What's the Word?

This is a creative re-reading of John's Gospel. It's very different from most of the rest of the Bible commentary on this site. So if you'd find it helpful, here's a little post to give a bit of explanation as to what on earth it's all about.

In the beginning, when it was dark, and the deep ocean of possibility lay still and tranquil, there was God; hovering, brooding over the surface of all that was about to be, deep in prayer, deeply dreaming. Then came the Word. Spoken from the aeons of memory in visionary motif it leapt like breath from her mouth and called to the sea. ‘Be made’ his shimmering eyes proclaimed, as the waters stirred and took shape. Torrents danced to the left and to the right as citadels of liquid life spiralled around their heart. In the energy, the ecstasy, the love of this communion, the spirals tightened like a spring. God, invested in this shrinking potential, became like the most imperceptible dot on a horizon; like the first speck of sunrise at a new dawn. Then the whole universe was filled with light; from one end to the other, as far as there are ideas to imagine and worlds to create. The sound of the Word was deafening. The Spirit of life flowed like a membrane over what had become and flooded existence with oceans of presence. And God saw all this and sang with joy, because it was good.

As the Word bade matter part, space was created. The space was for new life, new works and new ideas. But in the freedom of that darkness young dreamers yearned for the power of the Word. Bestowed with divine innovation they imagined and made, but their fists were tight with selfish ambition. The emptiness that waited for divine suns was filled instead with dense wastelands of greed. Their black holes drew in light from the tips of their fingers’ reach and left the universe as but small pockets of colour, bereft of warmth, and desolate. The light had come into the darkness, but the darkness had not understood it.

In the bleak desert left by these shrouded imitators, only gases could swirl without shape. With the death of stars new elements formed and the planets found their place. For an eternity sadness lingered, mourned by Saturn’s haunting harp. Till from the depths of Earth (Adam), there sprung a sound. It was quieter than the still night, but the universe heard, and trembled. For in the basin of impossibility, the Word had called forth life.

*

Jesus was thirsty, tired from the journey and sweating in the heat of the day. He stretched back against a tree and mopped his forehead in the shade of its branches. Just being in Samaria was contentious. Centuries of religious rivalry divided the sons of Jacob and here was Jesus, a Jew in Samaritan heartland, just a stones throw from his well. He could not so much as breathe here without walking a political tightrope.

Then out of the corner of his eye he spied her, a woman walking alone to draw water. She was so remarkable he could not help but stare as he shrank back into the shadow. Who came to get water at this time, and without company? Was this woman so ashamed, so rejected, that she must brave the midday sun for solitude? Some sudden, desperate, reckless compassion pumped his heart; to be this excluded was unjust, and this loneliness must be reversed. Plunging off the tightrope without a second thought, Jesus ambled out from under the tree and made his way towards the well.

When the woman reached the well Jesus was sat by its side, doodling in the dusty sand. He raised his head and smiled. ‘Would you draw me a drink?’ he asked kindly. The woman was visibly stunned. She had hesitated to even continue to the well when she saw Jesus approach it. Now this man, this Jewish man, was asking her, a clear outcast – a Samaritan outcast, a Samaritan woman, to be his patron and draw him water from the very well that represented every division they could have upheld. Was this a trick, or some stunt? Who was this man? She was not shy of men – quite the opposite – but this man had intrigued and unnerved her.

Jesus smiled again. ‘To be honest, you should be asking me for a drink’ he said, his eyes dancing mischievously as he laid his empty hands on the rim of the well. The woman’s eyes narrowed. Was he making fun of her? ‘You don’t have a bucket’ she retorted graciously. ‘Are you somehow greater than Jacob?’ Jesus lent over the side and gazed down into the watery depths. ‘Is your thirst really quenched by this water?’ he asked, his voice echoing against the earthen walls. Straightening up, he turned to the woman, his face true and compelling. ‘The water I can give quenches thirst, like a spring that wells up and overflows into life.’ He did not drop his gaze, and there was something in his eyes that made the woman smile.

‘So give me this water then’ she laughed. ‘I would love not to have to come here every day!’ This man was teasing her. But he was not after what her other men had wanted. She was warming to him, and his way. He was here at the cost of his reputation, but he did not seem to care, or even be aware of it. What was it that he wanted?

‘Go and get your husband and come back here’ said Jesus suddenly, his gaze not stalling nor his manner changing. But the woman’s face turned to stone. ‘I don’t have a husband’ she said quietly after a pained pause. The shame pulled at her burning face and she looked down. So this was the man’s mission; to humiliate her for her indiscretions. The other women would avoid her, but this man had come over deliberately to embarrass her. A well of memory threw out its deepest hurts within her. She prepared to walk away.

Jesus did not move. ‘You don’t have a husband’ he agreed. ‘The truth is you have had five husbands, and the man you are now with is not your husband.’

The woman froze mid-turn. Memories erupted in her head as a geyser, spraying burning steam which fell from her eyes as tears. The weight of her pain and of her shame rooted her to the spot on which she stood. This man was her interrogator, and she was his victim, with no recourse. ‘I see you are a prophet’ she said, quietly.

Jesus did not look down; they just stood there in pregnant silence. Finally, she looked up at him and saw his eyes, wet with tears and dripping with compassion. She did not move. The vulnerability of his face was unnerving. If this man was a prophet he was different. She knew – though she did not know how – that her past was not his concern here; it was her. He was somehow in her head and somehow in her heart and the geyser cooled to a spring, a soothing stream of hope and healing.

She looked over her shoulder at the barren mountain peak. The imposing image towered with all the power of its religious significance. How she had felt crushed by its weight, the force of judgement on women like her. But this prophet was a Jew; his people’s Temple mount was no less a source of oppression. ‘We worship here, and you Jews tell us we should worship in Jerusalem’ she sighed.

Jesus smiled. This woman was smart. ‘Trust me’, he replied, ‘there’s a time coming when you won’t worship here or in Jerusalem.’ His look told her everything she needed to know. ‘There’s a time coming when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth – that’s who he’s searching for,’ he continued, turning to sit against the well. He looked up at the sky and then back at the woman.

Her face betrayed a smile. Some deep and uplifting feeling bubbled inside her. She felt so many things; like she had suddenly woken refreshed from the deepest of sleeps, like she had been freed from an unseen prison. The midday light seemed brighter than ever before. She turned back to face him, without defence. ‘I know that the Messiah is coming’ she said, though her words seemed to hang, begging the truth she longed to hear. Jesus laughed; a deep and happy laugh. He looked towards the trees where his disciples could be seen returning, and then back to the woman. Her eyes burned with hope. In an imperceptible moment she had transformed from a woman condemned to a person free. No longer trapped in the stalemate of two religions, only united in their love of her shame, she had seen the future, a different kind of worship, which would mean a different way of treating people, and a different kind of world. ‘Yes,’ said Jesus, feeling like the heat of the sun was heaven burning itself into the earth. Leaning towards her, he whispered with a deep and gentle smile. ‘He is – it’s me’.

*

‘In him was life, and that life was the light of all people…“whoever hears my word and believes the one who sent me…they have crossed over from death to life.”’ John 1:4; 5:24.

I’m sitting in my garden, facing due West, watching the sun set between the scotch pines that rise up beyond my back fence. We live in an end of terrace and four doors down children can be heard shouting something about a football and beating one with what can only be described as a giant ribbon whip. The tops of the tranquil trees are peppered with the odd shoe, bottle or ball as a band of teenagers strive for new heights amidst the glow.

Life and peace are not the same thing. Life is relentless, bloodthirsty (literally). It grips existence and bends, breaks and remoulds till its hands are callused with use. We talk about ‘intelligent life’, but life is not intelligent; it is insane! Weeds will grow through the most awkward of cracks, great swarms of insects will erupt from larvae in a single day. And my youthful neighbours will toss trinkets to the treetops because energy will not stop pumping through our veins, however much we misdirect it.

Peace, on the other hand, is an illusion. There are two white streaks slowly etching their way across the fading blue sky. They look wistful and careless, peaceful. But up close their engines would deafen and their speed would boggle. Peace, the absence of struggle, of tension, the presence of tranquillity; it doesn’t exist. Not where life is, anyway.

Despite being only the fourth paragraph, it’s now dark and I’ve been sitting here for a good forty-five minutes. In that time somewhere in the region of 2.7 billion of my body’s cells have died. I’ve no idea how many of those are from my brain. It’s possible those two facts are correlated.

Death is really the grand context for life. It’s the ultimate inevitability, the elephant in every room. But it’s not the end of life; it’s the beginning. My rapid loss of cells is in order that new cells can be born and renew my body. From dust I came and to dust I shall return, only to be reborn. The relentless thirst for life is a parasite on death. For it is life, in fact, that is the great improbability.

*

Deep in the body of Adam something stirred. For light-years he had drifted, tissue and sinew tightening as new elements enriched his heart; stolen treasure from ancient stars. But this moment – thronged by silent spectres – kicked out a gasp, like one woken from deep sleep. The blue planet heaved slowly as his lungs began to fill. The red earth smiled. The Word cried. And life, authored in one diminutive cell, began to beat and grow.

For the dark stars that observed the display was nothing special; they had swallowed bigger fish than this. But what they could not see was the speed and tenacity of Adam’s children. Cells divided, thousands upon tens of thousands, each new birth offering the possibility for change. As epochs slid by the kaleidoscope filled, variety became the watchword and predictability its fallen victim. New codes – written into the souls of cells – burst into being without warning. New faces stared up at the sky, searching for their author, even as they announced her presence.

*

‘Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20:30)

Différance, said Derrida, is different to différence. The latter is the way we see one word – like a sign, a recognisable squiggly inscription – and know it is different from another word. The former – almost completely the same, yet ever-so-subtly altered – is what happens to meaning. Passed from one sign to another, the presence of meaning in a word skips off merrily as we look to define it by a word, and that word by another. Lost in the maze of signposts the reader wonders what became of the word, and did it really matter. All we have are traces of meaning. Each 'text' is just a 'trace'. The signs are under erasure. And the significance will have to wait.

Another thing Derrida said was that writing is bigger than speech. For before we even utter a word it has existed in the vast potential of language. Even the thoughts with which we prepare speech are made with the words intact in our minds. The universe of words is not something we create and control; it is something we inhabit. It is l’ecriture. Writing. It is the world within which we live and dance and have our being.

So there are two kinds of sign and one writing. There are signs that live in possibility; the entire universe of words’ potential. And there are the signs spoken; uttered in a moment of semiotic birthing. All these signs are the spillage of ‘writing’ that rushes ahead like a torrent, a foaming white-water rapid; the speaker (or the writer or the thinker – for they are all the same) is the canoeist who does not so much navigate his way downstream as paddle for dear life, negotiating the unpredictable eddies and sub-currents in his desperate quest to stay afloat. The meaning of white-water canoeing is in the experience, not the destination. And the canoeist is never master of the river, for it is always the river that dictates the course and movement and direction of the canoe.

In 20:30, Jesus ‘did’ ‘signs’ in the ‘presence’ of his disciples, which are not ‘written’. Written signs have no ‘presence’ of meaning, according to Derrida, for the meaning escapes before one has even put down one’s pen. But Jesus ‘did’ signs. How does one ‘do’ a sign? This involves activity, rather than just ingenuity, for one can ‘write a sign’ or one ‘can sign’. What if ‘to sign’, as action, was to ride the white-waters of l’écriture? Is not the action of ‘signing’ the very negotiation of language; the creative ability to actively move with the fleeing currents of meaning, not in control of them, but both one with them yet distinct from the water?

So we ask, if Jesus can ‘do’ signs which are not written yet retain their presence for his disciples, what does that mean for the canoeist? Does not John’s Gospel present Jesus as master pioneer of the waters, the head of the fragile craft? Are we, the readers, not inspired to leap out into the swirl after Peter, jump into Jesus’ canoe and grab a paddle? For there is much to be un-‘written’, and much to be ‘done’.

Far under the river, however, in the great caverns of the ground lies the Minotaur, king of the labyrinth. He is awoken by the reader of John, stumbling through the maze of passages, as the signs she reads are always under erasure; their meaning disappearing when she needs them the most. Suddenly she happens upon the great beast who is tilling the earth in the centre of his cave. ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ he snorts. ‘Sir’, she stammers back, ‘if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ She moves forward to him while she speaks and with a deep longing clutches the creature’s arm. ‘Do not hold onto me’, bellows the Minotaur, and without a moments hesitation gores the woman on his horns. In the tilled earth he buries her, and above her grave posts the sign ‘disciple’, which means nothing.

There are some signs that are written (20:31). They point on and on into the endless depths of the earth where death lies. But they are written so that the reader may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. The disciple who goes in search of the meaning of those signs will encounter all kinds of confusion and malice. But if she can she resist the need to cling on to their meaning she may find life; if she can make it past the tempting depths of chapter 20 and out into the sunlit canoe of chapter 21, where the disciples are with the true ‘doer’ of signs. There we, the reader, recognise discipleship as différance; the ongoing quest for Jesus, never held, resolved, nor neatly tidied.