One of my favorite chapters in John is the third chapter.
When I read the first half of that chapter now, I like to imagine how it might have been. This is what I like to imagine:
As I begin to read, walls spring up around me, stone walls, dimly lit by a small, smoldering fire. There are dark shadows draping walls, floor, ceiling. It's warm and quiet in the room, and it seems to be full of people not clearly seen.
Some of them are asleep on mats. But two or three are awake, and sitting by the fire. They are talking quietly. There is the sound of their voices and of men breathing and the wind outside the walls.
It is late at night, but not so late that they are dizzy with exhaustion- just late enough to talk with hushed voices and long, peaceful pauses.
But there comes a knock on the door- heads lift and turn, the sleepers stir. Everyone looks at each other. Who could this be?
Someone pads over and opens the door, and leads in an unexpected visitor. His name is Nicodemus. He's a Pharisee- a leader among the Jews.
He is sneaking in under cover of night to speak face to face with Jesus, the Teacher who is creating such an uproar, stirring up such questions and hopes and fears.
Nicodemus settles himself cautiously down beside the fire and his eye search the face of Jesus, who sits across from him.
A few of the disciples are close at hand, listening and watching. The room is so quiet that they can hear the soft sound of a burning log falling into the coals, sending up a little cloud of sparks.
The first thing Nicodemus says is a confession, one that had perhaps grown more and more heavy on his mind as time had passed. It is perhaps the very reason why he had come- why he had had to come, despite the risks.
"Teacher," he said, humbly, “we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”
The Teacher from Nazareth leans forward slightly, His eyes intent upon Nicodemus's face. Jesus' voice is resonate with grace, but it has a quiet and unshakable authority. He goes straight to the heart of the matter, knowing the heart of the man before Him.
Jesus says, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
A puzzled look springs into Nicodemus's eyes. He frowns slightly, as he tries to think this unconventional thought through. Could the Teacher be speaking literally?
Every man in that room longs for the Kingdom of God to come. What their Teacher has to say about this is of utmost importance to them, and He has just thrown them a curve ball.
"How can a man be born when he is old?" Nicodemus asks at last, groping for meaning. "Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?"
Jesus' voice is full of certainty when He answers - it clear that He is not expounding on a theory, or building a case.
“Most assuredly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit."
Jesus sees the questioning, half disbelieving look in Nicodemus' face, and it makes Him smile. Jesus knows Nicodemus very well, and loves him.
"Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again," Jesus continues, His eyes twinkling.
As He so often does, He uses an illustration to help open their understanding- "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
As Jesus speaks, He gestures unconsciously with His hands; they are the roughened hands of a laborer. Every eye is on him, wondering and considering what He is saying.
Unbidden, memories of the wind come to them, shaking the leaves of the olive trees silver before the rain and carrying the scent of water.
They remember the wind splintering the surface of the lake into shimmering light and sometimes driving it up into terrifying billows of water, pelting them with hard drops of rain.
Nicodemus breaks the spell by his desperate need to understand something concrete, for an answer that he can make sense of. Why won't He just speak sense, Nicodemus wonders?
"How can these things be?" he asks Jesus, his eyes pleading.
“Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?" Jesus asks him gently. He leans forward, one hand on His knee. When He speaks, His voice reverberates with a mysterious depth; it causes the men to sit perfectly still, their eyes riveted on Him.
"Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen," Jesus says, in that voice that causes their souls to wake and stir, "and you do not receive Our witness. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?"
Almost, the men have forgotten to breathe. The darkness in the room is full of a kind of sacred stillness.
Their minds are on the verge of some deep secret of God, some plan, some idea so wonderful, so unexpected, so extraordinary, that one no but God had ever dared consider it, or put it in motion. Almost, they can grasp it, but it eludes them.
"No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven," Jesus speaks quietly into the stillness, one hand gesturing towards Himself, "that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life."
Jesus pauses, watching the faces of the men around Him, to be sure they have taken in what He has been saying. They are watching Jesus of Nazareth with wondering eyes, hope dawning there with each word He speaks.
Jesus leans forward, His own eyes alight with the pleasure of speaking this truth out loud, to those that were with Him in that room, and to everyone else that would ever hear them.
"For God so loved the world," Jesus discloses, His voice full of unshakable joy, "that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world," He continues, gesturing to emphasize the importance of the distinction, aware of the misconception He knows they harbor, "but that the world through Him might be saved."
Might be saved, they wonder? The world? The whole world? Weren't they just talking about the nation of Israel?
“He who believes in Him," Jesus continues, gesturing to Himself, "is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God."
Jesus' voice grows soft with sorrow, with regret. He leans back, His eyes shadowed. He looks tired, all of a sudden.
"And this is the condemnation," the Teacher explains- "that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed."
He sighs deeply; the men stir, as though coming out of a spell. Jesus looks at them fondly and continues speaking to them now in a different tone of voice. He looks at Nicodemus.
"But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God,” Jesus says to him, and smiles.
I think Nicodemus must have left that house walking like a drunk man, unsteady on his feet. Wonder must have filled him- he wouldn't have known whether he wanted to cry or to shout for joy.
Anyway, that's what I like to imagine.