“(Anything But) Ordinary Time”
Today’s gospel reading comes from the gospel of John. In this gospel Jesus uses symbolic language – words with multiple meanings – intentionally. Invites our imaginations to do some work to figure out what he’s talking about. Language designed for those who hear the story to get an idea, even when the character in the story does not.
One symbolic term is “Born anew” – or born again, or born from above. The teacher Nicodemus who comes to Jesus does not understand how it’s possible. Many towards the end of the twentieth century said you had to be “born again,” – meaning having some sort of religious experience – as a criterion to get to Jesus. Jesus is talking about something much bigger, more comprehensive.
Another related term is “Born of water and the Spirit” – or wind – may be a reference to baptism, but not the act of pouring water on someone’s head. Deeper reality that baptism refers to, that we are given life by something beyond ourselves, that we cannot fully control or understand.
Then there’s this idea that if you’re not born of water and wind, you cannot enter into God’s kingdom, often interpreted as if you’re not baptized you won’t go to heaven. This passage has often been used to determine who is in and who is out as far as Jesus is concerned. Makes Jesus sound like a 6th grade mean girl: “If you don’t do what I say, you can’t come to my party.” (No offense to 6th grade girls, but anyone who has ever been in middle school knows what I’m talking about.) Jesus is not a mean girl. Again, this phrase is talking about something much bigger, taking ordinary words and using them to refer to this extraordinary life we find in God.
Listen with me for the wind, for God’s Spirit to speak through this story to all of us…
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 windblows 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.
Let us pray: God of water and wind, thank you for loving us – us and all of the way we do things – enough to speak words of love, in stories of new birth. Keep speaking, God, in what I say and what we all hear, in Christ’s name. Amen.
This past week has been a time of change in my life. It has been wonderful to be here, to be welcomed so graciously by so many of you. It has also been a little of a surreal experience, as I moved from the Washington area to New York nine years ago this summer, closing the folder of my life marked “D.C.” I didn’t think I would be there forever, but I always thought my next move would be further south, closer to family in Georgia, the Carolinas or Tennessee.
But it’s as if someone clicked on the D.C. icon on the desktop of my life, and here I am again. Some of what’s in it is current, but so much has changed. There have been three or four days when I couldn’t have described to you how to get somewhere, but my car just knows where to turn – and half the time I end up lost because things look so different. I’m getting to know a neighborhood, Mt. Pleasant, that has changed drastically since I lived in the District. I’ve made a new friend, who I’ve shared an apartment with this week, and who I wish could stay longer.
There have been “aha” moments, when I meet one of you whose name I’ve seen or whom I’ve heard about, and frustrating times, realizing that my box of stoles and crosses did not make it through the postal service. And I’ve missed my family, who seem on the surface to be doing just fine without me.
On one level, it’s all ordinary, part of what happens when you move. You miss old friends, but you get to know new ones. You find some wonderful place in a new neighborhood and remember some part of your old one that you really won’t miss at all. Ordinary, run-of-the-mill move.
But. What if there’s more? What if this ordinary experience is truly a chance to recognize something extraordinary going on? What difference does it make when you hear this story about being born again, or anew, or from above – about being born with water and Wind? What if it helps us realize that so many experiences we deem ordinary are anything but? What if this story is so that whoever hears it might recognize, in whatever life brings, an opportunity to be born, over and over and over again?
I think most of us go through most of life taking our days at face value. What happens is what happens and you deal with it the best you can. Like Nicodemus, we hear someone say something familiar, and if it rings true with our experience, we assume we know what it means. A person says “I’m hungry” and we believe they want food. And maybe that’s true. But maybe they are hungry for love and attention. Or maybe they’re really bored, and they eat when they get bored.
Here’s the thing: we don’t know unless we ask, unless we engage them to find out. And Jesus wanted Nicodemus to engage, to ask the deeper question, so that he might find out the deeper truth about being born. There’s more than the surface meaning. Something deeper – anything but ordinary – was happening. It’s still happening, not just to Nicodemus, but to all of us, to our whole way of being. In the gospel of John, this is why Jesus comes.
Jesus gives us the opportunity to know the truth, that we are not just born physically, but of water and Wind. Our life comes from something beyond us, that we can’t see or control, and when we know that we begin to see the kingdom. Kingdom – not just heaven – but the things God is doing here and now. We are born, over and over and over again, meaning, as God uses the ordinary circumstances of our lives – the changes, the ups and downs, the joys and struggles, the people we know and the places we live – to keep giving birth to who we are and to reveal God at work in us. The ordinary becomes the opportunity to see something beyond the ordinary, for those who see themselves this way.
I know some of you need something concrete. I get it. As the daughter of an architect, I like buildings. I often dream of houses, of discovering new places. But a few weeks ago, as our family was driving around with a realtor, we drove up to a house I thought looked awfully boring. You could drive or walk up and down the street and never notice this four-window, one door house. Once I walked inside, though, even only to the threshold, I discovered that it was at least twice as big as it looked, that it kept on going, revealing a new room with beautiful windows on the back. The basement felt like a rabbit’s warren; my children were already playing hide and seek in all of the closets and storage space. It was a beautiful house, and I would never have looked twice at it from the street.
How much of our lives are like that unexplored house? What all do we pass by, assuming that it’s just ordinary – even boring? But what is God already doing behind that door? How is God inviting you to look at whatever it is and see the Spirit, the active part of God, at work in your life? How are you being born today?
For me, this week, I’ve been opening the D.C. folder again, but I recognize that many of you haven’t moved and aren’t intending to. I still invite you to stop and consider a folder on the desktop of your life, maybe one you thought you had closed: a person or a place or part of your life that you may have written off as unworthy of further attention. If you’ve lived long enough to know how to get yourself here this morning, you’ve lived long enough to have a few folders. Just pick one.
And then, imagine the Spirit blowing it open, moving you past the threshold.
I hope that we’ll be moving past many thresholds over the months and years to come, and that the Spirit will continue moving. May God bless you as we continue on this extraordinary journey together.