I was reading in the Gospel of John the story of the encounter with Jesus by the Pharisee, Nicodemus, followed story of the encounter with Jesus by the “woman at the well”. (John 3 & 4). The two stories are classic examples of the ubiquitous use of figurative (non-literal) language in the Bible.
There are literal meanings, and there are figurative meanings, and there are many layers of meanings throughout Scripture. Just as we cannot perceive figurative meanings while limiting ourselves to literal interpretations, we cannot perceive spiritual things while limiting ourselves to natural, physical explanations.
In the story of Nicodemus, Jesus stretches the Pharisee’s imagination with the statement, “[U]nless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3) which I explored in a previous post, Don’t Wonder at the Saying, “You Must Be Born Again”. In very next chapter in the Gospel of John, Jesus stretches the imagination of a Samaritan woman at a well, when he says,
“[W]hoever drinks of the water that I … give … will never be thirsty again… [becoming] … a spring of water welling up to eternal life”John 4:14
These are two completely different statements that get at the same reality – a spiritual reality that Jesus offers to those who believe him and receive what he has to offer. Before we go a little deeper, though, first we need to consider the context.
In John 4, after the encounter with Nicodemus, who came to Jesus at night (likely because he didn’t want to to be seen by his fellow Pharisees), Jesus left Judea (where he had been Baptizing people) because the Pharisees had gotten wind of what he was doing.
The Pharisees, the local religious leaders, were not fond of Jesus. They thought he was deceiving people, spreading lies and undermining their teachings. They were probably threatened by him, too, as he was attracting large crowds.
Jesus left Judea, an area settled by the Jews lived, for Samaria, an area in which the people had long ago diverged from the accepted beliefs of the Jewish leaders. Respectable Jews would not have gone to Samaria and they did not associate with Samaritans.
Both groups shared a common history. In fact, Samaria is the same area in which their common ancestor, Jacob, dug a well and gave a field to his favorite son, Joseph. The well where Jesus encountered the woman may have been the very well into which Joseph was thrown by his brothers many centuries before (though John 4 doesn’t say).
The woman Jesus encountered at the well, not surprisingly, was Samaritan – a person with whom respectable Jewish leaders would not associate. And more shockingly, she was an adulteress; she had been married five times and was currently living with a man who was not her husband. (John 4:18)
In fact, the disciples where surprised even to find Jesus talking to a woman. (John 4:27) Apparently, respectable Jewish men didn’t talk to women in public places – and a Samaritan woman at that!
We probably can’t fully appreciate the scandal of this encounter. A devout Muslim man in traditional garb approaching a modern, unkempt, western woman in revealing clothing might evoke a similar reaction. She might as well be have been a prostitute, too.
This background explains why the woman responds to the request by Jesus for a drink, by saying, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (John 4:9) The reply from Jesus was not at all what she expected:
“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water…
Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”John 4:10,13-14
This story follows immediately after the encounter with the respectable religious leader, Nicodemus, and the contrast should not be missed. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “You must be born again”; but he tells the Samaritan woman, “I have living water to give you.”
These are not different realities that Jesus is offering, but the same reality – the spiritual life that Jesus offers to those who believe in him and receive him. To the religious leader, Jesus describes it as being born again; to the lowly and marginalized Samaritan woman, Jesus describes it as living water.
Interestingly, Scripture doesn’t record how Nicodemus responded to Jesus, but the Samaritan woman didn’t hesitate to ask Jesus for the living water. (John 4:15)
Tim Keller observes that Jesus approaches the two differently because they come to him from different places. The Pharisee comes from a place of good reputation, power, privilege, wealth and, likely, comfort. The Samaritan woman is an outcast in a community of outcasts with little to nothing a person might cling to in this world.
The Samaritan woman didn’t hesitate to ask Jesus for the living water he described. She had little or nothing to give up for that water, other than tired, old ways of viewing the world that had profited her nothing. For Nicodemus, though, the paradigm of being born again meant starting over, and starting over meant giving up all that he had achieved and gained in the world.
It was a “no brainer” for the woman, but it would cost Nicodemus dearly. Thus, Keller says, believing in Jesus, accepting the new life he offers and following him is difficult for the person who has much in this world. Perhaps, this is why Jesus told the rich young ruler, “[I]t is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matt. 19:24)
But, it’s not impossible. (Matt. 19:26) Indeed, though we don’t get any sense that Nicodemus asked to be born again when he first encountered Jesus, we do get the sense that Nicodemus did not “walk away”, like the rich young ruler. He didn’t reject what Jesus said, though he may not have accepted it at first.
Most of the Pharisees, of which Nicodemus was one, took opposition to Jesus. They accused Jesus of violating their religious rules. (See, for instance, Matt 12:1-21;Mark 2:23-28 and Luke 6:1-5) They accused Jesus of performing miracles by the power of Satan (Matt. 12:22-37) They accused him of blasphemy for equating himself with God the Father. (See Matt. 26:65; Luke 5:21; and John 10:33) They found fault with him for eating with “tax collectors and sinners” (Mark 2:15-17) – the dregs of their society.
As the Pharisees were discussing what to do with Jesus, wanting to arrest him, Nicodemus urged them to refrain: “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” (John 7:51) We have no sense, here, that Nicodemus was a follower of Jesus, but his response to the other Pharisees suggests his mind was still open.
The last time we see Nicodemus in the Gospels, he is accompanying Joseph of Arimathea, who asked the permission of Pontius Pilate, in removing the lifeless body of Jesus after he was crucified. (John 19: 39) The only additional detail we are given is that Nicodemus brought with him “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds”. (John 19:40)
This was an extravagantly generous amount of expensive chips of aromatic wood and wood sap used as incense on significant occasions – “clearly much more than could have been placed in the linen which surrounded the body”. (See Elliot’s Commentary for English Readers quoted in Bibleub) One commentator suggests it is reminiscent of the expensive ointment lavished on Jesus by Mary Magdalene in an awkwardly public show of personal love and devotion. (Described in For She Loved Much)
It seems, though we are not specifically told, that Nicodemus may have become a follower of Jesus after all. How does interpret his actions following the death of Jesus, in jeopardy of his own reputation as a Pharisee at the point of public judgment, taking with him such an extravagant gift to leave with the body, without drawing the conclusion that Nicodemus eventually came to accept that Jesus was precisely who Nicodemus supposed at the beginning?
In contrast to the Samaritan woman who asked for the living water without hesitation, Nicodemus was slow in coming around and committing to the reality he recognized in Jesus.
At the same time, the living water would cost the Samaritan women as well. One can hear echoes of these words Jesus spoke to the woman caught in adultery – this offer of “living water” is freely given to you, but now “go and sin no more”.
The water Jesus offers is spiritual. It isn’t drawn from a well. It is drawn from Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life. It is given freely by grace to those who don’t deserve it, but it comes at the price of all of our treasures on earth, such as they are.
Just as even a sinful outcast may access the living water Jesus offers, so those at the opposite end of the spectrum must be born again. Neither our greatest achievements, nor our greatest failures, prevent us from qualifying for the life Jesus offers or qualify us to avoid the cost of exchanging the lives we might want to hang on to for the life he offers.