BIBLE READING: John 3:1-17
Once upon a time, there was a woman who set out to discover the meaning of life. First she read everything she could get her hands on-- history, philosophy, psychology, religion. While she became a very smart person, nothing she read gave her the answer she was looking for. She found other smart people and asked them about the meaning of life, but while their discussions were long and lively, no two of them agreed on the same thing and still she had no answer.
Finally she put all her belongings in storage and set off in search of the meaning of life. She went to South America. She went to India. Everywhere she went, people told her they did not know the meaning of life, but they had heard of a man who did, only they weren't sure where he lived. She asked about him in every country on earth until finally, deep in the Himalayas, someone told her how to reach his house-- a tiny little hut perched on the side of a mountain just below the tree line. She climbed and climbed to reach his front door. When she finally got there, with knuckles so cold they hardly worked, she knocked.
"Yes?" said the kind-looking old man who opened it. She thought she would die of happiness.
"I have come halfway around the world to ask you one question," she said, gasping for breath. "What is the meaning of life?"
"Please come in and have some tea," the old man said.
"No," she said. "I mean, no thank you. I didn't come all this way for tea. I came for an answer. Won't you tell me, please, what is the meaning of life?"
"We shall have tea," the old man insisted, so she gave up and came inside. While he was brewing the tea she caught her breath and began telling him about all the books she had read, all the people she had met, all the places she had been. The old man listened (which was just as well, since he couldn't get a word in edgewise), and as she talked he placed a fragile tea cup in her hand. Then he began to pour the tea.
She was so busy talking that she didn't notice when the tea cup was full. So the old man just kept pouring until the tea ran over the sides of the cup and spilled to the floor in a steaming waterfall.
"What are you doing? !" she yelled when the tea burned her hand. "It's full, can't you see that? Stop! There's no more room!"
"Just so," the old man said to her. "You come here wanting something from me, but what am I to do? There is no more room in your cup. Come back when it is empty and then we will talk."
Are you empty enough to find what you came here seeking?
Our lives are so often overfull ... full of things to be done, people to visit, bills to pay and movies to see.... Full of good and worthy things ... Prayers to be said, meetings to attend, books to be read.... Does the busyness answer the deepest question of your heart? Does it give you what you're really looking for?
Nicodemus had a full life -- he was a leader of the Jews, but he was looking for something more. Nicodemus was a seeker -- he came to the Teacher with his questions. But like the seeker at the tea party, he just doesn't get it.
Jesus talks of being "born of water and the Spirit." Of being born "from above" -- of the movement of the Spirit. Nicodemus, logical teacher that he is, hears it literally, and asks "How can someone go back into the womb and be born again?"
It helps a bit to know that the word describing this birth can be translated either "from above" or "again" -- but either way, the point is that Jesus is describing a spiritual birth, not a birth of the flesh. But Nicodemus wants to understand in his own logical, practical, literal terms. He wants proof ... like modern literalists looking for a datable conversion experience. Yet sometimes the logical conclusion misses the point entirely.
Another story…. Once upon another time, there was a small jazz club in New Orleans. In a corner of that club sat an old dilapidated piano. All of the jazz artists complained about this antiquated instrument. The piano players dreaded playing on it. The vocalists dreaded singing with it. And all of the combos that played the club wished that they could bring in their own piano-- just like they could a saxophone or a trumpet. Finally, after years of listening to these jazz musicians complain about his piano, the owner of the club decided to do something about it. ...
He had the piano painted.
Like Nicodemus, we're looking for something from Jesus. When Jesus tells us that we must be born from above, many of us get excited and decide to do something about it. Unfortunately, what we've decided to do is to repaint the piano.
Like Nicodemus and our seeker at the tea party, we know too much and we're too ready to do more. We want the facts. We want proof. And we want to do something about it. We live in a world that tells us that seeing is believing and activity is better than waiting. So even in our faith life instead of emptying ourselves and listening to the music, we experiment with different colours for the piano, and then keep scratching our heads when the sound doesn't change.
Jesus is saying that it's time for us to do more than simply paint the piano one more time. Facts and proof, busyness and accomplishment, aren't enough. Remember, Abraham was not justified by what he did, but by his faith. Abraham emptied his cup when he left his homeland. And God filled it with blessing. God did the justifying.
So it is with birth -- both the literal, earthly sort and spiritual birth. The one being born doesn't do the work. In fact too much ‘work' or struggle on the part of the one being born can be a real problem -- trying to go back into the womb is a really bad idea! It makes the Mother's work much too difficult. Spiritual rebirth is not something we do. It's something God does to us.
This is Lent, it is a time to prepare for spiritual rebirth. Don't get hung up on Nicodemus' literalist questions, forget about logical proofs. This is Lent, it's not a time for busyness or to show how disciplined and in control we are. This is Lent, it's a time to put questions aside, to slow down and empty ourselves.
We are preparing for a spiritual birth. And the Spirit, the Gospel reminds us, is like the wind -- it blows wherever it wants to and we do not understand it. In the original language of this story the same word means spirit and wind and breath.
Spiritual rebirth ... like the wind you're not supposed to understand it. Spiritual rebirth ... you're not supposed to control it. Just breathe it in.
Relax, have a cup of tea.
Listen to the music.
Be reborn of the Spirit.
Acknowledgement: Rev. Patricia A. Gillespie