3/1/98, Lent 1, Year C
by the Spirit... Led by the devil
here is an unusual juxtapositioning of contrasting characters for the next two gospel readings, Nicodemus in todays Lent 2 story, and the Samaritan woman next week (Jn. 4: 5-42). They may be intended as a paradigm that would reach into the hearts of future readers of Johns gospel. First, While Nicodemus is a representative of the highest socio-economic and religious order, the poor woman at the well is both a lowly Samaritan and a shunned woman who had divorced five husbands, and was avoided by other women at the well. Is it intentional that we have a outcast contrasted with a high class?
Secondly, Jesus discusses deeper spititual/theological realities with both characters and neither seem to catch on at first; however, it is the lowly woman who does begin to discuss a complicated set of issues on the hot button subject of worship between Jews and Samaritans. Nicodemus, the scholar, seems to actually be unable to follow Jesus metaphorical logic; whereas, the supposedly simple woman blesses us all with her spiritual quickness and insight. Thus, the recurring theme of the simple confounding the wise; a reminder needed by contemporary would be intellectuals. I especially love the metaphor that we feel and hear the wind blowing but still do not know exactly where it comes from or goes. The wind (Ruah/Spirit) blows where it chooses. (v.8). Doppler Radar still doesnt know.
Thirdly, Nicodemus comes by cover of darkness, seemingly afraid, and the woman randomly encounters Jesus at noon, in broad daylight for all Sychar to see. Nicodemus leaves confused, with the words, How can these things be? (v.9), whereas the woman leaves her water jar and goes to witness to all that she has met the long expected Messiah.
Forthly, it appears that Nicodemus did later come to accept that Jesus was the Messiah (7:50). He assisted in finding a tomb, and spent a large amount to purchase burial spices (19:39). Thus, we may assume that Nicodemus is a archetype of coming to faith gradually, perhaps through a process of reasoning over time. Whereas, the heroic figure of the Woman at the Well is an example of instant faith.
It seems to me that most folks reading this story over the succeeding centuries could have found some point of identity with one or the other of these two unusual characters. We have all known people who have had to mull things over in their head: sometimes for years. Others are able to jump right into the pool, following their emotional subjective feelings. We of course could delve into personality types: Nicodemus would certainly be a Type B, waiting and thinking quietly. Our formerly sinful woman represents Type A folks who are ready to hop on board as soon as their heart strings are touched.
I think we can see in these two contrasting individuals the contemporary reality that we can not expect everyone to come to faith in exactly the same pattern. Now deceased, Bishop Nolan Harmon, used the wonderful illustration one day in a seminary classroom of a ship that sails from the cold waters of the Arctic Sea to the warm waters of the Caribbean, the gradual change of temperature does not denote one specific moment when they went from the cold to the hot, but they can surely know if they are in the hot water by simply letting down a bucket and feeling the temperature of the water. Likewise, we can know when we are in tepid, halfhearted, faith, or in hot, vibrant faith, by examining the temperature of our souls. The point of the beloved bishops illustration was that it doesn't matter how or when we came to faith, as long as we came somehow, and are in the hot water.
I have long been intrigued with the many encounters that individuals had with Jesus in the four gospels but have just recently seen the juxtaposing of two of my favorites. I appreciate folks who, like Nicodemus, think things through over a period of time. Perhaps his many years of rabbinical education almost required him to move forward slowly. After all, it was as if he was accepting a totally different frame of references.
Just this week I met a native of India who is the son of a Hindu who was converted to Christianity under the ministry of another one of my former professors, Dr. Marvin Harper. I have thought long and hard about how difficult a choice that must have been for a person so steeped in his native religion, history, and family connections, to make such a total break with his past. Yet, that was something of the decision that Nicodemus weighed so carefully. Is it any wonder that he seemed hesitant and defensive, in his nighttime encounter with Jesus.
I personally came to faith more like the Samaritan woman at the well. I had rebelled against my religious training and had led a sinful life as a fraternity boy in the 1960s. If you have ever seen the movie Animal House, you can see me as the John Balussi character. Like the rebellious woman, I had spent many hours in Sabbath School, in my case V.B.S, Sunday School, campmeetings, and revival meetings. As a child I often sat at the supper table with the great evangelists that my Dad use to have at his churches to preach those long two week revivals every Spring and Fall. I knew a lot about what I disbelieved; but, then one rainy Sunday afternoon, alone in my dorm room, Jesus came my way. It was as if he had walked right into my heart. I think my encounter was as vivid as that of my heroin at the water well. And, my Type A personality, my subjective emotional self, opened up my heart instantly and I have never been the same person. In fact, it was a totally new beginning and I changed my college major from business to religion the next day. Looking back, I am very grateful that I was only 21 and did not have anymore time than I did to have had five divorces.
No two of us have come to faith in Christ by the exact same path, but it is my prayer that we each know that we have come, and that we have an inner assurance of his presence.
a sermon synopsis
by C. Robert Allred, Th.D., Pastor