“Down below the surface of a quiet pond lived a little colony of water bugs. They were a happy colony, living far away from the sun. For many months they were very busy, scurrying over the soft mud on the bottom of the pond. They did notice that every once in awhile one of their colony seemed to lose interest in going about. Clinging to the stem of a pond lily it gradually moved out of sight and was seen no more. “Look!” said one of the water bugs to another. “One of our colony is climbing up the lily stalk. Where do you think she is going?” Up, up, up it slowly went… Even as they watched, the water bug disappeared from sight. Its friends waited and waited but it didn’t return…
“That’s funny!” said one water bug to another. “Wasn’t she happy here?” asked a second… “Where do you suppose she went?” wondered a third.
No one had an answer. They were greatly puzzled. Finally one of the water bugs, a leader in the colony, gathered its friends together. “I have an idea”. The next one of us who climbs up the lily stalk must promise to come back and tell us where he or she went and why.” “We promise”, they said solemnly.
One spring day, not long after, the very water bug who had suggested the plan found himself climbing up the lily stalk. Up, up, up, he went. Before he knew what was happening, he had broke through the surface of the water and fallen onto the broad, green lily pad above.
When he awoke, he looked about with surprise. He couldn’t believe what he saw. A startling change had come to his old body. His movement revealed four silver wings and a long tail. Even as he struggled, he felt an impulse to move his wings…The warmth of the sun soon dried the moisture from the new body. He moved his wings again and suddenly found himself up above the water. He had become a dragonfly!! Swooping and dipping in great curves, he flew through the air. He felt exhilarated in the new atmosphere. By and by the new dragonfly lighted happily on a lily pad to rest. Then it was that he chanced to look below to the bottom of the pond. Why, he was right above his old friends, the water bugs! There they were scurrying around, just as he had been doing some time before.
The dragonfly remembered the promise: “The next one of us who climbs up the lily stalk will come back and tell where he or she went and why.” Without thinking, the dragonfly darted down. Suddenly he hit the surface of the water and bounced away. Now that he was a dragonfly, he could no longer go into the water… “I can’t return!” he said in dismay. “At least, I tried. But I can’t keep my promise. Even if I could go back, not one of the water bugs would know me in my new body. I guess I’ll just have to wait until they become dragonflies too. Then they’ll understand what has happened to me, and where I went.” And the dragonfly winged off happily into its wonderful new world of sun and air.”[i]
Now, the children’s story that I just shared with you is called Waterbugs and Dragonflies: Explaining Death to Young Children by Doris Stickney and it’s one I’ve used in the past when dealing with children who are grieving the loss of a loved one. And I started out today’s message with this story because I think today’s gospel text is also about grieving the loss of a loved one, even though that loved one hadn’t yet died.
The text we have before us today is only a small part of a long address by Jesus called the “farewell discourse.” And as the name implies, it’s Jesus’ parting words to his closest followers, the eleven disciples. Remember from chapter 13 that Judas had already left their company and the remaining eleven were listening to Jesus tell them that he would soon be executed. And the general mood and tone of this passage is one of fear on the part of the disciples.
I read an interesting quote this week that I think reflects Jesus’ reaction to their fear. The author said, “I did not become a vegetarian for my health, I did it for the health of the chickens.”[ii] This quip, in a round-a-bout way, gets right to the core of what Jesus was trying to communicate. He is trying to reassure them that even in his death, they will gain life. “Trust in God,” he says, “trust also in me. In God’s house there’s plenty of room for everyone.” And when Thomas further questions Jesus on where he is going and on how they might also get there, Jesus answers with that very familiar phrase, “I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Now, I think I saw a few of you cringe as I read these words. And I understand why. This passage has been used to promote Jesus as the “narrow way” or the “only way” to God in the modern context. However, that was not what this passage meant in its original context.
What do I mean? Well, consider the meaning of Jesus’ words. When Jesus says ‘no one,’ he really means ‘none of you.’ He was speaking to his inner circle. This wasn’t a sweeping claim about salvation by a major world religion. It was instead, the conviction of a distinct religious minority in the ancient Mediterranean world. And as a fledgling religion, the distinctiveness of Christianity was that they found their way to God through Jesus.[iii] Do you see what I’m driving at here? This text, in its original context was directed at those who were already following Jesus, it was not, and is still not, an attack or a condemnation on those of other faiths.
Actually, “I am the Way” has its roots in the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the Book of Proverbs. John’s Gospel presents Jesus as a wisdom teacher and as “Wisdom in Person,” a savior whose mission is to offer a path of Life and Truth rather than a path of self-destruction and selfishness.
As a matter of fact, wisdom in the Book of Proverbs is often described as “the way.” Derek in Hebrew. Now “derek” is an interesting word. It’s interesting because it calls to mind the image of a path that’s been well worn by constant use. The implication is that wisdom involves patterns of behavior, not just isolated acts. This path is viewed as a gift of the guiding presence of God[iv]
So, if we apply this “wisdom” understanding to John’s discourse rather than using it as a condemnation of outsiders, it opens up a whole new world of understanding, a “well-worn path” to follow, especially in times of grief.
In the story of the dragonfly, that well-worn path of wisdom leads the waterbug from a small existence below the surface of the pond into “a wonderful new world of sun and air.” God’s calling on our lives leads us down a similar path. We find our way to God when we become a reflection of God, whose ways were demonstrated to us in the person of Jesus Christ. When we find ways to share the love and the compassion of Christ, the presence of the Spirit, and the wisdom of the Scriptures with all people; when we discover and practice the inclusive nature of Jesus and find that inclusiveness reciprocated in our times of struggle, we too have found a “wonderful new world of sun and air.” When we open our hearts and minds and share our deepest selves with others, perhaps others unlike ourselves, we show them a “way” to God. My friends, God IS Truth and God IS Life just as God IS Love.
One final thought this morning. Poet George Eliot once wrote, “Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love.” The disciples lived this quote and many of us here today have as well. But the challenge of this text, it’s beauty, is that call to move forward even when the path is dark and the situation overwhelming. God finally wants us to not just survive, but to thrive. And we thrive when we trust in the way and the truth and the life that is God. We thrive, my friends, when we let love overcome fear.
May it be so.
[i] Doris Stickney Waterbugs and Dragonflies : Explaining Death to Young Children (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press/United Church Press, 2004)
[ii] Quote from Isaac Bashevis Singer
[iii] Gail R. O’Day, John, The New Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. IX eds. Lender E. Keck et.al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press 1995) pgs. 739-744