Saint Photini, The Luminous

 Inspired by John 4:1-42

Whew! That was a long one! And we didn’t even read the whole thing! We read enough of it though. One thing you will notice about Jesus in the Gospel of John is that he can be a bit long-winded, and this is the first of many examples of that. Just bear with him, he usually gets to his point eventually. Usually. Anywho, something that John likes to do is pair stories together. Last week we read about poor old confused Nicodemus, and it’s no coincidence that this story of the woman at the well comes right afterward. That’s on purpose, as almost everything else about this Gospel is. Remember, Nicodemus was confused about being born from above, or born anew, or born again, however you want to translate it. He just couldn’t wrap his head around how someone could be born a second time!

And then in walks the woman at the well to show us how. And that’s exactly what she does, she shows us what it looks like to be born again, born anew, born from above. She plays this out for us to watch with our own mind’s eye, all the while becoming the first evangelist. You heard that right, she becomes the first person in the Gospel of John to have an encounter with Jesus, and then go spread the good news of that encounter with others. And that can only happen because she was born a second time, born from above. So let’s see how that happens exactly. The story begins with John pointing out that Jesus was traveling from Judea back to Galilee. And John says that he had to go through Samaria.

Now, if you were reading this hot off the press, you would already know that something fishy was going on here. Why? Because no self-respecting Jew would go through Samaria! Ever! It just wasn’t done! If you look at this route on a map, yes, it is the fastest way there but that didn’t matter. John writes, “Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate with each other.” Well, that was putting it mildly! Jews did not see them as part of their own people, even though, they could trace their lineage back to Abraham. Their lineage, however, took some, let’s say, Gentile, non-Jewish detours, and that made them unacceptable to the Jewish community. And so, Samaritans were treated as second-class citizens at best. At worst, they were thought of as unclean, the kind of unclean that would make a person have to go to the temple in Jerusalem to be made clean again after coming in contact with one of “them.”

So for John to say, Jesus had to go through Samaria didn’t make any sense. Unless, you had just read the previous chapter where Jesus said, “And God so loved the world…” That is going to be the litmus test for not only this story but for the rest of this book. If Jesus was telling the truth, that God really did love the world, then he was going to have to prove it over and over and over, all the way to the cross. Because that was not the kind of God that had been taught in Sabbath school. And John uses the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, as exhibit A in proving that Jesus was indeed telling the truth. Because being a Samaritan wasn’t the only thing this poor woman had against her. She was a woman, and as we’ve learned from other Bible stories, women were not thought of as equal to men, far from.

A woman in that day was entirely dependent on the males of her world. Without a man, she would be at the mercy of so many who would either take advantage of her, or dismiss her to the margins of society to fend for herself for food, shelter, and the basic necessities of life. This is why there were so many prophets who scolded God’s people for not taking care of widows and orphans. In hindsight, I wish they’d spent a little time scolding them for their misogyny but whatya gonna do? In fact, the misogyny was so bad that this woman, the first evangelist, wasn’t even given a name! She’s just “woman by the well.” Like she’s just some extra in a movie. Thankfully, the early church not only gave her a holiday but also a name, Photini, Saint Photini. So that’s what we will call her for the rest of this sermon. It’s the least we can do as we attempt to restore her to her rightful place in our faith family.

So, Saint Photini’s got her ethnicity working against her, her sex working against her, her religion working against her, surely that’s enough for her to have to deal with, right? Of course not! She’s also going to have placed upon her the weight of a questionable morality. For centuries, to this very day in fact, the church has called her morality into question. When Jesus points out her five husbands and the man she’s currently living with, the church over the centuries, mostly male, have assumed that it reflected upon her morality, sexual morality. Oh, let’s not mince words, the church has labeled her a whore and a slut. If you don’t like those words being used in a sermon, trust me, neither do I. But like we learned last week, if we don’t shine a light on things that need to change, they’ll never change. Somewhere there are pastors, maybe right now, that are preaching and teaching that Saint Photini was a tramp, that that was her sin that was holding her back, and then looking out at all the young women in their congregations as they preach that nonsense. That has to stop, now.

Especially because of all the pain that this must have caused Photini. She had either gone through five husbands due to death, or from some petty divorce that only the man could initiate, or divorced because she was unable to bear children. And the man who she’s currently with is probably a brother-in-law in what was known as a levirate marriage but we can talk more about what that was on Wednesday night. Not only that, but whatever the reason for her going through five husbands, the community would have interpreted that as a sign of God’s judgment upon her for something she or her ancestors had done. I’m tell’n ya, if there was anyone that deserved a break from the darkness of life, it was Photini.

Ok, so all of this is to set up Photini’s rebirth that is about to happen in this story. Everything we’ve covered and more is what she walks to that well with: the weight of her ethnicity, the weight of her sex, the weight of her religion, the weight of her questioned morality, the weight from five marriages, the weight of judgment from her community, all of that weight is what she’s carrying to that well where she is about to have an encounter with our Jesus. It’s why I chose this particular artwork from Italian painter Duccio. It was the only artist that I came across that placed the water jar upon her head, representing all that weight that she carried to the well that day, at noon, the hottest part of the day, probably to minimize the judging looks and comments that had become common by now, a constant reminder of her plight, of her pain, of her loneliness.

I can’t help but wonder how she made sense of it all. What must have been running through her head, day in and day out, as she walked to that well in the heat of the day, carrying all that weight. “Is this it?” she may have asked herself. “Is this all there’s gonna be to my life?” she may have asked God. “Is there nothing more?” she may have asked from the deepest, driest part of her heart. All of this, all of it, is behind her response to Jesus, “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” In other words, “I can’t even take care of myself in this world, and you want something from me? I’ve got nothing to offer anyone in this world! I have nothing! I am nothing.”

And it’s at this moment when Jesus brings up Photini’s five husbands. And I know, at first glance it almost seems as if Jesus is kicking her while she’s down but bear with me, that is not what he is doing, nor is he judging her for anything, anything! He does this to show her that he knows her! He sees her! He knows her pain, her struggle, her loneliness. He knows the world that she has been thrown into. Because the “Word made flesh” means nothing if he doesn’t know the weight that she has been carrying upon her head for so many years. Because “God so loved the world” means nothing if that love doesn’t extend to everyone, even to the least likely person in all of scripture, the one with the most strikes against her, the one that life had dealt the worst hand, to dearest Photini.

It is then that she realizes that something else is happening here—that this isn’t just any water that this strange Jewish man is talking about—that this strange Jewish man isn’t just some random guy but must be a prophet! “No, maybe not just a prophet, but could he be? No. Yes. Could he be the one?” It’s at this moment that Jesus confirms her suspicions. And it is at this moment that she is reborn and is able to do something that she has longed to do for so long—take that water jar off her head—and everything that it represents to her—and put it down—leave it behind—and move on in the assurance that God had not forgotten her, nor cursed her—that God knew her, all of her—that God was with her.

She left that well a new woman, a new person, born anew, born from above. She left that well lighter, freer, moving forward for the first time in so long. she left that well with the discovery that there was indeed more to life, in fact, she discovered that there was more to her than she ever imagined. She came to that well as just some random woman that society had left behind. She left that well as Photini, which means luminous one. Fitting, isn’t it! Luminous one! My friends, her story is our story. We are all Photini. We are all luminous ones! Born anew. Everyday. Born from above. Every time we remember that God loves us. Yes, even us. With all our faults, with all our gifts, with all our baggage, with everything that makes us who we are, God loves us still, and includes us in God’s great family. And how else could we respond, than the way that Saint Photini did, by going out into the world to be the voice of Jesus that says, “Come and see!” Come and see. Blessings to you O luminous ones! Thanks be to God. Amen.


Go Into the Light!

Inspired by John 3:1-21 (sermon audio with movie clip above)

Unlike last week’s story, I think everyone loves this one, especially the character of Nicodemus. He’s such a relatable character for starters, but he gets to do what any of us would love the chance to do, have a one on one conversation with Jesus. And the fact that it doesn’t go the way he had hoped, just endears him all the more to us. Now, there’s a lot going on in this story. Too much for us to cover in any one sermon. It’s one of those stories where the preacher just has to pick on thing and run with it. And so that’s what I’ve done and probably to the dismay of many, the one thing I’ve chosen is not John 3:16. I’ll save that for our Wednesday evening Bible discussion on Zoom to share with you all the reasons that verse frustrates the hell out of me. For today however, what really spoke to me was John’s continuing theme of light and darkness.

John has been fascinated with light and darkness since the opening verses of this book. And that theme continues strong throughout this entire story surrounding Nicodemus. So let’s explore this a little deeper. The nice thing about John is that he does a lot of the interpretation work for us. He does like to be mysterious but he’s also not afraid to explain things for us too, which he does at the end but we’ll get there soon enough. The story opens with the detail that Nicodemus came to him in the dark. When reading the Bible, there really is no such thing as a trivial detail. If you’re ever reading the Bible and you think to yourself, well, that was a weird detail to include. Trust me, there’s a reason for it, and it’s usually worth digging into.

Now, not every scholar agrees why this detail was included. Some say that Nicodemus was hiding from his colleagues, not wanting them to know that he had this conversation with this very controversial figure that Jesus had already become. Others say that it was a reflection of his own shame in questioning his own beliefs. And still others say that it was a literary device that John used to express the confusion that Nicodemus was experiencing; just to give you a few of many differing opinions on this darkness that John mentions. No matter which take you seem to lean towards though, the prevailing consensus is that dark is bad and light is good. Now, I’m not necessarily disagreeing with that, but I also don’t believe that John believed that this was always true. But let’s keep moving through some more of this story.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus with some kind words, acknowledging that Jesus does indeed come from God. But rather than just saying thank you, Jesus comes at him with what sounds more like a riddle than anything else. And I can’t help but feel sorry for Nicodemus right away. Now, we don’t know what he was looking for, we don’t know why he even wanted to talk to Jesus. But a riddle? I can only imagine his disappointment. Imagine getting to meet the wisest person you can think of only to get a riddle that you don’t understand. And even after asking for some clarification, Jesus doesn’t really help him out, just repeats what he already said in a longer, mind-numbingly philosophical way! Poor Nicodemus! In exasperation he asks one final question, “How can these things be?”

You can almost hear the desperate confusion in his voice! What follows is a lengthy response from Jesus, that just so happens to include the most beloved Bible verse of all time, but it doesn’t seem to be enough for Nicodemus. We don’t hear from him again until much later in the book, but for now we can only imagine him walking away from this encounter with Jesus, head hung low in disappointment. Now, though Jesus gives us lots of content that we could sink our teeth into, I’m not as concerned with the content of their conversation right now as I am with the nature of their conversation. I think that’s where one of the real gems is in this story. Because even though Nicodemus came in the dark, I don’t think he left in the dark, not completely anyway.

We western thinkers would say wisdom comes with answers. Not only do we like to have the answers but we like things in black and white, right and wrong, this way or that way, and nothing in between. But that’s rarely how life works, and it’s not how faith works either. Wisdom doesn’t always come with clear answers. To say that in faith language, grace doesn’t always come with clear answers. Jesus’ riddles may have been frustrating for Nicodemus sure, but that’s not the only way to see their conversation. Some may see the grace of this story in John 3:16, and they certainly wouldn’t be wrong to see grace there but that’s not where my eyes go.

My eyes see a person, deeply entrenched in a religious institution, who is having core beliefs questioned, going to Jesus from the utter darkness of his soul, and not being turned away, not being shunned for questioning, not being made fun of, but rather welcomed, listened to, and given answers even if they weren’t the ones that he was hoping for. Said another way, Nicodemus went into the darkness to have an encounter with the light of the world, Jesus, the Word made flesh. Wait a sec pastor, does that mean that not all darkness is bad? You got it! Sometimes, the darkness is where we have are most profound encounters with the light. And also our most painful. Because what John is also teaching here, is that not all light is good.

And even when it is good, it isn’t always a pleasant experience to walk into. At the end of our story Jesus talks about how us humans have a tendency to like the dark more than the light. Why? Because the light exposes us for who we really are. And that is a scary proposition! Being told to walk into the light sounds more like being told to walk to my death! I don’t want to be exposed for who I really am! But how else are we to grow? Not to get ahead of ourselves but we are people of death and resurrection. That’s kinda of schtick, isn’t it! Aren’t we always saying that we can’t have new life without dying first? Well, whatever has to die in us, whatever has to be transformed in us, first has to be exposed. Meaning, step one is walking, willingly, fearfully, into the light. This reminds me of that classic scene from the movie Poltergeist. You know the one I mean? If you haven’t seen it, it’s the story of a little girl who gets snatched away into the afterlife by some angry ghosts and in order to save her, they have to convince her to walk into the light, which is not only scary for her but also for her loved ones too. Here, let me just show you…

What a classic. And what an image for how scary Christ’s light can be for us. As you think about your own journey with Christ, have there been some scary moments for you? I bet there have! Maybe it was about the inclusion of the LGBTQ community. Maybe it was about the inclusion of women as pastors. Maybe it was about how we interpret the Bible. It could be any number of things but if you’re anything like me, your journey with Christ has been a bit of a roller coaster, a scary one! Hopefully it hasn’t been a horror movie but maybe it has! What I hear God calling us toward in this story is twofold. One, in spite of any fear we may have to walk into the light, to remember that new life is on the other side. And two, because we know how scary the light can be, we have the blessed opportunity to walk with others as they enter the light, with love, and patience, and care, and a whole lotta grace. Blessings to you my friends as you walk into Christ’s transforming light. As painful as it can be, remember that you are not alone, and that new life is promised on the other side, for you, and for those around you. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Jesus the Failed Businessman

Inspired by John 2:13-25

This is one of those stories that you either love or hate. Some of us love the Jesus that can be a bit unhinged at times. Some of us find that refreshingly relatable. And others not so much, others find this a bit disturbing and need their Jesus to be levelheaded at all times, professional if you will, and they find ways of explaining away Jesus’ behavior in this story by saying things like, this was a “righteous anger.” Whatever that means. I don’t know what it’s like to be divine, but I do know what it’s like to be human, and anger is anger. And let’s be honest, anger is always justified…to the one that is angry. So, this sermon will not be about Jesus’ anger, whether it was justified or not, whether he woke up on the wrong side of the bed or not, nor will it try to justify our own anger and violent threats we make in Jesus’ name. John has much more important things to reveal to us here.

So, let’s dive right in. We pick up right where we left off last week. It’s still very early in Jesus’ public ministry. They traveled from Cana to Capernaum and now he has arrived in Jerusalem for the first of three visits there for the big Passover festival. Like the good Jewish young man that he was he goes straight to the temple and that’s where the wheels fall off the wagon. What he witnessed there made his blood boil and he just couldn’t hold it in. And what he witnessed were animals being sold and currency being exchanged. Now here is where I have to pause the story and point out two major differences in John’s telling of this story, compared to the other Gospel writers.

The first is the placement of this story. The other Gospel writers place this story in the middle of their books, making this the final straw that caused the Jewish religious leaders to want him dead. John places this story at the beginning, making another event, the raising of Lazarus, that final straw. But we’ll talk more about that when we get there in John. The other difference in John’s version, which is more applicable to this sermon, is what exactly triggers Jesus. In the other Gospels, it’s the dishonest practices he saw in the temple, remember he called it a “den of thieves.” This is not how John tells this story. For John, it’s not their malpractice that triggers Jesus, it’s something else. For a clue, we need to keep moving.

After making a scene, going full-blown Indiana Jones on them, he finally says, “Get these things out of here! Don’t make God’s house a place of business.” Now, what did Jesus mean by this? For some backstory, the reason why they were selling animals and exchanging currency at the temple was purely for religious reasons. The animals were sold to be used as sacrifices in the temple for the Passover festival. And the money had to be exchanged from Roman coins that had the image of Caesar on them, which couldn’t be used in the temple for fear of breaking the commandment regarding idols as the Romans thought that their emperors were divine. That, and no self-respecting Jew would bring to the temple the image of the one who had brought them so much pain and anguish through the occupation of their homeland!

So, all of that is to say that, whether or not there was malpractice going on here, that is not the issue for Jesus. Jesus knew full well that the selling of animals and exchange of currency was necessary for the temple to work properly. So what was his problem? The whole system was the problem! The whole shebang! Jesus was saying that this whole sacrificial system was the problem! It was never meant to be that way! And no disrespect to Jesus but he was not the first one to point this out! This was not a new idea. As we have seen over the past four years of reading through the Hebrew scriptures each Fall, time and time again God has said that it is not sacrifices that God wants, but rather a changed heart.

Remember this classic from the prophet Amos that we just read this past Fall? God said, “I hate, I reject your festivals; I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies. If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—I won’t be pleased; I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” I know, it’s not the kind of passage that gonna make a greatest hits album, but it’s just one example of God rejecting the whole sacrificial system that they had put into place, and Jesus is just following suit. Because Jesus knew, that God’s love and forgiveness are free. No strings attached. Period.

That’s why, if Jesus was ever on one of those reality TV shows for young entrepreneurs like Shark Tank or The Apprentice, he’d have been eliminated in the first round! “Follow the green, not the dream”, they would have told him! Or the good ol’ classic, “You’re fired!” Because if grace was a product, and Jesus was in the business of selling it, he’d have been the worst salesman ever! Why? Cuz he’d never see a profit! He’s too busy giving away too much product, too many free samples! Well, now I’m making him sound like a drug dealer but you get my point! Grace was never meant to be a business. It was never meant to be sold. God’s love cannot be gained with a transaction. It’s freely given, for you, for me, for everyone. No strings attached. And that’s not the way humans work, is it?

And I think that’s why Jesus’ version of Christianity isn’t that popular. It goes too much against the grain of our humanity. At the end of our story John shares that even though many people believed in Jesus, he didn’t entrust himself to many of them. Why? Because he knows how people are. John writes, “He didn’t need anyone to tell him about human nature, for he knew what human nature was.” How, because he was the Word made flesh. It was both his gift and curse. He knows us at our best, and also at our worst. And our worst can be pretty darn bad. And he still had a long way to go in his public ministry, as it had just gotten started.

Tomorrow we commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We remember not only his work but all who have followed in his footsteps to fight against racism and many other isms. And as we do, I pray that this story that John has shared with us today, is yet another reminder that it is not our worship that defines who we are, nor is our faith a rat race to find God’s grace. May this story from John cement in our minds and hearts, that since God’s grace is freely given, we are free to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” All because Jesus is the worst businessman the world has ever met. Thanks be to God. Amen.


A Taste of Grace

 Sermon and worship inspired by John 2:1-11, (press play above)

Today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany, which is always on January sixth. That is the day that we remember the visit of the magi to the toddler Jesus. The word epiphany simply refers to a first appearance or revealing of something or someone. Sometimes an epiphany is a new idea that pops into your head. And sometimes it’s the appearance of the savior of the world. The Gospel of John is the perfect Gospel to be reading during this in-between time, this odd little span of time between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday. 

It’s the perfect Gospel because John’s one and only priority is to reveal to you, the grace found in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, to reveal to you, what grace looks, smells, feels, sounds, and in today’s story, tastes like. It’s a tall order but John is up to the task! Our job will be to continue to ask, with every story that John shares, “What does this reveal about Jesus, the Word made flesh?” 

With that in mind, let’s forge ahead. Now, it’s gonna take everything in my power to not make this all about mother Mary. I’m gonna have to rely on my seminary training to keep Christ central, but I could tell when I first started preparing for this sermon that it was going to be tough not making this all about her. Not only is this one of only two appearances of Mary in the entire Gospel of John, the other being at the foot of the cross which creates these mind-blowing bookends to their relationship, let alone the entire book, but in this story, Mary is soooooo integral to the telling of this story. On top of that, it is her example that we are called to learn from here. Like I said, this is gonna be tough! So, just in case I screw this up, I want to be on record as saying, Christ is always central! Now, let’s start building that pedestal for Mary, I mean, let’s dig into this story! 

So, we are only three days into Jesus’ ministry in the flesh. A few followers have been gathered, and right away he gets an invitation to a wedding. We have no idea who got married, whether it was a friend of the family, a relative, a follower, we have no idea, but Jesus, his mother, and his followers are invited as guests. He’s not the host, not the guest of honor, just a regular ol’ guest at a wedding. Remember, he hasn’t done anything yet, at least, not according to the four Gospels that made it into the Bible. He hasn’t drawn the attention of the Jewish elite, the Jewish religious leaders, nor the Romans. In fact, the only people that have taken notice of him are his mom, his handful of followers, and John the Baptist. Aside from them, he’s still a nobody. Last week we talked about Jesus’ first words in this Gospel. 

Well, this story contains Jesus’ first sign. John doesn’t call them miracles, he calls them signs. Remember, John is revealing Jesus to you, so it makes way more sense to call them signs, rather than miracles. And I like that for another reason, because it acknowledges that Jesus was much more than a magician, which is how he gets treated often. Even today it’s so easy for us to pray to Jesus as if he is the great magician in the sky. That is not the Jesus that John reveals to us. There is a plan and purpose to each and every one of these signs. Each one reveals something different to us about who Jesus is. They are way more than just, oh look what he can do with his magic hands! Meaning that they are more than just a revealing of his power, nor were they just to prove that he was divine. John wants us to go even deeper than that. These signs are a revealing of his heart, of his grace. 

So, they’re enjoying this wedding, having a good time, and all of a sudden, Mary leans over to Jesus and says, “They ran out of wine.” Now at this point, it’s hard not to read a whole lot of stuff into the text, which is always a bad idea because these texts don’t come with any tone or inflections. But man is it hard not to imagine Jesus give his mom the look right here. The annoyed look that every son has given their mom all too often as he says, “Woman, what’s that got to do with me? My time hasn’t come yet.” And tell me you can’t see Mary give him the mom look! You know the one, the one that says, “I don’t know who you think you’re talking to but you can drop the sass. You are not too old to put over my knee!” Ok, maybe her look didn’t say all that but you know what I mean! 

Now, there are a lot of scholarly opinions about this interaction between these two. From Jesus being down right disrespectful, which, to be fair, isn’t gonna be the only time Jesus is accused of that in this Gospel, to, Jesus was simply stating a fact. However, it is an odd way, even in that day, to address one’s mother, but an alternative view that I lean towards is that John here is highlighting Jesus’ relationship with God the creator. If Jesus was the Word made flesh, then all other relationships have to take a back seat, even that of his mother, as harsh as that may sound to us mortals. So, from that perspective, John’s perspective, Jesus’ words make much more sense to me, and I hope that helps you too. No matter how you hear it though, Mary has something very important to teach us here. 

Two things in particular. The first is this. Jesus will except your invitation, no matter how mundane it may seem to you, Jesus will show up. This was no royal wedding that Jesus, the savior of the world, was invited to. This was no celebrity wedding that Jesus, the ruler of the cosmos, was invited to. This was just an everyday, average wedding, with average people. And Jesus took time out of his life to show up. And if Jesus could take time out of his life, mind you, he’s got really important things to do in the next three years! If Jesus could show up there, Jesus can certainly show up for you. Whether it’s a wedding, a funeral, a birthday, an anniversary, a surgery, a test, a date, an important meeting, a painful memory, or a troubling decision. You name it, Jesus will show up. Jesus will never ignore an invitation, because his momma didn’t raise him that way! 

The other lesson that Mary has for us is this. Mary is the first person in this Gospel, to take a look at the world around her, identify a need, and direct Jesus to it. Whether or not he was going to act on it anyway is besides the point. Whether or not you think Mary gave him a motherly push into public ministry is neither here nor there. She saw a need, and directed Jesus to it. Period. 

Now, imagine this is a scene in a movie, and when Mary leans into Jesus to tell him the wine’s run out, at that moment, she may be talking into his ear but she’s not looking at him, she’s looking straight into the camera, looking right at you and me—encouraging us, simply with her motherly eyes, to follow her example—urging us to look at the world around us, to identify needs, and direct them to Jesus. Because mother Mary knows that when you do, Jesus will show up. Because mother Mary knows that when you do, Jesus will respond. Because mother Mary knows that when you do, that response will be overflowing with abundant grace, poured out from the very heart of Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Lived Experience

 Inspired by John 1:35-51

I was at a hardware store the other day, looking for a water supply line for our ice maker. I went to the appliance department, and they had some but not the one I was looking for, not the one that their website said they had in stock, seven of them! Now at this point, probably sooner, any other sane person would have just asked for help. Not me. Maybe because I don’t like to bother people that have way more important things to do, or maybe it’s just my own stubborn pride. So, as I’m wandering through the store I pass by their breakroom. There was no way I was going to ask one of them. I remember all too well working retail and how important a break was, if you even got one.

So I kept wandering. I passed many employees in my travels there, but I kept walking. Well, at some point I started getting frustrated that I couldn’t find what I was looking for, especially because I had a limited amount of time as I had to pick up Jesha and I don’t like making people wait for me. Again, any other sane person would have just asked for help. Not me. But just as I was about to go find an associate, I passed one, we said hi to each other, and lo and behold, he asked me that golden question, “Can I help you find something? Whatcha looking for?” Now, I almost, out of pure instinct, said, “No. I’m good.” But I fought that instinct and said, “Actually, yes.” And he quickly helped me find right what I was looking for. 

As I walked away from that encounter, I started thinking about all the employees that I passed, who never said a word to me. I’m sure you’ve all been there. But then I realized that there was one thing different about the one that offered his help. He was a person of color. Latino to be exact. So, was that just a coincidence? It very well could be. But that’s not what my experience has taught me. There are some other real possibilities. Because maybe, his own experience played into this. Maybe, he saw a person of color and thought, “I wonder how long this guy's been wandering around without any help?” Because maybe, he’s been there too, as a person of color in a store. Maybe it was his own lived experience that caused him to ask, “Whatcha looking for?” Hold that thought. 

I’m not sure how many of you use a red-letter Bible. I do. It’s a Bible that has all of Jesus’ words in red print. I have found it an important tool, especially when starting to read through one of the Gospels. The first thing it highlights is Jesus’ first words in the Gospel you happen to be reading. And that is always enlightening. Think about it, if you were writing a book about Jesus, the first words that you put in Jesus’ mouth to share with others would be pretty important! Same with the Biblical writers. And I love that in John, those first words from Jesus come in the form of a question. After two of John the Baptist’s followers hear him refer to Jesus as The Lamb of God, they immediately begin to follow Jesus, and when he sees them following he asks, “What are you looking for?” 

Now, when I’ve read these call stories before from the Gospels, my attention has usually been on why they followed Jesus in the first place. I mean, he hadn’t even done anything yet and they just follow him. So, I’m usually wondering, what was it about him that drew them so? But this time, I found myself wondering, why would he ask that? It’s not a typical question that you ask someone. In fact, in some circumstances, it could come across as rude! Or, at the very least, a question of annoyance. But I’m not getting any of that here. I’ve mentioned before that John likes to be mysterious, and sometimes that mysteriousness comes out in double meanings. But the frustrating part is not knowing which one John meant! Take this question for example. 

“What are you looking for?” On the surface, it could very well be a simple question, right? Maybe he was just asking them if they needed directions to the nearest synagogue! It’s possible! But let me warn you before you go down that path with John. John is a deep thinker, and rarely is it wise to take his words at face value. Which can be frustrating, but also quite magical at the same time! Because if he wasn’t just asking if they needed directions, what was he asking? How deep of a question was this? What are you looking for to bring you happiness? Even deeper? What are you looking for in life? What are you looking for from God? What are you looking for from your fellow humans? How profound of a question was this! We don’t know, but as we will see, rarely is anything simple with John, and maybe that’s why people love him so much. 

What can help us with this question is what will help us with the entire book, and that’s remembering what John revealed to us in chapter one—that Jesus wasn’t just God’s son, nor a wise rabbi—Jesus was the Word made flesh. And so, remembering that, maybe Jesus was coming to them with that question, the same way that Latino employee came to me, with a lived experience that caused him to ask, “What are you looking for?” Because the Word made flesh, was flesh, like you and me, and wandered through his world with the same longings that you and I do, the same yearnings that those first disciples did. Love? Peace? Hope? Trust? Rescue? You see, for John, Jesus always enters a scene with his heart first. More than that, with his human heart first. 

And for us, Jesus does the same. Jesus enters each and every scene from our own lives with Jesus’ human heart first. A gift that can only be given due to Jesus being the Word made flesh—flesh like you and I. Now, I haven’t even gotten past the fourth verse of this passage. But that’s ok. I will point out though that the rest of this passage is about the calling of the first followers of Jesus. And unlike the other three Gospels, in John, most of those first followers were not called by Jesus! Rather, they were called by each other. Time after time, they would encounter Jesus and immediately go to someone, a friend, a family member, and say, “Come and see!” What a beautiful way to invite someone. But what makes it so beautiful is that it comes from the heart first, the human heart first. 

Those first followers went to their family and friends and coworkers and said, “Come and see” because they knew that they sought the same things out of life, they were yearning for the same relief. And because Jesus came to them, human heart first, they, in turn, did the same. I’m gonna take a wild guess and say that this is probably why you are all here today. Someone in your life at some point, said to you, maybe not in so many words or maybe not with any words, “Come and see.” Maybe you didn’t grow up in church and it was a neighbor or a friend. 

And if you’ve come your whole life because that’s just what your family did and you never stopped, that still applies to you. Your parents or guardians brought you to church with their human heart first, because they knew, as fellow humans, that you too would have the same longings in your life that they did, you too would yearn for something more, that at some point, Jesus would ask you, “What are you looking for?” With Jesus’ human heart first. Thanks be to God. Amen.