by The Rev. Dr. John Killinger
Listen with me to these words from the Gospel of John:
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, '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.' Jesus answered him, 'Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.' Then a little later, a Samaritan woman came to draw water and Jesus said to her, 'Give me a drink.' The Samaritan woman said to him, 'How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?' Jesus answered her, 'If you only knew the gift of God and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.
My wife, like her mother before her, has always been an avid reader, often devouring several books a week. I've always read a lot too, but my reading has generally been dictated by my work, while my wife's has been governed by her pleasure. I can't count the number of times across the years she has said, "Oh, I wish you'd read this book, it is so wonderful!" I always said, "Well, set it aside where I can find it, and I'll read it when I can get to it." I seldom got to it.
But as I've been approaching my retirement years, I've permitted myself to read more and more things for fun, and have been discovering that the books my wife said were wonderful were indeed that, and often more. I have entered the worlds of such consummate storytellers as Maeve Binchy and Elizabeth Goudge, and felt as if I were Alice falling into a hole and finding myself in a beautiful, sensitive realm I never knew existed. And I have chided myself for not having listened to my wife and found this realm before. I did not know what fascinating worlds I was missing!
Several years ago, we had a friend in Nashville, Tennessee, who had always been too busy to travel. Then, when he retired, he started taking trips—everywhere. By the time he was eighty, Al belonged to the Century Club. He had been to more than a hundred countries.
Al was also a fine photographer, and took a lot of pictures wherever he went. He would come home from a trip, cull out the best of his pictures, arrange them into a slide show, and invite his friends in for dinner and a viewing. I realized, on many of those evenings when we were watching pictures of Al's visits to the South Seas, to the Himalayas, to remote parts of Africa and Asia and South America, how many worlds I was missing by clinging so negligently to the one where I lived. There were dozens—hundreds—of them, and I wasn't seeing them or becoming a part of them at all.
I wonder if any of us ever stop to think how many worlds there are and how many we are missing every day—other landscapes and geographies, other languages (which sometimes permit thoughts we can't have in our own), the many worlds of the sciences. Just think about the different lives of such people as coal miners and hot-air balloonists and pearl divers and nuclear physicists and newspaper reporters and gourmet chefs and brain surgeons. There are such vast areas of human experience most of us haven't even begun to experience, and probably never will.
We have a friend whose interest in autistic children led her to become interested in the sounds dolphins make, and how those sounds affect the children. One day she decided to go to the Caribbean and take a trip on a dolphin boat, going way out to sea where the passengers could put on their wet suits and get into the water and swim with the dolphins.
One time, when she was in the water with the dolphins, a mother and baby dolphin began cavorting with her and remained with her for about an hour. The baby would cuddle against her stomach and the two of them would rise to the ocean's surface together, where the calf would leap high into the air, as dolphins do. It was a life-changing experience for our friend, one she will treasure for the rest of her days.
Now this friend has written a book about her visits with the dolphins, and how her experiences with them have helped her in her work with the children. And I confess, as I read the autographed copy of the book she mailed us, I envied her experiences with the dolphins. I positively drooled over them. And I think how many wonderful experiences there are in the world that I am not having, any one of which might change the entire direction of my life.
Sometimes we are so quick, when we are tired or bored, to conclude that the world is a dull and tedious place. But it isn't. It's anything but that. It's an incredibly rich and varied world. It is Disney World and Universal Studios and Epcot Center times a hundred, times a thousand, times ten thousand. The problem is with us. We are so willing to remain as we are, so content to cling to our little worlds, that we aren't even open to the richness of experiences around us.
One Sunday morning a minister friend of mine was chatting with a man during the social hour of their church. "What did you do yesterday?" asked the minister. "Oh," said the man, "my wife wanted me to go with her to see that new movie, Little Women, but I said naw, that sounds like a woman's movie to me. So I took my son and we went to the giant tractor pull at the coliseum."
Little Women was a beautiful film, a feast of love and color and sensuousness. I'm afraid my own judgment of my wife's reading across the years may put me in closer proximity to that man than I'd like to think. But isn't it a shame that we limit ourselves so blindly and peremptorily, and miss so much of the great variety life has to offer?
Let me share with you one of the great landmark experiences of my life, one in which I learned as much as I ever learned in church. I was in Paris, France, working on a book on the theater of the absurd. I had gone, one Sunday afternoon in April, to a play by Fernando Arrabal, a Spanish playwright doing most of his work in French. It was in a little theater somewhere in the back streets of the city.
We entered the theater by a ramp that had been built over the stage, because the stage completely encircled the room, and sat in revolving chairs in the center. And once we were in, the ramp was removed, so that we were essentially a captive audience.
The play was staged in the absurd manner. Little of the dialogue or action made much sense. The lights—great, powerful lights—kept rotating and getting in the audience's eyes. The setting was a wrecking yard, the play was called The Car Cemetery, and there were old cars and pieces of junk everywhere. And the characters, as they marched, hollered, and stomped their way around the stage, kept banging on the cars with ball bats and metal pipes. The din was almost unbearable.
I hadn't been there more than ten minutes before I thought I had to get out or die. But I couldn't get to the door. I simply had to make the best of it. Mercifully, my mind gradually adjusted to what was happening, and I finally began to follow it with at least a mild amount of interest.
Two hours later, when the play was over, the ramps were restored and we filed out into the pleasant neighborhood around the theater. I could hear children playing down the street. Somewhere there was a dog barking in the distance. And suddenly I had the feeling that this quiet world, the ordinary world into which we had come after the play, was unreal. I wanted to rush back inside, to the world of noise and confusion I had grown accustomed to.
I learned a very important lesson from that experience. I discovered that my ideas of reality are what I have been programmed to think of as reality, but that there are hundreds, thousands, of ways of thinking of reality that are always out there beyond my momentary consciousness, my limited way of seeing the world. And if I am tolerant today of viewpoints quite different from my own—those of Muslims and Hindus, homosexuals and immigrants, ballet dancers and opera singers—it is because I realized that day how completely I am at the mercy of my restricted vision of life, how wrong I may be about everything, not because of the things I know but because of the things I don't know. There are whole worlds out there that I am missing.
That is part of what the Bible is about, my friends, part of what it is trying to get us to see and understand. Jesus said to Nicodemus, "You can't see the things I am trying to teach you from where you've been standing. You must be born again, this time from above." He said to the woman at the well, when she was quibbling with him about whether he had a vessel into which she could pour the water he had requested of her, "If you only knew who is asking you for some water, you would be asking him for a drink, and he would give you eternal water, water of such fine essence that your soul would never thirst again."
"If you only knew."
That's the defining phrase, isn't it?
"If you only knew." If you could only see the other worlds, the other possibilities, that steal up to you continuously, like ghosts staring you in the face, you would enter another dimension and your life would be twice or three times or a hundred times as rich as it is now.
"If you only knew."
It is arrogant to refuse other worlds because we don't already know them and haven't already seen them. It is arrogant and foolish and tragic.
If you only knew, you would ask and you would enter another world—a world you are presently missing.
Some writer understood this. I don't remember who it was, for I read it years ago. He or she told about a couple who stopped at a trading post in the Southwest. They were looking at a rug woven by an old Indian woman. "Do you like it?" asked the wife. "It's horrible," said the man, not bothering to lower his voice so the woman who made it wouldn't hear. "What is it, anyway? I can't even tell what it is."
"You are looking at the wrong side," said the Indian woman. "The picture is on the other side." And indeed it was—a beautiful, artistically rendered vision of a Western sunset seen through the shadows and silhouettes of a wooded mountainside. The embarrassed couple bought the rug and took it home and hung it over their mantle, where they enjoyed it for years. Until they realized they were looking at the wrong side, they were missing the real view.
Just the way you and I may be missing another world.
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Going Deeper - Expository Essay on John 3:1-17
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Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for the 3rd Sunday after Denaha (Baptism of our Lord)
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