“Blessed are the Curious”

Scripture – John 3:1-17

Sermon preached by Sudie Niesen Thompson

Sunday, March 5, 2023


During Lent our pastors are drawing inspiration for their sermons from the book, The Lives We Actually Have: 100 Blessings for Imperfect Days, and the accompanying guide, Bless the Lent we Actually Have, both by Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie.


Ted Lasso is one of the most endearing protagonists on television. He’s the lead character in the series Ted Lasso — a show that tells the story of a midwestern football coach hired to coach a British ‘football’ (a.k.a. ‘soccer’) team … all because the new owner wants to drive her ex-husband’s beloved club into the ground. Ted has no business coaching soccer. But, nevertheless, he captures the hearts of his players — and, even, some fans — with his unwavering optimism, his persistence, and his genuine ability to connect with others.

In an iconic scene from the first season, we glimpse one of the values that guides Ted’s interactions. When Ted walks into a pub where the Richmond faithful congregate, he runs into the former owner. Rupert has just purchased a share of the team in an attempt to weasel his way back into the owner’s box. So, in typical fashion, Ted cuts the tension with a disarming question. He asks Rupert about darts, then finds himself in a game with a wager that would grant Rupert partial control of the team. Late in the match, Ted is in the hole. He needs two triple 20s and a bullseye to win. Undeterred, he tells a story:

You know, Rupert, guys have underestimated me my entire life. And, for years, I never understood why … But, then, one day I was driving my little boy to school and I saw a quote by Walt Whitman … It said, “Be curious. Not judgmental.” And I like that.

(Ted throws a dart — triple 20).

So I get back in my car and I’m driving to work. And, all of a sudden, it hits me: All them fellas that used to belittle me — not a single one of ‘em were curious. You know, they thought they had everything all figured out, and so they judged everything and they judged everyone. And I realized that their underestimating me … who I was had nothing to do with it. Cuz if they were curious they would have asked questions. You know? Questions like, “Have you played a lot of darts, Ted?”

(He lets another dart fly — triple 20).

To which I would have answered, ‘Yes, sir. Every Sunday afternoon at a sports bar with my father, from age 10 ’til I was 16, when he passed away.

(Throws the last dart. Bullseye.)[1]

Be curious. Not judgmental.

As it says in your bulletin, Greg and I are drawing inspiration for our sermons this season from The Lives We Actually Have — the book of blessings that we’ve also commended to you for daily use during Lent. For this story from the Gospel of John, the authors suggest: “Blessed are the Curious.” Blessed are the curious.


Now, Nicodemus is an ambiguous figure. Is he curious? Or is he judgmental?

John introduces him as a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews — a learned man who is deeply committed to the word of God … not unlike Jesus, in this regard. But, Nicodemus also represents a group Jesus contends with — especially in the Gospel of John.

Nicodemus seeks out Jesus, and greets him with “generous words of recognition.”[2] But he also comes to Jesus at night, under the cover of darkness. Most likely, he’s trying to be discreet, so that his colleagues won’t catch wind of this conversation. But, given the imagery of light and dark framing John’s Gospel, this detail tells us the Pharisee’s perception is limited.

As the conversation unfolds, we discern the constraints on Nicodemus’ sight — and in-sight.

For starters, he begins with what he knows. At least, what he thinks he knows: Rabbi, Nicodemus says, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God. The Pharisee has heard of the miracles Jesus has performed, and he knows these signs point to the power and presence of God. But Nicodemus misses the deeper truth … that Jesus does not merely enjoy God’s presence … he is God’s presence. The very revelation of God.

Jesus responds to his visitor’s opening statement: No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.

Now, we should take a minute to examine the words of Jesus in this meeting … not only because they are as enigmatic to us as they are to Nicodemus, but because the notion of being “born again” has become something of a litmus test within American Christianity.

First, you need to know that the Greek word used in this verse conveys two different meanings simultaneously: it means to be “born from above” and to be “born anew.” Unfortunately, no single English word can capture both the spatial and temporal dimensions of the original Greek. So translators usually pick one or the other. And we miss the nuance. Nicodemus misses the nuance as well. He fixates on the temporal dimension: How can anyone be born after having grown old?

So Jesus elaborates: No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.

One commentator describes Jesus as one who “seems congenitally incapable of giving a straight answer”[3] and this response is no exception. Scholars have spilled lots of ink debating the meaning of Jesus’ answer. Is he speaking about baptism — the sacrament in which water signifies the pouring out of God’s Spirit? Or, is Jesus saying that water and the Spirit are one-in-the same? It’s a reasonable interpretation given the structure of the Greek.[4] And it jives with something Jesus says later in the Gospel: Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (7:38b)a description of the Spirit which believers are to receive.

Either way, it’s clear that the Spirit is critical to the new life of which Jesus speaks. And this claim is nothing new; it echoes an age-old story — one familiar to Nicodemus. In the second account of creation recorded in Genesis, God forms the first human from the dust of the earth and breathes into this being the breath of life. The Creator enlivens the creature with holy breath — the very Spirit of God. John’s Gospel describes Jesus doing the same thing when he appears to his followers after the resurrection and breathes on them. As Jesus says, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he re-creates them as a resurrection people and invites them to share in the gift of new life (20:22).

This is the promise to which Jesus alludes in his conversation with Nicodemus. He speaks of radical new life, which is a gift of the Spirit. Those who enter into this new life are able to move beyond preconceived notions of who God is and how God works, and enjoy a new relationship with the Creator of the cosmos, through the revelation of Jesus the Son. This new life enables believers to experience the kingdom of heaven, which “cannot be detected with the physical eyes,” as Nicodemus mistakenly assumes. Rather, God’s realm “can only be perceived through the eyes of the Spirit — after the person has been born ‘anew’ or ‘from above.’”[5] This is what Jesus is getting at when he says, the wind blows where it chooses. He is referring to the animating, unpredictable dance of the Spirit. Those who are born anew and from above are attuned to her movement and opened to God’s presence in the world.

This new life is a gift from above. As professor Frances Taylor Gench observes, “There is nothing Nicodemus or any of us can do to secure the new birth of which Jesus speaks. Only divine initiative (…) can effect it, an initiative that springs from the immense love God has for the world.”[6] After all, as Jesus makes clear, God so loved the world that God gave the only Son … to invite us into deeper relationship, to offer the gift of new and abundant life.

Nicodemus seems unable to grasp the truth of Jesus’ words. For his imagination is limited. In a very real sense, he is being judgmental; he is judging the responses of Jesus against his preconceived notions of what is and is not possible with God. The last words Nicodemus utters in this chapter are: How can these things be? And, then, he slips away into the darkness.

But he doesn’t disappear for good. Nicodemus shows up again in John’s Gospel. Four chapters later, he reappears to defend Jesus before his fellow Pharisees (7:50-51). And then, significantly, he turns up at the cross. Nicodemus arrives bearing “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.” And — together with Joseph of Arimathea — Nicodemus takes Jesus down from the cross, wraps his body with the spices in linen cloths, and lays it in the tomb (19:38-42). His final act is not one of disbelief or doubt, but of devotion.

These reappearances tell us something important: They tell us that Nicodemus remained curious. It seems his encounter with Jesus planted within him the seeds of faith … seeds that sprouted and grew until he was able to imagine the new and abundant life of which Jesus spoke.

Blessed are the curious, for they will be drawn into the presence of God. After all, as Ted Lasso reminds us, curiosity draws us into relationship. Because, to be curious, we must set aside the things we think we know. Curiosity opens the door to deeper understanding; it opens the door to authentic relationship. For it allows us to discover the fullness of who another is. This is as true for faith, as it is for friendship. Curiosity can transform our relationships with God. And it can transform our relationships with God’s people.


I recently came across an account of another Matthew 25 congregation — First Presbyterian in Knoxville, Tennessee.[7] It’s a church that’s working with other communities of faith to seek solutions to their city’s needs. They call their network JusticeKnox, and — together — they are striving to address the systemic issues that keep people in poverty and disenfranchise communities of color.

JusticeKnox has already made great strides to improve the lives of residents. This organization has been working with the Knoxville Area Transit System to redesign bus routes so that commuters can drop off kids and get to work without wasting hours of their days. Their advocacy has led to more affordable housing units in the city. And, thanks to the persistence of JusticeKnox, the police department now requires all officers to complete crisis intervention training, which prepares them to help individuals experiencing a mental health crisis.

They’re making progress and transforming their community. But what really struck me is how their work begins. They start with curiosity. The issues JusticeKnox chooses to address emerge at the grassroots level. The organization holds house meetings where residents are invited to speak about their concerns, about the changes they’d like to see in their city. JusticeKnox starts by listening and learning — by hearing stories that give focus to their collective work.

And, together, these people of faith discern the movement of the Spirit. They pay attention to where the wind of God is blowing, and they commit to furthering God’s mission in this world. And, in the process, they’ve been drawn more deeply into relationship — with their neighbors, and with the One who calls them to this work. It’s led to a wonderful change in the community, as people of faith come alongside one another. This partnership has given them a renewed sense of purpose. Some might say it’s given them new life.

Yes, blessed are the curious. For they will be drawn into deeper relationship. They will be drawn into the presence of God. Their curiosity opens them to experience the fullness of the One who is eternally curious about us — the One who offers us the gift of new and abundant life.

So, in this season of Lent, we pray: God, bless us all with a healthy and holy curiosity. In the name of the Creator, the Christ, and the ever-moving Spirit of God.



[1] “The Diamond Dogs” (Season 1, Episode 8). Ted Lasso, produced by: Jason Sudeikis, Jeff Ingold, Bill Lawrence and Liza Katzer;, Apple TV+ (2020).

[2] Frances Taylor Gench, Encounters with Jesus (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 19.

[3] A. D. Nuttall, Overheard by God: Fiction and Prayer in Herbert, Milton, Dante, and Saint John (New York: Methuen, 1980), 131, as quoted by: Gench, Encounters with Jesus, 20.

[4] Osvaldo Vena, “Commentary on John 3:1-17,” www.workingpreacher.org.

[5] ibid.

[6] Gench, 23.

[7] Mike Ferguson, “When JusticeKnox, it’s best to answer,” Presbyterian News Service (presbyterianmission.org)