One of the things I love about John’s Gospel – so different from Matthew, Mark and Luke – is the opportunity John gives us to listen in on a couple of very significant conversations that Jesus has with people like Nicodemus and that anonymous ‘woman at the well.’ Matthew and Luke give us the Sermon on the Mount – those precious words ‘blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven . . . blessed are you when . . .’ Luke gives us some wonderful songs and stories like that of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, but John’s Gospel gives us these in-depth conversations where with Nicodemus and the woman at the well, we are drawn into a dialogue that invites us to go deeper with Jesus, deeper into the heart of God.
That certainly happens to Nicodemus and the Samaritan Woman. In conversation with Jesus they find themselves challenged, not in a negative or critical way, but in a way that causes them to re-think and ponder what matters most in their life. Nicodemus struggles to understand what Jesus means when he tells him that he needs to be born again. But that strikes a chord in Nicodemus’s heart. He knows deep down that something is missing in his life – that he is somehow missing the mark. So Jesus’ words light a flame of hope inside him that maybe, somehow, his life could be very different, even freer and more complete as though the harness has been taken off and the heavy load he has been carrying no longer holds him back and he can be truly the person God made him to be.
Over the course of the Gospel we see that happening in Nicodemus. The fact that it takes the whole course of the Gospel for Nicodemus to come out as a disciple of Jesus shows how God often works in our lives. Jesus refers to this in one of his parables when he speaks about the Sower sowing seed. It takes time for that seed to germinate and grow into full maturity and become fruitful, and there are plenty of things that can thwart that growth in us, as we deal with the hurts and pain that life throws at us.
But what helps and encourages faith to grow is the love we also receive along the way. The love shown in people willing to listen to us. The love shown in the welcome and warm generosity of a friend. The love we receive when people trust us with their confidences, and the love that keeps our confidences. Jesus referred to this in his conversation with Nicodemus when he spoke about the love of God; that love which gives completely and unconditionally. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.’ This is a passage that refers to Jesus’ sacrifice and self-giving. It would have puzzled Nicodemus a lot and only made sense after witnessing Jesus’ death on the cross. But we know that new life often comes from the little deaths we also go through, where we find the courage to admit to others our mistakes and take it on the chin; where we face our failures, our fears and vulnerabilities. Somehow when we do this we actually become a little more human, more likeable people, more lovable.
In the Bible we call this repentance, but that’s a big word and can often put us off. Our pride can often get in the way and stop us from taking the action we need to take. In Greek the word for repentance is ‘metanoia’, which literally means ‘to turn around’. It is in fact the most positive thing we can do if we’re going in the wrong direction. If we have our numbers wrong in the ledger, or if we take the wrong turning and end up in dead end, turning around and retracing our steps is what leads us back on course.
And through it all the promise of the Gospel is that God never stops loving us: God never stops loving us!