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A Curious Man (John 3:1-17)

by Margaret B. Hess

Margaret B. Hess is pastor of First Baptist Church in Nashua, New Hampshire. This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 14, 1997, p. 475, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


When I was ten years old, I wanted to be a detective. With Nancy Drew as my guide and my best chum Margaret at my side, I set out to solve a local murder mystery. We combed the neighborhood for clues and turned up scraps of paper we imagined were encoded with cryptic messages. We left a note on a stone wall, asking whoever found it to meet us on the corner at 9:00 P.M. if he knew anything about the murder, then squealed with glee when a stranger paused and checked his watch at the appointed hour. We were alarmed to notice a mysterious green car driving slowly through the neighborhood at the same time each day. Surely "they" were on to us, even though our search had been cautious and discreet! We continued to detect signs and symbols that we knew would all fall into place once we found that one missing piece of evidence.

The truth was that the murder occurred on the other side of the city, that the police knew who committed the crime, that the man under the streetlight was waiting for a date to show up and that the mysterious green car belonged to someone who came home for lunch every day. But our curiosity was piqued, our imagination stimulated and our hunger to scratch beneath the surface aroused. Nancy Drew had taught us that things were not always as they seem and mysteries were made to be solved. Her chief strength as a detective was her curiosity. We wanted to emulate her dissatisfaction with easy answers.

But such curiosity is not always welcomed by adults. A child’s incessant chorus of "Why, why, why?" was met with an exasperated sigh. Asking too many questions about forbidden subjects evoked the response "It’s none of your business," or the oft-quoted "Curiosity killed the cat." Soon I got the message that it was downright rude to be so inquisitive. My curiosity went underground.

Now that I have grown up, I find that my native sense of curiosity has resurfaced stronger than ever. Leaving Nancy Drew behind, I’ve become an avid fan of Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky. I have learned to cultivate my curiosity and to honor it not only as a spiritual virtue but also as a key to my work as a pastoral counselor. I have become a detective of soul and psyche.

Curiosity is a cardinal virtue of the therapeutic process. When I approach clients, I assume the posture of curiosity, taking an "I don’t know" position with them. I invite clients to be curious about their lives. Why do they think this or that? Where did they learn that such and so was bad or good? Are they curious about why their families function in a certain way? When someone becomes curious about his own life, he opens the door to transformation and healing. Curiosity is the first step in seeing things through new eyes and can lead to a redemptive revision of the story of one’s life.

What a curious man you are, Nicodemus. Only the cold, heavily lidded eye of the moon sees you making your way through the darkened streets. The records indicate that you are a man of light and reason, a learned man steeped in the discipline of scholarship. Yet here you are, driven by your curiosity, pulled by your insatiable desire to figure out just who this man Jesus really is to you. You begin with a statement and set the stage for a speech. But underneath you have a million questions. So do we.

Nicodemus, you are experienced in detecting the subtle nuances in the thought of a rabbi. You are skilled at finding the loopholes in logic, articulate in the intricacies of the faith. Why is it that you stumble here? You follow your curiosity and find yourself walking on thin air. Jesus speaks and you fan at the words, trying to coax them into an intelligible pattern. He says one thing: "You must be born from above," yet you hear another. What does it mean, you must be born again? How on earth can such a thing happen?

Confusion is the unintended consequence of your curiosity, Nicodemus, but don’t stop there. Think about it: if you are born again, then you must grow up again. Think about your life, Nicodemus. What would you do differently if you had half the chance? How would you grow up differently? How would you re-edit the narrative of your life? As you enter more deeply into your puzzlement, Nicodemus, you’ll find that Jesus is inviting you to be curious about your life, and to rethink your assumptions with an altered perspective. You are challenged not only to conduct an autopsy on your past, but to look to the future through the eyes of redemptive possibility. How might your life be different if you were born again? How would your life be altered if you truly believed, from the beginning, that God loves you with a sacrificial love?

Nicodemus, patron saint of the curious, we see you in the flickering lamplight, your face an arresting mixture of confusion and interest. Jesus waits, the silence broken only by the sound of the wind banging the shutter against the house. You tug at your beard and rethink your life, seeing your past and future through the eyes of the One who loves you. You are dizzy with the possibility of it all. And so are we. Born again? The mere thought of it sweeps through us and sends us reeling. You mean to tell us that our lives might be different?


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