John 3:1-17 Strangers in the Night
March 8, 2020 – Parkminster United Church, Lent 2
Rev. Heather Power
Theologian and scholar Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of a woman who set out to discover the meaning of life. First she read everything she could get her hands on–history, philosophy, psychology, religion. But nothing she read gave her the answer she was looking for. She found other people and asked them about the meaning of life, but still she had no answer.
Finally she put all her belongings in storage and set off in search of the meaning of life. Everywhere she went, people told her they did not know the meaning of life, but they had heard of a man who did, only they were not sure where he lived. She asked about him in every country on earth until finally, deep in the Himalayas, someone told her how to reach his house–a tiny little hut perched on the side of a mountain just below the tree line.
She climbed and climbed to reach his front door. When she finally got there, with knuckles so cold they hardly worked, she knocked.
“Yes?” said the kind-looking old man who opened it. She thought she would die of happiness.
“I have come halfway around the world to ask you one question,” she said, gasping for breath. “What is the meaning of life?”
“Please come in and have some tea,” the old man said.
“No,” she said. “I mean, no thank you. I didn’t come all this way for tea. I came for an answer. Won’t you tell me, please, what is the meaning of life?”
“We shall have tea,” the old man said, so she gave up and came inside. While he was brewing the tea she caught her breath and began telling him about all the books she had read, all the people she had met, all the places she had been. The old man listened (which was just as well, since his visitor did not leave any room for him to reply), and as she talked he placed a fragile tea cup in her hand. Then he began to pour the tea.
She was so busy talking that she did not notice when the tea cup was full, so the old man just kept pouring until the tea ran over the sides of the cup and spilled to the floor in a steaming waterfall.
“What are you doing?!” she yelled when the tea burned her hand. “It’s full, can’t you see that? Stop! There’s no more room!”
“Just so,” the old man said to her. “You come here wanting something from me, but what am I to do? There is no more room in your cup. Come back when it is empty and then we will talk.”
Meanwhile, several thousand miles to the west, a Pharisee named Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. These two dispensed with a tea ritual, but the outcome was the same (Adapted, Barbara Brown Taylor, https://www.questia.com/magazine/1G1-18042032/stay-for-tea-nicodemus).
The nocturnal visit of Nicodemus and Jesus is a well traveled story about the life of faith and desire for transformation. This story appears only in John’s gospel. The Jewish leader comes by cover of night to see Jesus. Why the cover of night? “Presumably because he could ill afford to come by day when everyone could see where he was going and ask him why. But it is also possible that Nicodemus came by night because he knew that was a better time to talk about things that matter. How often have you asked something by candlelight that you never would have asked under the light of a fluorescent bulb? Sometimes darkness is the perfect blanket for conversations you cannot have in the broad light of day” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy, p. 163).
Nicodemus must have had an intuition about a deeper life because he didn’t have to come at all. Rather than being a needy person, or one searching for physical healing he appeared to have it all together. He is a leader in big government and a Pharisee. His resume was all about being educated, powerful and having the status of a high paying job, why would he bother to visit an out of the way Rabbi from the peasant town of Galilee?
I’m guessing that something was going on inside of him beyond curiosity, beyond snooping around in the night. Nicodemus was aroused; by sleeplessness perhaps, but certainly by the Spirit. Jesus throws him a hard ball, “Unless one is born anew, you can’t see the kindom of God.” Nicodemus responds the way most of us would, “What?!! Should I enter into my mother’s womb a second time and be born? You are kidding me, right?” He was hoping for a few minor adjustments. Jesus, however, is not that sort of spiritual director. He suggests a complete overhaul for spiritual transformation. No wonder Nicodemus slinks out of there and back into the night. He simply cannot make the kind of commitment Jesus is prescribing.
Now stay with me here because I know I’m stretching things, but as I read through this passage this week, I couldn’t help but think of one of my favourite shows, The Big Bang Theory. I wouldn’t be able to enjoy that show if its characters had to remain true to the characters they play. I know that scientists aren’t as quirky as Sheldon and engineers aren’t nearly as ridiculous as Walowitz. But I’ve seen a lot of real-life reflected in the stories that follow the lives of these characters. Nicodemus is kind of like Sheldon. Nicodemus is just as much a mythical character as Sheldon is. Like Sheldon, Nicodemus is a professional, an educated man who can’t see past the facts. The mysteries and the subtleties of life elude them both. Both Sheldon and Nicodemus function in the realm of the literal word. Nicodemus can no more understand Jesus when he talks about being born again than Sheldon can understand sarcasm. The irony of his situation eludes Nicodemus.
We know we are supposed to be disappointed in him, but we are not. Like Sheldon, Nicodemus reflects our inability to see what’s before us.In fact, we’re kind of relieved that someone else doesn’t want to shake things up in their life. It is a good excuse for us to settle back down into the darkness.
One scholar refers to this part of the spiritual journey as “preferring the security of known misery to the misery of unfamiliar insecurity.” Unfamiliar insecurity is exactly what being born again is all about. Rather than literally being born again, or even being born again in religious terms, what Jesus is serving up is different way of being alive and living life.
There are those of us in the congregation this morning who are facing such a moment, Perhaps a job no longer makes sense, or you are moving into the difficult night of a divorce or living with the loss of someone you love. Perhaps there isn’t an outer event that has precipitated a dark night of the soul, but you are feeling restless or listless; spiritually, your life path feels confusing, unclear, sometimes encased in fog. Perhaps you are experiencing a siege of negativity which brings with it, frustration, irritation and anxiety. Or you are going along and everything is great, but you are wondering what is life all about. Is this all there is? These are Nicodemus moments; times when we might like a good late night conversation or two, times when we would be glad for an easy fix or a cool stroll in the park at dusk.
For Jesus, this is a moment not to be missed and not to be treated lightly. This is a time to examine old questions in new ways, a time to recover what is most important about life. It’s a time to trust, and even surrender, to the transformation in you through the power of the Spirit. To be born again is to recognize and hold on to those powerful, difficult, beautiful terrible moments of human existence, realizing that intellectual solutions and concrete answers aren’t what is called for here. But listening, praying, trusting, letting go are all spiritual gifts required for this time. Sometimes, rather than making a decision and moving, we need to simply sit in the darkness for awhile and feel the Spirit of God moving in us.
We hear another story about Nicodemus toward the end of John. After Jesus’ death, he is present with ointment to embalm the body and make it ready for the grave. Although we do not hear of his transformation or his willingness to be spiritually born anew, we have a clue that something real happened to Nicodemus in the darkness. Perhaps after he got up and walked beyond he heard the word under the words, prayed deeply and opened slowly, but powerfully to the grace of God and the mystery of the Spirit.
This Scripture story of two strangers in the night is hopeful for some; challenging for others. For me, as I’ve wrestled with it this week it’s a bit of both. I believe the grace of this story is that Jesus opens us to a new way of being in the world. Jesus frees us from our obsession with religious game playing. Jesus points us toward a deeper level of consciousness, a more expansive way of being human.
So let us do more than just notice the mystery. Let us join in the dance. Let us embrace the mystery. “If God is the source of life, let us worship God by living. If God is the source of Love, let us worship God by loving. If God is the ground of being, let us worship God by having the courage to be more fully human; the embodiment of the Divine” (John Shelby Spong).