Before I read this text, I think it is important to point out that in the Synoptic Gospels, this incident that we are about to read about, of Jesus turning over the money tables in the temple, takes place in the last week of Jesus’ life, and is, particularly in Mark, the incident that seals Jesus’ fate. John places it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and adds to it the saying about destroying the temple, which John interprets as a reference to Jesus’ body.
Obviously, the Gospel writers were not simply interested in reporting history. They were much more interested in the meaning and significance of Jesus for their communities – for their individual and communal lives. So they had no problem tweaking, adapting, revising, and combining the historical with the theological (and by theological I mean the symbolical or metaphorical) in order to convey and explore the meaning of Jesus for their faith communities.
And that is the most important question. What does Jesus mean to and for this community? What does Jesus mean to you personally? And what does Jesus mean for our church? These are the important questions right? We should not require these ancient sacred texts to conform to our modern requirements for historical reporting. The most important question for us to ask is not: Did this actually happen this way? The most important question we need to ask as women and men of faith is the same question these early disciples wrestled with: What is the meaning of Jesus for us today who aspire to be his followers? Let’s read the text . . .
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I think that the placement of this story just after the celebration at the wedding banquet in Cana where Jesus turned the water into wine (which again is probably more symbolical than historical) is very significant. Jesus’ practice of open, inclusive table fellowship and the image of banquet celebrations in both the stories Jesus told and the stories about Jesus, were key symbols of the kingdom of God – of God’s will and way in the world.
The water jars that contained the water Jesus changed into wine were used for Jewish purification rituals. The significance of that seems to be that Jesus offered, not the water of contemporary Judaism, but the new wine of the kingdom of God. The protest Jesus stages in the temple is followed in chapter 4 by a conversation with a woman of Samaria, where Jesus says, “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem [The Samaritans once had a temple on Mount Gerizim where they said God dwelt.] . . . But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers 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” (John 4:23-24).
You see, the meaning of Jesus says John, is that Jesus offers new life, new hope, a new experience of God. John is not telling us that Jesus rejected the Judaism he was brought up with, but he did indeed critique it and advance it. Jesus was presenting an up-date to the faith. And so what John is arguing for in his Gospel is a kind of spirituality that is a considerable improvement over what they were used to.
Perhaps this should be a warning to us about the temptation to get stuck in the past. Lisa read earlier the text about the giving of the ten commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). Why is it that churches want to post these commandments in and outside their facilities? Some Christians want them posted in our nation’s courtrooms. These commandments are good laws (unlike some others that are described in the Pentateuch). They offer some necessary boundaries for living together as a religious community. But think about how Jesus improved on these laws in his teachings, and I’m thinking especially here about the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. If a community of Jesus followers were to post any teachings in or around their facilities shouldn’t it be the teachings of Jesus?
In his conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well Jesus offers her “living water,” which he says becomes “a spring of water gushing to eternal life” (John 4:10, 14). Eternal life in John’s Gospel is the spiritual energy, power, vitality, and renewal that flows from a dynamic, interactive, personal and communal relationship with God. Living water is an appropriate symbol of this kind of life because it is flowing and growing and evolving, always becoming something more and new, never static or stationary.
This is what gives religion life and makes it something worthwhile that is capable of forming those who practice it into more loving and gracious persons.
Philip Gulley says that he likes Facebook, not just because it’s a place where you can make new friends, you can also unfriend people. Gulley says that before Facebook, if someone irritated him, he just smiled and put up with it. But with Facebook he’s unfriending people right and left and never has to hear from them again.
There was a guy he knew since he was in first grade. Gulley was in school with him for 12 years. He was a bully. Recently, he asked to be Gulley’s facebook friend. Gulley says he agreed just so he could unfriend him, something he wanted to do since 1967. A few years ago he got religion, says Gulley. (I am assuming that means that he became a Christian.) Gulley hoped it would make him nicer, but it didn’t. It only made things worse. Now he is a bully for God.
If religion (in our case, our Christianity) remains on the level of belief or doctrine or religious ritual and never goes any deeper, religion can easily do more harm than good. At that level, not only do we remain a bully, now we get to use God as justification for bullying people. What we believe is not nearly as important as how we live. Hopefully, our beliefs will contribute to making us better persons – more caring and compassionate, but if they don’t, then we may need to reconsider what it is that we believe.
John Philip Newell tells about being on a study leave doing some writing on the Greek Island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea. There he met Peter France, who had been a television presenter for the BBC series Everyman. Peter told Newell about the time he arrived on Patmos years earlier to do a series on Eastern Orthodoxy. His own background was secular. He had been reared in a British family of strong socialist principles with no formal religious belief. Halfway through the filming of the documentary he had a spiritual experience that changed his vision of reality. You could say he drank from the living water. He then decided to become a Greek Orthodox Christian.
Peter was assigned a monk from the monastery to guide him toward baptism. They met on a regular basis to explore the history and practices of Greek Orthodoxy. As they approached Easter and the time of baptism, the monk explained to him what would happen in the liturgy and what he would be expected to say and do during the baptismal service. At that point, Peter realized he was going to be asked to give intellectual assent to the fourth-century propositional statements about God in the Nicene Creed. He explained to the monk that he did not feel it would be authentic for him to declare his belief in these statements. He didn’t feel the creedal statements about God reflected his actual experience of God, and he had some real intellectual problems with the creedal statements.
So in the following weeks they wrestled together with the meaning of this ancient text of inherited belief. In the end Peter said he could not proceed. At this point the monk said, “Peter, don’t worry. I will say the words of the Creed for you.”
This monk had clearly seen the genuineness of Peter’s heart. He saw the beauty of Peter’s experience of the Sacred, his experience of God that had led to Peter’s desire to practice Orthodox spirituality, even though he couldn’t intellectually accept the propositional statements of the creed. This monk wisely saw that a statement of doctrine or belief about God should not stand in the way of Peter’s journey of faith.
John Philip Newell says: “There is a place for attempting to articulate what we believe about God and to do this together in a context of past articulations and Christianity’s unfolding history of beliefs. But these definitions of faith should be kept on the back shelves of the Christian family’s library and not by the front door as a requirement for entry.” I couldn’t agree more.
The kind of spirituality presented by John in his Gospel is not primarily one of belief. In fact, to elevate belief to the highest level is to misread John. And many readers of John misinterpret belief to refer to intellectual thoughts or ideas about God or Jesus. To believe in John’s Gospel is to trust Jesus as a mediator of eternal life, it is to drink from the living water. Belief in John’s Gospel has hardly anything to do with beliefs about Jesus, and has almost everything to do with accepting the gift of spiritual life Jesus offers. Jesus tells the woman of Samaria, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’ [Jesus had asked her for a drink from Jacob’s well], you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water" (John 4:10).
The Judaism that prevailed in Jesus’ day said that the temple was the place where God dwelt. But the spirituality that John is preaching says that the temple where God dwells is the world and the Jerusalem temple (which, by the way, was destroyed by the Romans some three decades before John wrote his Gospel) was just a place where God could be experienced. John tells us that Jesus’ body was a temple of God. Jesus encountered God in the carpenter shop, by the lakeside, in the village, along the roadway, in the synagogue and outside the synagogue – and we can too!
We, too, are temples of God. Paul picked up on this theme long before (several decades) before John, and speaks about it in his letters. In his correspondence with the Corinthians Paul speaks of the individual disciple as a temple of God and he speaks of the church, the faith community as the temple of God.
John’s Gospel says in the prologue (1:4, 9) that the life and light that became incarnate in Jesus enlightens every person. This divine life and light is available to us all, right now, in our souls and hearts and in these flesh and blood bodies.
Jesus, I believe, was indeed unique in the way he experienced and mediated this Divine Presence, but this Presence is in all of us – in you and me, in this church, in our life together as a faith community and the body of Christ. And the more we live in fellowship and communion with this Presence, the more we abide in the Presence and the Presence abides in us, the more loving, compassionate, grateful, hopeful, and fully alive we become.
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Our good God, as we enter now into a time of communion, may we truly experience your Presence in us and with us as we eat the bread and drink the cup. We are so grateful for the life we have come to know in you – mediated to us through Christ Jesus, our Lord. May we drink from this living water every day, every hour, and let our lives be channels through which it flows to others. May the realness of the bread we are about to eat and the juice we are about to drink impress upon us the realness of your presence that abides in these bodies of flesh and blood. In Jesus’ name. Amen.