Passage: John 3:1–3:21, John 4:1–4:30
I was at a district training event earlier this year and attended a breakout session led by the main speaker. She’s a former dean of Duke Divinity School. And she was talking about a way of doing a bible study that harnesses ancient practices for modern use. The frame of the study was four different scopes for reading Scripture. The second scope was the periscope and she said what do periscopes do? They go around in a circle to show you what’s around you. So she said one way we can read the Bible is in a periscope way, to look at the stories that are around a particular passage of Scripture as a way of gaining deeper insight into the one you’re reading.
And my mind was blown.
How had I never seen this before?
The example she used is the one that we are going to look at today. But it’s all over Scripture. We get so used to reading things one story at a time and talking about one story as one story or one chunk as one chunk we can often miss how these pieces fit together. Through most of the summer we are going to take two pieces of Scripture that are juxtaposed next to each other and see the connections between the two, see how one might help interpret the other, see how they often offer us a choice of who we want to be.
Our first juxtaposition comes from the beginning part of John’s gospel. And like I said it was the text the presenter used that set my mind spinning. Today we are going to look at two early encounters with Jesus by two people who couldn’t be more different. Their stories, their motivations, and their responses to Jesus couldn’t be more different. And you’ll never guess which one the Gospels invites us to emulate.
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. 10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
Our first text is about Nicodemus. We are told right away some information about our man: he’s a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council. He’s a false follicle of immense size: a big wig. But nevertheless he wants to speak to Jesus. Which isn’t an issue, right? Except he can’t just go see Jesus. That would risk too much of his social standing. It’d be too scandalous. He’d be in real trouble with his fellow councilmen; he’d risk his status and perhaps his job. So what do you do if you want to meet with someone but you can’t risk being seen? You go in the middle of the night.
Jesus and Nicodemus have a conversation about being born again, Nicodemus is thoroughly confused. Jesus talks about being reborn in the Spirit and about how only the Son of Man has gone to heaven and can talk about it and that the Son of Man will need to be lifted up so that people could have eternal life. Then John has a brief interlude about light and dark. We’ll revisit that later.
And that’s the scene. Presumably Nicodemus returns to his house, wakes up the next day and lives his life the exact same way he had before his encounter with Jesus. We don’t hear about him again until much, much later. Nicodemus hears Jesus talk about what he must do to inherit eternal life and he goes and does nothing with it. He keeps his place on the Council and as far as we know only he and Jesus know about his midnight visit.
Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John — although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?” Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” “I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” They came out of the town and made their way toward him.
Our second story involves a nameless Samaritan woman. Nicodemus was a prominent member of the Jewish ruling council. This woman is a Samaritan peasant. Jesus meets her at the town well in the middle of the day. She’s alone. But she knew she’d be there alone. She went then so that she’d be alone. You see one of the first chores women would do in the ancient world was go to the town well to draw all the water they’d need for the day. You had these massive jars that you’d fill so you didn’t spend half your day walking to and from the well. But liquids get heavy quickly when stored in mass quantities. And it gets hot in the Middle East during the day. So if you were going to gather all the water your family would need for the day and carry it back to your house you’d want to get that done early in the morning before the sun beat down on you. And that’s precisely what happened in village after village throughout Israel and Samaria.
And yet here this woman is in the middle of the day. Doing an arduous physical task in the heat of the day. She didn’t go in the morning when all the other women would have gone. She didn’t go in the morning when all the other women would have been there. Waiting their turn for the well. Talking. Socializing. Being in community.
So here’s what we know: this woman is an outcast. While she’s drawing her water she meets Jesus. They have an equally confusing conversation about the nature of worship and what separates Israelites from Samaritans, living water and the nature of thirst, et cetera. The heart of this conversation is a moment where she surrenders a bit, asks Jesus for living water. And Jesus says go get your husband. She reveals she has no husband and Jesus says yes that’s right, you’ve had five husbands and the man you’re with now isn’t your husband. There it is. That’s why she’s at the well at noon. That’s why she’s an outcast.
Here’s what we don’t know: the exact nature of her relationships. We can speculate as to how she came to have five husbands and be living with someone who isn’t her husband but here’s perhaps the most important thing we know about this: none of this happened by her choice. She didn’t choose her fate here. And yet she still would have been an outcast just the same. Her situation would have made her unfit to associate with other people. And frankly she would have just rather been by herself. As much as social custom would have forced her to the well at noon, shame and fear and embarrassment would have done the job just as well. And here is Jesus, locating the source of her shame and her isolation.
For this woman, to be known and to be loved are mutually exclusive. People in her town know her and she feels their rejection daily, as fierce and hot as the sun on her back as she carries the water. In this moment Jesus is saying child you are known and you are not rejected. I know who you are and I’m still here.
Imagine for a second that for this one-hour Jesus were alive in Prince William County this morning. It’s a blasphemous thought I know, but try this thought experiment with me. Jesus is alive, here in the PWC for this one hour only. A limited engagement. Where do you suppose he goes? Who do you think he’d hang out with?
We are conditioned to think he’d go to church, right? I mean isn’t that what good, holy, righteous people do? Jesus would choose to spend his time talking to his followers. And you might be right. But consider this: here we have two stories, one about a good church person and one a social outcast. In the story about the good church person it’s the church person going to Jesus and initiating the conversation. In the story about the social outcast Jesus goes to her and its Jesus who starts the conversation. And so I wonder if Jesus were here right now if he wouldn’t find other places to go, places where there are people who are overscheduled and overtired, places where there are people run ragged, places where there are people desiring to be known and loved because they are so deeply convinced the two are mutually exclusive.
I want to revisit that interlude about light and dark real quick. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
This is the bridge between these two stories. Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the dark. He has a conversation with Jesus in the dark. And he keeps that conversation in the dark because he’s afraid. He’s afraid of being exposed. He’s afraid of what it might cost him. The woman at the well has a conversation with Jesus in the light. Life and circumstances have made it such that she doesn’t have the chance of meeting Jesus in the dark, her deeds are already known. To the other people of her town and to Jesus. She can’t hide, although I very much believe she wished she were so privileged. Her deeds are known and she is known. But here’s the wonderful, beautiful, amazing, terrifying, surprising, unbelievable scandal: even as she is known, Jesus meets her. Jesus reaches out to her. Jesus loves her.
So what does she do? She goes to the other people in her town. Imagine that: the woman who was willing to do manual labor in the afternoon heat because of shame and fear goes to see the very people she sweats and toiled to avoid. Where’d the shame go? Where’d the fear go? Truth is told some of it might still be there but it doesn’t matter nearly as much as it matters to tell people about this man. About this man who knew everything about her. Come and see she says. He might just be the Messiah.
These passages are powerful in their own right. But when I heard perhaps they were meant to be read together a light went off in my brain. Because when read together we see the clear choice this offers. And it’s a question of would you rather. Would you rather be Nicodemus or the woman at the well? Would you rather be in the dark or in the light? Would you rather be respected by your peers, successful in your work, prominent but get that by having to hustle, hide your true self from everyone lest you be found out, never revealing what you truly think and believe, forever worried that if someone does really know you you’ll lose it all? Or would you rather be known, warts and all, and have faith that God in Jesus Christ and your brothers and sisters in Christ will love you because we know you? On the one hand it seems like an easy choice, right? And yet why, for so many of us, are we Nicodemus. How often do we work to keep up the hustle, keep up the façade because we can’t accept that without our role and prominence and all that comes with it we are enough, we are loved, we are accepted?
So we’re gonna be doing something a little different throughout this summer. Our mission statement outlines our three primary ministries, our three elements of discipleship: worship, small groups, and service. Worship and service still happen throughout the summer but often what happens is our small groups take a break. Because our schedules are so crazy it’s tough for our groups to have any sort of continuity and here on Sunday mornings its tough to build group cohesion from week to week knowing we’re all gonna be in and out over the summer. The importance of our small groups is that they connect us to God and to other people and abandoning that connection point during the summer really does our mission and our discipleship a disservice. So we wanted to create some sort of opportunity for you to connect with God and with others over the summer. So I’m gonna ask you to trust me for a couple weeks while we try something. We think, we hope this will be meaningful to you. We’re calling it our summer extensions.
For about ten minutes I’m going to ask you to engage these stories and this message in a way that’s most comfortable to you. We know all of you are a bit different and so we have some different activities based on who you are, how God made you, and how you’ll best connect to these stories and this message personally. One of our core values here is authenticity and we want to provide different ways so you can be authentically you before God. If you’re an extrovert and learn by talking we have some small group style questions and you’re invited to gather in a group over here. If you’re an introvert and you learn by writing and thinking, we have some journals in the back. We have some starter questions for you that we invite you to answer or if you just want to stream of conscious write whatever’s on your heart that’s great. If you’re a tactile, crafty person we have a station for you to make a group poster. And if you engage Scripture best in prayer we invite you to gather your chairs over here and we have some prayer topics for you.
A quick note to the journal people: we’d love for you to write in the journals anonymously and leave the journals here afterwards. That way over the summer this can become a communal expression, a silent small group if you will, where each journal has multiple voices writing on multiple topics. However, if that’s gonna keep you from being authentic and real in this time, take the journal home with you. Bringing it back next week would be helpful, but there’s grace here. I know I spoke with a negative connotation about Nicodemus coming at night but frankly it’s a whole lot better than never coming at all. So, and this goes for everyone not just our journalers, do whatever you need to do to be authentically you in this space connecting with God through the juxtaposition of these stories. So y’all know what to do, we’ll reconvene in about 10 minutes.