But Jesus did not entrust himself to them, because he knew them all, and had no need for anyone to bear witness about the One, for he knew what was in a person. There was a person out of the Pharisees, Nicodemus by name, a ruler of the Judeans. He came toward him at night (John 2:24-3:2).
Out of the night, out of the Pharisees, comes "a person," Nicodemus by name, to inquire of Jesus and the Johannine community. Like a member of Congress sneaking into a Quaker meeting, or a cardinal visiting a base community in Latin America, Nicodemus' curiosity gets the better of his discretion, if just for a moment. This man of official authority, of institutional power and standing, comes to take his turn at the perennial question: Who is this Jesus?
HAVING ESTABLISHED Jesus' authority through his powerful acts at Cana and in the Jerusalem temple, the fourth gospel unfolds a series of encounters between potential disciples and Jesus: Nicodemus; the disciples of John (the Baptist) back in the wilderness; an anonymous Samaritan woman at a well; a royal official in Cana of Galilee. The entire range of Palestinian theological geography is represented in these stories. In each, a person is challenged to give up notions about God and authority that arise from their previous commitments and cultural status, and to take the concrete step of joining the Johannine community as a sign of true faith.
Our study will focus primarily on the contrast between Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman. To catch the social significance of these stories, it will be helpful to introduce a pair of Johannine literary techniques through which the gospel conveys its meaning.