Wells in the ancient Middle East were associated with life and joy and community. Dr. Julye Bidmead points out, “Almost every aspect of daily life in ancient Israel involved water: agriculture, animal husbandry, cooking, personal hygiene, and of course drinking…. Young women typically had the daily chore of drawing water from wells to supply the family household…. Although the primary function of wells in ancient Israel was to supply water for the household, the centralized, open location of wells allowed them to serve as social gathering places. Travelers stopped to water their camels there…. Wells were also places of betrothal scenes. As the young women likely went out to collect water, young men of the village realized that this event gave them a perfect opportunity to socialize with the women away from the watchful eyes of the girls’ fathers and male relatives.”
A trip to the well may have been the highlight of the day for most of the women in the Samaritan city of Sychar, but for one particular woman in town the trip to the well did not seem to be such a delight. Perhaps she did not feel that she fit in with the typical conversation of the married women, and perhaps she tired of the young women flirting with the young men at the well. At least on this day, she shows up at the well at a time when no one other than Jesus is there.
It seems that much of this woman’s life had been filled with sorrow, pain, and rejection. Kendra Haloviak Valentine comments, “Modern western readers typically think of her as a loose woman with a sinful past—because of her five marriages and because, at the time she met Jesus, she was living with a man who was not her husband. However, in the world of Jesus’ day, men decided issues of marriage and divorce, not women. Unlike today, only husbands could get a divorce, abandon their families, and kick out their spouse. Also, in the world of Jesus’ day, women could not survive unless they were attached to a man. After this woman’s first abandonment (through death or divorce), if she did not have a father or brother or adult son who would take her in, she had to attach herself to another man in order to live. Going through this experience five times is tragic beyond words.
“Given the world of Jesus’ day, her story is probably more of a discarded woman with a painful past than of a loose woman with a sinful past…. Since her current living conditions were based on her own survival, she was living with someone who refused to acknowledge his responsibility to her. We should probably see her more as a slave who had to do whatever he wanted than as a secret lover having an affair. She was trying to survive. He should have married her.” (Ministry, January 2014, p. 17-18)
When she arrives at the well and finds a Jewish man sitting there, she expects further rejection, and more pain. There was great animosity between Jews and Samaritans at the time. The strictest Jewish rabbis argued that if the shadow of a Samaritan fell upon a Jewish person, that Samaritan’s shadow would make a person unclean. Moreover the strictest rabbis forbade a rabbi from greeting a woman in public. What might this woman expect to receive from this Jesus at the well that day?
To her amazement, rather than chasing her away, Jesus asks her to draw for him a drink from the well.
What is going on here?
Consider it from this perspective: Each of us has been designed by a loving God in the image of this loving God to love others. Because of that, there is in each of us a capacity for and a leaning toward caring for others. This woman in particular had been trying to give love to others but had experienced rejection over and over again. Five different husbands had died or deserted her. The man she is now living with is not open enough to receive her love to marry her. Jesus knows this woman. He knows that she was made in the image of God with the capacity for and the longing to care for others, and he knows that this God-given longing has been thwarted over and over again. So Jesus begins his interaction with her by asking her to extend to him a kindness, “Give me a drink?”
As the conversation continues, and as she grows interested in the living water Jesus speaks of, Jesus asks about her husband.
Why does Jesus poke at that sensitive spot—that ache in her heart?
Jesus wanted her to know that he knew her for who she truly was. Darrell Johnson explains, “Had she returned to her village without Jesus bringing up the husband problem, she would have wondered if he would have bothered with her had he known who she was. ‘Go call your husband’ is Jesus’ way of saying, ‘Woman, I am offering the gift of living water to you—to the real you. I know who you are.’”
There is something deeply life-giving in finding someone who loves you as you truly are. That’s what this woman found in Jesus. That was the beginning of the life-giving water that was beginning to gush up in her soul. For this, she rushed back to town to tell everyone what she had experienced.
I never met the man, so I don’t know for sure. We are not given many personal details, so I cannot say for certain, but my impression of Nicodemus (in John 3) is that he was a good person, deeply religious, and knowledgeable about the Scriptures and about spiritual matters. But it also seems to me that he was keenly aware that something was missing in his life, and that what was missing in him was alive in Jesus.
When he listened to Jesus speak and when he watched Jesus in action, he recognized a spiritual vitality that was not present in his own life. He wanted those things to come to life in him, so he went to Jesus one night to talk it over.
He began the discussion in a tactful manner: “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.”
Reading between the lines, what Nicodemus seems to be saying is: “I am curious about who you are, and about what is going on inside of you, and about how you are able to do the things that you do. But most of all, I am curious about the apparent intimate connection between you and God that is missing in my life.”
That certainly seems to be what Jesus hears coming out of the heart of Nicodemus for that is what Jesus addresses in his reply: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Jesus addresses Nicodemus’ desire for spiritual vitality by telling him that the way to get it is through a new birth.
Jesus’ suggestion of a new birth confuses Nicodemus. It is not the concept of new birth that confuses Nicodemus. The Pharisees looked upon a gentile who converted to Judaism as having been reborn. The rabbis taught, “A proselyte who embraces Judaism is like a new-born child.” So thorough was their perspective of a new life beginning that any sins committed prior to one’s conversion were now forgotten. One’s old life was gone; a new life had begun. Some even argued that a man who converted to Judaism was free to marry his sister—or even his mother—because even his old family connections were now considered obsolete. He was a brand new person.
But Nicodemus did not understand how the concept of a new birth applied to him. He belonged to the nation of Israel—the people of God—since the moment he took his first breath. What could it mean for him to be born from above?
Nicodemus seemed to recognize that the spiritual vitality that was alive in Jesus was missing in his own life, but he had always assumed that the key to spiritual vitality was found in such things as a life of devotion, compiling enough good deeds, and establishing a solid record of sacred service. He had thought that the way to gain spiritual vitality was by hanging out long enough in good spiritual places and by doing enough good spiritual things.
But it doesn’t work that way. That kind of thinking is as foolish as it would be for a woman who wants to have a baby thinking that she will get pregnant if she hangs out long enough in a cabbage patch, or if she sleeps in a stork’s nest, or if she volunteers in a maternity ward. She will not get pregnant by hanging out in prime “pregnancy areas.” Nor will Nicodemus gain spiritual vitality merely by hanging out in the top religious environments.
Something as wild and extreme as a new birth is needed.
In response to Nicodemus’ confusion, Jesus replies (in verse 5), “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Jesus’ words here hearken back to the opening words of the Bible: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind [Spirit] from God swept over the face of the waters.”
What Nicodemus needed in his life was something as wild and extreme as a new creation!
Nicodemus had been discovering for himself that spiritual vitality does not come from strict religious discipline. What Jesus wanted him to know is that it comes from being born from above; it comes from the Spirit of God bringing life into a person’s soul.
Rachel Held Evans puts it this way: “The Spirit is like wind, earth’s oldest sojourner, which in one place readies a sail, in another whittles a rock, in another commands the trees to bow, in another gently lifts a bridal veil. Wind knows no perimeter. The wildest of all things, it travels to every corner of a cornerless world and amplifies the atmosphere. It smells like honeysuckle, curry, smoke, sea. It feels like a kiss, a breath, a burn, a sting. It can whisper or whistle or roar, bend and break and inflate. It can be harnessed, but never stopped or contained; its effects observed while its essence remains unseen. To chase the wind is folly, they say, to try and tame it the very definition of futility. ‘The wind blows where it pleases,’ Jesus said. ‘You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit’ (John 3:8). We are born into a windy world, where the Spirit is steady as a breeze and as strong as a hurricane. There is no city, no village, no wilderness where you cannot find it, so pay attention.” (Searching for Sunday, p. 163)
That’s what Nicodemus needed for spiritual vitality. It’s what we need as well.
If you were God, and if you decided to enter our world as one of us, what would you choose as your first miracle to show people who you are and what you are capable of doing?
Would you choose for an opening miracle to walk on water? Or to miraculously feed thousands of people? Or to give sight to a blind man? Or to heal a paralytic? Or to raise a child from the dead?
As impressive as these miracles were, not one of them was chosen as the first miracle Jesus performed.
In John 2:1-11 we discover that the first miracle Jesus performed was to turn water into wine.
As it so happens, Jesus is at a wedding in Cana when the wine for the wedding celebration runs out. Jesus’ mother brings the problem to Jesus’ attention. He replies, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”
It almost sounds like Jesus is groaning inside, “Darn it, Mom, I had something more dramatic in mind for my first miracle!” But the truth is that this miracle did not catch Jesus by surprise. It was not pushed upon him, depriving him of a better start to his ministry. This miracle is actually like a ‘theme statement’ for all that Jesus intended to do with his time on earth.
Let me explain….
This ‘theme-statement’ miracle took place in the midst of a wedding. It took place in the context of a celebration of love and joy. Jesus came into our world to bring about such a reality between us and him. Listen to some of the things he said toward the end of his life to summarize his ministry: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10); “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love” (John 15:9); “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11).
Writing about Middle Eastern weddings at the time of Jesus, William Barclay points out, “In a life where there was much poverty and constant hard work, this week of festivity and joy was one of the supreme occasions.” Wine was a vital part of the celebration. Drunkenness was looked upon as a disgrace, so the wine was watered down. But the provision of wine was considered a sacred duty, The Rabbis taught, “Without wine there is no joy.” With the wine having run out, Jesus provided that which kept the joy and the celebration going (while also protecting the newlyweds from disappointment and embarrassment).
For the making of wine, Jesus used the jars that were set apart for the religious requirements of hand washing. By the time of Jesus, the Pharisees had carefully detailed the various laws of Scripture. In the end they had a rule pertaining to every aspect of life. For example, they had broken up the issue of work on the Sabbath into 39 distinct categories. One category dealt with the type of burden one could “carry” on the Sabbath. It was decided that no brooch could be worn on the Sabbath, and that one could not even carry a needle in one’s robe. Some things were not so easy to decide upon, though. At the time of Jesus, they were still arguing over whether a person could wear his artificial teeth or his wooden leg on the Sabbath. Jesus came into our world to replace rituals and religious requirements with something much better—a loving relationship with God (like the intimacy of the marriage that was being celebrated that day)
Strict religious requirements have the tendency to make us feel that we are never good enough and that we never quite measure up, so we had better keep trying harder. By using those particular water jars—displacing the water that was intended for religious ritual with wine that was used for the joyous celebration of love—Jesus was making a ‘theme statement’ about his reason for coming to earth.
In The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey through Anguish to Freedom, Henry Nouwen writes, “Keep reminding yourself that your feelings of being unwelcome do not come from God and do not tell the truth. The Prince of Darkness wants you to believe that your life is a mistake and that there is no home for you. But every time you allow these thoughts to affect you, you set out on the road to self-destruction. So you have to keep unmasking the lie and think, speak, and act according to the truth that you are very, very welcome.” Strict religious requirements (like the required hand washing) spread the message that we are not welcome; Jesus came into our world to stress that we are welcome (like wine at a wedding)!
When Jesus’ mother told him about the problem with the wine running out, he told her, “My hour has not yet come.” She understood that he was not insisting that it was not yet his time to do miracles. Instead, he was stating that the hour had not yet come for the celebration of restored love and joy and intimacy between God and us. The miracle performed here (providing wedding wine) looked forward to what would be accomplished at Jesus’ death, when he would make it possible for us to come into the joyous celebration of his eternal love!
We are living in a time in which many people have hearts that feel very heavy—heavy with the loneliness of social isolation, heavy with the confinement of being sheltered in place, heavy with worries over contagious disease, heavy over daily reports of a rising death toll, heavy with the disappointments of disrupted plans, heavy with economic worries, heavy with job loss, heavy with the tumult of children stuck at home, and heavy with increased tensions with one another.
What are we to do when our hearts feel so heavy?
Sometimes we feel the pressure to maintain a “positive attitude.” People tell us just to look on the good side, to keep a smile on our face, to ignore our worries, or that everything will work out. But when our hearts are heavy, simply maintaining a “positive attitude” is not always or exclusively the best approach.
The Bible offers an alternative. The Bible suggests that we lament. It’s what Job did despite the criticism of his friends. It’s what David did in many of the psalms. It’s what Jeremiah did with an entire book titled Lamentations. It’s even what Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane. When our hearts are heavy, it may well be the best thing we can do.
I appreciate Mark Vroegop’s perspective on this. In an article entitled “Dare to Hope in God,” he writes, “We step into this world with a cry. Although none of us remembers the moment, the first sound we uttered after leaving the warm and protected confines of our mother’s womb was a loud protest. We enter, wailing. To cry is human….
“We don’t stop crying after birth. It continues because the world is broken. While tears and sorrow are part of our humanity, there is an often-neglected prayer language in the Bible for our travels through a broken world: lament….
“Lament is not the same as crying, however. It’s different…. The Bible is filled with this song of sorrow. Over a third of the Psalms are laments. The book of Lamentations weeps over the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus lamented in the final hours of his life.
“But lament is different than crying because lament is a form of prayer. It is more than just the expression of sorrow or the venting of emotion. Lament talks to God about pain. And it has a unique purpose: trust. It is a divinely-given invitation to pour out our fears, frustrations, and sorrows for the purpose of helping us to renew our confidence in God…. Laments turn toward God when sorrow tempts you to run from him.”
In his book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, Vroegop adds, “Too many Christians either are afraid or refuse to talk to God about their struggles. Whether because of shame, a fear of rejection, anxiety, or a concern of being irreverent, pain can give rise to a deadly prayerlessness. Lament cracks the door open to talk to God again—even if it’s messy.”
Ryane Williamson adds, “When we lose the ability to lament, we lose an opportunity to share with our God the things of this world that are breaking our hearts, and we risk becoming a quietly cynical people.”
If your heart is heavy over all that is going on, try lamenting; try pouring out to God your pain and sorrow and fear—even if it’s messy.
Have you ever lost that which was most dear to you? That which filled your heart with joy and hope and love? That which gave your life a sense of purpose and significance?
That’s where Thomas found himself following the death of Jesus. For three years, Thomas had followed Jesus wholeheartedly. For three years, Jesus had been the focus and the center of Thomas’ life. Everything that made life worth living, he found in Jesus.
Suddenly, Jesus was gone. He had been executed in horrible fashion. Nails had been driven through His wrists, impaling Him to a wooden cross. For six hours, Jesus hung upon that cross until, at last, a soldier drove a spear through Jesus’ side to guarantee that Jesus was dead.
What do you do in the midst of overwhelming loss and grief? What do you do when your world comes crashing down?
Some people find solace in the company of others. They turn to those who can share their grief. Others run away from the company of others. They feel a need to be alone in their despair.
Thomas seems to have been one who needed to be alone. The other disciples sought each other out. They found solace in each other’s company. But Thomas went off by himself.
While Thomas was away, though, something incredible happened. As the other disciples were huddled together in a locked house, Jesus suddenly appeared with them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
Though Jesus had been crucified, He was alive again! He had risen from the dead! They saw Him, and their hearts were filled again with joy and hope and faith.
They found Thomas and told him the good news. But Thomas was too overcome with despair to receive their good news. The floor had been pulled out from under him when Jesus died upon the cross. Thomas was not about to get his hopes up again if their story couldn’t be proven to be true.
He asks for evidence. He knows what happened to Jesus. He knows about the nails in Jesus’ hands and feet. He knows about the spear driven into Jesus’ heart. If he is going to believe in some report of Jesus’ resurrection, he needs to know that anyone who presents himself as one risen from the dead is truly the one who died upon the cross. That is a natural response from one who has been crushed by despair.
I am struck by what transpires from here. We do not find a report of Thomas taking the initiative to search for evidence to prove or dispel his doubts about Jesus’ resurrection. Thomas is too full of despair to do that.
It is Jesus who takes the initiative.
Seven days later, the disciples are together again. This time Thomas is with them. (I wonder whether it took a full week before Thomas felt ready to hang out with friends whose grief had turned to joy.) Though the doors are shut, Jesus appears in their midst and announces to them, “Peace be with you.”
Jesus extends to them a peace that comes from the presence of a Savior whom death cannot hold down and who will always be with us. Because we are loved by a Savior who overcame death, we can live in the hope and the peace of Deuteronomy 31:8: “The Lord Himself goes before you and will be with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” And because we are loved by a Savior who overcame death we can live in the love and peace of Romans 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Then Jesus addresses Thomas in particular. The initiative He takes toward Thomas is loving. He does not cross His arms, with His fists buried in His armpits in petulant anger, preventing Thomas from seeing the marks in His hands. He does not take away Thomas’ voice for expressing doubt, or remove his sight for wanting to see proof. He doesn’t scold or ridicule Thomas. He graciously holds out His hands and reveals His side, saying to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
Jesus took the initiative not just in showing Himself to Thomas but also in drawing Thomas to Him. It’s what He keeps doing. In His love for us, Jesus keeps reaching out, revealing His closeness to us, and drawing people to the love and to the peace of God.
Marguerite Shuster tells a story that she traces back to Myron Augsburger. I am skeptical as to whether the story could actually have happened—I suspect it to be an urban legend—but it makes me laugh, and it makes a good point, so here it is:
“This fellow was slaving over his desk in his sixth-floor office, struggling to see what he was doing after the seven-foot fluorescent light above his desk stopped working. Calling maintenance produced no help, so he decided to scramble up on the desk and take a look himself. Sure enough, the bulb was burned out. He unscrewed it, measured it carefully, and went off to the hardware store for a replacement. Success! He screwed in the bulb and the office was flooded with light. When five p.m. came and he was ready to leave, he saw the burned-out tube standing forlornly in the corner. Leaving it there didn’t seem like a very good idea, since he wasn’t a part of the maintenance people’s union. He decided he’d better take it with him; he thought he remembered a construction site on the way home where he could dump it So, he carried it down the street, into the subway station, onto the train; but how do you sit down with a seven-foot tube in your hand? … So he stood up. The train stopped at the next station, five people got on, and four of them grabbed hold of the tube. Now what? Pretty soon it occurred to him that all he needed to do was get off at his station and leave the pole. Picture, then, the last person left holding that wobbly pole.” (Theology, News & Notes, Oct. 1999)
Nathanael (God bless him) was determined not to be one of those kind of people who would be left holding a burned-out tube just because others had grabbed hold of it. When Philip, a friend of Nathanael’s, came and told him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth” (John 1:45), Nathanael voiced his skepticism. He asked a question that could be considered rather rude, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Christians are often made to feel that they are being naughty if they ask questions or express doubts about anything having to do with God or Christ. But, according to John 1:47, Jesus affirms Nathanael’s character in the midst of his skeptical outburst. Jesus says of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” This verse reveals that Jesus values a person’s integrity and genuineness over a façade of faithfulness. Apparently, it is better in Jesus’ eyes for us to express our doubts and to ask our questions (even when they may sound rude) than to shove them down and hide them under a mask of faith.
Why would that be? Why does God prefer honest doubts and questions over a mask of faith?
Frederick Buechner points out, “Doubts prove that we are in touch with reality, with the things that threaten faith as well as with things that nourish it. If we are not in touch with reality, then our faith is apt to be blind, fragile, and irrelevant.” God wants us to be open and honest about our doubts so that we can move from a blind, fragile, and irrelevant faith into a faith that is real and growing.
Ruth Senter adds, “God’s love isn’t so fickle that my doubts cause him to love me less. God sticks with people through their doubts; he hangs on to people when they’re wandering off in the wrong direction. I saw that kind of love other places in Scripture. God didn’t strike Job dead when Job did some loud complaining. Nor did God put David on the shelf when David asked some tough questions (see the Psalms)…. I haven’t outgrown all my doubts. There are still many loose ends of life which I haven’t been able to tie together—and probably never will. I’ll never understand all the ways of God. He doesn’t even expect me to. But he does expect me to love him. And loving means honesty. I wish I’d learned a long time ago that God does understand about doubts. It would have saved me a lot of energy I wasted trying to pretend my questions didn’t exist.”
The conclusion I come to is that one of the keys to spiritual growth has to do with taking off the mask and being genuine with God about our questions and doubts.
At the opening of John’s biography of Jesus (the Gospel of John), two individuals (Andrew and probably John, the author of the biography) become intrigued by Jesus when John the Baptizer refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God. They begin to follow Jesus. Noticing them trailing Him, Jesus turns and asks them, “What are you looking for?”
They come up with the right answer to His question—the answer that leads to genuine discovery. They ask, “Where are you staying?” They want to spend time with Him by which they can watch Him and listen to Him and discover His character (the essence of who He is).
They provide a good model for us: If you want to discover Jesus, the most important thing to do is not to read a theological treatise about Him but to spend time with Him, drawing near to His heart, discovering who He is.
Indeed, that’s what Jesus said to Andrew and his friend, “Come and see” (John 1:39).
Sadly, many people, wanting to “see” Jesus, have looked at perverted images of Jesus in Christians they have known. In her book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Rachel Held Evans shares many such examples: “Likening their conquests to Joshua’s defeat of Canaan, European Christians brought rape, violence, plunder, and enslavement to the New World, where hundreds of thousands of native people were enslaved or killed. It is said that a tribal chief from the island of Hispaniola was given the chance to convert to Christianity before being executed, but he responded that if heaven was where Christians went when they died, he would rather go to hell.” A woman identified as C.J. wrote to her, “We left for so many reasons, but the night we made the decision for good was the night my husband looked at our tiny newborn daughter sleeping in my arms and said, ‘I don’t want her to ever know that God, the God we grew up with, the one the church at large preaches. I don’t want her to grow up with the crap we did. I want her to know God, but not that God. Never ever that God.’”
In the book Severe Mercy, Sheldon Van Auken points out, “The best argument for Christianity is Christians—their joy, their certainty, their completeness. But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians—when they’re self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration. When they’re narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths.”
Despite the poor representation of Christ that Christians have often provided throughout the centuries, Christ continues to offer to people the strategy that He extended to Andrew and his friend, “Come and see.”
That strategy worked for me. As a young person I took a serious look at myself and at the Jesus I found in the Gospels. When I looked at myself, I saw a young person who was so anxious to fit in with others that I was two-faced and insincere more often than I wished, but when I looked at Jesus I saw one who was true to Himself in all circumstances—no matter what anyone else thought of Him. When I looked at myself, I saw a person who was unsatisfied with life, always trying to find what could make me happy, but when I looked at Jesus I saw someone who was at peace with Himself even in the most trying times. When I looked at myself I saw someone who struggled so much with jealousies and resentments and prejudices, but when I looked at Jesus I saw one who was consistently filled with love and who unswervingly acted with love toward others. When I looked at myself, I saw a person who was often consumed by fear, but when I looked at Jesus I saw a person of tremendous courage, who put love for others ahead of self-protection.
Continually, when I looked at Jesus I saw what I want to become! Interestingly, this short story at the beginning of John’s biography of Jesus (John 1:35-42) ends with Andrew bringing his brother Simon to Jesus. Jesus looked at Simon and said to him, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter).” By all indications, Simon was not, at that time, a strong, dependable, and unbreakable person. Jesus saw beyond what Simon was at the moment to what he would become. I love how these two pieces of the story go together: When we come and look at Jesus, we discover not only who He is but also what we will become in Him.
With the coronavirus shutting so many things down, and with the Center for Disease Control encouraging us to stay away from each other, and with people fearfully hoarding some of the basic necessities of life, we need to remember the importance of caring for the individuals around us. The news talks about statistics and percentages, but each unique persons needs to experience human connection and concern.
In an article entitled “Why People Need People: The Myth of Solitude,” Jenev Caddell writes, “More and more research in the fields of neurobiology and psychology is demonstrating how we are more connected and interdependent than we have ever realized. The front of our brains have special neurons called ‘mirror neurons’ that exist to help us understand and empathize with one another. We are a social species, and the truth is, we need each other to survive. All of the technology that exists has not eradicated that need from our basic biology.”
Maddie and Tae sing a song that states,
People need people when the highs get low
The world’s a bit too heavy for one shoulder to hold
The strongest souls still wear out and the hardest hearts still break
Sometimes you ain’t all right and sometimes that’s okay
So if you’re asking me
People need people
Somebody to call when you’re too close to the edge
Somebody to catch you when you’re dancing on a ledge
Somebody to pray for you, someone that you can pray for
To need and to be needed, oh, I believe it’s what we were made for
Many years ago a Japanese magazine published an issue with the picture of a butterfly on one page. The page and the butterfly were a dull grey…until the reader placed a hand over the picture. The warmth of a hand caused special inks in the printing to react, and the butterfly was transformed into a rainbow of flashing color. It was the human touch that brought the butterfly to “life.”
Though we are encouraged to avoid making physical touch with others in the midst of this pandemic, there are other ways in which we can touch a person’s soul and renew life to their spirit.
- A phone call or text
- A kind word (Proverbs 16:24 says, “Kind words are like honey—sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.)
- A good deed
- A caring favor
- A bouquet of flowers from your yard
- Delivering groceries
- A listening ear
- A prayer
At a time like this, when so much in our nation is pushing us apart, what difference it can make—what life it can bring to a soul—if we reach out to one another.
We find ourselves in the midst of a frightening time, with worries over the coronavirus, fears over our health, economic uncertainties, qualms about being in public, and questions about whether we will ever find rolls of toilet paper again.
What are we to do in the face of such fears and uncertainties?
We need the proper combination of caution and courage.
First some words of caution: The Red Cross offers these basic suggestions:
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Stay home when you are sick.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
- Wash your hands often.
- Practice good health habits (get sufficient sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, eat nutritious food, and drink plenty of fluids).
- Clean and disinfect commonly touched surfaces.
It is also wise at this time to avoid shaking hands.
Now for some words on courage: At a time like this—a time unlike anything most of us have had to endure—it is natural to feel afraid. For anyone to tell you not to be afraid would be foolish. But courage is not the absence of fear. Mark Twain defines courage as “resistance to fear, mastery of fear.” Ambrose Redmoon adds, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”
Sometimes the best thing we can do with our fears is to look at them closely, learn from them what we need to learn, then set them to the side and move forward with the “more important” thing.
What are those “more important” things that we should be doing? In an article “On Living in an Atomic Age” at the beginning of the Cold War (1948), C.S. Lewis wrote, “It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty. This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”
One of our greatest tendencies at a time like this is to isolate, but our greatest need in times of need is encouraging connection with others. Dr. Henry Cloud remarks, “One of my favorite examples of connectedness comes from a body of research regarding cortisol release in monkeys, rats, and other animals under stress. Cortisol is not something you want a great deal of floating around in your brain. It is a strong stress hormone. When they put a monkey in a cage and pipe in loud scary noises (thus, high stress for the poor monkey), the amounts of this chemical in the monkey’s system is—as you’d expect—very high. But get this…when they put one of his buddies in the cage with him—even though the loud, scary noises are continued—the amount of cortisol in his brain goes down. The outside stressor is the same, but the inside stress level goes down just from having a friend nearby.”
Perhaps the greatest thing we can do for our world at a time like this is to look out for one another—especially those who are scared, hurting, suffering, or needy. Reach out to one another. Encourage the downhearted. Be there for each other.
In an article about the uniqueness of each human being, Richard Gray writes, “From your walk and your body odor to the shapes of your ears and your backside, scientists are finding many surprising ways of identifying you from the other seven billion people in the world.”
I suppose God could have caused us to come into this world in a cookie-cutter-pattern in which we might all be the same. But with wisdom, creativity, and love, God causes each of us to come into this world as a unique being.
Every individually-crafted person matters immensely to God.
In Matthew 10:29-31, Jesus states, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Every individual matters immensely to God!
Since every person matters to God, individuals should matters to us as well.
We get a glimpse of such personalized care in the way Paul concludes his letter to the church in Colossae. Paul mentions 10 distinct individuals here. Though we know almost nothing about most of these persons, they are mentioned by name because they matter to God and they matter to Paul.
Joseph Fletcher comments, “The true opposite of love is not hate but indifference. Hate, bad as it is, at least treats the neighbor as a THOU, whereas indifference turns the neighbor into an IT, a thing. This is why we may say that there is actually one thing worse than evil itself, and that is indifference to evil. In human relations the nadir of morality, the lowest point as far as Christian ethics are concerned, is manifest in the phrase, ‘I couldn’t care less.’”
On the other hand, Charles Morgan remarks, “There is no surprise more magical than the surprise of being loved. It is God’s finger on a person’s shoulder.”
Paul’s letter concludes not with indifference but with a touch of God’s finger on 10 people’s shoulders. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could dissolve some of the indifference in this world with many touches of God’s finger on the shoulders of people in our lives by treating each person in accordance with how much they matter to God and to us?
Some of the touches we find in Colossians 4 carry added significance:
Earlier in the letter, when Paul declared the equality before God of slaves and masters, he began what would bring about the dismantling of slavery. He takes it a step further here. In verse 7 Paul refers to Tychicus, a free man, as a bond servant (in the Greek, the word is closely related to the word used for slaves in Colossians 3:22), while in verse 9, he refers to Onesimus, a slave, as “the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you.” Paul tears down divisions, and so should we.
In verse 10, Paul speaks of Mark, stressing, “If he comes to you, welcome him.” This is the person Paul refused to bring with him on an earlier missionary trip and fought with Barnabas about. But in Colossians 3:12-14, Paul stressed that we should “forgive each other.” For Paul, forgiveness is not just something to write about but something to practice. That’s how it should be for us as well.
In verse 15, Paul sends his greetings to “Nympha and the church in her house.” Though Greek culture demeaned women, Paul upholds this woman as a respected leader in the early Christian church. As Paul points out in Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”