So last week we met Nicodemus. He was the Pharisee who snuck out in the middle of the night, face hidden, phone off to ask Jesus his questions. He had a lot to lose, after all. He was a man among men. A community leader. A member of a club that had stacked the deck for themselves. So he had to come at night.
Sometimes it is like that for us too. Some of the questions that we want to ask, people around us don’t want to hear. Questions about deep things, questions that show our flaws and our doubts aren’t always welcome at the gym or around the dinner table at the retirement home. Vulnerability doesn’t play well in corridors of power that have a lot to protect.
The problem is, even in our churches we sometimes get the message that some questions are out of bounds, that you have to be a certain thing, think a certain way in order to show yourself in the light of day.
Nicodemus is a man of high standing; he’s a Jew, and he happens to be of the right gender. She is a woman in a man’s world, she’s of a half-breed clan, she has burned through five husbands—although we could well imagine it is them who have burned through her. We can imagine it hasn’t been easy for her. And we don’t even get to know her name.
And yet, both of them, these two seekers who are about as opposite as they come, find in Jesus someone who carries their doubts and cradles their uncertainty. And given what happens when the disciples come back with lunch, we might even say their questions are Jesus’ food!
So how can we say as followers of Jesus that any question is out of bounds? How can we say our doubt is off the table when that’s the food Jesus brings to this (communion) table? How can we say our limits define us when our baptism is struck from such a deep and life-giving well?
The Exodus reading gives us such a great image when it says the Israelites journeyed by stages. That’s kind of the story of our lives too as we seek to make sense of the world, isn’t it?
The questions we ask at 4 are different than a 12 year-old’s. What we wonder about after a first date or as college students are different from mid-life. Our hopes and our struggles when we are exhillarated and exhausted by the new life we feed and change and cart around are different from the doubts that emerge when a job disappears or a death bed cradles us or we are in a wilderness and constantly thirsty for something more.
The questions we ask when we are hungry are different from the questions we ask when we are full. But they all have a common theme: Is God among us? Is the Lord with us or not?
We journey in stages, and the questions that come up are the questions that come up! And we need the space to ask them if we hope for well-watered lives.
I like this woman. She’s tough. She pulls no punches. She meets Jesus at a well that holds not only water, but an ocean of ancient conflict between their people, and she holds her own! As soon as Jesus speaks to her, she lets it be known she will not shrink away: “How is it that you, a Jew, asks a drink of me, a Samaritan?” You know as well as I that people like us just don’t talk.
And yet, they do, don’t they?
Perhaps it is that refusal to shrink from truth that’s caused her trouble in her past marriages. It is certaintly what makes her so compelling. Who knows? But we can tell that Jesus drinks up her quick wit and hunger for honesty. He sees her for who she is and he loves her. And when they’re done, she leaves her water jar behind because she is no longer thirsty. And Jesus isn’t interested in lunch because his deeper hunger for meaning has been filled. This one who seeks for truth has found her home in the Way, the Truth and the Life.
And it changes everything!
At the beginning of the story, she is alone with her thoughts. We can guess she would prefer to keep in darkness the rather inconvenient particularities of her story—even if they are the result of living in a world that has set her up for failure. Is it really any different with us and the chapters of our stories we’d rather keep hidden?
But look at where she is by the end! Nothing measurable has changed, but everything is different. She is a new creation. And for me, this is the most astonishing thing of all: She flies to the very people she’s been trying to avoid to tell them about a stranger who is by all rights an enemy, who has told her the details of her life that she has spent so much energy keeping quiet.
Not only are her worst fears not realized, but her deepest and most hidden hopes are met. She meets love and she is reborn; she is transfigured; she finally sees in herself what God has always seen in her. And she sees her divided community in a new light as well. They too are transfigured in her eyes, and she has become the very pail she left behind, brimming with life-giving waters.
This, my dear friends, is the power of grace. This is the power of the gospel for transforming you and me, and the world along with us. This is the Spirit of Life and it works against anything that blocks our way to newness.
Beloved of God, do not imagine there are no second chances. Do not believe our differences are too big to overcome. With this God, new life is a staple, another chance is the only thing there is. For this God even death becomes a source of life. Nothing you can do or have done, nothing that you are can stand in the way of God’s work in you.
Do you believe this? Are you willing to open your life to it? Come to the waters of salvation. Bring your whole self to it. Hold nothing back. See what God might just do.