Let Go of the Wall Genesis 12: 1-4; Romans 4: 1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
When my eldest niece Gabriella was first learning how to swim, she would cling to the side of the pool; I would stand a few feet away in the water facing her. She’d swim out to me, and I would catch her. As she got more confident, I would move farther and farther toward the middle of the pool. Sometimes, if she started to flounder, I would take a few steps in toward the wall, so that I could catch her before she panicked. Most of the time, however, she just had to keep on finding it in herself to let go of the safety of the wall and swim out into the deeper water and my open arms.
When you are 5, the expanse of water between the wall and your waiting aunt seems infinite and treacherous. And my guess is that as adults, we’ve all taken leaps of faith that were similarly terrifying. Letting go of what is familiar and safe to go to a place where you are not confident of your ability to cope is never easy.
Imagine the courage of immigrants and refugees who leave behind all they know to come to a new land! It can’t be too different from how Sarah and Abraham must have felt when God came to them in their sunset years and said, “OK, pack up your stuff and your kids; let’s move. I want you to go to a different country. You will not know anyone. You will not speak the language. Nothing will be familiar or comfortable. You will have no status or seniority, and no one is expecting you. Let’s go.” How frightening it must have been! But they trusted God. They let go of the wall, and they went.
Later in their lives, God came back with a request that seemed even more outrageous. Sarah was approximately 100 years old when God granted her prayer for a child. “Let go of the wall of realistic expectations and swim out to me,” God called. Can you blame her for laughing out loud? But she had the baby, and little Isaac grew up to be the Father of Israel. When God presents unreasonable, ridiculous plans, inevitably they turn into blessings.
In our Gospel lesson, we encounter Nicodemus the Pharisee, a church leader who routinely studied God’s Word and taught it to others. No doubt he had studied the faith journeys of Sarah and Abraham–perhaps even included those stories in his curriculum on a regular basis. And yet, somehow it’s different when YOU are the one being advised to let go of the wall and swim out into the deep water. So he seeks out Jesus with his questions, though secretly, since he colleagues may not have approved.
Maybe he’d heard Jesus’ way of interpreting Scripture—his command to pray for our enemies instead of exacting an eye for an eye, his admonition to stay among the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized instead of rejecting them as ritually unclean. Maybe Nicodemus witnessed Jesus welcoming those ultimate pariahs—lepers and tax collectors— or saw him drinking with sinners and Gentiles. Maybe he heard Jesus telling frightened, poor, and oppressed people that they were precious to God. In any case, Nicodemus needed to reconcile this new way of following God with what he’d always known.
When Nicodemus loosens his grasp on his preconceived notions about God and questions Jesus’ new way of interpreting the Law and the prophets, it is not blasphemy but courage. He faces the unfamiliar—and therefore difficult—eager to understand. “How can this be?” he keeps on asking. “How can someone who is old enough to already have figured out how life works return to being a newborn and start all over again? I don’t get it.”
I sympathize with Nicodemus. Often Pharisees are depicted as Jesus’ opponents, but that characterization leaves out people like Nicodemus—people earnestly testing what they’ve learned, sincerely trying to grow closer to God. Don’t we all have some things we believe simply because that’s what we were taught when we were growing up? Swimming away from those things can seem foolish, unnecessary, or wrong. This Pharisee, at least, wants to grow, to go toward what’s beckoning him, but he’s afraid of leaving behind what is known and solid. Many thoughtful, faithful people have found themselves in a similar situation as they wrestled with new ways of reading and understanding Scripture.
Two hundred years ago, Christians in this country had to reckon with texts pertaining to slavery. More recent Scriptural struggles have centered on divorce, on the role of women in church leadership, and on the LGTBQ community. When people of faith encounter teachings that require us to re-examine what we think, believe, and trust about God, it can be frightening and upsetting. What this Gospel lesson indicates is that Jesus welcomes such questioning. He engages in these faith explorations with us without judgment or disapproval. Jesus will not leave us stranded in the deep end.
Maybe Nicodemus struggled with Jesus teachings because he wanted a religion that was logical, systematic, factual, traditional, and based on rules and consequences. Many people do. But Jesus proclaims that faith does not arrive by such a path. Jesus, with his arms open wide, insists that Nicodemus must leave all that behind and risk being born anew of water and the Spirit. The Kingdom of God is not accessible through the intellect or good works alone. Faith is not reasonable, rational, or quantifiable. It cannot be proved or disproved. You cannot master it. You can only receive it as a gift. God’s reproductive procedures are not like any we’ve come to know. God alone can make something new out of nothing at all. We float on God’s trustworthiness alone.
Following Jesus is costly in many ways. It is not easy, but that’s the price of spiritual growth, I’m afraid. Being born is messy. There’s blood, sweat, tears, groans, and sometimes screaming. Women who’ve given birth tell me that there are long periods of pain, interspersed with brief respites at irregular intervals. Sometimes birth involves needles and forceps and doctors and nurses and midwives and surgery and bright lights, and always there is the mother’s body contorted out of its normal shape. (Think of poor Sarah having to do this at the age of 100 in an unsanitary tent in the desert before the invention of epederals!) Why should we expect that being born again isn’t equally as exhausting and messy as being born the first time?
As we navigate being born again from above—that the terrifying experience of letting go of the old and moving toward the new— we acknowledge that, just as was the case when we were born the first time, we are not in charge of the process. We float in the amniotic fluid of God’s womb until the time is right. And then God eases us through the birth canal into a brave new world, where our first and most critical task is just to breathe. Breathe deeply. Suck up the Holy Spirit and let it go in one big yowl of new life. Then repeat and repeat and repeat.
The Good News is this: just as the Spirit of God hovered over the chaotic waters at Creation and called forth new life, that same Spirit hovers over us still, all along our pilgrimages. God’s Spirit keeps calling us from complacency to journey toward unfamiliar places, people, and experiences so that something new can happen in this world that God so loves. Sarah and Abraham model for us that it’s only by leaving behind what is familiar that we can actually arrive in a new place of blessing. Jesus is the ultimate reminder that resurrection and new life can only happen after there’s been a death.
No matter how painful the choosing or how frustrating the journey, the end result is always that God’s people find a blessed homecoming. Through water and the Spirit, we have been born of God, blessed by God. We have entered the Kingdom of God. We have become the Kingdom of God. As citizens of God’s reign, we are called to pass these blessings on to others. Sometimes the tasks we are assigned seem unlikely, but the Spirit blows where She will, even if we don’t understand.
We cannot always understand, nor can we always anticipate what to do and how to be in every strange new circumstance. That’s one of the reasons the people of Seattle are so distressed right now. We don’t KNOW what comes next or what to do regarding this novel coronavirus. What we can do is trust that the Holy Spirit who calls us will continue to chaperone us, guiding and providing for us, never leaving us, but always coming to our rescue when we flounder and fail.
It is helpful to know that this story does not end at the conclusion of this reading. You may or may not remember this, but at the end of John’s Gospel, when Jesus’ dead body is taken off the cross, it’s Nicodemus—with his reputation among his peers (and perhaps his life!) at stake—who helps to anoint and prepare Jesus body for burial. Although today’s Gospel lesson shows Nicodemus arriving by night, his story ends with his serving the source of all light. He has been blessed to be a blessing.
My sister had a pastor once who was fond of saying, “The will of God will never lead you where the love of God does not precede you.” And so it is. Be born again. Let go of that wall. God will catch you. Amen.
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