The context of a text is usually an important thing. And usually it is overlooked when looking at a Sunday reading.
The Gospel text for this Sunday contains, I would say, the most well-known verse in the bible—John 3:16. So it is important to get the context for such an important verse.
Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, an important man among the Jews. And it is also important to note that Jesus is talking to Nicodemus in a way that is confusing him.
It may be helpful to note that Nicodemus, when he begins the conversation with Jesus, talks about how he is a teacher from God and that God is with him. Jesus begins the conversation with Nicodemus about what he needs while here on earth (John 3:3; ‘…unless anyone is born from above/again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’).
Nicodemus wants to connect Jesus to God, and Jesus wants to connect Nicodemus to God’s kingdom. There is a significant difference between those two things.
When God shows up, THAT is a significant event. Usually the subject switches to fear. When God’s kingdom shows up, that is also a significant event. But the subject can more easily focus on love.
I found a unique phrase within the first words of the text, that ‘whoever believes in [Jesus] may have eternal life (3:15).’ The word ‘believe’ usually (I have been told it happens 34 other times this way!) is connected to the preposition ‘into’ and not ‘in’.
The word ‘into’ strikes me as more complete, more certain, and more caring. Some manuscripts actually have the preposition ‘into’ instead of ‘in’ here because it is so frequently used.
But I can see a case for the preposition ‘in’ here. Jesus just described Moses lifting up the snake IN the wilderness, and Jesus compared himself to that snake. And, if you want to follow the strongest evidence (and, admittedly, the ESV has unfortunately not chosen to do so), Jesus, just before this verse—and this text—described himself as ‘the Son of Man WHO IS IN HEAVEN.’ (See the footnote to John 3:13 that might be in your bible.)
I see a wonderful contrast here. Jesus has said that he is not only sitting there, talking to Nicodemus, but that he, being fully God, is also in heaven. He has also connected himself to being in a wilderness.
Wherever Jesus is, that is a place where he can be believed ‘in’. And whether you feel like you are in heaven or in a wilderness, Jesus is there, and his gifts are ready to be given out in a kind and loving way.