“Jesus began to cry” Colchester Federated Church, March 26, 2023, (John 11:1-45) Fifth Sunday in Lent

 A rare argument I had with a clergy colleague involved today’s Gospel text of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.  While completing my unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) on the way to Ordination in the United Church of Christ, I served for a summer as an intern hospital chaplain on the main campus of the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio.  During CPE you spend a lot of time with your interpersonal relations group (the other people in the CPE program) because the summer intensive unit is 40 hours of work per week over eleven weeks. 

In addition to the clinical time spent with patients, you have classroom time and books to read and book reports to write.  You also write reports called verbatims.  The simplest way to explain a verbatim is that you as the chaplain write up a patient encounter word for word.  It reads like the script of a play.  Though you step back and analyze the whole encounter.  You present your verbatim to your interpersonal relations group and must be open to their critiques.  Because we all had to analyze and critique each other’s words and actions in our patient encounters through these verbatims.

 It just so happened that during many of the patient encounters I had that summer (and therefore in the verbatims I presented), that patients would cry.  It became this thing after analyzing several of my verbatims that some of the men in our group joked— “Lauren makes people cry.”  They would never say that in front of the CPE leaders.  And it was funny, and I could just laugh it off, until it got old.  I was already the only woman in the group and the youngest, and it started to feel personal and cutting.

When one of them went after me again about “making people cry” and it was a particularly painful day, I said something along the lines of, “You know, people cry with me because I’m comfortable with emotions unlike you.  I don’t judge people for crying.  And you, Richard, are so judgmental.  You’re like a robot.  People have feelings.  You want to know the shortest verse in the Bible?  ‘Jesus wept!’  It’s in John, look it up.” 

He came back with, “That’s not the main point of that story.” 

“Oh, it’s not?” 

“It’s about the miracle.  It’s about Jesus raising Lazarus before his resurrection.”

 “Of course you’re lifting up his divinity.  But what about Jesus’ humanity?  What about Jesus seeing people cry and being distressed?  What about Jesus weeping because he loved Lazarus and his friend Lazarus died?”

“That’s not the point.” 

“It is the point.  And if crying was good enough for Jesus, then it should be good enough for you, Richard, let alone for the patients you’re supposed to be helping!”  And I stormed out of that room.

It was not my finest moment that summer.  But all these years later, I realize . . . that I was absolutely right.  Well, my approach could have been better.  Probably shouldn’t have called him a robot.  Though I stand by bringing his attention to Jesus weeping when it comes to helping people going through a personal crisis.  Because this story about Jesus has something to say to us about human emotions and the gift of tears.  Not the curse of tears, the gift of tears.  It was Father Thomas Keating, the founder of the Centering Prayer movement, who reminded Christians in his classic book Intimacy With God, “Tears are something that the early Desert Fathers prayed for because they had the insight to realize, without knowing the psychology of it, that tears open the heart, soften harsh feelings, and wash away bitterness.  They are a precious gift.”[1] 

If we pay attention to the details of our story from the Gospel according to John, we can see that this is another story of Jesus in relationship.  In this case, Jesus is in relationship with his good friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus who live in Bethany.  The Gospel story begins with the sisters sending word to Jesus, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”[2]  Jesus loved Lazarus, Mary, and Martha because they were his friends.  Jesus had friends!  Isn’t that important to know? 

By the time Jesus and his disciples arrive in Bethany, Lazarus had already died.  Martha leaves the house to meet Jesus.  It’s to Martha that Jesus delivers his profound and hopeful reassurance, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die.  Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”[3]  We often hear these words of comfort at Christian funerals.  It’s worth remembering that they were spoken by Jesus to Martha after her own brother (Lazarus) had died.

  Meanwhile, Mary stays in the house at first.  Though she ends up falling at Jesus’ feet to tell him that if he had been there, her brother wouldn’t have died.  Mary echoes the sentiment that Martha had just expressed.  John sets the scene by writing, “When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled.  He asked, ‘Where have you laid him?’ 

They replied, ‘Lord, come and see.’

Jesus began to cry.”[4]

Other translations of John 11:35 are translated as “Jesus wept.”[5]

Why did Jesus begin to cry?  Perhaps he was overcome with emotion because Mary was on the ground at his feet crying and some of the people of the village were crying.  Jesus looked around and saw and felt all that human emotion, and maybe he couldn’t help but cry too.  Or perhaps Jesus realized as he was about to perform the miracle of resurrection for Lazarus that he was sealing his own fate.  In the Gospel according to John, this is the sign that those in power and authority would use as reason to kill him.  Think about that—in John’s Gospel we are told that there is a plot to kill Jesus just a few verses later (as early as Chapter 11), “From that day on they plotted to kill him.”[6]  This could be an instance of anticipatory grief—feeling grief before an impending loss.

Now of course the sign of resurrection that Jesus performed matters.  It matters that Lazarus is freed from the tomb, unbound, and let go.  Lazarus is reunited with his beloved sisters and his friend Jesus.  This is one of the most amazing stories of healing one can find in the Bible.  Though this story highlights Jesus as a wounded healer, and I will always argue that Jesus crying matters just as much as the miracle Jesus performed. 

So what does this story mean for you and me, and why does it still matter?  Henri Nouwen wrote a classic book called The Wounded Healer where he explored the idea of how people can be of service in the Church and/or in their community by first identifying and recognizing the suffering in their own hearts.  This recognition marks the starting point of service to others, the recognition that you are a wounded healer.  Nouwen wrote, “No one can help anyone without becoming involved, without entering his [their] whole person into the painful situation, without taking the risk of becoming hurt, wounded or even destroyed in the process.  The beginning and the end of all Christian leadership is to give your life for others . . . Who can take away suffering without entering it?”[7] 

One could argue that when Jesus wept, he entered into the pain and suffering of others.  He allowed himself the gift of tears to open his heart, to soften harsh feelings, and to wash away bitterness.  We are socialized to believe that tears are a sign of weakness, particularly as a sign of weakness among men.  But what if we remembered this story of Jesus raising Lazarus and Jesus weeping before performing this sign as a counter-narrative?  Could we begin to understand that tears are not a sign of weakness, but a gift to open up our hearts?  “When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled . . . Jesus began to cry.”[8]  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Thomas Keating, Intimacy with God: An Introduction to Centering Prayer, 51.
[2] John 11:3, CEB.
[3] John 11:25-26, CEB.
[4] John 11:33-35, CEB.
[5] John 11:35, NIV.
[6] John 11:53, CEB.
[7] Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, pg. 72.
[8] John 11:33 and 35, CEB.

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash