(John 4: 46-54)
In the movie Grand Canyon, Mack, played by actor Kevin Kline, is on the verge of getting mugged. His car has broken down, and while waiting on the tow truck, others have arrived with less than noble intentions. It’s not looking good – until, right before things take a turn for the worst, Mack sees the headlights of his salvation coming over the horizon. After the car is fixed and the danger is gone, an exceedingly grateful Mack seeks to befriend the tow truck driver Simon, played by Danny Glover, and offers to take him out for breakfast.
And so over eggs and bacon the next morning, Simon asks why – why the breakfast, why the friendship. He was only doing his job. Mack answers by sharing a story:
One morning, about three years ago, I was on my way to a meeting. I was standing there at the intersection, getting ready to cross the street. I was thinking about the meeting I was going to. I was worried about it, actually. I started to step off the curb. And that’s when this stranger grabbed me and yanked me back as a city bus went flying by my nose. I mean, it just filled up the world, six inches from my nose. I would have been like a wet bug stain on the bus. I thanked this stranger, but I was pretty much in a daze. She said “My pleasure.” I never got over the idea that I should have thanked that woman more, talked to her a while, something. She reached out and yanked me back from the edge, literally. Changed everything for me, and for my wife and my son – and I just let her wander off.
Mack pauses, looks out the diner window, in deep thought. And he says, What if these are miracles, Simon? What if we don’t have any experience with miracles, so we’re just slow to recognize them for what they are?
It’s a good question, right? Chances are at some point we’ve found ourselves wondering the same sort of thing; where things happen and we have this sense that they’re not random occurrences, that something more is going on. What if miracles are not one-offs? What if they’re bigger than that?
The writer of the Gospel of John, the writer of our passage today, seems to think this. For him, the miracles of Jesus go by a different name: signs. There’s a difference. Signs, according to Lutheran pastor and professor David Lose, are not just the miraculous, but miraculous that reveal a little piece of who Jesus is for us and the world. Signs are, in essence, pointers to Jesus’ identity. They are John’s way of helping his audience – of which we are part – see Jesus more clearly.
And so the question in this sermon series on “Jesus Signs” in the gospel of John is the same question Grace asked last week: what does this sign reveal to us about Jesus? What does it have to tell us about Jesus’ priorities, what he cares most about, what he wants us to care about too?
That’s the question we ask as we look at today’s passage; the story of Jesus healing a young boy. His father, a “royal official,” is looking for a miracle, and he ends up getting a sign. He is not concerned with acquiring further proof of who Jesus is; he has no interest in being “wowed” by the next miraculous deed. He is only interested in whatever makes his son better.
He gets his wish. We know this because, after he finishes talking with Jesus, after he begs him to make his son well again, he’s greeted by his servants who haven’t waited for him to get home – because when the news you have to share is this good, you don’t wait, you go. They go and tell him that his son – his dying son – is no longer dying. He is fine. And when the father asks when exactly he took a turn for the better, the answer they give lets him know that it happened right at the moment Jesus told him his son would be well.
It is, no doubt, a miracle. Better yet, it’s a sign!
But a sign of what? That’s what John asks. What about Jesus are we supposed to see here?
A little girl is put to bed by her mother one night as a loud thunderstorm rages outside. As the mother kisses her forehead and gets up to leave, the girl reaches out to grab her hand and asks her to stay a little longer. This is the third time she’s made this request! Her mother tells her not to be afraid, everything will be alright, the storm will soon pass and she and her father will be right downstairs.
The little girl looks up at her mother and says, “I know Mommy, I know all that. But when it thunders in the sky, and the light outside flashes a little girl like me needs somebody with skin on.”
That’s a miracle, no? The miracle of being there, right there, with another. In theological terms we call it the incarnation – the idea that God became human – in the flesh – to be with us. Not in spirit but in body. We just spent an Advent and Christmas season celebrating that very thing, and we celebrate it today too.
We celebrate it today because this sign in the fourth chapter of John is about Jesus meeting our needs right where we are, in the here and now. He does not meet them from a distance; he does not tell us he’ll meet them some day down the road; and he certainly doesn’t pitch heaven and the life to come as our future nostalgic hope. No, Jesus comes to us where we are and meets our needs right here, right now.
And that really, really freaks some people out.
It does! We don’t get much of a sense of it in the passage today. But in two other healing stories in the 5th and 9th chapters of John, two other signs, we see it clear as day. A man healed after thirty-eight years of illness – and the religious authorities blame Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. A man blind from birth is made to see again – and the powers-that-be interrogate him and his parents, accusing him of lying.
It’s not the response we expect, is it? Why wouldn’t anyone be happy, elated, overjoyed at the sick being made well, the blind able to see? But that’s not how they see the signs. They see something totally different. And it freaks them out. It makes them afraid.
It makes them afraid because the whole notion of someone meeting another person’s needs in the here and now, and in the most transformative of ways, only serves to remind them that they are not able to do so themselves. This, despite the power and influence they possess; this, despite the control they wield. When it comes to meeting the needs of others in the kind of way that truly changes people, they got nothing. But Jesus has that power, and it freaks them out.
Which makes me wonder: what would it be like, people of God, if you and lived in light of that?
I can think of many over the years who’ve been vehicles of Jesus’ healing power. Tomorrow we celebrate the life of a man in Martin Luther King Jr. who had a dream that all people – regardless of skin color, ethnicity, national origin or orientation – would truly be seen as equal. That dream still continues – and is very much needed – today. I think of others, some well-known and others not as much, who’ve stood against injustice and called out the powers-that-be – because to sit with people in their struggle, to meet their needs in the here and now, is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus himself.
This is not easy work. There is this story of a man who came to a holy person seeking healing. The holy person listened patiently as the man rattled off his complaints before asking him, “Do you really want to be healed?” The man was shocked. “Of course I want to be healed,” he said. “Why else would I have come?” To which the holy person replied, “Most come not to be healed, for that is too painful. They come instead for relief.”
Jesus offered not simply relief but healing. And that is our deepest longing, it is our fragile assurance; that the God of the universe would want to be with us and do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
It is a miracle we should expect, sisters and brothers. It is precisely who Jesus has been and always will be. It is precisely who Jesus is for you and me, right here and now.
And for that, in the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.