Thursday, March 31, 2011

Appreciating John

Our lectionary texts for this fourth Sunday of Lent are 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, and John 9:1-38, which can be found here.

In the spirit of our Lenten theme of "Coming Clean," I have a confession to make: The Gospel of John has long been a serious thorn in my flesh, to borrow Paul's metaphor. In the past, when I have had to preach on passages from the Fourth Gospel, it usually ends with me lying facedown on the carpet sometime around 11:30 pm on Friday night screaming, "I don't know what this man is talking about!" John's language is beautiful, but often convoluted--packed with imagery and so many layers of meaning that it can be hard to discover the meaning behind it all (which I guess, at least, was part of John's point in how he wrote).

Preaching John several weeks in a row, however, has helped me understand and appreciate John in a way I never have before. In taking on three of the stories unique to John--Jesus' encounters with Nicodemus, the Woman at the Well, and the Man Born Blind--in consecutive weeks, we can see things in our continued immersion in John's writing that we cannot see if we take each story on its own. To understand John, we need to read everything he writes in the context of his broader narrative--you can't take stories as isolated incidents.

There is so much we can see when we hold these stories side by side that we cannot see if we take them on individually. We can learn that for John, understanding is always gradually revealed--each of these characters took some time to get who Jesus was and what he was about; it was always a process, and this is what discipleship is for John! We can also see that encounters with Jesus take all sorts of different forms--we may slink off to him by night, or run into him in the heat of the day, or be approached by him out of nowhere on the street--discipleship not only unfolds in different times and ways, it begins in different times and ways. We can see that certain ideas were key to John--water, Spirit, light, seeing, hearing--all of these things show up in all of these stories in some way, and the meaning of these terms in each story sheds light on their meanings in the others.

Realizing that John's stories can be better understood in their broader context made me want to look at this story of the Blind Man in its wider context. Due to the way our Bible is laid out, we tend to take John 9 as an isolated unit, with a neat beginning in verse 1 and a conclusion in verse 41; in reality, however, Jesus keeps speaking into chapter 10. We rarely read Chapter 10 with Chapter 9; in fact, I don't think I have EVER seen Chapter 10 read with Chapter 9. Chapter 10, where Jesus talks about his identity as the Good Shepherd, is the appointed reading for the fourth Sunday post-Easter, not the fourth Sunday of Lent. But, if we remove our verse and chapter markings, it seems this discourse belongs with the story of the Blind Man's healing--it may even be Jesus' commentary on and explanation of this sign that he performed in chapter 9 since, in chapter 9 itself, Jesus' voice is heard very little at all.

So here's my "Appreciating John" exercise of the week for you: Read John 9:1 all the way through to John 10:20. I am going to post it below without verse markings. How does reading this in context as a single unit change the way you understand Jesus' decision to heal the blind man and how that scene unfolded, if at all?

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.” Then I went and washed and received my sight.’ They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.’ Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.’ He said, ‘He is a prophet.’

The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.’ His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ He answered them, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’ Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’ They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him. Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.

‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’

Again the Jews were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’ Others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Detail Oriented

Our Lectionary Readings this week are Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95 (which is included because of its reference to the Exodus reading, in case you were wondering what it's doing here--and I know you were!), and John 4:5-29 (the appointed reading is the whole chapter but, face it, that's a lot to chew...especially when we'll have full chapters of John the next two Sundays! But more of that below).

Following that exceptionally long preface, you can read the passages in full here.

Each week of Lent, the size of the reading we are invited to enter into in our Gospel readings gets progressively larger. We move from 17 verses of John 3 last week to 25 (or, in the Lectionary's suggestion, 37!) verses of John 4 this week, to 41 verses of John 9 next week and 45 verses of John 11 the week after. This is not to mention the suggestion of the entire Passion reading from Matthew 26-27 on Palm Sunday!

So how do we process texts that are so long and have so much context--especially when they contain sometimes hard to follow dialogues full of rich imagery as these from John do? At the point when this story from John 4 was about to make me hyperventilate in its complexity this week, I was reminded of a great way to study scripture: look at a passage's gaps and details. Often it is the things that are left out or (seemingly) randomly included that can clue us into the author's meaning and intention in the way he tells the story.

So, as you read our Gospel text before Sunday, I would invite you to reflect (as I am doing) on some of the fascinating details of this encounter between Jesus and a nameless Samaritan woman:

1) Lots of geographic detail is given in the first two verses. Why is it significant that this is Jacob's Well (pictured at right)? What has happened there in the past that hearers of this story would be clued into? (for an interesting symbolic use of wells in the Old Testament days of Jacob, just for fun, check out Genesis 24, Genesis 29, and Exodus 2...hmmm...)

2) I love that the text takes time to say Jesus was tired (v.6) and, presumably, thirsty. We rarely get human moments Jesus in John's account... why include this detail here?

3) Remember that this story follows the story of Nicodemus. As we did with Nicodemus, we get a time of day for this woman's encounter with Jesus: it's not night, but high noon. Why mention the time?

4) Look at the detail of the number of different names Jesus is called by the woman: a Jew, Sir, a prophet, the Messiah, and (finally at the end of the chapter by the townspeople) the Savior (the only time the human Jesus is called this in ANY of the Gospels). What's up with this progression?

5) In verse 28, the woman runs off leaving her water jar at the well. Why include this? And why did she leave behind the jug, do you think?

Some of these may be chasing rabbits, but I think it is these details that lead us into the deeper meaning of the story. What other details do you notice as you read this story? What might the details, when incorporated into the whole, tell us? Join us Sunday as we plumb the depths of this remarkably profound conversation together, and prepare yourself to be surprised by what may emerge as we let ourselves get detail-oriented about a familiar story.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Seeing Double

Our scripture readings this week are Genesis 12:1-4, Psalm 121, and John 3:1-17 (though I think reading all the way through verse 21 is worthwhile). You may read them here.

An ironic fact to begin this beautiful spring day: a passage that contains what many call the most simple core of Christian faith--John 3:16, one of the first verese we learn as children and one displayed on countless posters and player eye black at football games as a basic four-syllable evangelism tool--is actually full of incredible complexity.

The complexity of our Gospel reading may, to a large extent, be lost on we who read and consider the passage in English (though, if any of us take time to carefully read the entire passage and not just skip to what we see as the punchline in its sixteenth verse, its maze of images and ideas would be complex to anyone!). But if we look back to its original written language of Greek and, in some cases, back to Jesus' spoken language of Hebrew/Aramaic, there are some interesting double (and triple!) word plays happening here that I think John wanted us to pay attention to. Several sets of words throughout this passage give the text its nuance and remind us that it cannot be distilled quickly to one thing, no matter how well known part of it is to us:

Verse 3: You must be born anothen. The confusion that takes place in the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus can, at least in part, be traced to the confusing meanings of this Greek word that is translated "from above" by the NRSV, "again" by the NIV, and "anew" by other accounts. All of these translations are equally valid because this squirrely Greek adverb means all of these things: it could be taken to be a chronological reference (again) or a spatial one (from above); it could represent being born a second time, being remade completely, or deriving one's identity and origins from a new place entirely. The language here seems intentionally mysterious, invoking the possibility that this birth of which Jesus speaks of is not always that straightforward, to say the least.

Verse 8: "The wind (pnuema/ruach) blows whereever it it is with the Spirit (pneuma/ruach)." This word play doesn't show up in English but works in Greek or Hebrew: the term used to express "wind", "breath", and "spirit" is the same word. So you could just as easily say "The Spirit blows whereever it pleases", or "the breath (of God) blows wherever it pleases"...and this is exactly Jesus' (and John's) point. God's Spirit is just as unruly as that wind...making the birth that this wind effects, once again, complex and mysterious.

Finally, here's a crazy one: Verse 16: Placement of "in"--Some people who study Greek intensively have argued that the placement of the phrase "in him" in John 3:16 is up for debate--according to sentence structure, the sentence could not only read "whoever believes in him...shall have eternal life" but as legitimately could read "whoever believes...shall have eternal life in him." Whoa...have we been memorizing this verse one way all these years when it could have equally been memorized another way? My Greek is nowhere near strong enough to make such interpretive decisions...but I'm going to sit with this nuance and think about how it could change the meaning to think about the difference between "believe in him" and "eternal life in him" would such a shift change the meaning of this verse for you, if at all?

After all these complex questions, if we can say one thing about this passage that is simultaneously so well known and unknown, it's this: this is a complicated birth Jesus is describing, one that has a great deal of ambiguity and mystery to it. Join us Sunday as we wade into these issues and questions together.

Friday, March 11, 2011

I Wonder...

Our scripture texts for this first Sunday in the season of Lent are Genesis 2:15-17 and 3:1-7, Psalm 32, and Matthew 4:1-11. They can be found (along with the epistle text, which we will not be using throughout this season but which is always worth reading, especially in connection with the other texts) here.

I've spent this past week at a curriculum writing conference that stoked the fires of my love for the mystery and possibility that lies within the pages of scripture. One of the main ways we were encouraged to read and write about scripture is through the use of "I wonder" questions--questions that can help us reflect on and probe the many unanswerable questions of the biblical story, that can draw our attention both to a passage's beautiful details and to the ways it fits into the arc of a must bigger story.

So, today, instead of offering any sort of concrete insight into these most well-known passages of the temptations of Adam and Eve and of Christ, I simply offer you four "I wonder" questions in anticipation of Sunday for our two primary passages...for there is much to wonder about here.

As you read the Old Testament text...
  • I wonder... why Eve expanded the prohibition against eating of the fruit of the tree to a prohibition against even touching the tree? No words are wasted in this why are these extra words spoken, and I wonder what they reveal?

  • I wonder... why, after the serpent addresses her response, neither Eve nor Adam (who, note, was with her!) speak back to the serpent, nor to each other--they seem to just silently consider and eat. What's up with the silence?

  • Fig leaves are apparently itchy and scratchy...a bit like sandpaper. So I wonder why this, of all the darn leaves in the garden, is what the man and woman used to fashion their clothes?

  • I wonder... what it feels like to have one's eyes suddenly opened...

And from the New:

  • I wonder what it means that in addition to speaking of Jesus fasting 40 days and nights, the writer felt the need to mention that Jesus was hungry? Doesn't that seem like a huge "duh"...

  • I wonder how it would change the way we hear the Tempter's first challenge if we translate his first question not "If you are the Son of God" (as most translations do), but "Since you are the son of God" (as the Greek may actually better lend itself to)?

  • I wonder why every temptation seems to move Jesus higher--from the stones on the ground, to the pinnacle of the Temple, to a high mountain...I also (this is question 3 and a half) wonder why these things that show up so frequently in Matthew--stones, Temple, mountains--are also the key locations in this key story?

  • I wonder why, in all of Jesus' responses, he only uses two words of his own that are not drawn from scripture: "Away, Satan!"...and I wonder (OK, four and a half) what the connection is between Jesus saying this here and saying it to Peter later in Matthew when Peter tries to insist that Jesus not face death?

So there you go, friends...wonder away. It's a pretty remarkable way to read scripture, with an eye to wonder. Join us tomorrow morning at Bible Study for more wondering, and on Sunday as we all enter into the deep wondering of this season of Lent together.