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Unusual Questions Leader Guide
By Adam Thomas
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2014 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
"How is it possible for an adult to be born?" Questions Lead to Openness and Humility (John 3:1-10)
PREPARE FOR THE SESSION
About the Bible Reading
Snapshot of the Lesson
Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Jewish council, fashions himself a God expert. He comes to Jesus by night and, at the outset of their conversation, tries to display his knowledge of how God operates. John even throws us a bit of humorous dialogue. Nicodemus twice calls Jesus a "teacher" and then proceeds to try to teach Jesus something: "Rabbi, we know ..." and so forth. Jesus' response is something like: "You know, do you?" And then he blows Nicodemus's mind.
Throughout their conversation, Jesus speaks with intentional ambiguity in order to break Nicodemus out of his stagnant expertise. Nicodemus asks an unusual question, "How is it possible for an adult to be born?" I imagine this is the first time in a long while that Nicodemus has been on the asking, rather than the answering, end of a question. I imagine he surprises himself when the question pops out. The question is the small chink in the armor of Nicodemus's expertise. Because of Nicodemus's willingness to ask a question, Jesus sees there's hope in showing him the expansiveness of all this so-called expert does not, in fact, know.
And, boy, does Jesus show him. Jesus opens Nicodemus's mind and heart to the mystery of how God creates God's people, and of how God moves in the world like the wind moving through the trees. When Jesus is done, Nicodemus's opening "we know" now sounds laughably empty in comparison to the mysteries Jesus reveals to him. To begin to walk in and among these mysteries, Nicodemus changes his empty "we know" into an "I don't know" full of desire and curiosity. And he takes the first tentative steps along this path with another question, possibly the sincerest in the entire Gospel: "How are these things possible?"
What Jesus does in their conversation is offer Nicodemus the opportunity to ask unusual questions, which uses muscles the Pharisee hasn't flexed in a while. When Nicodemus takes hold of the opportunity, he finds an opening within himself, a new space for God to fill. And he discovers the gift of humility that questioning brings.
A Bit of Background
A small disclaimer: Nicodemus is my favorite character in the Gospel. He's not a main character, and yet he appears three different times over the course of the text. (The other two are 7:45-52 and 19:38-42.) No other recurring character shows up that much. John uses Nicodemus to show a person taking the first tentative steps towards belief and where those steps lead him. SPOILER ALERT: They lead him to the cross and service to Jesus.
Note that Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. There are two levels to this detail. The surface level tells us that Nicodemus doesn't want people to know he's going to see the infamous Jesus. This is natural because people would have seen them as opponents at least, if not enemies. The deeper level makes a theological claim that Nicodemus is at the outset of his journey from darkness to light.
As a Jewish leader, Nicodemus would have been an arbiter and source of wisdom and guidance for the people. This is why I'm making the claim that Nicodemus has lost his knack for asking questions. If he's expected to deliver judgments and know all the answers, then it's better for his reputation to fake understanding than to become vulnerable by asking questions. His first words to Jesus betray this default attitude. Of course, Jesus sees right through him.
Where We've Been and Where We're Going
John's account of the Gospel is barely underway, and yet we've already seen Jesus gather disciples, turn water into wine, and run the moneychangers and animal sellers out of the temple. All of this, plus the beautiful poetic introduction and John the Baptizer's witness, happens in the first two chapters of the Gospel. When we reach the first verse of Chapter 3, we're ready for a bit of a breather, and John gives us one in the form of a covert conversation between Jesus and a curious Pharisee.
In the verses immediately following ours, the dialogue becomes rather one-sided, as Nicodemus drops off the page and Jesus seems to be talking more to the reader than to the Pharisee. In the following verses, we read the most famous verse of the Bible (John 3:16), and we get the treat of reading it in its natural habitat, rather than pulled out of context, as it so often is. In the next chapter, Jesus has a second long conversation with someone (which we'll tackle next week). Note that Jesus speaks with Nicodemus at nighttime and with the Samaritan woman at midday. John's unusual Gospel is full of the imagery of night/dark and day/light, so be on the lookout for it.
Words Worth Mentioning
Two ambiguous Greek words are key to this passage from John's unusual Gospel. Each has (at least) two meanings and both meanings work in the context of the conversation. We can assume by the body of John's work that the writer knows what he's doing, so we can conclude that Jesus' ambiguity is intentional and done for Nicodemus's benefit. The CEB helpfully provides each of these ambiguous words with a footnote offering the other meaning. In verse 3, Jesus says either, "Unless someone is born anew" or "Unless someone is born from above." Both meanings make sense, but Nicodemus latches on to the more mundane one when he asks his unusual question. The verse is cited by many Christians as necessary criteria for being Christian. I've had personal experience in which people told me it wasn't possible for me to go to heaven without being "born again"; perhaps people in your group will have had such experience, too. The criterion is always presented as a hard and fast rule. The problem with such a literal take on verse 3 is that it completely misses Jesus' purposeful ambiguity. He's trying to shake Nicodemus out of his rigid outlook.
The other ambiguous word comes in verse 8, in which Jesus speaks of either the "Spirit" or "wind" blowing where it chooses. The CEB adds the word "God's" to the text, but it's not in the original Greek. The ambiguous word is pneuma (whence we get "pneumatic" and "pneumonia") and it also means "breath." The fact that we can read this sentence in so many different ways illustrates the point that Jesus is making within the sentence itself. The Spirit/ wind blows wherever it wishes. We hear it but don't know where it comes from or where it goes.
What the Other Three Say
John's unusual Gospel is unique among the four in its use of long personal conversations between Jesus and someone else. There really isn't an analogous dialogue in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. Usually Jesus is talking to crowds or his disciples, but in John we are privy to a few more intimate dialogues. There is an immediacy when Jesus is talking to just one person. When we read it, we can slip into the role of that conversation partner and feel like Jesus is talking directly to us. It's a bit harder to do that when he's addressing a large crowd. The intimacy and immediacy of Jesus' presence is a hallmark of John's unusual Gospel; as you read, note how close you can get to him—close enough to feel his breath on your skin, close enough to touch the wound in his side.
BEFORE THE SESSION
Set Up the Learning Area.
__ Set up the equipment needed for viewing the DVD.
__ Arrange the chairs so that everyone will be able to see the DVD clip. Make sure to have enough chairs for everyone. Be sensitive to the needs of persons with physical challenges.
__ Set up a focal worship space. A pair of candles, a cross, and a Bible on a small table in the center of the room is just right.
Gather Needed Materials.
__ The Common English Bible, plus any other translations you'd like access to.
__ Bible dictionaries and commentaries.
__ Personal reflection guides, one for each participant in the group.
__ Paper, markers, pens and pencils, nametags, or other supplies.
__ Markerboard or large sheets of paper and markers.
DURING THE SESSION
Welcome the Participants.
__ Greet the participants when they arrive, and give a personal reflection guide to anyone who does not already have one. If you choose to use nametags, invite them to make one and to sit where they would like.
__ Invite two people to be readers for the session. Give each of them a Bible. Tell them to review John 3:1-10 in order to become familiar with the passage before reading it aloud in a few minutes.
__ Pray the following prayer or one of your own.
Gracious God, we confess that we do not have all the answers, nor do we have all the questions. But we rejoice that you grant us enough humility to ask the questions on our hearts, and that, in the action of asking, you open up new spaces within us for your Word to fill. As we study your Word, give us curious minds, open hearts, and welcoming spirits, that together we may share the wonder of your movement in this gathering; all this we ask in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, who invites each of us to discover more and more about his love each day. Amen.
Introduce Unusual Gospel for Unusual People.
__ If this is your first session of the entire Unusual Gospel for Unusual People Bible study, read aloud the instructions about using the personal reflection guide in the section entitled "Your Unusual Book—Use it Your Way." Tell participants to doodle about the words unusual, unique, uncommon, and extraordinary in space provided in the reflection guide. View the DVD clip "Introduction to Unusual Gospel for Unusual People. Invite participants to write, draw, or doodle responses in the reflection guide.
Discuss the Daily E-mails.
__ If this is the second or third module of an eight- to twelve-week study, you will have daily content from the last session of the previous module to talk about. Do this activity instead of the introductory activity. Invite participants to share any thoughts, feelings, or questions they had about the e- mail content they received during the previous week. Notice around which topics the group's energy centers and ask yourself how you might use those topics to transition into today's session.
Read the Bible.
__ Invite the first reader to read John 3:1-10.
__ Ask for first impressions from the group, but there's no need for a full discussion here. Invite participants to share a thought or feeling; or a word or phrase that gave them comfort or rubbed them the wrong way; or a question the passage brings up. Participants can make notes or doodle about the reading in the personal reflection guide.
__ Invite the second reader to read John 3:1-10. (This may seem extraneous, but I assure you, participants will hear the passage differently even after a few minutes of sharing. Hearing it twice will also help them retain the content.)
View the DVD Clip.
__ Watch the DVD clip for Session 1. Invite participants to record insights gained from viewing the DVD in their personal reflection guides.
Reflect and Respond.
__ Depending on your group size, break into small teams of three to four people or stay together for discussion. If you break into teams, be sure to leave enough time for them to report highlights of their discussions to the reassembled group. If people want to share what they have written in their personal reflection guides, allow time for them to do so. Do not pressure them to share, however.
__ Discuss the following questions, questions that emerged from your own preparation, and questions asked earlier by the group.
1. In the second reading of the passage, what words or phrases struck you differently than in the first reading? What words shimmered for you? Where is your energy in the passage? What inspires you, challenges you, or makes you curious?
2. What unusual questions do you want to ask Jesus? (Spend some time thinking about this question and perhaps write down the responses to save for future weeks.)
3. How have you experienced a deepening of openness and humility when you've asked questions?
4. Where do you see yourself in the experience of Nicodemus, Jesus' conversation partner?
5. The words born anew/born from above and wind/spirit are intentionally ambiguous. Which do you gravitate to and why?
6. What were you sure of that turned out to be so much more interesting and multi-faceted when you began questioning it?
7. Where do you feel the wind of God's Spirit blowing in your life?
1. To Nicodemus: What was going through your mind on your way to see Jesus? While he was talking? When you left?
2. To Nicodemus: How do you imagine your life will be different now that you've met and conversed with Jesus?
3. To Jesus: What was different about Nicodemus when he left than when he arrived?
CLOSE THE SESSION
__ Pray the following prayer or one of your own to close the session. You may also choose to use the group circle prayer described in "A Plan for the Weekly Sessions."
Gracious God, we confess that we do not have all the answers, nor do we have all the questions. But we rejoice that you grant us enough humility to ask the questions on our hearts, and that, in the action of asking, you open up new spaces within us for your Word to fill. Thank you for the opportunity to study your Word, share the wonder of your movement in this gathering, and be that movement as we depart into the world; all this we pray in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, who invites each of us to discover more and more about his love each day. Amen.CHAPTER 2
"Where would you get this living water?" Questions Signal Desire for Deeper Relationship (John 4:4-29)
PREPARE FOR THE SESSION
About the Bible Reading
Snapshot of the Lesson
Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well is funnier than you might realize. It's a pretty long story, so if you've heard it read during a church service then you might have drifted off somewhere in the middle, but this time stick with it and notice the humor. During their entire conversation, which takes place at a well (the ancient equivalent to Match.com), Jesus and the Samaritan woman speak on two entirely different planes of understanding. Everything the woman says is literal, and everything (besides his opening request for actual water) Jesus says is figurative. It makes sense that the woman would be stuck in the mundane; she is, after all, going about her chores and until Jesus declares just who he is, she has no idea about the kind of conversation she has stumbled into.
When the woman asks where to get this living water, she is struggling with Jesus' figurative language. He doesn't even have a bucket! How could he possibly pull water from the ground without a bucket?! But even though her unusual question doesn't quite reach the loftiness to which Jesus is trying to pull her, the question shows her willingness to remain in conversation with this strange Jewish man, whom she's not supposed to be talking to anyway. As they continue to converse, Jesus, as he did with Nicodemus, brings the woman further into the mysteries of God, mysteries that don't translate all that well into the literal. As their dialogue reaches a climax, he declares his divine identity for the first time in the entire Gospel to this woman: "I Am—the one who speaks with you" (4:26).
Their conversation, which is full of the woman not quite grasping what Jesus is telling her, culminates with Jesus staying in town for a few days with her and plenty of other new Samaritan believers. The lesson here is that the willingness to ask questions, especially unusual ones, signals our willingness to have a deeper relationship with God, no matter our lack of true understanding. Indeed, our understanding is not a prerequisite for a relationship at all. Our willingness is.
A Bit of Background
This story has a ton of baggage, but we only have a few paragraphs so we'll hit the high points. Jews and Samaritans hated each other. Once the same people, the Samaritans evolved into their own group after the Northern kingdom of Israel was taken into exile in Assyria. The Samaritans inter-married with the occupying nations, and thus were seen as impure by the returning Jews. Acrimony continued down through the centuries.
Whenever a well is mentioned in Scripture, we should immediately think back to the encounters at wells in Genesis and Exodus: Isaac, Jacob, and Moses all find their wives at wells, so it's not outside the realm of possibility that John is setting this story up as a marriage proposal scene (especially after the wedding in Chapter 2 and the talk of bridegrooms in Chapter 3). While no engagement takes place, the dialogue between Jesus and the woman does involve speech that could be considered flirtation. In the end, even though there's no marriage, Jesus gives himself to the woman by revealing his identity to her.
Excerpted from Unusual Questions Leader Guide by Adam Thomas. Copyright © 2014 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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