In the breakthrough movie “Miracle Worker”, Anne Bancroft (who in my view will always be Mrs. Robinson) plays Annie Sullivan, the teacher who is hired by the Keller family in a last-ditch effort to help their young daughter, Helen, who as a result of a fever as a baby, is rendered deaf and blind. Now 6, Helen is unable to communicate and as a result is often prone to outbursts, tantrums, and the occasional violence. As a result, she is on the verge of being institutionalized. Helen seems lost in an interior world of silence and darkness and the family is at their wits end, unable to reach her. Unable to help.
Sullivan, who is half-blind herself, is brought from the Perkins School of the Blind to tutor the young girl. Despite her efforts, Sullivan is unable to explain to Helen the connection between words and meaning.
In the famous “Water Scene”, Helen has just had one of her blow-up tantrums and has thrown a water pitcher at Annie. In frustration, Annie grabs Helen and drags her out into the yard to the water pump and begins furiously pumping the water, forcing Helen’s hands under the spigot, repeating “WATER, water, water,” forming the sign language with one of Helen’s hands while water rushes over the other. And at that moment, a breakthrough occurs. The feeling of the water, the experience of water connects for Helen. The words are no longer just words. They now have meaning. And at the feel of the water, she slowly speaks the words, “WATER”.
In delight, Helen rushes further into the yard, drops to her knees, pounding on the ground, pulling her fingers through the dirt, reaching for teacher who takes her hand and forms the word “GROUND”
With the thrill of a world opened up to her, Helen gets up and runs to a tree, wildly grasping at the branches and the leaves and again, reaches for Annie who forms the word “TREE”
She then dashes for the house, throwing herself onto the porch steps, pounding her hands on the wood and learns they are “STEPS” then clambers up the steps to a bell attached to the porch and rings it, now learning the word “BELL”
Annie calls out to Helen’s family inside, who races out to experience this dramatic, emotional breakthrough in their daughter, one they had longed for for so long.
They witness the transformative connections their daughter is making on the front lawn and are overwhelmed with emotion, scooping up the young girl, covering her with kisses, and bringing back inside the house.
The scene closes with Annie sitting that evening in her low lit room in her chair, basking in the events of the day. Young Helen enters the room quietly, gives her teacher a kiss on the cheek and then curls up in her lap. As she gently rocks the sleepy child, Annie forms the word “love” in Helen’s little hands.
It’s a powerful scene in a powerful movie.
And it reinforces an important point.
The power of experience.
Some things can’t simply be taught, explained, or described. They must be experienced. There is really no other way.
In the gospel today, Jesus goes to Galilee and finds Philip and says to him, “Follow me” and Philip, of course, immediately does.
I often wish I had the same sort of mojo as Jesus- where he tells someone to do something and they just do it.
I guarantee you if I did, I would have a sparkling clean house, kids with perfectly brushed hair, and I would never be late another day in my life! You might be good with these disciples, Jesus but let’s see how you do with a 5 year old!
But seriously, Jesus calls to Philip, who agrees to join him and then Philip, in turn, goes and invites Nathaniel to do the same. Now Nathaneal seems more like a Seaford, prone to a little bit of push-back. We’ll call that “discernment” but he asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” and Philip responds with the ultimate invitation. “come and see”
Because most of the good things in life can’t be understood by mere explanation. The transformative things require experience. I recently crowdsourced this on Facebook asking the question, “have you ever been invited to something truly life-changing, but reading about it, learning about it, hearing about it, were all inadequate. It had to be experienced to be understood?” I got the most amazing responses, too many to recount here but they included mission trips to third world countries, fulfilling vocations, unique concert experiences, skydiving, watching a friends’ baby hearing their mother’s voice for the first time after cochlear implants, scuba diving, and marriage.
All of these examples were experiences that translated meaning in ways that explanation simply couldn’t.
You can’t understand the feeling of weightlessness until you’ve experienced the feeling of floating in water.
You can’t grasp the magnitude of our privilege until you’ve been to an impoverished area where even our most basic of resources are luxuries.
You can lecture your kids over and over again about the meaning of money but they won’t really get it until there is something they really, really want but don’t have the cash to buy it.
You can’t understand the Christian faith, truly understand it, without an experience of Jesus.
Oftentimes we want to intellectualize our faith through our complicated theologies, well-intended theories, and explanations. And there is certainly a place for those things, don’t get me wrong. But they don’t stand in place of experience.
Maybe this is what our passage today is getting at.
Philip is inviting a doubtful Nathaneal to “come and see” all of this he is hearing about Jesus. This is the same invitation Jesus uses with his disciples just a few verses before, and is the same invitation the Samaritan woman uses with her townspeople after her encounter with Jesus at the well.
These all suggest that one way to witness to your faith is by inviting someone to experience Jesus for oneself.
Because oftentimes when one has an experience of Jesus, they are transformed.
The theories become meaningful. They finally “get it.” And their lives are never the same.
We don’t exactly know how, but in this passage, Nathaneal experiences Jesus and in a quick transformation declares, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel!”
And Jesus responds by alluding to the fact that the journey is only beginning. “you will see greater things than these.” Because Jesus rarely stops with the amazing experience of him.
I can stand up here and tell you until I’m red in the face about the transformative value of the Christian faith. I can talk to you about Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, but you really won’t be changed until you’ve had an experience of Jesus. The word made flesh.
I can debate you and launch into a tirade of carefully crafted apologetics, I can articulate undeniable proof of the existence of God and the power of Jesus. But as they say, no one ever came to faith by losing an argument. You must experience it. Faith has to be experienced.
So how do we experience Jesus?
There are many ways, but one undeniable way is through a community of faith. As Jesus himself says in Matthew 18, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst”
When you are experiencing loss and are comforted by the compassion of loved ones. That’s Jesus.
When a friend is sitting with you at the hospital as you await test results or walking with you through some really difficult decisions, that’s Jesus. That’s an experience of Jesus.
Or when you are feeling really alone and you walk into this church and are greeting my warm, smiling faces, are soothed by the inspiring music of Randall, and nourished by Holy Communion, those are experiences of Jesus.
Few people have that mind-blowing Jesus appearance that Paul had on the road to Damascus. But many of us have that experience of Jesus through other Christians. And I would argue they’re no less powerful.
And when this happens, when one has a true experience of Jesus, it often sets them on an entirely new and exciting journey.
This happened to a friend of mine who was spiritual, but mostly agnostic, at least when it came to organized religion. But in the midst of the ordeal involving my wife’s illness, he witnessed the powerful example of Christians bringing us meals, caring for our children, and supporting us. He experienced the powerful example of faithful prayer and the love and support offered by not only our immediate family but from friends and family from all over. For him, it was an experience of Jesus. And I will never forget the day when he shared that this experience had inspired a life of faith.
We’d debated and discussed the impact of a Christian life countless of times over beers on my front porch, but it was a true experience of Christ that made the difference.
But what’s the key action in the passage? An invitation. Philip invites Nathaneal to come and see for himself. Don’t take his word for it, “Come and see”. And once he does, Jesus takes it from there. And Nathaneal is forever changed.
Folks we have that opportunity. Each and every day. We, too, can be Philip and simply invite people to come and see what makes this faith community so special. Because it is. Jesus is right here, active in our midst all the time. Ready and able to be experienced.
Jesus is here in the hands of those quilters who lovingly prepare warm and colorful quilts that will comfort people who are sick or have just undergone surgery.
Jesus is here in the work of the men of our handyman ministry who will go out and provide repairs for those unable to do it themselves.
Jesus is here in the smiles and hugs of Ms. Edith, the tireless dedication of Gordon, or in the loving and delicious Wednesday night meals of Terry and her crew.
These are just a few examples. There are way too many examples of Jesus at work in this place. Doing transformative work in the lives of this congregation and in this community.
There is so much here to “come and see”. So why not invite someone to experience it for themselves? There’s no need to try to convince anyone of why we’re the best church in town (which we are). They’ll experience it for themselves, right when they walk in that door. If you’re visiting today, welcome because you’ve just walked into an extraordinary faith community that I hope will offer you a life-changing experience of Jesus.
So the next time you’re at the Y, or at the grocery store, at your kids school, or walking your dog in your neighborhood, invite someone to church. This church. So they may experience Jesus. And be forever changed.
Come and see indeed.