I went to Amish country this week, out to Parke County, with my son Spencer to buy gates for his farm. It was sunny and Madeline was with us, so it was a good day. I enjoy spending time with the Amish. We’re seeing more of them around our farm, a development I welcome. I remember several years ago, visiting an Amish man to buy a rocking chair for our meetinghouse porch. His name was Emmanuel, which in Hebrew means “God is with us.” Emmanuel invited me to sit down and visit under his maple tree. When it came time to leave, my car wouldn’t start. There are few things as disheartening as needing a car jumped on an Amish farm.
I got out of our car and walked over to where Emmanuel was sitting under his maple tree.
“My car won’t start,” I told him.
“I noticed that,” he said. “That’s why we have horses.”
“You wouldn’t happen to have a neighbor with a car and jumper cables, would you?” I asked Emmanuel.
“All my neighbors are Amish,” he said.
Well, of course they are.
Just then one of his Amish neighbors clip-clopped up his driveway in a buggy. He stopped next to my car, with its hood up.
“Looks like you need a horse,” he said. Amish humor.
Emmanuel felt bad for me, I could tell, in the way we all feel bad when someone needs something and we’re unable to help them. He did what I do when I’m confronted with a car that won’t run. He peered at the engine with his hands on his hips, giving the appearance of knowledge, then said, “It’s probably something in the motor.”
Then he said, “I can’t fix your car, but I’ll sit with you.”
Never discount that. It’s a real gift to be able to sit with someone. We take it for granted. I got a call this week from a woman whose mother is dying in a nursing home and none of the family can go sit with her. In these days of quarantine, we realize what a luxury it is to be able to sit with someone.
So Emmanuel and I sat underneath the maple tree and after a little while a man came down the road in a truck and I flagged him down. He had jumper cables and he laid hands on my car, the stone was rolled away, and my car rolled out of the tomb.
Whenever I think of that day, I recall the story of Jesus and Lazarus in the Gospel of John. It’s an odd little story. It’s really two stories, if you think about it. There’s an underlying story, about the death of a close friend, but woven into that story is another story we’ll call a proclamation story, where doctrinal statements about Jesus are being put in the mouths of the characters. That happened a lot in John’s Gospel.
John’s gospel was the last gospel written, created at a time when the early Church was still grappling with the mystery of Jesus. When John’s gospel was written, the eyewitnesses to Jesus were dead and the early church’s creedal statements were starting to work their way into the Jesus stories. They were putting their words into the mouth of Jesus. Quite often, they took the form of what we call the “I am” sayings.
In the story of Jesus and Lazarus, that is especially clear when Jesus said to Lazarus’s sister Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Martha said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
But as I said, underneath these doctrinal statements, is this other story, whose purpose was to provide a stage, a platform, a setting for the emerging doctrine about Jesus. John is a lot like these preachers who begin sermons talking about an Amish man, then the next thing you know they’re talking about Jesus. John is using a story to present an evolving view about Jesus. Sometimes the story has to change to accommodate the doctrine and I wonder if that didn’t happen here.
Let’s return to the primary story. Jesus had a close friend named Lazarus. One day someone said to Jesus, “I’m sorry about your friend Lazarus.”
Jesus said, “What do you mean? What happened?”
“Haven’t you heard? Lazarus died.”
So Jesus went to Bethany, and when he arrived found Mary and Martha crying over the death of their brother. What was his response to the death of his friend? He wept. Jesus wept. I think that is the heart of the story. Not that Lazarus arose, but that Jesus wept. I suspect Jesus wept because he felt sad and helpless, as we all feel sad and helpless in the face of great loss.
Now John pictures Jesus giving speeches, like Charlton Heston in a Cecil B. DeMille movie. But when we began to peel away the layers of theology and doctrine and creedal statements, what we’re left with is the story of a dead man, and the devastation and helplessness experienced by those who loved him. Kind of like watching someone you love die and you can’t be with them.
There are few feelings as worse as helplessness in the face of great need. We’ve been conditioned to think we can do anything if we just try hard enough. I read a quote this week that said, “The only limits that exist are the ones in your own mind.” It was signed “Anonymous,” which means no one would take credit for having said it, probably because it’s thoughtless and untrue.
We face many limits in life, and those limits aren’t just in our minds. They are real limits, with real consequences, and our inability to surpass those limits causes real pain. There are some things we can’t fix, some situations we can’t improve, some people we can’t change. Sometimes all we can do is sit with people, and sometimes we can’t even do that.
You know what I think? I think the original Lazarus story ended with Jesus in tears. But John the gospel writer couldn’t stand the idea of a helpless Jesus, of Jesus heartbroken by a friend’s death and unable to do anything about it, of a Jesus experiencing real limits. So John said to himself, “I don’t want to tell them about the Jesus who is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. I want to tell them about the triumphant Jesus who is the resurrection and the life.”
But you know, not every story ends in a resurrection. Some people die alone. Some problems and difficulties don’t get miraculously solved. Every sickness isn’t healed. Some stones can’t be rolled away. But Emmanuel. God is with us. I used to discount the power of physical presence. I don’t do that anymore. Not after this virus. What we wouldn’t give to be with people. I have a dear friend who lives in the same town as her new grandson and hasn’t been able to hold him yet. I know a woman who wants nothing more than to sit by her mother’s bedside and hold her hand as she dies, but can’t.
Nevertheless, Emmanuel. God is with us. Sometimes, there will be stones too heavy for us to roll away. In these moments we learn humility, mutual dependence, and compassion.
Sometimes the best, and only thing, we can do is sit beside someone in their helplessness. What we’re learning these days is that being able to sit beside someone, being able to hold them and be present for them, is itself a tremendous privilege.
I look forward to the time when we can sit with one another again.