Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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The Death of Lazarus
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
Jesus the Resurrection and the Life
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
The Plot to Kill Jesus
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
The scholar Osvaldo Vena calls today’s scripture “the hinge” for the whole Gospel of John. It is the axis on which the Gospel opens, revealing what the Gospel writer thought was most important about Jesus' story. This story, of illness, friendship, mourning, and, ultimately, new life is important enough that it might actually tell us something about how to read everything that came before it and everything that will come after.
Lazarus' resurrection is the final of seven major miracles that the Gospel writer calls “signs” so that the reader "may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God" (John 20:30). While the other miracles are important (turning water into wine, healing the sick and blind, feeding the 5,000, walking on water), Lazarus' resurrection is our hinge. It is the final, and most important, public demonstration of who Jesus is, at least until we get to his own resurrection.
What, exactly, does this sign show us? For one, it shows us Jesus deeply invested in his closest relationships. Meda Stamper, in her commentary on this text, notes Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are three of the four specific people in the whole book of John that Jesus is said to love. While he is shown embodying love to many more people, the author says that Jesus loved this family specifically. Of course, they would ask for his help when Lazarus is near death and of course Jesus would go. Strangely, Jesus says that Lazarus' illness would not lead to death. Even more surprisingly, Jesus does not rush to Lazarus' side.
Secondly, this story shows us that Jesus doesn't fear death. He is confident that there is a power within him that can overcome even death. So, he goes right towards death, first the death of his friend, and later, his own death. In his commentary, Vena points out that some scholars describe the first half of John as Jesus going out into the world from God and the second half is Jesus returning to God, but that return goes through the shadow of death. Maybe it’s because Jesus lived in the face of death every day that he lived under Rome. Maybe it’s because his loyalty to his mission mattered more than his safety. For whatever reason, he was not afraid. When he arrived at Mary and Martha's home, he did not shy away from the death he found there. And he did not shy away from the grief. He stood in the midst of the mourning and felt it all.
This story also shows us that deeply felt relationships include accountability and honesty. Martha is very clear with Jesus about how she is feeling. She says, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." How did you hear that line when our readers read it aloud today in worship? With anger? With sadness? With resignation? I think each one of those feelings is a valid interpretation of this text. Notice that Jesus is not surprised by her anger and sadness. He doesn't shy away from her pain, either. He listens. He is present. She goes on: "But even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him." How did you hear that last part? With desperation? With hope? As a demand for Jesus to do what Martha knows he is capable of doing? Maybe all three?
Initially, when Jesus says to Martha that her dead brother will live again, she presumes he means eventually, at the final Resurrection. In her book on John, Karoline Lewis notes that Jesus, his followers, and these dear friends would have believed that the faithful would eventually be resurrected. It makes sense that Martha thinks Jesus is reminding her of the hope already present in their shared faith. But it is clear that he means something more. He goes on to say, "I am the resurrection and the life." He says that his insight in how to follow God will be the key to new life, Lewis says not just in the future, but right now. The ones who can follow him on this path will see a life that they couldn't have imagined without him. He looks her right in the eye and says, "Do you believe that?" She says yes.
I am fascinated by this turn of phrase that Martha uses to describe Jesus: "the one coming into the world." In her book, Karoline Lewis notes that it doesn't say that Jesus came into the world, like it happened once and is over now. It doesn't say will come in the world, putting the hope, once again in the future. It says, "coming into the world," happening right now, still on-going, not yet complete. "You are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world." The new life that he can show you can happen in the here and now. And, his work is on-going... not yet complete.
Jesus encounters Mary., Lazarus’ other sister. She, too, calls out his tardiness and weeps at his feet. He is deeply moved by her weeping and wants to see where Lazarus is buried. He is taken to his tomb. He weeps. Remember, Jesus’ work is not yet done. This weeping is part of it. Jesus is not set apart from pain, but feels it with the people he loves. Others observe him. They know that Jesus loved Lazarus. They also wonder why he didn't save him.
Jesus asks for the stone to be rolled away from Lazarus' tomb. Because his work is not yet done, Jesus assures his friends that God can still be at work in the midst of their grief. And, Jesus thanks God for hearing him, and trusts that long-dead Lazarus will hear him, too. Jesus tells a four-day dead man to get up, and that four-day dead man will. Jesus tells his friends to unbind the man, and the crowd will set Lazarus free. Remember, we need each other to fully live. Jesus affirms this when he asks the crowd to help Lazarus. Maybe this is part of what Jesus was and is right now doing... reminding us of the power we have to unbind those whom he loves and raises from the dead.
Karoline Lewis argues that the power of this story lies in the idea that resurrection, that is new life, isn’t a faraway future hope of divine reconciliation. When Jesus says that he is “the resurrection and the life,” he means that there is a promise of new life right now. He is still coming into the world, not to push us away from the depths of our humanity, but to settle right down in it with us. To hear our mourning, to face our pain, and to hear the lament when we cry out, "if you had been here, none of this ever would have happened." The life he promises is lived, with him, right now, in the face of all that would wound us. The life he promises stares death in the face, unafraid, and knows that there is the possibility of something greater. That doesn't mean that there will be no pain. It just means that the pain doesn't have to be the end of the story. Our love, and Jesus’ love for us, can instead be the hinge, opening us to great life beyond what now seems possible. Jesus will call each one of us, asking us to come out into new life. Will you be able to rise to greet him? More importantly, will we, the Marys and the Marthas and the people who loved them, be able to unbind all the ones Christ has called out, freeing them into new life, too?
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Osvaldo Vena: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3192
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4847
Meda Stamper: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=904
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=42
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014)
John 9:1-7 A Man Born Blind Receives Sight
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.
I’m not sure if I saw it when it first aired, but there is an episode of the tv show Designing Women that has stuck with me for about 35 years. It originally aired in October of 1987, early enough in the AIDS crisis era where there few treatments and so many untimely deaths. Designing Women was a show about a group of women who ran a design firm in Atlanta. In this episode, a young man, who is also a designer and friendly with the women in the firm, comes to this with a sad request: he is dying of AIDS and would like them to help plan his funeral. After some hesitation, as they aren’t a church or funeral home, they agree. After all, he is their friend.
Over the course of the episode, the young man, named Kendall, stops in the office to go over some details of the service. A few things happen that he doesn’t expect. First, the character Charlene shakes his hand. If you remember anything about how people with AIDS were treated in 1987, you might remember that people, including their nurses, were often afraid to touch them. This young man deserved care and the writer of the show wanted to be clear it was safe for Charlene, who was a deeply kind character, to offer him that measure of welcome and respect.
The second thing that happens is less positive. There is a homophobic woman there, another client of the firm, who overhears the conversation about the funeral and decides to say something terrible to Kendall. She says that gay men like him are getting what they deserve: "As far as I'm concerned, this disease has one thing going for it: it's killing all the right people." When I was reading up on this episode, I learned that Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the creator of the show and writer of this episode, had written that line because she heard a nurse say almost the very same thing when Bloodworth-Thomason was visiting her own mother, who was dying of AIDS, in the hospital. Imagine being a nurse and having this much disdain for your patients. Imagine thinking they deserved to suffer this way.
Well, if you know anything about Designing Women, you would know that the women in the firm would not let that hatefulness go unaddressed. Julia scoops her up, dragging her to the door, and tells her off, saying that if God was handing out illness because of sin, “you would be at the free clinic all the time! And so would the rest of us!” And, Suzanne, Julia’s sister, corrects some of Imogene’s misinformation. And, Bernice, a character who is often portrayed as confused, but with a strong moral compass, makes it clear that the homophobe is lacking the compassion it takes to really be a Christian. Julia slams the door on the homophobe, making it clear that she is no longer welcome as a client of Sugarbaker and Associates.
I was somewhere between 7 and 10 years old when I saw this episode for the first time. Obviously, it made an impression. I remembered it when I began to think about today’s scripture, which is the beginning of a longer story about one man who was disabled and his community’s response to his illness and his healing. Turns out that plenty of people believed he must have deserved to be disabled.... that he must have done something wrong to be suffering. But, Jesus made it clear that his blindness was not a punishment, and, showed his disciples, and the broader community, that this man was in need of healing, not condemnation.
Who is to blame? That’s what the disciples are really asking when they see a man who has been born blind and wonder if the blindness is because he sinned or because his parents sinned. The disciples, like a lot of us, assume that people get what they deserve. If someone has had something bad happen to them, that person, or the people they love, must have deserved it. And, they don’t even seem to be talking to the guy. They are just talking about him, while he is in earshot, as though his ailment is simply an object lesson in a theological argument... as though he was an object and not a person who could be talked with or helped as he struggled. In the devotional on this text, Bruce Reye-Chow argues that, in treating this man’s ailment as a thought experiment rather than an opportunity to offer mercy and care, it leads to the disciples asking the wrong question, “who is to blame,” rather than the right question: “how can we reflect God’s love in this moment?” Thankfully, and unsurprisingly, Jesus’ knows how to respond not just to their wrong question, but to the right one as well.
Remember, seeing is believing in John. In her book on John, Karoline Lewis argues that seeing Jesus perform a sign or miracle is a gateway into believing he is the Messiah. Being healed yourself is a gateway, too. The restoration of this man’s sight will become his gateway into a relationship with Jesus. Jesus spits on the ground and takes the mud he created and wipes it on the man's eyes. We all know that healing can be messy sometimes, can’t it? Then, he tells the man to go to a particular pool in the city and wash his face. The man made his way across the city, covered in spit and mud, and washed his face. Suddenly, he was able to see for the first time in his whole life.
Our reading stops at this point, but the story goes on into chapter 10. The short version of the rest of the story is that this man’s neighbors and leaders in his community are suspicious of his healing and of Jesus. They refuse to trust what they see because they’d rather go on believing that people get what they deserve than have to change their minds about illness and healing. The formerly blind man will call Jesus a prophet and say that he believes Jesus to be from God. The ones who don’t agree with him drive him out of the synagogue, his own religious community,
Imagine: seeing someone you’ve known your whole life be healed from a life-limiting condition, and being so afraid and annoyed that you don’t understand how it happened that you would be willing kick that person out of community? Imagine thinking that you should make him suffer isolation because of your own limited understanding.
While Julia Sugarbaker welcomed her friend into community by shutting a door on a bigot, Jesus welcomed the formerly blind man into a new community by opening the door for him to become a disciple. Later in this story, upon hearing that the man was cast out, Jesus goes looking for him and welcomes him with open arms to become part of his disciples. Lewis talks about this as Jesus helping frame belief as a relational category, not an intellectual one. This man believes that Jesus is from God because he can now see because Jesus first saw him and knew he needed care. And, his belief leads him into an on-going relationship with Jesus.
I pray that we may not mistake an opportunity for healing as a place for condemnation. I pray that we seek out the answer to the question “how can we heal and help,” rather than distract ourselves with the search for “who is to blame.” May we march bigots to the door, and welcome the ones whom Jesus has seen and loved with open arms. And, may we always try to see our neighbors with the eyes of Christ.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
A summary of the episode of Designing Women: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killing_All_the_Right_People
The scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VW5-IErNxuM&t=21s
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014)
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’
Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’
“Water changes everything.” That’s how Church World Service begins their description of the work they do to help people get access to clean water. Water changes everything. Water is utterly necessary for life. Water builds our bodies and nourishes our crops. With water, we clean ourselves, our food, our clothes, and our homes. There are so many things a living being, human, animal, or plant, can live without. Water is not one of them. This is the reason why Church World Service focuses on access to water, sanitation, and hygiene. Water changes everything.
Water is not magic. And, its power is sometimes terrifying. We need only look at this week’s footage of flooding in Monterey County, California or remember the toll of last summer’s flooding in Eastern Kentucky and Pakistan, to remember that water is powerful and often beyond our control. Remember when we had leaks in our church roof, and they did so much damage to our ceiling? Water changes everything. That is also true in the Bible.
Last week, we spent some time with the story of Nicodemus, a well-respected leader in the community who felt like he had to go see Jesus in the dark in order to ask him questions in secret. In her book about the Gospel of John, Karoline Lewis says that “There can be no character more opposite Nicodemus than the Samaritan woman at the well.” It is too bad we don’t know her name. Because her story shows us something powerful about Jesus, who was willing to cross lines of difference for important things, and about what it means to ask for and receive help.
In this story, Jesus is traveling through Samaria. He left where he was because his disciples had been baptizing people, garnering the attention of leaders who were suspicious of Jesus. See, water was already changing things. We should remember that Judeans of this era and Samaritans, though they both traced their lineage back through to Abraham and upheld Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy as their holy texts, were in deep conflict, especially over where they understood the proper center of religious worship to be: Mount Gerizim or the Temple in Jerusalem.
Judeans, descendants of the Southern Kingdom, like Jesus, and Samaritans, descendants of the Northern Kingdom, did not hang out. And, they didn’t spend a lot of time in each other’s cities, even if there were religiously significant sites, like Jacob’s Well, in those cities. And, yet, Karoline Lewis notes, here in John, where Jesus is said to be the expression of God’s love in the world, it seems appropriate that he would go right through a place and spend time with a people whom his community mistrusted. Lewis puts it this way, “There is nothing in God’s creation that God does not love, not even the least anticipated persons.”
Wells are places where a lot of important men and women of the Bible meet. Jacob and Rachel, Moses and Zipporah, and Isaac and Rachel all meet at wells and later marry. Carrying water for a whole family is a difficult chore, often left to the women and girls to complete. This is a job often done in a group, with multiple women and girls, sometimes from more than one household, going out together. It is interesting that this woman has gone to the well alone. I read somewhere (and I don’t remember where) that some scholars wonder if she’s there alone because she is an outsider in her own community, ostracized by other women who refuse to help her. Why else would she be out at the hottest part of the day to get water unless she didn’t want to run into some folks who didn’t like her.
Those details aren’t in the story though. If she is intended to function as kind of counter-example to Nicodemus, a respected Jewish leader who came to see Jesus at night, over course she, a Samaritan stranger, would talk to Jesus during the day, in a casual encounter that grows into an intimate conversation about faith. Also, Jesus’ strikes up a conversation with her, not the other way around. Because he asks for her help first. He asks her for a drink.
It can be challenging to read tone, but I’m inclined to hear her words with some humor or incredulity. “Me? You’re asking me for water?” Yes, this Judean man is asking this Samaritan woman for water. Yes, this rabbi is speaking to this woman about faith? Yes, this single man is speaking to a woman who is not in his family while they both are alone, even though they are in a public place. She is wise to ask for some clarification. Because people like them do not usually hang out, much less share drinking utensils and talk about God.
In her commentary on this text, Jennifer Garcia Bashaw notes that this conversation at the well is the longest conversation that Jesus has with any one person in any of the Gospels. She gently ribs Jesus about not having a bucket and also reminds him of both of their ancestral connections to Jacob, who had built the well to take care of his family. See, water was necessary, even for Jacob. It is also necessary for Jesus the traveler. But, something else is also necessary. His mission, which is spoken of here as “give Living Water of eternal life,” is also necessary.
Because seeing is believing in John, we see Jesus do something that is a little miraculous... he knows something about this woman’s marital history that one wouldn’t necessarily know about a stranger. Remember, wells in the Bible are places where people get betrothed. According to Bashaw, it makes sense that something about marriage would pop up in this story. But, yet again, Jesus turns that expectation on its head. Rather than make a hasty proposal, he asks about her husband, to which she replies that she doesn’t have one. He goes on to say, “you’re right. You’ve had five and you aren’t even married to man you’re seeing now.” There’s no way a stranger would have known that. While their conversation about water and living water laid the groundwork for her belief, it is this miraculous bit of knowledge about her history that convinces the woman that Jesus is special and holy... that he is the Messiah.
Water changes things. Had Jesus not been thirsty, he and this woman may not have met. Had he not been brave enough to reach out to someone he had been raised to avoid, and ask for help, he would have struggled on his journey. Had the woman chosen not to share a drink with this stranger, she would have missed out on a life-changing interaction. John goes on to tell us that she becomes one of the earliest preachers, going about Samaria, telling the people about Jesus who “told her everything she had ever done.” Many Samaritans grew hopeful because of what she had said and sought him out. Then, once they saw him, they heard for themselves and began to believe he was the Messiah. Water changed the Samaritan’s life and the course of Jesus’ ministry. May we, too, be so fortunate to give water to one in need, and in so doing, meet the Christ whom we have been looking for.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
More information about Church World Services work to help people access clean water: https://cwsglobal.org/learn/hunger-and-poverty/water-sanitation-and-hygiene/
Karoline Lewis' John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014)
Jennifer Garcia Bashaw: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent/commentary-on-john-45-42-6
John 3:1-17 Nicodemus Visits Jesus
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’
Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’
Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Today’s reading, about a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is only in the book of John. Sometimes the Gospel stories reference old Bible stories to help us understand who Jesus is. I think today’s reading has one of the strangest references to a Hebrew Bible story in any of Gospels. It’s that part about the snake in the wilderness. John 3:16 usually gets all the attention. But, I think 3:14 is pretty important, too. And, that verse has a serpent we need to learn about.
Does anyone remember what time of day Nicodemus came to talk to Jesus? That’s right. He came to see him at night. According to Karoline Smith, who wrote a book about the Gospel of John, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night because he’s afraid that his fellow Pharisees will not approve of him having friendly conversations with Jesus. So, he went out when it was dark and maybe when other people were asleep, so he could hide from people who might not like what he is doing.
Something we should remember when reading all the Gospels is that they each were written by a person. And, each writer makes choices about how to introduce people to Jesus. Now, all the Gospels show Jesus performing miracles. John is the only one where the writer says that Jesus performs miracles specifically to prove himself to be the Messiah. In the chapter about John in his introduction to the New Testament, Bart Ehrman points out that over in chapter 20: 30-31, it says: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you many come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and through believing you may have life in his name.” So, in John, you have to see Jesus to believe in him.
One of the first things Nicodemus says to Jesus is that he saw performing miracles, and seeing those miracles makes him believe that the power Jesus has has come from God. Because of what he has seen, Nicodemus also wants to talk to Jesus and wants to ask him some important questions about faith. It is in their conversation about faith that the snake part of the story shows up. The serpent is a reference to a story in the book of Numbers where Moses lifts up a serpent in the wilderness. When you go read that story in Numbers, it turns out that that story is also about people seeing something that shows them God’s power.
The book of Numbers is a book that is mostly set during the wilderness travels of the Exodus. It is the book where most of Jewish religious law is collected, too. That means it’s a book where people learn what it means to follow God and not the Pharaoh, whom they had ran away from. Part of following God is living with a new kind of freedom as well as responsibility to love God and love neighbor. That is different from what Pharaoh wanted.
The part of the story with the snakes happens in chapter 21. The people 40 years into their journey in the wilderness. Even though God has been taking care of them... providing mana and quails in the desert for decades now, the stress of the journey has been wearing on them. They have started to be afraid that God will not continue to provide for them. They also, not for the first time, have grown impatient. They do what a lot of impatient people do: Complain.
God is kind of cranky in that story, too. After 40 years, God is tired of hearing people complain about the food, and probably a little tired of hearing questions about whether or not God will keep taking care of them. So, God decides to teach the people a lesson. Now, I don’t think God makes people sick on purpose or hurts people on purpose. I do think that sometimes, when people are trying to make sense of something hard they are going through, they will decide that God is doing the hard thing. In this case, somebody decided that God has sent them a plague of poisonous snakes.
If you know anything about snakes, you know that unless you are mouse, they are not going to chase you down. For a snake to bite a person, usually the person has to be making it mad or scaring it. So, this plague of snakes is kind of an accident waiting to happen. The snakes aren’t chasing people down, but there are so many that it’s hard to avoid them. The last time I preached on this text was the Sunday before we closed our building up at the beginning of covid. I think the last three years have shown us how difficult is to have a danger all around, that is technically possible to avoid, but often only with the most cautious, vigilant behavior, and with lots of people being willing to be just as cautious as you are.
In the Bible story, as in real life, when a threat is abundant, people will end up succumbing to it. Enough people were bitten that the people grew afraid, and blamed themselves for what happened. They begged Moses to intervene with God and get rid of the snakes. Moses prayed on their behalf. God decided to help, but not in the way the people expected. God didn’t take away the snakes, but God does give them a way to be healed when they do get bit by a snake. God had them build a bronze snake. When they looked at it, they were healed.
Who here would like a statue that would heal you when you look at it? I think that would be pretty neat. That being said, what does a random statue in the book of Numbers have to do with Jesus? Remember, the book of numbers is about people learning to live a life that showed that they loved God and loved their neighbors. Sometimes they forget to do that and have to learn how to do it all over again. Numbers names some things people did when they forgot how God said they should behave: they would become jealous, start hoarding food, start being mean to each other and to their leaders... start to believe God wouldn’t help them anymore. These behaviors are avoidable, like a snake, but sometimes you need to see a sign to remind you of the danger. The snake statue was that sign. I think the author of John knew that story about that snake statue as a sign in the wilderness and decided that Jesus himself could be a similar kind of sign.
There are ways that Jesus and the snake statue are similar. Jesus heals people who come to see him. People are healed with they look at the snake statue. And, the presence of a healing statue and a healing teacher both show people that God, who created both them, was at work in the world, offering people a way to be healed when something bad has happened. I think the author of John believed that people could practice living in a way that would help them to remember that God would take care of them and that they should take care of each other. Nicodemus is scared, like the people in the desert in Numbers. He needs a sign that God is at work in the world. He sees Jesus, who is that sign, like the snake was a sign to remind the people in Numbers. And, this sign brings healing.
I wish I knew how Nicodemus is changed by his conversation with Jesus. It’s too bad that we don’t hear from him again in John. But, what I hope happened is that what he saw in Jesus that night in the dark healed him of his fear. I hope it helped him begin anew his walk of faith. And, I hope what he does in the daylight reflects the love and eternal life he learned about from Christ in the dark. May we, too, be willing to be open to new beginnings and healing from Christ.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5075
Karoline Lewis: John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014)
Melissa Bane Sevier: https://melissabanesevier.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/snakes-on-a-plain/
Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction of The Early Christian Writings, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.