By: Amelia McDaniel, Lay Associate for Christian Formation
Yesterday morning, while scrolling through all the smattering of news I can access on my phone, I came upon something worth stopping for.
The story of Dan Peterson and Norah Wood. You may know it.
Dan Peterson was shopping at the local Publix in Norcross, Georgia. Mr. Peterson was, as he told it, pretty severely depressed. He had just lost his wife of many years and I can only imagine what an incredibly lonely task it was to be out shopping for just himself.
Norah Wood was at the grocery store too with her mom. She was four years old and getting a ride in one of those big carts. Norah was in her cart not feeling particularly lonely at all. In fact, when you watch the security video of what follows, you see she is perfectly filled up.
Norah waved at Dan as their carts passed. She called out to him, “Hey Old Person”. The three of them were strangers to one another. But that didn’t stop Norah. Dan paused kind of dumbstruck. Next she asked for a hug. “Absolutely” said Dan. Norah asked for her mama to take a picture of them together.
Then Dan said, to Norah and her mom, “You don’t know. This is the first time for quite a while that I’ve been this happy.” And hearing him recount the story you realize just how much Norah was a blessing to Dan.
The story went viral and got picked up for national news. Thousands of letters of encouragement came flooding into Dan’s mailbox. It is a story that just felt good.
To me, when watching the video Norah jump with joy and reach for Dan in the grocery store, I am struck by how remarkable this life is. How remarkable that God can take his people and so fill them up that they can offer another human a new lease on life. That’s exactly what four year old Norah did for Dan that day. She became a blessing to Dan. And then Norah and Dan became a blessing to all of us who have heard their story. And I suspect that something new was born for Dan that day there in the dairy aisle. And for Norah too. And it most certainly was something born of the living water and Holy Spirit that Jesus was offering to Nicodemus.
In preparing for today’s story I have read some pretty rough stuff about Nicodemus. I’m not convinced that is entirely fair.
In our reading today, Nicodemus, a Pharisee and thus not an obvious friend to Jesus, shows up at night to talk to Jesus. Some may say that he’s hiding from the other Pharisees, coming under the cover of night so as not to be seen as aligning with Jesus. But what if Nicodemus had been listening to Jesus, watching him at work healing and teaching and he just couldn’t put his head down to sleep that night without talking to Jesus? He doesn’t come with words of condemnation for Jesus. He doesn’t come with questions that seem designed to trip Jesus up.
Nicodemus shows up and says to Jesus… I know you are a teacher, I know that you are in the presence of God. Maybe Jesus is tired and just wants to move the conversation along because then Jesus answers a question Nicodemus didn’t ask. Jesus tells him, No one is going to see the Kingdom of God without being born from above. Born again as some have interpreted.
Nicodemus doesn’t seem to understand or needs some clarification from Jesus following this answer to a question he didn’t ask. It’s a human question for certain. How can I be born again?
Then Jesus reminds him that the Holy Spirit and the Kingdom of God are not bound by our flesh or by the limits of our human imaginations. Nicodemus still doesn’t get it. “How can these things be?”
Jesus tries to convey the breadth and depth of God’s mercy and love for us all…
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved.
And then the story ends. We don’t know how Nicodemus responds to this.
But John brings Nicodemus into his Gospel story two more times.
Nicodemus defends Jesus to the chief priests and the Pharisees as the time of the crucifixion is drawing nearer. He says to the group when they were trying to condemn Jesus, that their laws do not judge people without giving them a hearing. He gets knocked around for this by the Pharisees. They ask him if he’s a backwater hick from Galilee, too. And that’s where the narrative ends for that exchange. Some have considered this a lukewarm defense of Jesus. I kind of admire it. Nicodemus is not a disciple, he’s on the margins trying to figure this all out. When you consider that some of Jesus’ own closest friends desert him. Nicodemus doesn’t seem that bad at all.
And Nicodemus’ final appearance in John’s narrative comes after Jesus has died on the cross. He comes forward to help Joseph of Arimathea who has claimed Jesus’ body. Nicodemus arrives with myrrh to anoint Jesus as was the custom. But it seems that he comes with a lot of myrrh. More fit for the burial of a person of great importance than a troublemaking rabbi from Galilee. Again, some scholars have suggested that somehow Nicodemus was trying to weigh Jesus’ body down to prevent his resurrection. But what if it is Nicodemus’ way of showing he sees now. The Holy Spirit has been at work on him. He sees who Jesus is and all he can do at this point is lavish upon him an abundance of precious oil.
The fact that Nicodemus is one of the people who gets to lay Jesus in the tomb is a profound detail for me.
He is there. At the tomb. Tending to Jesus’ broken, dead body. The way I see it, that love and reverence for Jesus is incredible.
For me the story of Nicodemus is so relatable. He’s just trying to get it. He’s wrestling with what he has understood about God before Jesus’ arrival and what he is learning and being moved to see as he encounters Jesus. The Holy Spirit, who as Jesus says, blows where it chooses, is at work with Nicodemus. So much so that Nicodemus tries to speak up for Jesus against the people who are trying to silence him. So much so that Nicodemus shows up to lay Jesus in his tomb with enough oil to show he knows something of who this man was and is.
I bet wrestling with who Jesus is in our lives is not a foreign thought for many of you. You might in the middle of night try to talk to Jesus and in doing so, get an answer to a question to didn’t even ask. You might know what it is to try to figure out the right words to use to stand for Jesus amongst those who would prefer you did not. And you might also know what it feels like to think you’ve come to understand something too late and all you can offer is an abundance of what doesn’t seem to be near enough.
I wish I knew how Nicodemus’ story ended. Did he join in with the new followers of Jesus? Did he struggle along in the life he had known trying to reconcile what had been revealed to him, what had been born again in him? Did he feel lonely and lost as the post resurrection world unfolded in his midst?
Did God in his great mercy send Nicodemus a Norah like he sent to Dan Peterson? Someone who through what is only the holy work of the Spirit, could open his heart up again to know that there are infinite new beginnings in God’s love, so many opportunities to be born again into a life with Christ’s never ending love?
I do know part of the end of Norah and Dan’s story. Norah and Dan saw each other at least once a week for the past four years after that first meeting in the grocery store. There were so many more hugs and smiles and laughs between the pair. He was there at her kindergarten graduation. She visited his garden. They became dear friends. Early this February Norah and her little sister Marigold visited with Dan and as always, the visit began and ended with a hug. Dan died the next day.
At Dan’s funeral, Norah and her mom were right there. There to remember the man she knew Dan to be.
Norah’s mom has said of the pair, “I think it was humanity at its best: To love and to be loved.”
For God so loved the world that he sent us his son,
to show us how to love…
How to love just like Dan and Norah and Nicodemus did.