Texts: John 1:35-39; 1:43-46; 4:27-30; 11:32-36
Come and see.
About ten years ago I was able to attend a gathering in Barcelona, Spain called Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions. As far as I could tell, all the major and minor religions of the world were well represented and the week was filled with seminars, panel discussions, and cultural activities. For someone just beginning seminary studies, it was both exhilarating and overwhelming. One of my dearest memories from that week is the lunch times. A contingent from the Sikh religion had set up a large tent a short walk from the main buildings and every day prepared, served, and cleaned up a simple but abundant meal that was open for everyone, and free. I went every day. For the Sikhs it was a practice of what they call Langar, a sacred meal, meant to inspire humility in the Sikhs who serve, and those receiving, as we were asked to sit in rows on the ground together, and hold out our bowls when we wanted more. They were always quickly filled. Some of my best conversations during the week happened with whoever I ended up eating next to during Langar. There were many words spoken throughout the week that gave insights into other religions, but the Sikhs taught something about themselves we couldn’t have learned any other way. And all they said, basically, was “come and see,” or “come and eat.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about that phrase recently – come and see. It’s come to mind especially in these last couple months when we as a congregation have taken a significant step in becoming more public about our wish to fully welcome and be blessed by all persons regardless of sexual or gender identity. It comes at a time when the national church body we are a part of is especially anxious and divided about this “issue.” There’s a lot of opportunity for arguing, and there are certainly times when it’s important to give the reasons for why you believe and do the things you do.
That phrase, come and see, is one that shows up four times in the gospel of John. It is spoken by Jesus and about Jesus and to Jesus and always leads to some kind of transformation. One commentator notes that this “was a common formula among the rabbis. They used it to show that a solution to a particular problem was possible and that it should be sought together” (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, p. 145).
What I like about “Come and see,” is that it has a different kind of energy behind it. It’s not polarizing, it doesn’t attempt to win an argument by appealing to left brain logic. It is, at its heart, an invitation. It welcomes the inquiring other to come and see and experience for themselves. It offers relationship. It carries a subtle but solid confidence in the work of the Spirit. The Sikhs had this figured out, that the invitation to come and see and experience their sacred meal spoke far more than a scholarly presentation on the principles of Sikhism. Maybe you too have had an experience when you either did not know or had preconceived notions about a group of people, but because you were invited to come and see, you learned something you couldn’t have learned any other way. Come and see is a good pedagogical strategy and the idea behind our church college’s emphasis on cross cultural experiences. Go and see.
We may not be overly comfortable with what is often termed evangelism, but my hunch is that we might be open to having a come and see culture here. That we believe that God is doing a good thing among us. And like any good thing we are a part of, it makes sense to respond to the critical and the curious with an invitation for them to come and see for themselves.
So let’s hear each of the four mentions of this phrase in John’s gospel, and consider what this may have to say to us in our time and place.
NRSV John 1:35-39 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.
In John’s gospel, the first two phrases that come out of Jesus’ mouth are “What are you looking for?” and “Come and see.” The John in this passage is John the Baptizer, not to be confused with the John the gospel writer. John’s ministry starts before Jesus, and John already has his own disciples, but now he’s actively pointing his disciples away from himself, toward Jesus, who is just coming on the scene. On the surface it’s a fairly mundane exchange, “Where are you staying” they ask Jesus. “Come and see.” They go, and hang out for the rest of the day. And so it begins.
The next mention of the phrase happens soon after this:
NRSV John 1:43-46 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” What all is behind that statement from Nathanael? It’s hard to tell. We learn later in John (21:2) that Nathanael was from Cana, another small town in Galilee, not far from Nazareth. Being from a small town myself, I wonder if this is a case of small town rivalry, kind of like us kids from Bellefontaine being convinced that nothing good could come out of Urbana. It made for a heated sports rivalry. Even if we’re not emotionally invested in those kinds of rivalries, we can all most likely complete this sentence with our own bias of choice: “Can anything good come out of ________.” Philip, who has just discovered this prophet from Nazareth, could have easily been defensive, arguing with Nathaniel and telling him not to be so judgmental. His response is neither defensive nor argumentative. “Come and see.”
The third person to speak these words is the Samaritan woman whom Jesus met at the well in the heat of the day, a time she was most likely there to avoid conversation with anyone, let alone this traveling Jewish teacher.
NRSV John 4:27-30 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to him.
If Nathaniel had reason to be skeptical of this Jesus from Nazareth, the Samaritans have all the more.
Jews and Samaritans did not get along, to say the least. They were rivals in every sense of the word, inheritors of the same tradition, but having different interpretations of that tradition. They held different convictions about where the true temple of God was located, about which scriptures were the true scriptures, about who were the rightful children of Abraham. There was bad blood between them and they had spilled each other’s blood on occasion. But something happens around this well in Samaria that transcends this. Jesus encounters this woman for who she is, and she encounters Jesus for who he is. And the unnamed woman becomes a spokesperson for the Jesus way, inviting her fellow Samaritans to come and see.
If you’re tracking so far, you’ll note that the first mention of come and see is given by Jesus. The second mention is from an early inner ring male disciple to another potential disciple. The third is from a woman from a rivaling territory and religion, to her fellow Samaritans. First it comes from Christ, then it comes from those who have encountered Christ. “Come and see.” We can almost picture the concentric circles of the transformative light of Christ radiating out, first from the center, then close by, then even from across the border, in Samaria.
And then there’s this fourth mention of the phrase.
NRS John 11:32-36 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
I love how this fits together with those first three. Because now there’s a different kind of invitation happening. It’s not coming from Jesus, and it’s not even said to others about Jesus. This time the invitation comes to Jesus. It is now the Christ who is invited to come and see.
The story in which this happens is the death of Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary. Multiple times within this story we are told that Lazarus was someone Jesus loved dearly. The sisters send a message to Jesus which says, “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (11:3). Lazarus dies before Jesus visits him. It’s a story of pain and loss. But the sisters still want Jesus to come and be with them in their grief and perhaps perform a miracle. When Jesus does come to the village, he sees Mary and Martha’s grief, along with the other mourners, and it says that Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” It’s at this time when that famously and profoundly short Bible verse appears. “Jesus wept.” He asks Mary “Where have you laid him.” And those words which initially came out of his own mouth are now spoken back toward him: “Come and see.” Jesus the inviter is now being invited to enter into the pain of this dear family whom he loved.
This is what I take from the unfolding of these four instances of invitation. The first to invite is Christ. This comes to us without force or coercion. We are invited to be with Jesus, to see the places and the people he hangs out with. To see what he does. To witness the love he extends to people he meets. We are transformed, we come out of our shell, and suddenly it’s we who are inviting others into this goodness. Come and see. See how my life is changing. See how our congregation is serving the poor, doing justice in the city, overcoming our biases and learning from each other.
First we receive the invitation, then we give the invitation, then this remarkable other thing happens. When you have done the kind of soul work necessary to know who you are in Christ, a beloved child of God, when you have embraced who you have been created to be, when you have wrestled with difficult matters, you enter into this holy space that is characterized both by strength and by vulnerability. When you have welcomed people to come and see your own reality and the Spirit’s presence in it, here’s what’s next. The next step is that you get invited into other people’s reality. Because you have been vulnerable and acted out of love and not fear, other people are willing to be vulnerable with you, and open themselves up, and welcome you into a part of their lives that they haven’t given access to before.
One of the things that Abbie and I learned very quickly after we had our stillborn daughter Belle was how many other people also had losses through stillbirths and miscarriages. It wasn’t something we were anticipating, but it makes perfect sense. Our sharing of our story has meant we have been invited to come and see many other stories of people who have gone through similar pain.
I hear the same kind of stories from those who go through cancer treatments – that the outpouring of support often involves people sharing their own journey with cancer that hadn’t been a point of connection before. It can be even the smallest window, but there is this miraculous opening that can happen.
Many of you through your work are invited into these places. Because of your training and your calling you are given access into other people’s realities. These are not always easy places to be, but on your good days you remember this is holy ground, a privileged invitation to come and see.
So Jesus is invited into a place where few others are able to go – the graveside of his friend Lazarus. He is invited into a place of pain. That’s holy space. But Jesus has earned their trust and he is welcomed to share that space with them. And as the story goes, it is ultimately not a story of death, but a story of resurrection. There is a miracle, and lives are transformed.
My invitation to us as a congregation is that we develop a come and see culture. We are a community of people who have encountered Christ and cannot help but follow in the way we feel the Spirit to be leading. We welcome our neighbors and our fellow Mennonites to come and see what God is doing among us, and as you do this, you can be prepared to be invited into others joy, into others pain, anger, into confusion. We tread on holy ground, and trust that the Spirit accompanies us every step of the way.