There’s so much here:
Honestly: there are enough abstractions and big ideas in these few verses
To last us a lifetime.
The words are all tangled and woven together,
And when those here who are the concrete thinkers among us
try to make sense of them,
our eyes glaze over.
We’re trying to introduce our kids to some classics of 1980s cinema
Yesterday’s selection was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
And there is this scene
Where a history teacher is lecturing on 1930s economics
the impact of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff act
In making the great depression even worse
And the teacher is trying to engage his students
In 1930, the Republican Controlled House of Representatives
In an effort to alleviate the effects of the….
The Great Depression
The Tariff Bill.
The Hawley-Smoot Tariff act which
Raised or Lowered?
And as actor Ben Stein is delivering this impassioned lecture
Director John Hughes pans to various students in his class
With vacant looks and glazed over eyes
Its so painful, that moment.
No wonder Ferris wanted to ditch out of school.
Here’s where the pastor jokes
that he sure hopes you don’t find yourselves feeling that way
during one of his longer sermons.
Sometimes, we just want it all boiled down to something simple, right?
Maybe that’s why we tend to focus on one verse of this text
and hold onto it like a mantra.
Or display a citation of it on big signs during televised sporting events.
Remember back when Tim Tebow used to write it
On the black smudges under his eyes
“God so loved the World
that God gave the only Son
So that Everyone who believes in him will not perish
But will have life eternal.”
Martin Luther once called it “The Gospel in Miniature,” that verse.
More than once, I’ve met people
Who have told me that their pastor suggested how
If they could commit that verse to memory
They’d pretty much have the Christian faith down
That it summarizes the heart of Christianity.
That’s a lot to ask of just a single sentence in the bible.
It is a great sentence, packed full of big ideas,
But its not exactly an easy verse.
when we try to use it as a stand-alone summary of Christianity,
there’s a danger that we turn it into something simple,
a predictable formula
or reliable life recipe that people can trust.
But it’s not that easy, because the Gospel of John isn’t written for those of us who like things to be straightforward.
You are probably all familiar with the idea
that the left and right halves of our brains work differently.
Although rooted more in conventional wisdom
Than scientific fact
it is commonly thought that people with so-called left brain dominance
are the analytical types—
good at math, language, linear reasoning, and managing routine life;
they are not, however, very artsy, the thinking goes.
Artsy-ness is the gift of those with more right brain dominance.
The right brainers among us are great at poetry,
visual arts, subtleties of communication,
great at processing new information.
If all that is true,
Then the Gospel of John was clearly written by a right-brainer,
and he wrote for right-brainers;
this book is jam packed with metaphors
subtle imagery that really cannot be summarized into one little verse.
Can you do that with a great painting?
Take a look at this and try to offer, in one sentence, what it is about?
This is Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
–Maybe it’s a reflection about the tranquility of one’s community
–Or the central role of the church during the confusion of life
Do you see the church spire there in the middle
–Or maybe its an expression
Of the feeling people have when we have to jump to Daylight Savings time…
But one sentence?
Or maybe this painting?
This is Renoir’s La Mouilin de la Galette
It roughly translates to “Pastry Chef.”
What is this about?
–A joyful Sunday brunch?
–The benefits of community life?
–Stress for the introvert?
I thought about putting in another picture
Like this one…
But we don’t have time to dissect this work of great art from 1903
Entitled “A Friend in Need”
By E.M. Coolidge
We’ll leave that to your own imagination.
Clearly, I’m no art critic.
But the point is that, quite often, there are layers of meaning,
And sometimes those layers are intentional, purposeful,
Part of the experience.
This is a disappointment to some of us
Who like things fairly neat and tidy
Who search out simplicity over complexity.
But John was quite comfortable with paradox, and mystery
And he often wrote that way
In seeking to make the divine accessible.
We do well to not make the complex overly straightforward…
A first clue about all of this
Comes from where we find this reading within the
Flow of the Gospel According to John.
Its an interesting spot,
In between two stories
In which Jesus encounters people whom he offers a second chance at life.
First, there’s Nicodemus,
Do you remember him?
He’s the guy who comes to Jesus in the dark of the night,
To find out if Jesus really is from God.
Nicodemus is so intriguing.
On the one hand, he is an upstanding,
Pretty-well-known guy in his community.
He’s a Pharisee
Which means he has social standing
Maybe a rather good job.
In the eyes of the community,
He has social stature.
Maybe he’s a lawyer, or a banker, or a respected merchant.
Socially he’s a little like many of us: he aspires to be a solid citizen.
Spiritually he may be a little like some of us, too:
Nicodemus is drawn to Jesus.
There is something about Jesus that grabs him,
and he wants to be closer to Jesus.
But in his world, in the full light of day,
it is not exactly cool to be a Jesus follower.
In fact it might make him seem a little strange or dorky,
Or worse, contrary to accepted religious norms
so he comes to Jesus at night.
Nicodemus is interested,
but he’s not really ready to make a full commitment.
And Jesus calls him on it.
Jesus challenges Nicodemus to make a deeper commitment
and enter another whole dimension of life.
“You must be born again,” says the right-brain Jesus.
“Huh?” says the left-brain Nicodemus.
It takes him a while to get that this is an invitation
to start a new life in the midst of the old one.
Jesus offers Nicodemus a second chance at living life the way it was meant to be.
Jesus makes the same offer to the person
whose story is on the other side of our text:
the woman at the well in John 4.
Now this woman could not be more different from Nicodemus.
He’s a somebody.
She considered a nobody, at every level.
She is an outsider, a Samaritan,
a woman whose religious and social culture
is miles apart from the Judaism of the day.
She is unmarried, which in her time means she is virtually disenfranchised.
She’s probably poor.
She has a history, too,
a past that she prefers to keep secret.
In short, she’s seen as a sinner.
She is so far out of Jesus’ orbit
that she doesn’t even know who Jesus is
when, to her surprise,
he approaches her and asks for a drink of water.
A conversation begins, and within a few sentences
Jesus offers her a second chance for life.
“If you recognized God’s gift
and who is saying to you,
‘Give me some water to drink,’
you would be asking him,
and he would give you living water.’” (John 4:10)
To this very right-brain statement
the woman gives a very left-brain response:
“You don’t even have a bucket.”
It takes a while, and lots more conversation,
for the woman to realize that the Messiah is standing
right there in front of her,
offering her a second chance at life.
In these stories, which stand on either side of this morning’s text,
Jesus offers people second chances at life.
But look carefully at the two people he picks.
One is a pillar of his community;
the other has broken most of her community’s rules.
One is a Jew;
the other a Samaritan.
One is a man;
the other a woman.
One has his act together;
the other one’s kind of a mess.
Jesus welcomes them both,
and I think these texts together
do more than just imply
that Jesus welcomes everybody in between.
“God so loved the world
that God gave the Only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him
will not perish
but will have eternal life.”
Once this section of John
Was the focal point of a discussion panel
Oh, maybe a decade or so ago
Back when the PCUSA was in the heart of our debate
About the full participation of LGBTQ people in the life of our churches
And there was a pastor
Who kept pointing again and again and again to that word “everyone,”
Though he was using the older translation “whosoever.”
His point was about how we human beings
Have this tendency to set up boundaries more rigidly than God does
Because God’s arms are open wide in this text:
“Everyone who believes.”
We are all welcome to put our trust in Jesus.
If that’s true,
Then there’s a place for me in there.
And there’s a place for you, too.
Right there in the whole generosity of God
There’s a place for you.
And there’s a place for other people too.
And while these verses are so often used to exclude,
To claim God’s gifts for the right sort of believers
The right sort of people.
that’s not what it says.
As these stories in John show,
we don’t have to have faith all figured out
in order to take that step.
Believing is a kind of loose category here.
The interested-but-tentative Nicodemus may be a Pharisee,
but he doesn’t have faith figured out,
not by a long shot.
Neither does the woman;
she’s still locked in her old patterns of interpretation,
which are quite different from the ones that Jesus uses.
Neither one of them has faith figured out, on Jesus’ terms.
They certainly have not mastered Christian doctrine,
but that doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t even seem to matter that they are not on Jesus’ wavelength—
neither one GETS what he’s talking about.
What matters is that they have taken a turn toward God.
They are willing to give God a chance.
It appears to be enough.
And because of it, Jesus offers them another chance at life.
Jesus offers everyone who believes a second chance at life.
If Nicodemus and the woman are examples
of what believing can look like,
then it’s a very broad category into which lots of us might fit:
it includes those of us who are curious about Jesus,
or who are caught by Jesus’ magnetism
or mesmerized by his mystery;
It includes those who know Jesus a little
and want to know him more;
those who are willing to give faith a chance;
everyone who believes, who trusts.
God’s arms are open wide in this text.
And the gift God offers is astounding.
“Eternal life” is what the text calls it.
Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, Jesus calls it all kinds of things:
being born again,
drinking living water,
eating the bread of life,
encountering the way, the truth, the life.
Jesus also says, later in John,
“I came so that they may have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest” (John 10:10 Common English Bible).
This is the life that has no end.
The Gifts of God, for the People of God…
We have a tendency to look at the wrong place
It seems to me
As we listen to
This beautiful verse from John: The Gospel in Miniature
Is this a passage about belief,
About protecting ourselves from perishing
About securing eternal life?
Yes, surely it is.
But maybe more so it is about the amazing heart of our God
The one who loved the world so much
That God wanted to give the world … something amazing
God’s very own self.
God the giver, given because of God’s prodigal love.
That God, the stories of Jesus tells us
Goes searching for the wandering sheep
Sweeps all over the house for the missing coin
Throws open the doors to invite the un-invitable to the banquet
Throws an elaborate party for the returning son
Yes indeed: God so loved the world.
If THAT is who God is
And if THAT is the God that we follow
Then what does it mean for our lives
For our living?
How can we have a generous spirit, like God has?
Who can we welcome, like God does?
What can we share, so that other people can have a new chance at living
A life that is affirming and beautiful and generous and kind?
May we, as we marvel at the mystery of God
And seek to find adequate ways of summarizing what this life of faith is all about
May we be inspired by this sort of God
Who saves us by grace
Who raises us up, seating us next to Jesus
Who made us to do good in this world
Our very way of life, as the author of Ephesians put it.
May we figure out how we can be generous, just like God is generous
In our loving, in our welcome, in our community.
Because right there we might find ourselves basking in living water:
Pharisees and Samaritans and everyone else in between.
May it be so.
Image Credit: Untitled, by congerdesign, available at https://pixabay.com/en/waffle-heart-waffles-icing-sugar-2697904/