I have a special fondness for the story of Nicodemus, and not just because we share the same name. In 2010, after a few decades of suffering apparent separation between God and me, something happened. It was a very sudden something and it brought spiritual transformation, healing, and gratitude. At the time, the words which came spontaneously to mind describing the experience, the words that felt most true, where that it felt like being born again.
Not long after I found a church and when I told the rector about the “born again” experience she very gently suggested that I call it something else, perhaps a kind of spiritual awakening. I assumed she offered that advice because of the political reality associated with the phrase “born again.” Still, I’ve never forgotten that first Easter I celebrated, how there was an overwhelming and joyful recognition of the baptismal dying and rising of my self in Christ.
Back in the fourth century the sacrament of baptism was seen as the culmination of a Lenten journey, a journey of instruction, spiritual exercises, and ascetic disciplines. Those on this journey, the catechumens, were baptized on the Easter Vigil, a celebration of their participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. As a symbol of this dying and rising, they would enter a pool of water on one side, as entering into a tomb or womb, before emerging on the other side.
If you feel you have walked into the middle of a conversation today, you have! No wonder, if you are shaking your head, and thinking, where on earth did all this come from? You’re not the only one to feel that. Any number of people are thinking, did I miss something?
Our gospel today is the second half of that famous encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. You’ll remember the story. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, in secret, declaring Jesus to be a teacher who has come from God. It is perhaps the first glimmer of faith by Nicodemus, who we will see again at the end of the gospel, when, with Joseph of Arimathea, he makes provision for the Lord’s burial, by bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.  But all of that comes later, much later, almost at the end of the story. Today we’re near the beginning, and Jesus and Nicodemus have that mysterious, almost mystical conversation, about water, being born again, and entering a second time into a mother’s womb.
Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
Much anxiety stems from what we don’t know and can’t know, especially what will happen. Fearing uncertainty, we often focus on what knowledge we have as something to grasp.
Nicodemus, a religious leader, comes to Jesus sounding confident. “We know who you are. We know what is possible and impossible. No one can do the signs you are doing apart from God, so we know that you are a teacher from God.”
Jesus replies, “No one can see the kingdom without being born from above.”
“How is that possible?” Nicodemus asks. “Can one enter the womb again?”
Jesus says, “One must be born of water and spirit, must be born from above.”
“How is that possible?” Nicodemus asks. Now he clearly doesn’t understand.
Jesus is neither direct nor clear. There are still many ideas for what “of water and spirit” means. Perhaps the language confuses Nicodemus. Perhaps it’s the radical reversal. Nicodemus was born in the established, assumed way, from a Jewish mother. Part of his trouble may be from being an insider. That others can enter God’s family from outside is bewildering.[i]
Nicodemus comes confident in his knowledge, thinks he knows who Jesus is, what is possible, what makes sense, therefore what must be true. Nicodemus comes at night, a sign that he’s in the dark, that he cannot see, that he does not know.
Such certainty traps. Holding so tight to tradition and reason restricts hearing God. The Spirit moves like wind, blowing where it will. We cannot predict nor contain. When we think we’ve grasped God, we are overly confident in our knowledge. God is always more. As religious people we can be too certain about our religious knowledge and not hear the news, good and often disturbing news of Jesus.
What do we not see or know because of containers we’ve constructed? It’s may not be new yet we have forgotten. As descendants of Abraham, we are blessed so that allpeople may be blessed. Reading the Gospel of John, we hear from chapter one Jesus comes expanding God’s family to all people: “To all who received him, who called on his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”[ii]No matter lineage or background, all can be born of the Spirit. Everyone is invited to be children of God.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” We also heard it in the Letter to the Romans: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”
To those already inside, this may be disturbing that others will join. To those on the margins, this is especially good news of welcome and belonging. Insiders may not realize their own position, their own need. Everyone is welcome, at home, belonging as God’s children.
As adults, we may be uncomfortable hearing ourselves called children. We still have much to learn. Perhaps “born from above” is Jesus’ invitation to “not knowing,” to taking a childlike perspective.[iii]Countering serious adults who strive for certainty, Jesus invites a childlike playfulness, a way of becoming. Grownups get trapped in reasoning, in quests for certainty, right and wrong, and social acceptance. Like Nicodemus, we think we know. If we’re not sure, we may ask in secret to not be seen by others.
A childlike perspective is playful. Open to questions. Exploring possibilities widely. To play is to gaze in wonder. To do something simply because it delights. Act with freedom and inhibition, unconcerned about what others may think. Get down low and get up close to look. Try it out. Take risks. Be vulnerable.
A playful perspective faces the unknown with courage to discover, with risk to behold. In play, we let down our guard. We need play in our relationships to show up as we are. There is more to relating than behaviors in which we feel familiar and confident. Risking the new takes us further. A childlike playfulness ushers in becoming more.
A childlike prayerfulness opens us to more. Pray as you can, as you already do. And take a risk, try something new. There are endless ways to pray. In the face of anxiety and uncertainty, play with your prayer, going beyond seeming proficiency. Try a medium with which you’re not familiar and discover what unfolds.
I find it helpful returning to crayons or trying pastels or paints or clay—something hands on. Coloring in a way we long haven’t, even doing so down on the floor, helps prompt a childlike perspective. Put color on the page and play. Be simple and gentle with yourself. Rather than seeking to know, just be. Surprisingly, it’s then that we see.
Playfulness goes beyond knowledge, beyond definitions or grasping. A playful perspective is open to mystery. Today we celebrate the Trinity, one God in three persons. The divine nature as a community of persons is not logical, not to be grasped. Rather than knowing, join our brothers and sisters, all the children of the world, playfully praying with God who is mystery.
[i]Frances Taylor Gench (2007) Encounters with Jesus: Studies in the Gospel of John. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p21.
[iii]Jean Vanier (2004) Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John. New York: Paulist Press, p75.
Numbers 21: 4 – 9
Psalm 107: 1 – 3, 17 – 22
Ephesians 2: 1 – 10
John 3: 14 – 21
If it feels as though you have walked into the middle of a conversation today, it’s because you have! No wonder, then, if you are shaking your head, and thinking to yourself, where on earth did all this come from? You’re not the only one to feel that way today. I bet a number of people are thinking to themselves, did I miss something?
Our gospel lesson today is the second half of that famous encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. You’ll remember the story. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, in a sense secretly, declaring Jesus to be a teacher who has come from God. It is the first glimmer of faith by Nicodemus, who we will see again at the end of the gospel, when, with Joseph of Arimathea, he makes provision for the Lord’s burial, by bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.  But all of that comes later, much later, almost at the end of the story. Today we’re near the beginning, and Jesus and Nicodemus have that mysterious, almost mystical conversation about water, and being born again, and entering a second time into a mother’s womb.
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Though cautiously doing so by night, still, Nicodemus feels compelled to come to Jesus. This elder, a respected leader among the religious authorities, comes to see the mysterious rabbi from Galilee. However, mere curiosity does not motivate Nicodemus’ visit. He seems, rather, to be one of the “many [who] believed in [Jesus’s] name because they saw the signs that he was doing” (John 2:23) during that first Jerusalem Passover festival at which Jesus appears in John’s gospel.
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”(John 3:2) Nicodemus, I would say, exhibits a certain amount of courage and imagination. Courage in approaching Jesus in the wake of his disruptive action in the temple; imagination in that though there is much that Nicodemus already knows of God, he comes to Jesus aware that there is likely still much that he does not know.