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At the heart of the Christian faith is encounter with Jesus. This is what we hope for in our communal gatherings, in our personal times of devotion, and in our day to day lives. But what exactly does an encounter with Jesus look like? Well, it looks different for different people. Let's take a look at two of these encounters found in the gospel of John. The first story involves Nicodemus, a learned and respected religious scholar in the Jewish community (John 3:1-21). The second story concerns a Samaritan woman who has three strikes against her: being a woman in a patriarchal society, being a Samaritan of mixed blood and religious heritage, and having a history of numerous failed relationships (John 4:5-29). The first story features a religious insider, the second a social outcast. In the first story, Nicodemus is the one who seeks Jesus out. In the second, Jesus initiates the encounter. Nicodemus comes at night, not wanting to risk exposure or ridicule. Jesus approaches the woman in broad daylight in a public place.
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Despite the many differences between the two stories and the two people, there is at least one thing they share: encountering the Son of Man profoundly changes their lives. I encourage you to read both stories and make your own observations about how Jesus interacts with each person according to their context. Here are some of my thoughts on the two accounts, framed in the form of a few questions.
1. What did they want?
Nicodemus wanted to know God. He had devoted his entire life to the pursuit of God, and he recognized something familiar in Jesus. He wanted to know not only how Jesus was connected to God, but if Jesus could show him how to have a deeper connection to YHWH.
The Samaritan woman wanted to be loved and accepted. That a Jewish man would approach her in broad daylight and ask her for a drink of water was extraordinary. Jews did not associate with the impure Samaritans and men did not speak freely with women in public. For Jesus to treat her like a human being instead of a dirty dog was shocking. He asked her for a drink of water, never showing disdain for her heritage or fear of contamination. When he revealed her history of failed marriages, he was not merely uncovering her shame, but acknowledging the pain of rejection she had suffered. In that time and culture, a woman had no means of income or support without a husband. She also had no power to end a marriage; only the man could do that. Basically, she had been rejected and left destitute five times, and Jesus's words let her know that he saw what she had been through.
2. What did Jesus offer?
To Nicodemus, Jesus offered a new way of looking at relationship with God. Being born again made no sense to Nicodemus (at first), but Jesus invited him to change his thinking about how one encounters God.
To the Samaritan woman, Jesus offered acceptance and respect (by taking her seriously), but he also invited her to ask for something greater. She was concerned with everyday needs and concerns, but Jesus asked her to consider the deepest desires of her heart. He saw her, and in turn, invited her to see him for who he was: the Messiah.
3. What did Jesus call them to?
Jesus called Nicodemus to be transformed by the spirit, to be born again, to enter into a living relationship with God through the Spirit of Jesus.
Jesus called the Samaritan woman to look beyond the externals and embrace the spirit and truth of the Anointed One: himself. This meant she no longer had to be concerned with the rules and regulations of religion (those things which divided the Jews from the Samaritans), nor did she have to seek acceptance from men or from society (so much failure and pain for her in both arenas). Jesus offered her direct access to the lover of her soul when he said, "I am the One you have been looking for" (John 4:26).
4. What did they do?
Nicodemus's transformation was not instant, but from what we read of him later, it seems that he did embrace the new birth Jesus spoke about. When his fellow religious leaders wanted to arrest Jesus, Nicodemus spoke up, reminding them that the law requires that a person cannot be condemned before they have been given a chance to speak (John 7:50-51). After Jesus was crucified, Nicodemus provided costly burial spices and assisted in the burial rites, showing his love and devotion for the one his colleagues condemned as a despised rebel (John 19:39-42).
The transformation of the woman at the well was more immediate. She was so impacted by her encounter with Jesus that she left her water pot and went to tell people about this man who knew her deepest desires. Due to the excitement and insistence of the Samaritan woman, people came to see and hear Jesus, and at the invitation of the villagers, he stayed there two more days. The village of Sychar was transformed.
Sometimes we assume that an encounter with Jesus happens in a certain way. When we look at multiple stories of Jesus interacting with people, we see that he reveals himself (and the heart of the person) in diverse ways. When we encounter Jesus, we should not expect these encounters to always look the same, even in our prayers or every day devotions. Knowing God is not a system, but a living relationship. So, what can we learn from reading these two encounters together? Here are a few ideas. Feel free to add your own.
1. Seek Jesus out. He promises that those who seek will find.
2. Let Jesus interrupt your day. Listen. Engage. Drop your water pot when necessary.
3. Ask questions. Jesus loves questions.
4. Seek something greater. Look beyond your immediate concerns and needs.
5. Be willing to adjust your thinking/feeling/doing.
6. Talk to your neighbours/co-workers. Treat them with respect and dignity.
7. Make friends with outcasts. See above.
8. Embrace both the fast and slow elements of transformation.