“Water & Spirit” by Rev. Shawna Bowman
What to make of Nicodemus
I’ve been trying to write about Nicodemus since John 3:1-17 was the lectionary text a few Sundays ago. So much of his conversation with Jesus in this passage hits on the themes of deepening faith, imagination, and witnessing signs that we have been thinking about this Lent.
But I couldn’t figure out what to say about Nicodemus.
This passage, although so nostalgically familiar (Sunday School anyone?), is pretty opaque for me. I read it and re-read it, and I don’t know what to walk away with. What are we supposed to learn from Jesus’ cryptic, metaphorical answers? Are we supposed to admire Nicodemus for his courage to ask the tough questions? Or are we supposed to be disappointed with his lack of understanding?
Today I want to take another look at this passage, but I want to be open to the mystery of this text, open to its confusion, open to the questions it leaves me with. I hope you’ll bear with me and offer your own insights on this story.
Having trustworthy faith
The John 3 story about Nicodemus takes place at Passover, which is pretty appropriate considering that this is Holy Week. We just celebrated Palm Sunday, when we remember Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where he had traveled to celebrate the Passover with his disciples. This week, many Jews and Christians celebrated again the seder of Passover, tying themselves to this ancient tradition that echoes back through our religious history. John 3 opens with a Passover feast during the early days of Jesus’ ministry. This sets the stage:
When Jesus was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people, and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone. (John 2:23-24)
There’s that familiar theme of witnessing signs. People are coming to believe in Jesus because he has been performing wonders. But then, in verse 24, we hear an interesting insight into how Jesus feels about all this: he doesn’t trust anyone. What surprising emotion from the gospel writer! Jesus knows that all these signs are unnecessary, and he seems to understand that faith based only on signs leaves something to be desired. It’s heartbreaking to read that Jesus felt alone, even in the midst of a festival celebration with his close friends, even at the height of his successful ministry, even following mass conversions of followers.
These two verses set the stage for the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. In the middle of the night, Nicodemus approaches Jesus to ask him about these signs. Their conversation goes something like this:
Nicodemus: I know you’re a teacher of God because I’ve seen you do signs.
Jesus: No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again from above.
Nic: What does that mean?
The J: The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.
Nic: What does that mean?
The J: You’re not getting it! If I tell you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can I tell you about heavenly things?
And so on. You get the picture.
I have to say, I am glad Nicodemus had the courage to ask for some clarification: what is Jesus talking about? Nicodemus has clearly been wrestling with what he’s witnessed of Jesus ministry, and he is so desperate for answers that he approaches Jesus in the middle of the night.
He even opens with a vote of confidence in Jesus, making sure to mention those signs! But Jesus is unimpressed. He reminds Nicodemus that it takes a proper spiritual perspective to even see the meaning of signs. It reminds me of the difference between the Pharisees’ request for signs and the disciples’ witness of the transfiguration we saw in Matthew 16-17. Perhaps Nicodemus was among that crowd of Pharisees and was reminded of this earlier conversation with Jesus.
But here Nicodemus doesn’t really seem to understand the distinction Jesus is making. No wonder he felt mistrustful; no one seems to be getting the true meaning of his ministry. Jesus is looking for the kind of genuine faith to which he can entrust himself. That kind of faith needs no testimony but rests in the mysteries of the Spirit.
A messy process
Jesus tries two different metaphors to explain himself to Nicodemus: being born again and being like the wind. He tells Nicodemus that believers need to be born again, or born from above (the Greek word “anothen” carries both meanings). When Nicodemus fails to understand the technicalities of such a process, Jesus tells him that those who have achieved this spiritual re-birth are like the blowing breath of wind.
There is so much to say about both these images, but for today I said I would rest in the mystery of this text. So before we get to the rest of Jesus’ response to Nicodemus, with all its big theology and commonly-quoted verses, let’s pause here, in the midst of all the questions. I believe Jesus used messy, ambiguous metaphors on purpose. Maybe the process of deepening true faith in Jesus, not just in the miracles he performed, can be explained no other way. Maybe we miss something when we think that we can systematize or ritualize authentic faith. What if the process of finding faith is like painful, wet, slippery birth? And what if the result of true re-birth is a faith that looks and sounds like inconsistent, noisy wind?
In the re-births of your life, what water/spirit parts of yourself have emerged, and what flesh parts of yourself have died? What do you learn from Jesus’ use of these fluid, open images of wind, water, and birth? Like Nicodemus, what do you still yearn to understand?
This week I’m linking up wtih Emily to celebrate redemption, art, and imperfect prose.