credit - Jenny Lawson for this image and for all the things at The Bloggers - seriously ya'll, she might be my new jam.
37 On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38and let the one who believes in me drink. As* the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart* shall flow rivers of living water.” ’ 39Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit,* because Jesus was not yet glorified.
40 When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, ‘This is really the prophet.’ 41Others said, ‘This is the Messiah.’* But some asked, ‘Surely the Messiah* does not come from Galilee, does he? 42Has not the scripture said that the Messiah* is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?’ 43So there was a division in the crowd because of him. 44Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him.
45 Then the temple police went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, ‘Why did you not arrest him?’ 46The police answered, ‘Never has anyone spoken like this!’ 47Then the Pharisees replied, ‘Surely you have not been deceived too, have you? 48Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? 49But this crowd, which does not know the law—they are accursed.’ 50Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus* before, and who was one of them, asked, 51‘Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?’ 52They replied, ‘Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.’
It’s the end of all the things. That time of year when everything recedes back into the ground, and the sun stops shining, and you go to work in the dark and come home from work in the dark. Winter is coming, and the geese are flying south, and yesterday we celebrated the macabre of Halloween and dead and creepy things, and the Day of the Dead, and Reformation Day and the end of the theocracy of the Roman Catholic Church. And in our reading today, Jesus sneaks in to Jerusalem to celebrate the Festival of Booths - that holiday that celebrates the end of things, the harvest, the temporality of life, and to commemorate the constant moving transience of the Israelites wandering in the desert after the Exodus.
It’s that time when the leaves give one last beautiful shout into the sky until they fall to the ground and turn to wet muck on our sidewalks. It’s when we give our hour of daylight back to the time gods and accept that it will be pitch black at four-thirty in the afternoon. When we pull out all those Decemberist albums praising summer only to find that Colin Meloy is done with the summer songs. Pull out the antidepressants and the sun lamps and the vitamin D supplements, it’s time to batten down the hatches against the noonday demon and the cold and the end of things.
And when, way back at the staff meeting a few months ago, Jeff started planning out the Fall worship calendar, and said that Nov. 1st is the day we talk about John 7 and the doubting and the weird rivers and the living waters, everyone looked over at me. Surely, Jenn is the one who should preach about doubts and questioning and a guy named Nicodemus who is such a perfectionist at the law that he wants to out-lawyer the Pharisee lawyers, just in case, just maybe, this Jesus guy is who they’re saying he is. “Guys,” he says, “I mean, maybe we should look in to this Jesus guy, just in case he is who he says he is. We don’t need to commit. We don’t need to make a downpayment or sign a buyer’s agreement. Let’s just examine the facts and test this guy out, an insurance policy you know, just to be sure, just to hedge our bets a bit.”
And doubting is my jam.
I like to say that this is the way God made me. It’s not my fault. It’s like when I was in high school and I’d leave my clothes all over the floor or my souring leftover Carnation Instant Breakfast in the cupholder of my baby-blue Ford Escort for weeks on end and my parents would say, “What is wrong with you?” And I’d say, “I don’t know. It’s not my fault. You made me…”
And boy has this been a year of doubt. I’d get an A+ in Advanced Placement Doubt for both the Spring and the Fall Semesters this year. And I even took doubting summer school just to show off how very good I am at this doubting thing. To be honest, I’m kind of proud of the doubt mantle I wear. Proud of the doubt-scars I carry across my psyche. Proud of my limp from wrestling with God. And I’m rockin’ along with this John chapter 7 and all the doubting and the almost-arresting and the questions about Jesus and how he can be doing any of these things because he’s from Galilee, and that’s a trash heap of a place, and the Messiah doesn’t come from Galilee, because the books and the prophesies and the laws say he’s got to be from Bethlethem.
Until. Until I can’t doubt anymore. Until I’m done with the doubting. Done with the trying. Done with the wrestling and the questioning and the hoping - just in case some of this might be true. I don’t want to hedge my bets anymore. I’m tired. And worn out. And all I can see is absurdity.
This has been a pretty shitty year. but not in a way that anyone can see. It’s like a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese got you all excited about the cheesy goodness inside and then…nothing. The incandescent cheese powder that looked so delicious and promising and orange has made you its bitch. Joke’s on you, kid. It’s like everyone asking you how you’re feeling when you’re past the sickness of the first trimester and you’re finally willing to tell everyone you’re pregnant. Gee. That care package of Slim Jims, Sour Patch Kids and Saltines could have come a few weeks earlier when I was worshipping the porcelain god and falling asleep during the Walking Dead, ya know? But now that I’m all “glowing” and showing and feeling a little less green, now I get the support?
Depression is a bitch like that. Like non-stop morning sickness that never gives you a baby at the end, only a bag of cheese powder you can get for $10.24 a pound on Amazon.
It just points out how all this is a whole bunch of nothing. It’s all absurd and pointless and bullshit. Absurd, like how I got rear ended on the parkway in front of the Squirrel Hill Tunnel by a guy texting and with no insurance - I mean, how cliche is that? Absurd like how they gave me a Christmas cup at the Starbucks yesterday. Absurd like how brain surgeons have somehow lost the status of most brilliant beings on earth. And how, even in spite of that, Donald Trump is still contending for Republican nominee. How there are still planes falling from the sky, and record breaking hurricanes, and pilgrims getting trampled on their hajj to Mecca, and there are earthquakes that make people sleep outside in Pakistan and Afghanistan and no one seems to know about it. Absurd. Like how we’re going to enter in to a ground war in Syria
And there’s that picture of that little three year old boy washed up on the beach. The one that went viral a month or so ago and lit a fire that began to highlight the despair of all these Syrians so desperate to leave their war-torn homes that they’ll use their life savings and risk a treacherous boat ride to get to Europe. Horrible. Absurd.
It’s absurd. This isn’t anything. All this. A whole bunch of nothing. Let’s just eat our cheese powder straight out of the bag while we watch Lost on Netflix.
I tell all this to my shrink one day as evidence that I’m winning at the Atheist thing. Yes. Finally. Some assurance. There is no God. Finally some proof and some reason to stop treading water in the deep shark infested pool of doubt. Some reason to quit the questioning and just go bowling and buy lottery tickets and get a perm and shop at Spencer Gifts. Do they still have Spencer gifts? Do you remember Spencer Gifts? Where you could buy plastic poop and troll doll t-shirts and bubble wand necklaces? No? Well. There you go. Yet another reason not to believe.
So I’m sitting in a big overstuffed chair across from my shrink on the couch with a serenity prayer afghan hanging above her head and I'm telling her why, this time, this time, I’ve done it. I’ve finally let go. I’m done with this God charade. Done with the trying and the hoping and the wanting all this Jesus stuff to be true, because I went on Facebook and right there on my newsfeed, without me even having to look for it, right there in front of my eyes, proof, definitive proof that God is no god. A picture of a little boy. Face down in the sand. Yes! Atheist Jenn:1 Deluded, naive, hopeful Jenn: 0. Drop the mic. strut off stage. This “Christian” is out.
But I am the worst atheist. A total failure. Because even when I get The. Best. Evidence. that there is no God, or, if there is, that God is a total bastard, or if God’s not a total bastard, then God’s just impotent and irrelevant. But it just figures. Even when I see a picture of a dead toddler washed up on the beach, I still find a way to fail at this atheist thing. Or maybe God finds a way of throwing me back in to the shark-filled deep end of the doubting pool. I don’t know. It’s God’s fault. God made me this way.
There was this despair I thought I could avoid if I just simply refused to believe in God. If I could just embrace the absurdity. That this is all absurdity. This isn’t anything. This. Any of this. All of this.
So of course, Therapist leans in and she says, “tell me a little bit more about that, Jenn.”
And I tried. But I couldn’t quite get to it.
I circled and circled around it. But I couldn’t get at it. It was this untouchable absurd tragedy that was so far away, and yet so awful.
Sufjan Stevens has this deliciously sad album out about the death of his estranged mother who left him when he was just four years old. And in the depths of all my new medications and the therapists and the psychiatrists and the PCP and the logging of every moment of my day to avoid an emergency trip to Western Psych, I’d listen to this CD on repeat. And everyone was freaked out that I was listening to this horrifically sad music while I was in the depths of my own dead. But what they didn’t understand was that I could handle sad. Sad is real. Sad is something. Sad is a thing.
But what I couldn’t handle was this faraway untouchable absurdity of despair that we can’t reach, we can’t touch, we can’t connect to. I couldn’t get to the horrors of the toddler on the beach, only to a fake kind of hopeless apathy, and a fear that that could be my kid with the velcro sneakers and the superman t-shirt.
Makes me understand why folks, some Pharisees and keepers of the law and temple police and Biblical literalists might want some laws, some textbooks, some clear guidelines on how to live life - some cut and dry, black and white, fundamentalist, Phariseen thinking.
But then I entered in and therapist went with me. Always go in with your therapist. We entered in to the horror of it. And the deep sadness. And it was as if, for just a tiny millisecond, for enough time for your Life cereal to get soggy, or for my labrador to go back and double check that that was indeed her shit that she just shat, or for a Big Mac to travel the entire expanse of your digestive system, we jumped back into the deep end of the doubting pool and felt what a woman might have felt to lose her child to war, or to a car accident, or to a gun shot from being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong color skin. There was a moment of connection. Of horrible, hopeful sadness. Of not being alone in all this absurdity. Beyond time and space and absurdity and disconnectedness, there was empathy, and connection, and just enough evidence that God is real to get me back to doubting again.
Just last week I started reading a book written by a woman plagued by all the haunts and horrors that is mental illness. And she’s hilarious. And she’s an insomniac. So, sometimes in the middle of the night she takes her taxidermied raccoon sporting jazz hands and a face that smiles, “hey! I may have once been road kill but now I have marbles for eyes and these amazing jazz hands and sawdust for a liver. And life - er well, whatever this is - is awesome! I mean, did I mention the jazz hands?” And she tries to get the raccoon to ride on her cats’ backs 8 second rodeo style so she can get a picture with her brand new dslr.
This is her patronus against the soul-sucking dementors of despair. A stuffed victim of vehicular homicide posed with jazz hands and an unnaturally overzealous raccoon smile. It’s all so absurd. She writes, “There's something about depression that allows you, or sometimes forces you, to explore depths of emotions most 'normal people' could never conceive of. Imagine having a disease so overwhelming that your mind causes you to want to murder yourself. Imagine having a malignant disorder that no one understands. Imagine having a dangerous affliction that even you can't control or suppress.”
And I wonder if those taxidermied raccoons and tears for a mother and a child whom you’ve never met suffering from a world you could never imagine is the living water. What if that’s it? What if the living water is the stuff of doubts? What if it's this different kind of hilarious absurdity and the laughter and tears in the midst of it? What if this living water is a thing? A real thing?
And I think the “crowds” get it. Those people wandering around Jerusalem looking for a little hope and putting their chips on the Jesus square at the roulette table. Because they are the toddlers on the beach and the mothers of murdered children and fathers of heroin addicts and those who have come to the end of it all. They are thirsty in this dry land of drought and Syrian civil wars and drowned refugees and power hungry dictators with all the guns and the diamond mines the oil and slave labor to keep it dry forever. They are the ones who mourn every year on Dia de los Muertos and who pull out their sun lamps as the leaves begin to fall, and drag their children to higher ground as their house gets washed away by the hurricane floods.
They’re the ones who coerce their cats to carry stuffed raccoons on their backs in the middle of the night. Who are looking for some nourishment in a pound of cheese powder and some soggy Life cereal. These crowds who recognize Jesus as the Messiah, as a Prophet, as Jesus, embrace him because he is from Galilee. Not in spite of it. Because maybe he has a raccoon, too. And some cats. And he once had a whole lot of hope for that box of mac and cheese. Maybe he followed his dad around the shop wearing tiny velcro shoes. Maybe he feels like a stranger in a strange land. Maybe he’s found something in the whole lot of nothing that sucks out our souls like a dementor's kiss.
The crowd gets it because Jesus gets it. They’re the ones who doubt and wrestle and cry and then mourn with a mother they’ve never met over a child lost on the other side of the world. And then suddenly, there’s water. And somehow, they’re drinking, and somehow streams start trickling through your body, and for what is never, ever, long enough, God is real and taxidermied raccoons ride house cats in the middle of the night and we share tears over thousands of miles and it’s all so horrible and so beautiful, and God is real - or maybe might be real — simply because there was a moment with your therapist when time and space didn’t exist and there were just tears — tears you shared with a woman you’d never meet but knew, for just the tiniest of minutes, and that was enough to find life and death and God in the midst of the horror.
Not bad for a thirty dollar co-pay.
Thanks be to God.