A few years ago I was supposed to deliver some library books to a Church of Christ preacher in Kentucky. I assumed based on the titles that he might be old. When I discovered I would be going through the state I sent him an email to see if we could meet. He replied and offered to meet in an Arby’s parking lot in Elizabethtown.
When I got to Elizabethtown I realized I didn't have his phone number, which then triggered fears that I might be in the wrong city and wrong restaurant parking lot. The worst part was that I didn't know what he looked like so I might be near him and have no idea. I was in my late-20s and probably didn’t look like a librarian named Bob, so I was open to the idea that he might not be dressed like my stereotype.
I stood in Arby’s gawking at every man. Nothing. I waited for 30 minutes and became discouraged. Everyone seemed to be paying for their food, helping their families, or refilling drinks. No one seemed on the lookout for a box of bound theological periodicals of dead restorationists. The only guy who didn’t seem preoccupied with something else was dressed in stylish jeans, black boots, and a concert t-shirt. I wondered why he was staring at me. Then I stared at him. We gestured to either other to see if, maybe, yes, well okay, it was him. We greeted each other, exchanged niceties, apologized for not having each other’s numbers, and passed off the books. I grabbed a beef and cheddar with curly fries and a chocolate milkshake and got back on the road. Sometimes you expect a person to be one way and they turn out to be something else.
One feature of John’s Gospel is that Jesus has long conversations with people, often in private. He meets with Nathanael (1:47-51), Nicodemus (3:1-21), the Samaritan woman (4:7-26), Martha (11:20-27), Pontius Pilate (18:33-19:12), Mary Magdalene (20:14-17), and Peter (21:15-22).
Jesus uses these meetings with others as opportunities to discuss their spiritual journey. These are not debates as we see in other Gospels. These are not long teachings, sermons, or parables, either. Instead, these are glimpses into intimate conversations where a human gets to hear from divinity, where a human hears a word from the Word.
Can you imagine how you might respond? I wouldn’t know what I should say or do. Admittedly I’m relieved that no one would report on my story the way John does. But I’m sure I would have been confused. Perhaps I would’ve expected Jesus to come from a wealthier family. Or maybe I would expect him to be more zealous in his campaign against Rome. Or maybe I would want him to be more in line with my Pharisee friends. Or maybe he wouldn’t match my expectations at all, especially not with my reading of the Prophets.
In these conversations in John, people don’t just learn something about Jesus; they also learn something about themselves. Conversations can be windows into something else, but they can also be mirrors for ourselves. Nicodemus learns that he is conflicted; Martha learns that she is distracted; Peter learns that he is restored.
I’m really excited for our upcoming series The Beloved Community: The Gospel of John. We will get to ask what it truly means to be a group of Christ-followers who have met Jesus. Come and hear messages about grace, conflict, redemption, and truth. There is only one thing I’ll ask you to do: read the stories in advance. Read the entire Gospel of John as many times as you can during the next few months. Live in the story and the story will start to live in you.