Second Sunday in Lent
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” -John 3:3-4 (NRSVue)
The Muppet Movie was in regular rotation when my daughter was younger. It was an excellent respite from the normal fare designed for wee ones in the early aughts. Jim Henson’s genius was in creating a world in which adults and children were comfortable to visit. For my daughter, The Muppet Movie had all the brightly colored creatures with richly characterized voices she’d come to appreciate. And for me, it had Paul Williams’ wonderful soundtrack, silly visual gags, a timeless story, and ridiculous jokes that made me chuckle every time I heard them.
Script writers Jerry Juhl and Jack Burns really leaned into the classic “misunderstanding” trope for laughs. Homophones overheard by strangers lead to awkward interactions, and declarations are misunderstood as invitations. To English speakers, the jokes are obvious. And if we faced those punny moments in real life, we would most certainly groan as Kermit the Frog so often does.
This story about an interaction between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus has the same kind of humor present. This misunderstanding between the two of them is supposed to be funny ... like an ancient version of the classic Abbott and Costello bit “Who’s on First.” The misunderstanding is based on the double meaning of the Greek word anothen. Like many words in ancient languages, this one can mean a number of things. Jesus wants it to mean “from a higher place.” But Nicodemus hears “all over again.” They do this twice before Jesus gets frustrated and questions the Pharisee’s intellectual capacity.
Like most humor, misunderstanding is funny to us when we aren’t the ones caught in that frustrating communications loop. And this story is funny to us, somewhat ironically, because we are the ones who understand ... not only because we get to be observers of the whole scene, but also because we’ve been on both ends of misunderstandings before. We know what it is like to be misheard or to say the wrong thing. We know what it is like to be irritated by another’s assumed ignorance, or made to feel inferior when we speak or hear something unintended.
One of the beautiful things about this interaction as told in John is that neither participant stops trying to understand or be understood. Nicodemus was stirred in the middle of the night to go talk to Jesus and ask him questions. Jesus could have told him to go away. But they work through their differences, which actually leads to Jesus announcing what many believe is the core of John’s gospel: “For God so loved the world .. ,”
One of the disciplines John Wesley believed was important to practice was “holy conferencing.” It is an idea born out of the experimental Oxford Club he and his brother started while attending university. There, he saw how powerful presence and conversation could be for community building, and how transformative they could be for the individuals there. Because, as everyone shared and listened, they all grew.
If you don’t have the habit of engaging in this way with other people of faith, now might be the right time to get started. Find a group within which you can be open and honest. Find people with whom you can be understood, and those whom you can work to understand. Because, as we see with Jesus and Nicodemus, it is there that we encounter the deepest of truths. Bonus points are also available when we can share a laugh or two as well.