I once met a woman who claimed that Jesus had come to her in her kitchen and spoken to her. The reaction of friends, neighbors, and even family to this story was fairly negative. She was regarded as a bit odd, and finally quit talking about it. It was only with some hesitation that she told the group of which I was a part.
Now I see no particular reason to doubt that she saw precisely what she saw. It was, I believe, a visionary experience, and she would have no objection to its being described as such. But the general reaction to such an experience varies between tolerance and avoidance.
That story came to mind as I was reading the lectionary text from Genesis 28:10-19, which tells the story of Jacob’s dream of the ladder at Bethel. Jacob has a dream. Note that like the lady I met, he doesn’t try to claim some sort of physical presence. Yet his reaction (v. 17) is that “this is none other than God’s house, and this is heaven’s gate.” For him the presence of God was a profound reality, even though it was manifested in something as simple as a dream.
If someone said they saw Jesus in a dream, we would have a more positive reaction than people did to the visionary experience. We expect dreams. But we wouldn’t generally respond as Jacob did, considering the experience a profound spiritual event.
One of the things I suggest in trying to understand stories in the Bible is that we come as close as we can to understanding the way in which the characters in Bible times would have reacted. Otherwise we will fail to get the full impact of the story.
Spiritual things were very near, and God’s presence, even in a dream, was deeply sacred.