|Palm Sunday, by Kai Althoff|
The Lenten stories of Nicodemus, the Woman at the Well, and Lazarus, revisited
by Lisa Larges & Kara Root
The hallway is decorated for a parade, streamers are across the ceiling, confetti is on the floor. Palm shrubs line the walls, and branches are on the floor.
The congregation walks through the hall to reach the sanctuary, where they for worship.
Partway through the worship service, loud, raucous crowd sounds are heard coming from the hallway, cow bells, shouting, cheering. The sounds of Mardi Gras are seeping through the cracks in the door.
The door opens, and Nicodemus slips into the sanctuary. He is dressed in a professional suit, with an official-looking badge clipped to the front. In his arms, he holds a sleeping baby.
I didn’t realize anyone else was in here.
I had to get away!
I couldn’t bear it any longer.
I’m still one of them, after all, so what can I do?
There was that one time when I tried to speak up for him, I said, “Shouldn’t we at least give him a hearing? “ [John 7:50]
Now I worry, was that too much?
I think to myself, It’s too dangerous to try to defend him. I can just be quiet and say nothing.
So there I am with them, watching as he comes in to town. Seeing the joy on the faces. Seeing him there, calm, dignified.
Is this what he meant when he said, “The wind will blow where it will?”
But I can’t show joy.
I’m with them.
They’re all busy scanning the crowd, taking down the names of people they recognize. And as always, the talk turns to, what charges can we bring against him, in order to, as they say, “dispose of the problem.”
And, suspicion is everywhere.
It’s wormed its way in to me.
“Why are you so quiet?”
Nicodemus, are you one of them too?”
But, I’m sure no one knows that I had talked to him.
At least, I think I’m sure. I went out at night.
The whole house was asleep. I made sure no one was following me.
And it was just him and me, there in the middle of the night – the soft evening wind tossing the branches of the trees. I kept looking around to see if anyone was there, but it was just the wind.
“The wind blows where it will,” he said, “You don’t know where it comes from, or where it will go.”
True enough, I thought to myself.
He said that the Spirit of God was like that too.
I don’t know what that means.
But what troubles me even more, the words that stay with me, what I keep thinking about when they’re talking about his death, is what he said about being born.
You must be born again,” he said.
And it was funny too, because just days before, my daughter had given birth to my first grandchild.
This is the one. She’s beautiful, isn’t she?
I know, I know, a man holding a baby … but, I’ve been doing a lot of things that are beneath my station.
The whole family rejoiced when she was born. Not a son, no, but still we rejoiced. And, I think it was then that the dark mood came over me.
Maybe I was just more painfully aware of it – my own despair was so much more evident to me against the foil of the joy in our house.
“What kind of a world is this to bring a baby in to?”
The thought raced and raced around inside my head.
“What are we doing, bringing these babies in to this world?”
I mean, what will there be for her?
Roman soldiers all around; and if it isn’t the oppression of Rome, then there are the busy-bodies like me, “laying on the people burdens too heavy to bear.” That’s something else he said.
I used to believe that it was necessary.
If we were only righteous enough, pure enough, then ….
Then God would smile on us?
Then we would believe that we were not like the Romans, and believe it so strongly that we would overthrow them?
I used to believe this. Something like this. Do I still believe it now?
I mean, look at her. So small and beautiful, and so very vulnerable. So very vulnerable that it fills my heart with terror. If only I could shield her from any suffering, for the pain that will lie ahead for her. If only I could shield her from worry and want. If only I could tell her that if she followed all the rules – followed them strictly enough – followed them to the very letter – that she could wall herself off from loss and sorrow.
But, the hard thing is that I no longer believe it.
And that makes me afraid.
It’s the same fear I felt standing out there with my compatriots, the rulers of the Synagogue, as we watched him and made our plans. Surely he must know.
And I want to believe him. But I’m not sure I can.
If it happens, and I know it will – if we have our way and we stone him, or, as some are suggesting, we get Herod or Pilate to crucify him, then my heart will break open all over again.
Looking at him there, and hearing the talk around me, he seems just as vulnerable as this baby here in my arms.
Is that what he meant?
Is that the Messiah?
Am I to be as vulnerable as this one?
Am I to be as vulnerable as he is on his way to a certain death?
Is that what God, the Holy one, the Ruler of the universe is calling me too?
Am I, are you, to be as vulnerable in the world as this one?
How can we be born again?
Nicodemus turns, shushing and bouncing the baby, and exits the sanctuary. We hear the crowd sounds loudly as the door opens and closes again.
Suddenly, the door slams open. A woman dressed in “tour guide” clothes with binoculars around her neck, a sun hat, a fanny pack and sensible shoes, carrying a clipboard, erupts into the room.
Samaritan Woman from the Well
(Bursts in, out of breath)
You haven’t seen a couple of boys run through here, have you? I’m sure they’re around here somewhere, but their mama’s gotten a little worried and I thought I’d rustle them up for her and put her mind at ease.
Besides, he is coming soon, and they won’t want to miss him!
Whew! (bends over and catches her breath. Stands back up and continues, smiling)
I knew it would be a little tricky, bringing a whole group and all, but I couldn’t have held them back if I’d tried, and I wasn’t about to miss this either.
So what, there are a few stares and whispered comments! I suppose a big old vanload of Samaritans doesn’t roll into Jerusalem every day. It’s not like Judeans are taking pre-paid pilgrimages to our Mt. Gerizim to worship! Ha!
But, really, how could we miss this?
Besides, we’re under strict orders to bring back every detail; the rest of the town is waiting with bated breath, and they sent along notes and homemade goodies to pass on to him. So here we are then, in this place packed with Judeans!
And Wow! are they ever hyped for this parade!
(Pauses) Only, I wonder a little bit if they all know what they’re getting into. (giggles)
It seems like, from what I am hearing out there, that people still think this is about their temple. Their idea of Messiah, their version of truth, and worship, and God. The Jesus they’re all whispering about up and down that street doesn’t sound like much the one I know. It’s like some of them think he’s going to fit right into their script, and if that’s what they think, then WOW, are they in for a shock!
We mountain-worshipers understood the way God had meant for it to be, and we never wavered, for centuries, same as these temple-worshipers here. But that day he came to my town, to Jacob’s well, and asked me for a drink… that day changed everything for us.
God is Spirit. he said, and true worshipers worship in spirit and truth.
I wonder how many people out there think they’ve got it figured out. How many think they know what God wants from them – even if they can’t or wont do it, they’ve got some idea of what it is. I wonder how many are looking around at the others and thinking what they’ve got wrong. A good number are thinking that about us anyway.
What if they knew he stayed a couple nights with us? Ate at our tables? Taught in our holy place? Those boys that ran through here a minute ago, he played soccer with them till the sun went down. What if they knew that he prayed with us? Hugged us goodbye when he left?
What would they all think of him if they could have seen him then?
The world gives us simple choices- you are either right or wrong. Good or bad. Period. You can’t be both, and you can’t all be right and good. So we draw our lines in the sand and glare at each other across them and nobody budges.
But he cut through all of that. He dances his careless footprints all over our lines in the sand. It wont even matter how you worship or where you worship, he said. What matters is who you worship. And I am right here. With you.
Right here, with you.
In the heat of the afternoon, in traveler’s clothes, in need of a drink, how many of those folks out there would give him a second look? That’s not Messiah material, my friends. And yet, there he sat, like any ordinary person, like a person in need, the savior of the world, asking me for a drink.
I had never imagined in all my life I would meet the Messiah. I had never thought God would come near enough, (to any of us, let alone someone like me) to make any kind of difference. We put our head down and do what we can to make it through this life, don’t we? We stay on our side of the lines, and hope at the end of it that God isn’t disappointed with us. That’s pretty much how it works, right?
I never mattered to anyone. Nobody’s fault, really, I just never seemed to be worth much and that was just that. But I know how to hang on and take care of myself. All those husbands, the ones who cared, and the ones who didn’t, and the ones who felt they had to prove that they couldn’t care less. And I outlived and outlasted them all. But make no mistake, I knew my life wasn’t meant to amount to much, especially when it turned out I couldn’t bear children. And I had accepted my fate. Like a cockroach. You could beat me down but you couldn’t kill me. I’m quick and I keep to the shadows. And besides, you can’t kill what isn’t really alive to begin with anyway, right?
But now look at me! Holy Bagumba! Talk about alive! I am responsible for this whole tour. I am their leader, friends, and on this little soiree, the buck stops with me.
He changed my life that day. He changed our whole town. We all came alive. And He is going to change everything. And nothing, nothing will turn out like you think it will. Like they think it will. Just you watch and see.
So Go ahead and celebrate! Celebrate and let go of your expectations! It’s all far more wonderful than we can imagine!
Because, guess what? Suddenly it’s not even about right and wrong and good and bad at all, it’s about life, and it’s for everybody, and nobody is exempt, and nobody misses out, and we don’t get to decide who’s worthy to receive because not a single one us of is, after all, and that doesn’t slow him down in the least from bringing it to us anyway.
Listen to me: God is going to overthrow the whole lot of us, and we’re better off for it!
So sit back and watch the show!
Better yet, jump in the van with us! We’ve got room, some extra sandwiches, and a spot reserved right at the top of the road by the temple!
(Turns to leave)
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the Highest! Wahoo!!!! WAHOO!!!
Oh!, And if you see those boys, you tell them their tour leader is looking for them; and if they’re still planning on giving him that soccer ball, they’d better skedaddle back. Because they DO NOT want to miss him.
(Leaves in a joyful explosion)
The door opens again – again we hear the crowd sounds from the hallway, and a man slinks in, hat pulled low over his face, hiding a big fake mustache and dark glasses.
(pauses and peeks back out into the hall and then turns around and sees congregation)
Pardon me. I came in here to get away from that crowd. I worry that someone is going to recognize me.
[Takes off dark glasses]
Just promise me you won’t tell anyone that you saw me, or where I am.
[Takes off hat and mustache, as he continues to talk]
It’s impossible to go out any more without wearing a disguise.
You won’t believe what’s happened to me since that day. You wouldn’t believe the nerve of some people.
They’re sure there’s some kind of trick somewhere. And you can’t really blame them. I guess I would have believed the same.
Some people confine themselves to just staring at me, but some of them don’t even lower their voices when they talk about me. “He’s the dead guy. You heard about him, right?
Dead three days, and then that Galilean Jesus called him out of the tomb.”
I think they think I can’t hear them.
Like lots of people they think maybe somehow I’m still dead. See this scratch here? That’s where a stranger came up and cut me with a knife. Wanted to see if I would bleed, I guess.
I’m not kidding you.
If I went out there and people knew it was me, you’d see. People stick me with pins. They pinch me. They poke at me. They get up close to me and stare in my face to see if I’m really someone else. They tear at my clothes– I guess they think they’ll find a skeleton underneath.
And you know, maybe I could get used to it, or learn to put up with it. I think it would subside in time. But what really makes it hard is the questions, and I don’t know that they will ever stop.
One of the first was a father. “ Please,” he said to me, tears running down his face, “My son, dead now 4 years, and every day I want to know that he is in a better place. Tell me what it’s like on the other side.” He’s squeezing my arm hard, “Tell me he’s at peace!”
It’s not the speculation that gets to me – the scribes and Pharisees arguing with each other about the afterlife. It’s the others. The ones who carry their grief so strong in them. They just want to know. And they come asking me, because I’ve been to the other side, and I’m back again.
The terrible part is that I have nothing to tell them. I have nothing to tell them, because I don’t remember.
I don’t remember death.
I don’t remember anything about those three days.
I can just barely remember that pull I felt when he called me.
I can’t remember how I got myself up, but I vaguely remember stumbling forward, and the hands all over me, and the relief as the cloth was pulled away, and the faces of my beloved sisters swimming in front of me.
All of that is like a dream to me now, blurry and indistinct.
I can’t tell you anything about death.
But I can tell you about dying.
I can tell you what it was for me, anyway, because dying I remember.
I remember the pain.
Pain so strong it took away everything. Pain that made the whole world recede. Pain that consumed my whole mind. But through the whirlwind of pain, I knew they were there. I could feel their hands, like small islands of peace in a horrible storm.
I can feel them there, one on each side of me.
I can hear their voices above the din of the pain.
“I wish he would come.”
“Don’t worry; he’s going to get here soon.”
And then one of them is speaking to me,
“Hold on dear brother, he’s going to be here very soon, and it will be better then. Please, hang on, he’s coming.”
And then there are silences.
And then, it’s Martha, reciting the Psalms to me.
I think of her.
I think of how she’s learned to stop trying to manage everything.
Now she just sits with me.
I remember feeling something warm on my skin, and I know it is one of them.
Is it Mary? Crying? Her tears falling on to me?
I feel myself going further and further away from them.
And, I know this, if my sisters, Mary and Martha, hadn’t been there with me, it would have been pure terror. But, I drew my strength from them. They were my comfort; they helped me pass through my dying in to death.
I can’t help thinking about him out there in the crowd.
I know that death can’t be far away for him now.
Yes, I know. The crowds, the Hosannas.
But the crowd could turn at any moment.
And the leaders are after him. It’s because of me, and what happened back there.
I’ve talked about it with Mary and Martha.
They agree, I can’t feel guilty about it.
Mary says that whatever happens will be for the glory of God.
Martha says that there would have been something else they would have gone after him for.
But I know what lies ahead for him.
I wonder, Who will hold his hands?
Who will wipe the sweat from his forehead?
Who will be there with him?
But this is what I hold onto now.
Whenever I think about death, his, or the one that will finally come for me, I think about the table in our house. I think of us there, Mary, quiet and thoughtful, Martha, alert to every need, and me, their brother. It’s the three of us, and he is with us for an evening. And for a while, life is pure sweetness.
It is sacred, it is …. Yes, I would say it is holy.
It’s not the crowd outside, with their volatile hosannas.
It’s not his calling me back from death, or any of the other signs he performed.
And it’s not his teachings, wise and true and often inscrutable to me.
It’s those moments around the table, when I knew, knew with a certainty, that he is the Messiah.
(Puts costume pieces back on. Takes a deep breath, and leaves)
After Lazarus leaves, the crowd noises grow louder. Then we hear the soundtrack:
Hosanna! Hosanna in the Highest! Blessed is the One who comes in the Name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the Highest Heaven!
Crowd noise recedes. There is silence for 10-15 seconds.
Suddenly we hear pounding on the door and a gruff loud voice: “Is he in there? Where is He? Where is this ‘King of the Jews?’”
The service ends with song and benediction.
When congregation leaves the sanctuary, the hallway is filled with post-parade debris: wrappers, crushed palm branches, crumpled newspapers, crushed soda cans, etc.