Windsor Community United Methodist Church
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Mike Turgeon “What’s in your well?: Water and the Spirit” 3/20/11
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. John 3:1-17
Water and Spirit
Ward Brehm was a businessman from Minnesota whose life was turned upside down. His minister stopped him after church one day and asked him if he’d like to go to Africa. “He might as well have asked me if I’d like to go to Mars,” Brehm said.
Sensing some resistance, the pastor asked, “Will you at least pray about it?” Well, Mr. Brehm looked the minister square in the eye and said, “You’re the minister, you pray about it. I’ll think about it.”
Not long after, this businessman found himself at an airport booked on a flight to Ethiopia embarking on a journey of discovery and surprise. One surprise being the group he was to be traveling with. When they finally all met there in the airport, a circle of church ladies appeared with them to see them off. Just before boarding the plane the group decided to hold hands and pray right there in the lounge.
Brehm said he prayed all right, mostly that none of his clients or business partners would walk by and see him.
From day one on that trip to Africa, Brehm says, he has never been the same. “The moment I stepped onto African soil,” he said, “my life was altered. I saw a world that before had only existed as a set of statistics. In Ethiopia I listened to surviving family members telling stories of loved ones lost during the years of famine; in Uganda I saw people everywhere dying of AIDS. For the first time, the senselessness of people starving to death was overwhelmingly in my face.”
Mr. Brehm’s experience scrambled the ways he had put his life together. He wrote a book about it called “White Man Walking.” In it he says that everything he thought he knew about the world, his life, and God was up for grabs. God, for the first time, seemed intensely close, much closer than back home.
“Back home with all my comfort and privileges, I usually am only able to see God when things fall apart. In Africa, I saw God everywhere.”
Later in the book he uses an old saying: “Sometimes God uses a pebble to get a person’s attention. If that doesn’t work, sometimes a large rock. And for those who are really stubborn, God resorts to a brick. “Africa,” he said, “was my brick.”
Since that first trip in 1992, Brehm traveled to Africa regularly taking groups, especially business executives, helping them experience what he had discovered. (Thanks for this illustration from Rev. Sam Lloyd, Episcopal priest in Washington, D.C.)
Mr. Ward Brehm could quite easily be named Nicodemus, don’t you think? Nicodemus was a respected community leader, someone who made all the right moves. A devout synagogue attender, probably someone who gave money to the temple on a regular basis; I’m sure he raised his kids up in the right way.
And then something causes Nick to seek out this Jesus, this radical teacher who is starting to gather attention. He is curious but cautious. He uses the cover of darkness, but why? To protect his respected position? Or is he delivering a message on behalf of the ruling council of the synagogue?
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God…”
But is Nicodemus here for himself or for others. When he says, “We know..” is he really hoping to get Jesus to reveal more of what he is up to?
“Listen, Jesus, we know what you’re trying to do here, but we got this religion thing covered. You might want to keep things on the down low, if you know what I mean.”
What they think they know is that they’ve got God contained, like a pit bull, maybe; he’s all cute and cuddly, but you keep an eye on him just the same.
Then Jesus throws a brick.
“You’ve got to be born from above, born anew.”
Well to Nicodemus that must have felt like it dropped out of the sky. His mind is spinning. Then this:
“The wind blows where it chooses, you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going.”
Wow! Jesus is really going deep into the spiritual well now. Back then, the two most uncontrollable things were the wind and the birth process.
Even today, with wind technology, we still haven’t figured out how to generate real wind just yet. Wind drives us. And though cloning is a reality, gestation, the natural growing of offspring, is still useful. We don’t get ourselves born, the birth process still does it to us.
But Jesus sure has Nicodemus’s attention now. Jesus has shattered the God-box with his brick.
Water and Spirit
Nicodemus is scrambling back to square one. Does he ‘get it‘ that Jesus is the one that gives new life in water and the spirit? Doesn’t say.
In this meeting did anything really change for Nicodemus? Not right away. But later in this Gospel of John we get some clues that something has shifted for this man, something deep within his spiritual well.
There is that moment in the Temple when the crowds demand that Jesus be arrested. One man stands up to defend him. You guessed it, it was Nicodemus.
And at the bitter end, when Jesus is dead, crucified, abandoned by almost every one of his friends, who goes up on the ladder to bring him down off the cross? Peter, Andrew, James...no, it’s Nicodemus.
Water of grace, spirit of love
As followers, we talk a lot about water and spirit, the water of baptism, to be specific. Water is a sign on the outside of what God is doing on the inside. As a sign, water is a good one, since it is said the body is made up of perhaps as much as 96% water. Is that true? I don’t know, I didn’t do too well in chemistry class because I was too distracted by Becky White, who sat between me and the teacher.
Just as water literally flows through our bodies, the Holy Spirit flows through our hearts.
My wife and I recently sat for an interview with a financial advisor. When you get to be my age, you start to wonder, will I have a say in how others remember me? Maybe.
A question of spirituality
As the advisor asked us questions about our relationship to each other, our family, our relationship to money, it occurred to me that he was asking what I call ‘spiritual questions.‘
The questions were meant to get us to say what it was we held most dear, our values, what we care about the most.
For example, what are our most important achievements, priorities and goals? For us, fortunately, the answers had nothing to do with cars, houses or stuff. Maybe that is because we have all that.
But as I sat there in that interview, I wondered what Nicodemus must have been thinking about, what he cared about most when he was talking with Jesus.
In 1996, a friend invited me to leave my comfortable home, to go to a foreign country. Back then, it was at a time when I did think deeply about comfortable automobiles, tricked-out houses, and stuff.
Then Jesus threw a brick. Fortunately, it did not have to hit me in the head. I caught it, and used it to help build a school.
There is a new science out there called neuro-theology. What is that? I’m not too sure. Best I can tell, it is where they study the brain to see if humans are hard-wired somehow for God. That’s about the only way I can describe it.
There’s an underlying question: “are we somehow programmed to seek God?” As a science, neuro-theology is so new, most of us won’t probably get an an answer to that question. Maybe you kids will find an answer to that query.
That’s kind of how life works. We start things but we may never learn how they finish.
Did you know that happened to Moses, too? He took the Israelites out of Egypt and headed them across the desert toward the Promised Land. But he never made it himself.
But did you know that Moses made doctors swear?
I better explain.
At the end of our scripture that Eden and Hyland read, Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man. He refers to the time when Moses and the Israelites are in deep doo-doo.
Here is the quote:
“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.”
You see, Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. But after about 2 years, they got close enough to the Promised Land that they could practically see it. So Moses sent out 12 spies to check it out, to see if they could conquer the land.
The majority report from 10 spies was that there was some awesome milk and honey flowing there, but there were giants there who roamed the land. It would not be an easy land to conquer.
The minority report, however, came from Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who said, “we can take those guys.” Yeah, they’re tall, but they can be had.
Then the people voted. “We’d rather go back to Egypt. We could get hurt.”
Folks. maybe today, now that the awful dictator Mubarak is gone, maybe today it is safe to go back to Egypt, but it certainly wasn’t back then.
God was not happy that his people turned down the gift of the Promised Land. He sent snakes to punish them. Snakes infested everything. No place was safe. It was worse than Snakes On A Plane, it was snakes in your cookie jar.
But then God showed mercy. Moses, falling on his knees, begged God to save them.
God told Moses then to take the holy brass vessel at the door of the Tent of Meeting. The Tent of Meeting was the holy tent where God’s spirit lived. He told Moses to hammer the vessel quickly into the image of the attacking serpents. Moses did this and he wound the brass snake around the crosspiece of his staff and ran through the camp, holding the staff aloft and calling out to the people in the throes of their agony, "Look up! Look up and be saved! Look up! Look up and be saved!"
For many, many years, doctors have taken an oath where they swear to heal, to do no harm, and to keep confidences; that is, when people tell a doctor something in private, the swear not to go telling everybody.
That oath they swear is called the Hippocratic Oath, because Hippocrates, the Greek Physician, invented it.
But the symbol of that oath and the entire healing profession?
The snake wound around the staff.
Water and Spirit
Moses never did enter the Promised Land. He questioned God once too often. He started something and never got to see the end. Was his life a failure or a success?
And what about us? Whether or not we are hard-wired to seek God, we want to know, do our actions make a difference?
Do we, like the Israelites, have to take a journey into unknown wilderness before we get right with God, before we find ourselves, before we receive our calling? Many would say the wilderness has come to us with our chaotic world today.
We are in the second week of Lent. Lent is the 40 days before Easter, kind of like the 40 years of wandering. As we continue in the season of Lent, I want to ask a another question, a question that maybe Nicodemus was left with after meeting Jesus. The question is this: “Who will you look up to? Will it be Jesus?