When I get up in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar place, it is not uncommon for me to stumble into something – the edge of a dresser, a door frame, or a lamp. It is why, when I stay in hotels, I typically leave the bathroom light on overnight. I don’t like to stumble around at night or, quite frankly, at any other time. I’m talking about physically stumbling; but the reality is, I’m not fond of stumbling emotionally or spiritually either. But our society with its emphasis on individuality and self-sufficiency, our culture makes it somehow too vulnerable to even talk about stumbling, let alone to admit we are stumbling or have stumbled. Have an interview for a new job? Act confident, friends will tell us. Walking into a classroom full of new faces? Put a smile on your face, sit up straight so that people know you are sure of yourself.
Imagine how different things might be if we were able to be in the world, to be in community being exactly who we are in the moment, confident when we are confident, self-assured when we are self-assured BUT also, honest about our fears, our apprehensions, our anxieties, the shame, the guilt – whatever brokenness we carry. And then imagine that the person we encounter in the fullness of our being exactly who we are in that moment, imagine that the person accepts us in that state of brokenness and says “Welcome. Have a seat.”
Nicodemus wakes up in the middle of the night – maybe he’s had a bad dream or maybe he suffers from insomnia from time to time. But, for whatever reason, he’s up and decides to pay a visit to Jesus. Now, Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a leader among the Jews. He is someone who lives a pretty well-ordered life: set hours for prayer, the keeping of Jewish laws, fulfilling the life of a righteous Jew. But lately he’s been hearing about the signs that Jesus is performing and it’s causing him some consternation; in fact, come to think of it, perhaps this is, in fact, why he has woken up. And, on the spur of the moment, he leaves the warmth of his bed and heads out into the night to find Jesus.
It turns out that Jesus is awake too. Maybe he’s had a bad dream. Perhaps he suffers from insomnia. Or, perhaps he had a sense he’d have a late night visitor and waited up for him. Whatever the reason, when Nicodemus arrives, the two begin talking. Now hearing the story with our 21st century ears, it is easy to portray Nicodemus as a bit of a slow learner. Clearly Jesus is speaking in spiritual terms – “being born from above” – and yet here is Nicodemus replying that no one can “enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born.” But that can’t be right; Nicodemus isn’t a slow learner. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a highly educated Jew. He understands Jesus’ words just fine. But, they are causing him to stumble in the night. All that he has been taught about his faith – the orderly path to follow, the prayers to say and the times to say them – all of this is being challenged by this Jesus who suggests that “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” This Jesus who says life is not as orderly as we all want it to be. God’s ways are indeed mysterious ways. And yet, Jesus says, God provides the world with the Son of Man so that the world might gain some insight into God’s ways, be welcomed into God’s ways and find salvation for themselves and for the world.
Nicodemus lives in a world that values clarity – a world of daylight where colors and shapes can be easily discerned. But, in the daylight of Nicodemus’ world, much like the daylight of our own world, doubts are frowned upon and questions better left unasked. Then there is Jesus - in the darkness of night - offering an invitation to a new way of life, welcoming Nicodemus’ questions and his willingness to listen and his eagerness to push back at Jesus with more questions – a give and take that would likely have been common among Jewish friends or scholars. And in their exchange, Jesus invites Nicodemus into the new birth he is offering, a new birth that pushes forth from the darkness of uncertainty – like seeds planted in the dark brown earth – a rebirth that comes only from God, a God who wants nothing more and nothing less than to love the world out of darkness into true light.
And you and I, we know a lot about the kind of daylight life that Nicodemus lives. We live into those same daylight expectations. Those expectations that we will know how to behave, what to say, what to wear - in every situation. Those expectations that compel us to conform, to hide our insecurities. Those expectations made clear - as often by the glances askance when we inadvertently take a wrong step as they are by any written set of directions.
Earlier this week, I was in the St. Mark’s archives in the basement and came across The Hostess Reference and Bridge Book written in 1935 by The Woman’s Guild and Auxiliary of St. Mark’s Parish. Included within its 40-plus pages were photos of place settings for formal dinners, formal luncheons, as well as for a supper served buffet style. Suggestions for menus – as well as the recipes themselves – filled the pages. And, there on page 15 were these instructions for the hostess:
“A hostess’ true self is reflected in her parties. If she is nervous and ill or careless and indifferent she transmits to her guests a decided feeling of restraint. The first requisite then of the ‘charming’ hostess is poise, calmness, an inner knowledge that her party is perfectly planned, her food properly prepared, her serving aptly timed.”
So, it seems that even the church – in 1935 – had expectations – an expectation of poise and calmness even amidst real nervousness, illness or even indifference. It’s fun to find such gems as this more than 80 year old guidebook. But, if we look closely we’ll see that some things really don’t change. For example, some of my clergy colleagues – especially women - share stories of comments they’ve received about hair style, clothing choices, and shoes as if those choices should be dictated by others. After all, what is wrong with bunny slippers!?
And the truth is, I suspect, that many – if not most of us - come to this place, this church, this gathered community hoping that this place might offer something different, something more inviting, more accepting. A place where we won’t’ need to struggle to fit in and where we can come exactly as we are. But from time to time, we instead encounter those same expectations - expectations that perhaps even leave you at home on a Sunday morning when you just can’t bring yourself to hide your vulnerability any longer.
But Jesus tells us there is another way, that his is a place where we are welcome as we are. A place where we can be reborn of water and Spirit. And Jesus calls out to us with an invitation - let go of the earthly expectations and bring yourself – as you are, however you are – to breathe deeply of the spirit, drink of the water, eat at the table – come as you are, be who you are. . . but come. And Jesus invites us as a gathered community to always strive to be that kind of place, that kind of community that welcomes anyone who comes through the doors to come and have a seat among us. To be exactly who they are with us and to strive to be exactly who we are with one another.
Are you having a rough week? Come to the water, come to the table. Are you worried about job security? Come to the water, come to the table. Is your heart broken? Come to the water, come to the table. Do you fear for the future of your children or grandchildren? Come to the water, come to the table. Have you lost your faith – or perhaps never really had faith to begin with? Come to the water, come to the table. Because wherever you are in your journey of faith, know that there is a place for you here, companionship for the journey in the company of Jesus, in this community gathered.
Come to the water. Come to the Table. Come and See.
 John 3:3-4
 John 3:8
 The Woman’s Guild and Auxiliary of St. Mark’s Parish, The Hostess Reference and Bridge Book, Evanston, IL: St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 1935, 15.
 When Daylight Savings Time begins, St. Mark’s observes the rite of wearing slippers; I might have been wearing bunny slippers while preaching this sermon.