I am not sure that I can explain what took me there that night. Fear and shame had been wrestling inside me against burning curiosity, and after days of internal conflict, I simply wanted peace. But it was something else that compelled my feet through the dark streets of Jerusalem that night. As a boy I had watched a fisherman draw in a fish: it didn’t matter which way it thought it was swimming, when the fisherman pulled it would come in regardless. So it was: I was drawn and I came.
And I have never felt more confused in my life! No sooner had we exchanged courtesies (extremely courteous on my part, one does not wish to risk offending a prophet of God), than He launched straight into the most extraordinary statement I had ever heard from rabbinical lips: “No one caqn see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again!”
Unless he is … what? This was no longer the comfortable conversation I had rehearsed in my head. I floundered, what could he possibly mean? I had imagined us talking elegantly, one learned man to another, while I gently probed to get his measure, but now it felt as if he were doing the probing, and had found a hollow place right in the centre of my being. I knew all the classic arguments, the midrash of the sages, but …. I shook my head. It was as if we had sat down to play a game together, an old familiar game, and suddenly my opponent was moving his pieces in ways I had not even imagined they could be moved. I had no response to give.
“Do you mean that a man, an adult, has to back inside his mother’s womb?” Even putting it into words was ridiculous, but, turn it every which way, it still made no sense. I hadn’t felt so stupid since I was a child.
He started to explain to me about being born of the Spirit, the mysterious Spirit that blows where it will. He seemed to be saying that the Kingdom of God was something different from the Israel that I was part of by virtue of my ancestry, or at least that one only became part of it by a way I could not comprehend.
He teased me gently, and in His smiling voice I heard an invitation to let go of all my assumptions about my own importance: “You mean that you are a teacher in Israel and you don’t know about this?”
True. He had me there, so I listened as he continued to explain. And as he spoke I began to see, but dimly, as a man sees shapes through a fog, enough to stay on his path, but not enough to see where the path is leading him. I realized that what he said was true, we cannot speak or teach beyond our own experience, and yet we are so quickly dismissive of the testimony of those who know more of God than we do. That is our shame, and our blindness.
And then he spoke of the ways of God, and of a love that could not be confined to Israel, but would reach out to embrace the world (though I could not understand when he spoke of how this was to be done). And I began to grasp the notion that it was not only those who were born of Abraham’s lineage who were his children, but that there were many who would come in, from the east and the west, who would be drawn in. And perhaps (though this was much harder to accept), we Israelites were not truly Abraham’s children either until we became so by … this other way ..
There was so much I hadn’t begun to realize, that I couldn’t until that dreadful day when I saw what he meant about being lifted up, but my journey had begun, and for many sleepless nights I wrestled with his words, placing them in counterpoint to the Torah until my thoughts began to take new shapes.