiroshima, most of the children and teachers at her Christian girls school in Hiroshima were buried in rubble. They were at school when the atomic bomb went off and they were buried in rubble. Then the rubble began to burn. Setsuko made it out just by chance—somebody was able to free her from the rubble—and she stood outside her school listening to her friends and classmates buried in the rubble crying out to God for help and calling to their mothers to save them while they burned alive.
And she had a nephew, a four-year-old nephew who was with his mother near the city center when the atomic bomb went off. And this four-year-old boy and his mother were so disfigured by burns and radiation, and their flesh was so swollen and sort of melting off of them, that the family could not recognize them except by the sound of their voices and the clothing and jewelry that they were wearing. Both mother and child spent days in agony begging for water, unable to see or hear or understand what had happened to them—days in agony before dying horrific deaths.
And we understand that this is just a drop in the bucket of what happened at Hiroshima. And what happened at Hiroshima is just a drop in the bucket of the pain and the suffering that we can see experienced in this world, right? And so for many kind, loving, and reasonable people, this reality undermines their faith in God. How can I believe in an all-powerful, all-good, all-loving God who allows such things to happen? At the very least, it would seem like maybe a good reason not to want to get very close to a God like that, a God who can allow something like that to happen when we ourselves can't understand it morally. We can't understand it in terms of the compassion and the love that we feel.
Going back to Setsuko's story, Setsuko, I think, became a deep mourner of the loss and the pain that happened at Hiroshima to all those people that she loved. She is a Christian, and she told us in the film that it was her Christian faith that really became the guidepost to her, the way to understand how she would become the person that she would become. And the person she became was not just a survivor, but a lifelong, totally committed and dedicated activist and reformer against nuclear war, nuclear weapons, nuclear proliferation, and the Cold War. Her tendency, no, her spiritual instinct was not to look backward at the tragedy and to get stuck there and to ask why, and to become mired in anger, not that, that we could blame her if she did do that. This is not a, this is not judgment against anyone who is mourning, right, but Setsuko allowed herself not to lose faith, but to move forward in service. She never let go of what happened. She carried that mourning with her all through her life, but that mourning did not become the question WHY? It became a response. What must I do now?
And maybe at this point, thinking about her life, we're ready to hear Jesus' answer to the disciples’ question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Jesus responds, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, he was born blind, so that God's works might be revealed in him.” At one level, we can see obviously here that Jesus is agreeing with the Book of Job: It is not your sin or your offense that is causing you your suffering. You are not being punished. Let's not look that way. But even more than that, it seems to be (and I got at this through Setsuko's story) that Jesus' major answer to the question of who sinned was to say, let's not look back to the original sin that caused all this. Let's not look back towards the answer for why things are the way that they are. Instead, let's look forward, let's move forward. And I'll just rephrase these words a little bit and maybe let you hear them in a different way, thinking about Setsuko’s story: Neither Setsuko Thurlow nor her nation sinned that the atomic bomb was dropped on her. She suffered so that God's works might be revealed in her.
And in fact, God's works were revealed in Setsuko and her lifelong advocacy and work to stop nuclear weapons. In 2017, she was there and a major part of the organization, ICAN who lobbied in the UN to make sure that the UN's ban on nuclear weapons was passed in 2017, so that in international law, now nuclear weapons are illegal. We know that that has not made a big change in the world that we live in, but it is a major step for us as a world that nations around the world have said that these weapons are not acceptable to us. And also then in 2017, when ICAN won the Nobel Peace Prize, she was one of the people who accepted that prize, and she stood on stage and told her life story again and accepted the prize because ICAN recognized that she was the driving force of this. And she recognized that it was her Christian faith that was the driving force of the work that she had done for her people, for her family, and for everyone she had lost.
God will never be revealed, God will never be revealed by trying to defend God or to blame God for the brokenness in this world, looking back and trying to find explanations is not the right direction. God is revealed when we respond to the brokenness of this world with deep mourning, and from that mourning, with service, with love, and with compassion for all of God's people, then God's works are revealed. Jesus said, blessed are those who mourn because I think that they, the mourners, are the only ones who truly know, truly understand the work that must be revealed, the work that must be done, how big it is, how important it is, and how devastatingly real the consequences of getting stuck and not acting for the betterment of this world truly are.
So if you are a person who is filled with doubts about God, because you can't stop mourning for all of the souls that God didn't save, perhaps you too are blessed. I believe that you are almost certainly on the right path, and I encourage you to keep going. You know, one answer on this path is that there is no God. There is no ultimate good. There is no greatest love. There is no spirit that transforms lives. But I believe that that answer, that answer will never satisfy you, move you, inspire you as deeply as becoming an instrument of God's peace, and God's healing, and God's love.
In a world that is broken beyond our comprehension or understanding, suffering cannot be explained away. It can only be responded to. There is no answer to the question of why the Holocaust, or why the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, why suffering because, perhaps, it is in wrestling with those very questions that God transforms us into the people who can feel the world's deep pain and who can respond with love.
Last week as we were speaking about what it means to be born again, we started talking a little bit about what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And I want to explore that question with you all this morning a little bit more using Jesus' interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well as an illustration of the kind of relationship that I believe Jesus is looking for with us.
The first thing, and the most obvious thing that we can say about Jesus's interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well is that Jesus initiates relationships with people that even his closest followers don't understand or approve of. Jesus initiates relationships with people that even—or maybe we might want to say, especially his closest followers—do not understand or approve of. Jesus was interacting with a woman who was a Samaritan. She can't believe it herself that this guy wants to talk to her. She corrects him. She says, don't you know this is socially unacceptable? I'm a woman by myself at a well at about noon. You're a man sitting all by yourself. And let's not even talk about the fact that you're a Jew and I'm a Samaritan. And what would a Jew want with a Samaritan? Jesus is crossing boundaries here, social and religious boundaries, gender boundaries that make his culture (and maybe even to a certain extent our culture and maybe even the Samaritan woman herself) a little bit uncomfortable. Now, we live in a very different world than Jesus lived in and I'm assuming most likely (though this isn't true in all places in the world, but of those of us here in this sanctuary) you probably don't have a problem with men speaking to women in public places alone, unaccompanied. You probably don't have a problem with that. You probably don't have any strong feelings one way or the other about Samaritans because there are not very many of them left. You've probably never even met one.
So, I think it's important for us to question for ourselves, what is our version of Jesus's interaction with the Samaritan woman? What is your version of this? Who is the person that you feel like, oh Jesus, no, no, no, no, no. Not my Jesus. Not my Jesus. My Jesus would not go there. My Jesus would not talk to that person. My Jesus has nothing but condemnation and judgment for a person like that. Or my Jesus would stay as far away from someone like that as possible. It just wouldn't be appropriate. It wouldn't be religiously appropriate. It wouldn't be socially appropriate. It's just not right.
Now, we can imagine all kinds of people who this might be for ourselves or for others. We can imagine it might be somebody who's way, way out on the left. It might be someone who's way, way out on the right. It might be someone who is very, very different from us. They may come from a different culture, a different country, they may have a different color skin. Or it may be someone who is exactly like us, and that's what we can't stand. But whoever it is, we all have our version of somebody that we believe that Jesus would want nothing to do with because of who they are or because of the inappropriateness of the situation. And so I want you to, just for a moment, imagine that person for yourself. The person that you believe should be the person that Jesus is the furthest away from in this world because of who they are, because of what they do or do not believe, because of the ways in which they behave. The person that you believe is the furthest away from Jesus.
And I think that Jesus's interaction with the woman at the well tells us that that person who we believe in our hearts must be the furthest from Jesus, who knows nothing of Jesus, who Jesus wouldn't want anything to do with, somewhere, somehow Jesus is at the well with that person trying to build a relationship based in spirit and truth. Jesus builds relationships with people that even, or maybe especially his closest followers, do not understand or approve of. And so when we find ourselves not understanding, not approving, it's best to remember that that's Jesus's way.
It's also important to remember that as Jesus is building this relationship with the woman at the well, he's not berating her for some sort of sin or some sort of shortcoming. Because when we think about Jesus actually hanging out with someone we don't like, we might start to think, well, maybe that would be good because Jesus could tell them all the things that he doesn't like about them. And that would be the same things that I don’t like about them. And Jesus could tell them all the ways that they're wrong and Jesus could tell them to straighten up. But when we look at the Jesus' interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well, we don't see that at all. Jesus isn't talking to her about her sins or her shortcomings. We have a Christian interpretation has frequently tried to make it about that. So one of the ways that Jesus's interaction with this woman is explained is that she is some sort of a fallen woman. She's a prostitute. And the evidence for this, and that Jesus is talking to her about not being a prostitute anymore and coming away from a life of sin is that she's had five husbands and the one she's with now is not her husband. And Jesus tells her about this even though she's hiding it from Jesus. But that is not a strong indication of a life of prostitution. We talked about this a few weeks ago when we talked about divorce in Jesus's cultural context. Leaving your husband was not something that was socially or legally possible or religiously possible for women in Jesus' day. You could not just run through husbands and then leave a guy and just go find another husband because maybe he was better. In fact, what divorce looked like, if you want to call it divorce, was frequently the abandonment of women. And for a woman to have gone through five husbands—that would not have been her doing; it would've been an exceptional run of bad luck. Perhaps she was married to an older man at a young age. She was bereaved. Perhaps she became a widow, then she had to maybe move on to that man's brother or another man in the family. Perhaps she was found to be infertile. She couldn't produce children. And so that meant that a husband or two decided to abandon her, dismiss her, and leave her without any sort of support. And now word has gotten around perhaps that she's bad luck or that she's infertile. So she has no means to support herself. And she's forced to live with a man who will not offer her the protection of marriage, but is willing to support her as long as she lives with him. This is not something that she has done wrong, and it's not a sign of prostitution. Jesus is telling her, I understand what you have been through. I know what's going on. I understand your pain. I feel your pain. I recognize it. Jesus wants a full and personal relationship with the woman at the well. He doesn't want her to feel like she has to hide anything. And so he lets her know you can't hide anything. So, there's no reason to try. And there's not going to be any judgment from me (the way you have perhaps been judged by the rest of the world.)
Which leads us to living water—what is it? Jesus offers the woman at the well living water. Living water, which Jesus says will gush up to eternal life. This living water is an inner transformation. There is nothing that can be hidden. Everything is known because the process of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is taking place within you, not outside of you, where we have all of our other relationships with people and we can put on a mask and we can hide lots of things that we don't like about ourselves, right? We don't share that. We don't talk about that. We don't reveal that. We might be very, very close to somebody, but there is nobody who knows everything about you. There is nobody who knows everything about me. I have one or two little secrets, things that I'm ashamed of, things that bother me, things that I don't want to face, and I hide them. You cannot hide them from God.
Last week we talked about the process of being born again or born from above. The Holy Spirit comes and gets ya from the top to the bottom. And now Jesus makes a move here with the Samaritan woman. To Nicodemus he says, you have to be born from above—from the outside. And now Jesus is saying, you've looked to the spirit on the outside, and that's the way you've related to God. Now there's going to be living water on the inside flowing up, gushing up to eternal life. And so the way that we look to a relationship with God, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, is not a relationship on the outside. We don't look for God outside anymore. We don't look for God outside. We begin to turn within, not turning into myself, but turning into the gift that the Spirit has given me—that living water, which is gushing up to eternal life. In Protestantism, we have often thought about salvation as a prayer that I say, and then I get saved. Or it's a confession that I make, a confession of belief. Or maybe I get baptized. And then—skip to the very end—when I die, I go to heaven. That's salvation. But a relationship with Jesus cannot be reduced down to a particular prayer that is said at one particular time. A relationship with Jesus is not a set of beliefs that you have acquiesced to or are making a confession to. It's not even a sacrament. A relationship with Jesus is a total transformation of your life from the inside out. It's a transformation of your will, your purpose, your perspective, your identity. You are being transformed. There is living water inside of you. You don't drink from the outside anymore. And that spring that is in you is gushing up to eternal life. In other words, it is the process of transformation with the spirit, the process of transformation that starts right now, that is leading you to eternal life. It is not that you say the prayer, you get the eternal life, and then hey, maybe, hopefully there's a little bit of a change along the way. In the intervening decades, hopefully you begin to think of yourself a little bit differently, you give yourself to God and to your neighbors and love more deeply and fully. No, it is the transformation that leads to eternal life. That is the process. That's what's happening within us with the spirit.
So imagine that person who you think Jesus should be the furthest from. And think about the fact that when Jesus is in a relationship with them, it is not an external relationship of bringing them in line with what we believe they should be brought in line with. It is a relationship of Jesus flowing within them, knowing them, becoming a part of them, bubbling up in them, producing eternal life that can be shared and spread. It's on the inside.
And so that brings me to my final point of this week with the Samaritan woman at the well. The Samaritan woman's relationship with Jesus is not founded upon her knowledge of God. It is not founded upon her knowledge of God. She doesn't know anything. She doesn't know who Jesus is. She has no idea. She eventually comes around to realize that he's a prophet, maybe even the Messiah, but she doesn't know anything about him. And you know, Jesus seems to think that, as a Samaritan, she doesn't really know much about the right way of being properly religious towards God, which is the Jewish way of being religious towards God. But Jesus says, don't worry because we're coming to a new phase. We're coming to a phase where it's not your mountain and my mountain, and my way is right and your way is wrong. We're coming to a new phase where we will worship in spirit and in truth together.
And the Samaritan woman runs out to tell everyone back at home that she has maybe met the Messiah. And her evidence for this is not that she really knows anything about him. Her evidence of this and the foundation of her relationship is the fact that he told her everything about her. Her relationship with Jesus is not founded on what she knows about Jesus. It is founded on the fact that she is known by God. And now she knows that she is known by God. But so often in churches and especially in Protestant life (I know I've been dragging on Protestants lately, but it’s just the tradition I’m closest to and wrestling with most deeply) where it is that we get stuck is we think, well, I need to know something about God. I'm going to read my Bible. I'm going to go to Bible study. I'm going to listen very carefully to Pastor Jeff's sermon. I'm going to get books on theology and devotional books. And the point of these books is to get me knowledge of God. And as I know more about God, my relationship with God will grow. But Jesus flips this on its head with the Samaritan woman at the well. He says, it is not what you know about me. It is not what you know about God. It is not about having the correct dogma. It is not about worshiping on the right mountain. You could be a complete stranger to me. You might have never even heard my name before. But once you realize that I know you fully, the spring begins to bubble up.
There's nothing wrong with knowing a lot about God. And if we were to raise hands and to talk about who knows the most about God, I would certainly be near the top of the list. I've spent a lot of time reading books about God. A lot of time. There's nothing wrong with that. But if I spend all my time reading books about God and no time in the practice of remembering that I am known, then I'm going to be lost. I need to come back to prayer and meditation. I need to come back to a little bit of fasting maybe, and ritual, and spending time in God's presence, letting myself remember that God knows me, and then going out and telling people (in a sermon!) it's not what I know about God. It's what God knows about me. And God knows everything about me, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the painful. And God has redeemed it all. And there is a fountain, a spring of life coming alive within me and within you through the Holy Spirit that Christ has given us. So please spend a little time this lent turning within to the place that you find God in the midst of your life and beauty and pain. God is within you bubbling up to eternal life.
How many of you have ever heard of being born again? Show of hands. You've heard of being born again. Okay, most everybody has heard of being born again, and I'm going to be talking to you this morning about being born again. Now, you might be wondering why, and there is a little bit of an issue of a translation here, which I will briefly explain to you in our reading this morning. You hear Jesus and Nicodemus talking about being born from above. Well, there's a little bit of a trick to the Greek here that in Greek the way you said, “born again,” and the way you say “born from above” are the same way. You can say the same thing both ways. And so Jesus says, you need to be born from above. And Nicodemus hears him as saying, you need to be born again. And it's been translated both ways. Born again and born from above are both equally legitimate ways to translate this. And you can see in the text there's a little bit of confusion. Which do you mean from above? Or again?
Now you've all heard about being born again. How many people here have known somebody who was a born again Christian? Known somebody who's a born-again Christian? Okay, again, the majority of the room. How many people here consider themselves to be a born-again Christian? Show of hands. A smaller number of us. Now, here's a good question. If you do not consider yourself to be a born-again Christian, how many of you, even though you don't use that label, have felt like you have had a born again experience in your life? Is that a little bit different? Well, that's very interesting. So some more people are feeling like they can raise their hands for the born-again experience, but maybe not for the born again identity. And that's a little bit of what I want to get into you with this morning.
My thesis this morning is that perhaps the born-again identifier has become a little too strict and narrow in what it means in religion and politics since the 1960s and 1970s. And it's possible that some of us have been turned off by the idea of a born-again experience or of being born again from above, being born of the spirit because that identifier has become so narrow to mean only a certain kind of person, spiritually, religiously, and politically. And we don't feel like we identify with that. And so we say, well, then that whole experience is maybe not for me. And what I'd like to do this morning is maybe just begin to make a little bit more elbow room in what the born-again experience might be, so that we might be able to experience it for ourselves more comfortably without feeling like we necessarily need to be also adhering to a certain set of theological or political beliefs.
I should tell you my story, first of all to get us started. I grew up in a church that was similar to Glen Ridge Congregational Church in many ways. It was a non-denominational Union church that had people from all different backgrounds and nobody was particularly pious at the church I grew up in. It sort of had that mainline feeling to it. But the youth group that I went to growing up was a much more conservative youth group, an evangelical youth group. And it was a wonderful group of people, amazing leaders who really helped me develop my spirituality and understand what it meant to be a Christian and what it meant to have a Christian identity in ways that I didn't always get at my home church—although I got a lot of wonderful things from my home church as well.
And so one of the things that my youth group leaders really wanted for me when I was about the age of 15 or 16, is that they wanted me to have the born again experience because they wanted me to be saved. They cared about me so much they wanted to spend eternity with me, and they did not want me to get left behind. They wanted me up there when God came and took everyone off in the rapture. That is what they believed. They wanted me there. They cared about me that much. And they respected my process, my spiritual process. I was different in my questioning and my thinking than a lot of kids in the youth group. They respected that. They regarded me as an adult in a way, a young adult who could make his own decisions. But they really recommended this experience to me. And there was a good balance in it of guidance and personal choice.
But ultimately what they wanted me to do was to take about 15 minutes and sit down in one of the church's Sunday school classrooms by myself. And they wanted me to pray a particular prayer. And I remember what the prayer was because it was a prayer that was written by Billy Graham and it's the salvation prayer. And this is the prayer that I prayed: Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner and I ask your forgiveness. I believe you died from my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite you to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow you as my Lord and Savior in your name. Amen. And when I came out after praying that prayer, I felt different. I felt like I had been given a choice, and I had been allowed to make a commitment to something that was deeply important to me. It felt like a rite of passage in a culture where we don't have many rites of passage anymore. It felt like I walked out of that room a little bit more myself and a little bit more of an adult, someone who was on a path who had made a commitment. I knew now where I was and that I was choosing to make God a part of my life. And that was a very important thing for me. And it's something that I would recommend to anyone.
And I walked out of that room (I was told) saved! You did it. You are saved. And that is the point, I was told of what I did. You are now a saved person. So you're going up in the rapture. If you die, you're going to heaven. You are saved and everything’s taken care of. And the story that I was told is that most Protestants, Protestant Christians in mainline denominations who don't pray this prayer or a prayer similar to it, are not saved. And the vast, vast majority of Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians are also not saved. Let's not even talk about people beyond the boundaries of the Christian faith, but they're not saved because they do not have this born again experience, this personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And that's where I've diverged in my thinking about what it means to be born again. Because you know, Nicodemus, when he goes to meet with Jesus, Jesus isn't asking him to get saved, right? Nicodemus said, “Hey, Jesus I'm getting a good vibe from you here. Everybody knows you're from God. We're seeing what you're doing. We see the signs. This is great.” And Jesus didn't say, “Well, don't worry, this is easy. Don't worry. You just say you're going to follow me, and then you're going to be saved forever, and that's all you need to worry about.” Instead, Jesus gives him all this mystery, not about praying a specific prayer to get saved, but about being born from above, being reborn in the Spirit. This is not as simple as a prayer. This is a total transformation. If Jesus had said to Nicodemus, “Well, pray this prayer. Go spend 15 minutes downstairs in the Sunday school room and pray this prayer and you're set,” I think Nicodemus probably would've done it and not had too many questions.
But that's not what Jesus tells Nicodemus. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “This is big. This is going to be a struggle. This is a transformation. This is about more than salvation.” I think that the born again experience, as many Protestants have interpreted it, it's very typically Protestant in that it takes something like salvation, which Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians and much of the Christian tradition would explain through mystery and miracle. and makes it very digestible and transactional. You pray this prayer and you're saved. That's all you need to know. And you don't need to worry about anything in between. That's it. And that is also I think, where I've diverged a little bit in thinking about what it means to be born again. I don't think that Jesus was asking Nicodemus in this passage for some sort of intellectual consent or just a mere commitment to receive a label: You're a Christian now or you're saved now. You know, Nicodemus isn't stupid. If Jesus had just said, look if you want to be saved, you just have to pray this prayer, then Nicodemus would've done that! Nicodemus struggles so much with what Jesus is asking him because Jesus is asking Nicodemus to transform his life right here, right now! His whole life has got to change. Starting now, from above, top to bottom, you will be transformed! Not pray this prayer and in 20 years, when you die, you go off to heaven. “This is the total reordering of your life from top to bottom. You come to me and you say, you have seen? You do not know anything! You have seen nothing! You must be transformed before you can even say that you see. The utter and total transformation of our lives for Jesus Christ—that is what he is asking for.
Now, I think praying this prayer when I was 15 or 16 years old helped me with that. But I don't think it was the whole enchilada. I don't think that it was everything. And I think that this has become one of my core theological beliefs, which I will share with you now, is that in Christianity, salvation is relatively easy because it's about God's grace. And God is so ready to give everything to save us. But God is asking for more from us than to receive salvation. God is asking us for something very, very hard—the total transformation of our lives here and now, and to be ready for it, to be ready for it. And that is a mystery. And if we're going to do that, it's going to take a miracle way bigger than my commitment can sustain. It's a miracle.
I think that what Jesus is asking us here, and this wonderful phrase, “The wind blows where it chooses <laugh> and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” Jesus is saying, if you want to be born again from the Spirit, you are no longer in charge. I think a good word to describe this would be the word inspiration. Jesus is asking us to lead an inspired life. Now, the word inspiration has perhaps become a little bit too spiritual and a little bit, you know, too much all over everybody's Pinterest boards and like hanging up in every yoga studio and “hashtag inspired.” But what inspiration really means—fundamentally means—is that I am not in charge. It is the wind that blows through me, the thing that is greater than I, that I am going to put first and that is going to lead my life. And for Christians, that's the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ.
And I'll say one last thing because inspiration, if we're being pessimistic, we could say, well, you're just talking about hedonism. Just follow any old whim that comes along. Whatever feels good, whatever feels right to you is what must be right. And just do whatever feels good, and it doesn't matter about the consequences. But I think inspiration for a Christian means following in the way of Jesus Christ who came into this world, not to condemn the world, but to save it. And as we move through life, if we want to be born again, and we want to transform our lives, we want to allow that spirit to get us head to toe, we need to be motivated, not by our own desires, by our own strength, by our own thinking about what is right and what is wrong—what I want and what I'm gonna go get, what my desires are. We need to be motivated by the spirit that moves through us, that is moving us in the direction to be those who follow Christ by also saving the world, serving the world, becoming disciples of the one who saves, never ever to be disciples of the one who condemns. Because when we become disciples of the one who condemns, we are no longer disciples of Jesus Christ. We have to be disciples of the one who saves. Beloved this Lent, let a little bit more of your own ego go and feel the wind. Not I, as D. H. Lawrence said, but the wind that moves through me. And may that wind be, discern it to be, head to toe, the wind of love and service to this world and not of condemnation.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations