The heavens open and the voice of God descends like a dove saying, “This is My Son …” It doesn’t get much clearer than that. Yet, in this chapter we see vignettes, one after another, of people asking who or what Jesus is, beginning with Jesus, himself. After his baptism, Jesus goes on retreat, fasting for forty days, in the wilderness. He is in discernment … what kind of Messiah will he be? What will he do, what is the real purpose of his ministry? The tempter shows him the possibilities. Be rich, be famous, be powerful. Sure, you’re the Son of God … What does that mean? How will you use your power, Jesus?
And then, the wedding. Mom says, “Jesus, it’s a crisis. Your cousin’s out of wine. Use your power, won’t you? It’s just a little miracle.” I can hear the mother’s pleading voice, “Jesus, it’s time to stop hiding in the wilderness. It’s time that people begin to show people who you really are.” It’s time. But Jesus knows there is no “little miracle.” Every miracle, every healing is meant to be a sign … A testimony to the truth.
People need signs, it seems. Something extraordinary to follow. And we have to see for ourselves; we are skeptics. Some saw what Jesus was all about, but when Philip told Nathaniel, it was hard for Nathaniel to fathom. You’ve got to be kidding! “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” When Jesus meets up with him, though, Jesus says just enough to make him believe … “I saw you under the fig tree.”
The Samaritan woman has a long conversation with Jesus. She is intrigued by him, that he would talk to a woman, to a Samaritan … She engages him in theological rhetoric … but she is cynical and only convinced by his ability to read her life. She can’t keep that to herself … He’s the Messiah, the Christ, the promised one, really, “he told me everything I ever did.”
Nicodemus heard about the signs; he concedes that Jesus is from God. He came to him at night saying, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” His questions are deeper, though, as he tries to make sense of who Jesus is.
For Jesus the miracles are not meant to be the main attraction. They are merely tools that allow him to speak and teach with credibility. It’s the revelation of the kingdom of God; teaching and preaching the love of God and the truth of Gods realm — that’s what his ministry is about.
While he’s teaching one day, a man who was possessed by a demon distracted him. The demon called attention to his true nature as the Son of God, so Jesus demanded the spirit leave the man. People began to talk. Afterwards they went to Simon and Andrew’s house, and they find Simon’s mother-in-law in bed with a fever. Jesus heals her. By the time dinner is eaten, the town’s people are lining up to be healed. Jesus has gone viral. Everyone wants to see him, to witness the miracles, to have their loved ones healed. Popularity, however, isn’t always something to be desired. Crowds demand attention. Jesus needs to get away … at first to a private place to pray, and then to a new town where his viral fame has not yet penetrated … to a place where he can teach and preach. “That is why I have come.”
Now we see Jesus, filled with compassion, still healing … Yet now he implores those he heals, “Please, don’t tell anyone.” Jesus knows his mission is much greater than healing the flu, epilepsy, or schizophrenia. But people are drawn to sensationalism, so what goes viral? The interpretation of the law, the teaching of Isaiah, the teaching about the kingdom of God? No, God doesn’t make headlines like miracles (or scandals) do. “Jesus Heals the Leper!” “Nazarene Casts Out Screaming Demon!” “Thousands Camp Out Hoping Jesus Will Cure Blindness!”
The people are desperate, limited by circumstance but not imagination. Even when there is standing room only at a teaching engagement, security can’t keep away the cure-seekers. Four men climb to the roof, cut a hole in it, and lower their paralyzed friend into the room with Jesus, hoping for a miracle. Jesus not only heals the man, but forgives his sins … Now the headlines shift … “Jesus Claims Priestly Authority!” “Jesus Dines with Corrupt Government Agents!” “Jesus Heals on Sabbath!” Now the headlines capture the scandal. The miracle-worker is a curiosity when he only breaks the laws of physics, but when he threatens the established order, questions the status quo, critiques the religious hierarchy …
Funny isn’t it? What gets our attention?
We find several references to water this week. The chapter opens with the baptism of Jesus. Later on we have the wedding an Cana, where the water is turned into wine. When Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be born again, he says that “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” Finally comes the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. It was this last story that actually caught me at first.
When I read that story, I’m drawn to other encounters at wells from the Old Testament. Jacob met Rachel at a well as he fled from his brother Esau. Moses met his wife Zipporah by a well as he fled from Egypt. Both stories which would have been familiar to the people of Jesus day. Both stories tell of an encounter that changed the course of the lives of those involved. And this story is no exception. The Samaritan woman was an outsider to the Jews, both because of her birth as a Samaritan, and because she had been with so many men. Yet Jesus speaks with her at the well, and then offers himself AS a well – a well of living water which will flow eternally.
Jesus asks her for water, even though he then tells her that she should be asking him for water. That actually takes me back to the first story – the baptism of Jesus by John. When Jesus first approaches John, John is reluctant to baptize him, feeling unworthy. But Jesus urges him to do it anyway, saying “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” In this act, I see a living out of Jesus title as the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed one. The kings of the Old Testament were anointed with oil by prophets. Jesus is anointed with water by a new prophet, and the Spirit of God descends upon him as a result.
I think that this image of anointing with water can be continued into understanding Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. When Jesus says “born of water and Spirit,” I think he’s inviting everyone to join with him in being an anointed one of God. Children of God. Even the outsiders, like the Samaritan woman, are included in that invitation.
The title of this post comes from a song that I liked from the ’70s. It alternately goes by the titles “Come To the Water” and “For Those Tears I Died.” It speaks an invitation from Jesus to come to him, and ask, and your thirst and pain will be assuaged. This version isn’t my favorite (to “countrified” for my taste) but it DOES show the lyrics.
Here’s a good sermon on Nicodemus that fits this week’s chapter.
A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church on March 17, 2014
Nicodemus might be the first Presbyterian.
He’s a good guy. He loves Jesus, he just doesn’t want to be too public about his faith, in case he might offend someone. He wants to be a good person and serve his church, but he is busy. Between soccer carpools for his kids and caring for his elderly parents, when is he supposed to have time to live out his faith? Can’t he follow Jesus without any of the inconveniences of radical discipleship?
He comes to Jesus with a claim about who he thinks Jesus is.
“Rabbi, we know 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.”
It is not a bold claim. It is measured. He sees Jesus as…
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This week we’ll be reading the story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. That’s Chapter 23: Jesus Ministry Begins. For those reading along in your own Bible, the reference is: Matthew 3-4; 11; Mark 1-3; Luke 8; John 1-4. Look for this week’s reflection/s on Monday Morning. In the meantime, make comments or ask questions here. Or on the facebook group page, or on Twitter using the hashtag #apcthestory