John 3:1-17 – Second Sunday in Lent
Introduction to the Lenten John Season
Starting in the second week in Lent, we begin a series of the favorite hits of the Gospel of John. And truly they are the big narratives of this Gospel and it’s remarkable that we get them all in a row.
- Week 2: Nicodemus (the inclusion of John 3:16-17)
- Week 3: The woman at the well (John 4:5-42)
- Week 4: The man born blind (John 9:1-41)
- Week 5: And the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45)
Throughout each of these texts we get incredible interactions between Jesus and other characters and there are big overall themes in each (light/dark, day/night, blindness/sight, relationship, Jewish tradition, conflict). But at the heart of these stories, there is a question of recognition. As Karoline Lewis would say, it is about being a “witness.”
Lewis writes about John the Witness (aka the Baptist) as starting this central theme at the very beginning of Gospel and setting up all the other characters afterwards.
The uniqueness of John’s character in the Fourth Gospel has everything to do with the theological theme of witness. The noun form alone is used fourteen times in the Gospel. The figure whom we know as John the Baptist from the Synoptic Gospels is never called the Baptist in the Fourth Gospel, but is the witness. He will be the one to testify or witness to the light and will show us what testimony and witness look like later in the first chapter. John’s role as witness is confirmed in verse 15 and looks forward to the elemental expression of testimony in the Gospel of John, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29)
John the witness becomes somewhat of a model and guide for the narrative moving forward. Will the characters we meet next recognize Jesus too or not (“Here is the Lamb of God”)? Will they then testify about Jesus (the light) to others or not (“I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel” 1:31)?
The other overall themes then connect and compound this central theme of understanding and witness. Nicodemus comes by night and doesn’t understand Jesus’ teachings. He then doesn’t testify to the light (immediately). The Samaritan woman at the well comes to Jesus during the day, recognizes him as the true source of living water, and spreads the news (witnesses) to her whole town. The man born blind will be given sight and then will testify about Jesus to the religious authorities. The religious authorities are “blinded” to this and miss Jesus’ revelation altogether. Mary and Martha believe in the resurrection to come even before the raising of Lazarus. But it is in his resurrection that they see that “The Resurrection” and “The Life” has come through Jesus here and now.
Throughout the Gospel those who encounter Jesus have an opportunity to recognize Jesus and then witness to him. These series of stories and then Jesus’ Farwell Discourse (13-17), build toward the ultimate revelation (to all people) that inspires the world to bear witness to Jesus, God incarnate. All these encounters prepare the reader to see the cross (and the empty tomb) with eyes wide open. Even the reappearances of Jesus after the resurrection encourage the reader to move toward total revelation so that we might move to be witnesses ourselves so that all might come to know God (20:30-31).
So, how do we start preaching this Lenten journey with Nicodemus?
Right out of the gate, what we must remember is that this is not the end of Nicodemus’ story. If we end our sermons this Sunday only addressing Nicodemus as a character in Chapter 3, then we miss a major portion of what John is doing throughout the rest of this Gospel. In fact, John’s use of 3:16-17 is already pointing us to think that way. We cannot know Jesus here without knowing Jesus on the cross. Similarly, we can’t know Nicodemus without knowing what happens as the story continues. Nicodemus doesn’t just “get it” after this one conversation with Jesus. In fact, Nicodemus is one of the great characters in John’s Gospel because his transformation is slow and takes place over a long period of time.
The author of the gospel writes about Nicodemus twice more. Once in Chapter 7 when the religious leaders are complaining about Jesus’ teachings, saying that Jesus is teaching against the traditional beliefs, and they need to get rid of him. But Nicodemus stands up and says, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” (7:50-52). Nicodemus is not outright defending Jesus but he calls for due process. Nicodemus defends Jesus by giving him more time to speak. Nicodemus wants to hear more from Jesus and hear more of his message.
The final time we hear of Nicodemus in the Gospel of John, is after Christ has been crucified. Nicodemus brings myrrh’s and aloes (more than a hundred pounds worth) to wrap Jesus’ body and lay him in the tomb. We hear no words from Nicodemus. We don’t hear him openly cry out that Jesus is the Son of God. But we see him honor Jesus with an incredibly important ritual process that shows us how much Jesus meant to Nicodemus by the end (19:38-42).
The process was slow. It took a long time and still had further to go, but Nicodemus’ faith in Christ was certainly present in those moments at the tomb.
There will be plenty of commentaries this week that will talk about light/dark motifs that differentiate Nicodemus and the Woman at the well. There will be a number of commentaries that focus on John 3:16 and talk about the importance of always preaching verse 17 with it. There will be a number of commentaries that talk about baptism and the mystery of being born again. All are good and wonderful options.
But to be different and to offer a different trajectory, I encourage you to preach on Nicodemus as a true representative figure of a faith journey.
While it may seem like the author of John just writes off those who don’t understand, Nicodemus is John’s subtle character that illustrates hope that the gospel message of Jesus Christ can slowly shine through over time.
I’d argue that many of us are more like Nicodemus in our faith journeys than some of the other characters that we will hear about this Lenten season. Many of us have ups and downs in our faith and Nicodemus is a character that teaches us that that’s okay. We can ask hard questions that bother us, and Jesus does not shy from those questions. We can ask for more time to listen to the Word so that we can be in a better place to hear the message. We can participate in the rituals, not knowing all the ins and outs of the theology, and it can still be holy and faithful.
If we only preach on Nicodemus as a foil for the Woman at the well, then we miss a huge opportunity to preach to those who are struggling with their faith. We miss a huge opportunity to preach to family members that are concerned about their children or grandchildren not experiencing Jesus. We miss a huge opportunity connect with a character that learns and grows and isn’t just immediately “perfect.”
This Sunday is an opportunity to preach on doubt, questions, and the growth of faith.
 Karoline M. Lewis, John, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014), 16.
 Lewis, 46. “If this is a nighttime conversation, the chances are not good for positive results.”
 Lewis, 52,67.
 Lewis, 123.
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