Identity is theme of the 40 days of Lent. Who am I? Who is Jesus? Who are my neighbors? These identity questions should stay with Christians throughout this season, and lead to growth, connection, and cooperation. The Gospel stories of the New Testament give us an opportunity to ask these questions, and then to embrace a journey towards light and compassion. Though most of Lent we have been looking at Mathew’s Gospel, this time we take a detour and look at John’s Gospel, the last Gospel written, and the Gospel that stands alone much of the time, as it is very different from Matthew, Luke, and Mark.
The story of Nicodemus and Jesus is an intriguing one, and as our Lenten journey is about questions, so is this story. Now I’ve read and examined this story so much that sometimes I feel that there isn’t much left to explore. But for some reason, my reading of the story this time led me to a different take. You see, much of the time we tend to focus on the characters who encounter Jesus [like Nicodemus] as having some sort of problem, or as being in opposition to Jesus. But I don’t think this is the case with Nicodemus. He is a good question-asker, and Jesus loves questions. This type of question-asking was and is prevalent in many religious traditions, including Judaism and is a way that ideologies and spiritual practices develop. A student asks the teacher a question. Often the teacher will not give a concrete answer but rather, another question for the student to consider.
So the student is Nicodemus. The name Nicodemus means “peoples’ victory.” He’s also called a Pharisee and a leader of the Judeans. Pharisees studied scripture intently and prayed a lot. The issue for the Pharisees [and I would argue, for most “religious” people], is that they often got too caught up in the appearance of religious practice. The institution of the temple, for some Pharisees, had become more important than the actual practice of their faith.
The storyteller writes that Nicodemus met Jesus at night. My take on that is that Nicodemus had respect for Jesus. He didn’t wish to make a spectacle of the conversation; he preferred a one-on-one talk. We also must keep in mind that John’s Gospel often uses the light-dark symbolism. This could be one of those cases. Nicodemus came in the dark. He was about to meet the light.
The conversation started off reasonably well. Nicodemus showered Jesus with praise and respect. Jesus wasn’t all that interested, though. Instead, Jesus challenged Nicodemus’ perspective by saying something strange:
No one can see God’s presence without being born from above.
Born from above refers to the new vision for life that Jesus of Nazareth taught his disciples and led them towards, and is not a statement of belief or some superior knowledge.
Nicodemus was curious but confused, as anyone would be. After all, humans are physically born only once, right? But again, Jesus was pushing Nicodemus to think beyond narrow and linear categories. For Jesus, being born from above meant being born of water and spirit.
Water. Probably the most essential resource in all of creation. We all need water to survive. But more than that—water is powerful and creative. It goes around, under, and through things. It carves mountains and forges new habitats. It brings life wherever it flows. Pause for a moment. How are we like water? How does that affect the way you see others?
Spirit. For Jesus of Nazareth, spirit and wind were interchangeable. The spirit/wind is wild—it blows where it wishes and cannot be controlled. You don’t even see it. It is free of and at large in the world. Pause for a moment. How are we like wind? How does that change the way you see others?
I simply want to focus on these two identity images of water and wind.
As we ask: who am I? during this season, how are we like water and like wind?
And, if we consider that the people around us are also born of water and wind, how will that affect the way we interact and treat others?