Friday, March 21, 2014

Near Life Experiences (Lent 3, March 23 2014)

Homily:  Yr A Lent 3, March 23 2014, St. Albans
Readings:  Ex 17.1-7; Ps 95; Rom 5.1-11; John 4.3b-42

Near Life Experiences

It’s good to be back!  Last week, as many of you know I was away on holidays.  And for me it was a fascinating week.  Right around mid-February, like many of us, I was getting tired of this long, cold winter we’ve been having, and so I said to Guylaine, “I’d like to go somewhere warm for a week.”  And she told me, “I’ve got the perfect place.  There’s a yoga retreat right on the beach in the Bahamas, let’s go there.  Now, I’m not much of a yoga person, I don’t actually bend very much, but I’ve done a bit of yoga, so I figured, why not?  She booked the trip.

When we arrived, it turned out that not only was this a yoga place, it was a full-blown ashram, basically a Hindu monastery with a priest and monks and disciples and a couple of temples.  There was a strict discipline that we were expected to follow:  morning bell at 5:30, meditation and chanting at 6, morning yoga at 8, then finally we get to eat our first of two daily meals at 10am.  The diet was strictly vegetarian, no caffeine, no eggs, certainly no alcohol allowed.  A second session of yoga followed in the afternoon, then the evening meal, and finally evening meditation, chanting and lectures on various spiritual topics.

Now most of the people at the ashram were more interested in yoga than the Hindu religion.  You might describe many of the people there as seekers, and certainly most would fit into the ‘Spiritual but not Religious’ category.  And they were definitely into the spiritual.  There was a lot of talk about mystical experiences.  People would talk about their memories of past lives, of encounters with dead relatives, of their out of body experiences while in deep meditation, they’d talk about these things almost as easily as in this place we talk about the weather and the gas mileage of our cars.

And, I have to admit, for me some of it started to get a little weird.  When I’m told I can’t eat garlic or onions because they overstimulate the brain and prevent me from meditating, or when I’m told that my big toes have to touch each other in a particular yoga posture so that my prana or life-energy doesn’t drain out of my body, well sometimes for someone like me with a science background used to living in our practical, even skeptical world, sometimes it all started to sound, well, a bit “fluffy”.

I was ready to come home after a week.  And one of the first things I did when I got back on Monday was pick up my bible and have a look at last Sunday’s gospel, the one that I missed, and the gospel for this Sunday that we just heard together.  And you know what I get?  I get Jesus the mystic.  The guru.  The clairvoyant.  Saying fluffy stuff.

“No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again”
“What is born of Spirit is spirit”
“The water that I will give will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”
“God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit”

This is the Jesus who has visions, who takes Nicodemus up to the roof top to have a vision of the Spirit, who looks around and sees what his disciples can’t see, fields ripe for the harvest.

This is the Jesus the clairvoyant, who can tell a woman everything that she has ever done without ever having met her before.

This is the Jesus who is so in tune with the Spirit that he knows that he must go to Samaria to meet this woman even though Samaria isn’t on the direct route from Judea to Galilee.

This is the Jesus whose brief encounter with Nicodemus renders him speechless and awestruck,  the Jesus whose encounter with the woman at the well transforms her life, the Jesus who transcends centuries of division between Jews and Samaritans with a few words.

This is Jesus the mystic, who tries to open our eyes to a whole new way of seeing that goes beyond, way beyond, the limits of our physical and material understanding of this world.

As it happened, the week that I spent on the ashram they were holding a conference on near death experiences.  Perhaps you’ve heard of this sort of thing, where someone’s heart stops, or they are in a coma, but they recover and when they come to they talk about something that happened to them while they were apparently dead.  Often people will speak of being out of body, sometimes they’ll talk about a tunnel, or a bright light, of their life flashing before their eyes.  For this conference the ashram had assembled a number of experts on near death experiences, or NDEs as they call them.  There was a psychiatrist who has spent the last 40 years interviewing thousands of people who claim to have had these near death experiences.  There was a neurosurgeon who claimed to have had his own near death experience while in a coma induced by meningitis and he’s written extensively about it, including a best-selling book called Proof of Heaven.  There was a rabbi from the Jewish Kabbala tradition and academics from the Jain religion, all of whom had their own take on NDEs.

It was remarkable.  To be honest, I don’t know what to make of it all, not having had a near death experience myself, but it was fascinating to hear about other people’s experiences and how they interpreted them.

But, you know, to be honest I’m much more interested in Near Life Experiences than I am in Near Death Experiences.  Because I think a lot more of us, in fact maybe all of us, have had near life experiences.  And in our gospels, from last Sunday and this Sunday, I think both Nicodemus and the woman at the well have an NLE, a near life experience when they encounter Jesus.

Let me explain.  When I talk about life here, I don’t mean mere biological life, the fact that we’re breathing and our hearts are still beating.  No, I’m talking about much more than that.  I’m talking about real life.  Life as God intended it to be for us.  The life that Jesus calls ‘life in the Kingdom of God’, or sometimes he calls it Zoen Aionion, the ‘life of the ages’ which we usually translate as ‘eternal life’.  It’s the life that Jesus is talking about when he says “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly”.  It’s a life that’s available to us here and now, indeed as Jesus says, the ‘hour is coming and is now here’.

When I say that Nicodemus and the woman have a near-life experience when they encounter Jesus, that’s the sort of life I’m talking about.

Nicodemus is a teacher, a leader of the Jews.  But he’s looking for something, he’s a seeker, even if he is afraid to let anyone know it.  He comes to Jesus secretly, at night.  And I find it fascinating to watch Nicodemus’ progression as Jesus tries to open him up to the things of the spirit and tells him that he needs to be re-born.  Nicodemus goes from making a statement about Jesus, “we know that you’re a teacher”  to asking a specific question, “how can anyone be born after having grown old?”, to simply asking “how can these things be?” and finally to being rendered totally speechless in the presence of Jesus.  For Nicodemus, this movement from statement to question to speechless, this is actually progress!  This is a near-life experience.  But you also get the sense that something is holding Nicodemus back, something is preventing him from entering into this new life, from being born again.  Is it his need to be in control?  Is it his desire to be the teacher rather than the disciple.  Is it his fear of what will happen to him if his fellow leaders find out what he is doing?

When Jesus arrives in Samaria, he encounters the woman at the well.  Their’s is an unlikely, boundary-crossing, rule-breaking conversation.  Jews hated Samarians.  Men were not supposed to talk to women in public settings.  But Jesus has come all this way for this encounter and so he is the one who initiates.  She doesn’t initiate.  She’s something of an outcast, coming to the well in the noon heat of the day when she expects no one else to be around.  She is, in all likelihood, burdened with a deep sense of rejection and shame.  We don’t know why she’s had five husbands and now is dependent on a man who isn’t her husband, but surely her story, divorce, being left a widow, whatever the details are, surely her story is one of rejection and loss.

Their conversation dances around the subject of water.  And water is one of the strongest metaphors there is for life in the Bible.  This woman thirsts, but the well of her life has run dry.  Then she encounters one who reaches across boundaries to engage with her, who sees her, who knows her, and whose response to her life story is not the mocking and rejection that she has encountered in others but rather is compassion.  He knows her secrets but doesn’t turn away.  She recognizes him as a prophet.  She trusts him with the burning question about where to worship that has divided Jews and Samaritans for centuries and he transcends this division.

This woman too is having a near life experience.  Her thirst has suddenly and surprisingly been satisfied by a spring of water within her gushing up to eternal life.  And unlike Nicodemus who holds back, she crosses the threshhold into this new life, she leaves her water jar behind and runs and tells the people of her village “Come and see.” 

She leaves her water jar behind.  It is perhaps a symbol of whatever it was that was holding her back from life.  Was it her sense of shame?  Her isolation?  The drudgery of having to come and get water every day but never feeling that her thirst was satisfied?  Whatever it was that was holding her back, she left it behind.

My guess is that if you’re sitting here today, it’s because you too know what it is to have a near-life experience.  Maybe you’re having one right now.  Maybe as we read and reflect on these encounters with Jesus, we too hear the call to new life, to life in the kingdom of God, to abundant life, to life as God intended it to be.

So what’s your water jar?  What’s holding you back?  Are you going to hang onto it as it seems like Nicodemus did, or are you willing to take the risk of leaving it behind like the woman at the well?

We’re all having a near-life experience.  Jesus calls us into life.  What’s holding you back?


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