Last week I wrote about Jacob and the way God began to work in him to lead him toward a more centred and compassionate life – dragging him out of the chaos he had created for himself. I wonder what has helped you in those moments where you have felt that your life was unraveling?

Jesus speaks about God’s touching our lives as something that will always surprise us and open us to joy, like the merchant who finds a pearl of great price, or the tiniest seed that grows into something enormous. I think of the many encounters Jesus has with people in the gospel. They are always surprising.

Nicodemus thought he was going to have a nice fire-side chat with a wise young Rabbi, and finds himself leaving in a whirl of confusion and wonder that only grows in him until the seeds that Jesus had shown in his heart and mind took root and turned his life around.

Think of the woman who had suffered for decades with something like a fistula where she was bleeding all the time until she touched Jesus and she immediately knew that she was healed. Think of Zacchaeus hiding up a tree, hated by all and sundry because of his occupation as a collector of the Roman taxes – he never imagined that Jesus would stop under the very tree he was hiding in and then audaciously to invite himself to tea!

In each of these cases something liberating, something utterly surprising beyond expectation happened in their lives. It’s like the birth of a baby; that almost always leads us to wonder, which makes sense of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus that what he needs is a rebirth. Of course he takes Jesus literally and completely mis-understands.

What Jesus is about is liberation; freeing us to live well. What I mean by living well has nothing to do with wealth, fine dining, fast cars and luxury holidays. What I mean, and what I believe Jesus means is learning to notice and care for other people, learning to be kind and respectful, learning to be trustworthy; in short learning to be part of the ‘surprise’ we call the kingdom of God!

Perhaps because of our experiences in life where people have taken advantage of us, betrayed our confidences, gossiped behind our back or undermined us in some way, we can be wary and cautious of one another. Henry Nouwen uses the image of fists clenched to describe the way we can inadvertently act toward others. He speaks about the movement of the spirit in our lives as gently helping us to unclench our hands so that others experience welcome and hospitality and understanding from us.

That’s what I mean by ‘living well’; living so that people feel they are understood, cared for, and loved. “Love” of course is such a loaded term in our culture, so often sentimentalised or sexualised. Paul’s definition of love as patience, kindness, not jealous or boastful, not arrogant or rude, which bears all things, believes all things and endures all things, gives some contours to how we as Christians understand love. In many ways Paul’s definition speaks a lot about Jesus – about God who is Love.

Jesus set Nicodemus on a spiritual journey of discovery, just as God did for Jacob. Jacob’s name means ‘supplanter or deceiver’ which is very apt considering the way he acted. However he in turn gets deceived big time in our reading today; and I believe learns from that; it’s all part of the painful process of growth in him.

Recently I met a doctor who, learning I was a minister, asked ‘Where do you practise?’ Its something a doctor might ask another doctor, but it got me thinking. Learning to live well takes a lot of practice, it begins in prayer with the One who cherishes us, and leads us to practise kindness, to practise being there for others, to practise being part of God’s surprise we call the kingdom of God.