America, We Must Be Born Again

For the homily today, we’ll follow important conversations from three major players: Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman, and James Baldwin.

  1. Nicodemus: The Vulnerability of Rebirth

First, Nicodemus. When Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born again, Nicodemus asks how a grown man can go back into his mother’s womb. More than an Oedipus complex, Nicodemus’s apparent misunderstanding is a rhetorical ploy meant to challenge and confound Jesus. Nicodemus responds not necessarily out of genuine curiosity, but because he doesn’t want to accept the claims Jesus is making.

John is famous for using wordplay, ambiguous language, and irony to emphasize multiple levels of meaning. Jesus explains to Nicodemus: One must be born again to enter the Kin-dom of God (John 3:3, 5). For some of us, born again may be a loaded term. . . . Consider what associations are linked to being “born again” for you. For those of us coming from the Evangelical tradition, being born again involves a personal conversion experience. An old life is surrendered or set aside, and a new life is taken up. It is a spiritual rebirth. The Greek word used here, anothen has two meanings. It can mean “again,” in terms of a rebirth, and it can also mean “from above.” This double-meaning bridges the personal experience of being “born again” with the incarnation of Jesus – that is, the process by which Jesus gives up his status with God, above, and comes down to earth, taking on all the vulnerabilities of a human being, not only that, but as a Jewish resident of the Roman Empire, a part of a socially minoritized and politically oppressed group. The invitation to be born again/from above, then, is actually an invitation to set aside privilege, to take up residence with those who are marginalized. Nicodemus cannot fathom such a rebirth… a rebirth that for him would mean abandoning his privileged identity as “a man of the Pharisees” and a “ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1), a position which suggests credentials and power within the Roman Empire and the social world of his day. Nicodemus represents those who cling to the position and privilege afforded them by their earthly birth and the systems of society and so miss out on the Good News.

  1. The Samaritan Woman:  Boundary-Crossing Living Water

In contrast to the story of Nicodemus, we have in the very next chapter, the woman at the well. Several features of this story invite us compare this woman of Samaria with the man of Israel, Nicodemus. A respected male of high status vs. a vulnerable, unmarried woman (basically no status). The named insider comes to Jesus at night, misunderstands Jesus, and refuses to engage in sincere dialogue or to accept Jesus’ challenging message. The unnamed outsider is approached by Jesus in the light of day, engages in extended dialogue with Jesus (the longest conversation in the New Testament!) and eventually becomes the spokeswoman for Jesus in her region. 

John again plays with double meaning. The Greek phrase hydor zon, “living water” is the same term for what we might call “running water” — water from a spring rather than still water. Jesus uses this image – while he sits by a well of spring-fed, running water – to discuss what he’s always discussing – the key to real, abundant life.

This image of living water is best understood by looking ahead a few chapters where Jesus reiterates “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37- 38). He tells the woman at the well two things: 1) I am the source of life; 2) You too can be a source of life to the world around you.

These words find a close parallel in the promise from Isaiah 58:11:

you shall be like a watered garden,

    like a spring of water,

    whose waters never fail.

The context of Isaiah says more about how to be a spring of living water. In fact, it gives conditions for being a source of life:

If you remove the yoke (of oppression) from among you. . .     (Isaiah says)

 if you offer your food to the hungry

    and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

then . . . you shall be like a watered garden,

    like a spring of water,

    whose waters never fail.

(Isaiah 58:9-11)

This context of the passage in Isaiah reminds us that living water comes when we acknowledge and repair the systems that promote injustice and division. The Samaritan Woman was the victim of an oppressive and divisive system, she was the ultimate outsider. But by the end of the story, Jesus and this woman have overcome the intersectional boundaries of gender, ethnicity, and religious affiliation as well as a history of violent conflict between Samaritans and Jews. Jesus, the Jewish teacher, provided living water for an unmarried Samaritan Woman. And a generous Samaritan woman left behind her water jar for a weary and parched Jewish man. This final gesture of hospitality to the thirsty Jesus serves as a final sign of the boundaries that they had breached together.

In light of these two stories, what do we learn about why and how America must be reborn? And for this we’ll turn to another alleged “outsider” – a gay black man from Harlem, one of the most erudite social critics in modern American history.

  1. James Baldwin: Identity without the “Other”

In much of his work, James Baldwin dissembles the notion of “stranger” that has become so central to American identity, at least or especially among the privileged in this country. It is a mark of privilege to hold fast notions of the “other,”  a mark of privilege to prop up the boundaries that separate “us” and “them.” A mark of privilege to decide who counts as a citizen, who counts as a parent, who counts as a human being. He challenges the privileged in the United States to consider why we need the “other” in the first place. Because we create the “other.” It’s not as if certain human beings fall into certain pre-existing categories. No, we create these categories when we use our privilege to decide who gets to cross a border line, when we decide who gets access to health care and education, and housing, when we decide who gets a voice – we decide who’s in and who’s out. So why do we, why do people construct the “other?” James Baldwin says,

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hate so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.

James Baldwin, “Me and My House” in Harper’s (November 1955); republished in Notes of a Native Son (1955).

The contrast between the Samaritan woman and Nicodemus reminds us that from the point of view of privilege there is a cost, there is an inescapable cost to letting go of our construction of the other. Nicodemus’s identity is wrapped up in his position – and so, when asked to be reborn among the vulnerable, when asked to cross the lines that protect his privilege, he responds with disbelief – How could Jesus expect such a radical rebirth?

Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. . . . Yet, it is only when (one) is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender . . . a privilege (they have) long possessed that (they are) set free . . . for higher dreams, for greater privileges.

James Baldwin, “Faulkner and Desegregation” in Partisan Review (Fall 1956); republished in Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961).

Baldwin’s words remind us that there is also a cost to holding on to privilege. Systems of oppression do not just dehumanize the oppressed (although they certainly do that). Those of us who side with, when we side with, the oppressors, when we benefit from the oppressive systems – we give up our ability to embrace our own identity as good and valuable because with privilege comes the lie that human worth and inherent value are limited commodities. That I am only worth something over and against another.

We at Church in the Cliff have a pretty good handle on calling out oppressive political systems – and we’ll keep at it. We have spent the Poor People’s campaign looking out at the big systems of the world and taking action to reform those systems – rightly so. But as we wrap up this series, I want us to consider also that our efforts, if they are to last, must flow from an authentic view of ourselves – outside of the lines of privilege that either benefit or disenfranchise each of us in different ways. We must avoid the mistake of Nicodemus, who resisted vulnerabilities – and go the way of the Samaritan woman and the way of Jesus, recognizing that we must be born again. We must continue to flip the script. Where we find ourselves privileged, we must count it as loss – not working for the oppressed from on high, but realizing that the boundary between oppressor and oppressed is not one of essential identity, it is one of social construct. And in the new, reborn family we stand side-by-side. Where we find ourselves marginalized and minoritized, we can also find empowerment – the story of Jesus shows us that real life springs forth in vulnerability. James Baldwin was once asked in an interview:

“As a black, impoverished, homosexual… You must have thought to yourself ‘Gee, how disadvantaged can I get?’” His response? “No I thought I hit the jack pot… when it’s so outrageous you can’t go any further, you know. So you have to find a way to use it.”

He also said “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world. . . but those very things that tormented me the most were the things that connected me to all the people who had been alive, who have ever been alive.” The vulnerability of rebirth is found in boundary-crossing, and living water will spring from our hearts when we can construct our identity without drawing dividing lines. As the prophet Isaiah says:

The Lord will guide you continually,

    and satisfy your needs in parched places,

    and make your bones strong;

and you shall be like a watered garden,

    like a spring of water,

    whose waters never fail.

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;

    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;

you shall be called the repairer of the breach,

    the restorer of neighborhood streets.

Isaiah 58:11-12

 

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This week’s post is by Lindsey Mosher Trozzo.

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