There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night . . .
Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar. . . A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”
Now a certain man was ill. . . So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
In Sunday worship this Lent, we’re reading long passages from the Gospel of John. Each begins with an encounter with Jesus that leads to life transformation. Jesus also gives what seems like a sermon or has an argument with those who are not only opposed to what he is doing, but to who he is. The readings end with an exhortation to put our faith in Jesus.
Let’s consider why reading the Bible is such a foundational spiritual practice and how to read biblical texts–and in particular, the gospels–in ways that help us grow in faith.
Virginia Theological Seminary professor Judy Fentress-Williams begins her recent book Holy Imagination: A Literary and Theological Introduction to the Whole Bible by citing the line of a poem: These words have come a long way to find you.1 She points out that like poetry, biblical language is multi-layered, filled with symbolism and metaphor. “It doesn’t always yield meaning easily, and doesn’t promise to make sense.”
Yet reading the Bible is meant, above all else, to be an encounter with what the words are attempting to express–the nature of God and God’s presence in our world. “The words are the same,” she writes, “but we are not, and for that reason there are always new discoveries.”2 We’ve also inherited a long tradition of reinterpretation of Scripture in which successive generations have reimagined what the words mean for them. That tradition of reimagining and reinterpretation begins within the Scriptures themselves.
Nowhere is that tradition of reimagination more evident than in the Gospel of John.
When reading the Gospel of John we enter a world of sharp contrasts–light in darkness; sight versus blindness; life overcoming death. John introduces us to a very different Jesus than the one we encounter in the first three gospels.
In John: the Gospel of Light and Life, Pastor Adam Hamilton writes:
None of the Gospels are, strictly speaking, biographies of Jesus. But John’s Gospel, more than any of the others, is something of a spiritual or theological commentary on Jeus’ life, death, and resurrection. In John, details of events and even the words of Jesus are not so much about what actually happened, though clearly they are rooted in what actually happened. Instead they are about the meaning-the spiritual significance-of Jesus’ life. For this reason, Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150-215) described John as “the spiritual Gospel.”3
Not all of John is inspiring to read. There are passages that introduce an element of fear of eternal punishment for those who don’t put their faith in Jesus. There’s also a strong anti-Jewish sentiment, which is confusing given that Jesus and his disciples were Jews.
Here is where knowing a bit of context helps. John was written at least one generation after the first gospels, during a time of painful separation between the Jews who followed Jesus and those who did not, and the Jesus followers were expelled from their synagogues. Moreover, the promise of Jesus’ imminent return to usher in the Kingdom of God had not occurred.
Of this context, Clayton McCleskey, one of our seminarians studying for the priesthood writes:
What do you do when the faith you look up to disappoints? What do you do when the community in which you prayed and lived turns its back on you? John provides a courageous invitation to “find freedom in disappointment … grasp grace in dislocation … and learn love in departure.”4
We needn’t have the same arguments that our biblical forebears did; nor do we need to accept their prejudices and blindspots. We must keep watch for the ways that texts can be misused to cause harm that is always antithetical to Jesus’ message of love.
John’s invitation to his first readers, and to us, is to know Christ now, to feel his love for us now, to trust that Jesus is alive and with us, now. We don’t have to wait for Him to return, for He is here. John doesn’t deny that there is hardship and evil in this world, but that Jesus is with us and for us through it all. We can believe–that is, give our hearts to and place our trust– in Him. Remember the stirring words from John that we read every year at Christmas: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5)
For those who accepted my invitation to read through one gospel text in its entirely, let me leave you with the three questions at the heart of spiritual meditation to grow in faith:
- What is this passage saying about Jesus?
- In this passage, how does Jesus speak to me/us?
- What is my/our response?
Blessed reading to all.
1Judy Fentress-Williams’s citation comes from: Edward Hirsch, How to Read a Poem: and Fall in Love with Poetry (New York: Harcourt, 1999), 1.
2Judy Fentress-Williams, Holy Imagination: A Literary and Theological Introduction to the Whole Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2021) xi.
3Adam Hamilton, John: A Gospel of Light and Life, Kindle ed., 10.
4Hill, Robert Allan. The Courageous Gospel: Resources for Teachers, Students, and Preachers of the Fourth Gospel. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2013) 96