Reading: John 3:1-21
“Water and Spirit”
Grace to you and peace in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Amen.
We’re continuing our journey through the Narrative Lectionary, following the life of Jesus as told by the Gospel of John. When we left off last week, Jesus was in Jerusalem, and he had just made a bit of a scene at the Temple. In today’s story, Jesus is still in Jerusalem. It’s night time, and Jesus is just winding down after a long day of flipping tables and driving cattle. All of a sudden, there’s a knock on the door.
Jesus gets up and opens the door. It’s Nicodemus – a Pharisee, a teacher of Israel, and an important one at that. What’s he doing here after dark?
Maybe it’s because Jesus made such a scene at the Temple, that Nicodemus wants to see him in secret. Maybe it’s because he’s ashamed. Maybe he’s just a night-owl.
“Rabbi,” he says, “we know you are a teacher from God...”
Sounds like there’s going to be a “but...” doesn’t it? “Rabbi, we know you’re a teacher from God, but you’ve really got a lot of people mad with that stunt you pulled at the Temple.” Or maybe, “Rabbi, we know you’re a teacher from God, but I’d like to talk to you about some of your teachings.”
Jesus cuts Nicodemus off before he can get to the “but,” and he throws him a curve ball. “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Huh? What’s Jesus doing here?
Nicodemus comes to talk theology with Jesus. He comes for a debate. He comes to talk, rabbi to rabbi. But Jesus cuts right to the chase. He offers Nicodemus the gift of relationship. It’s like he’s saying, “Nicodemus, I could talk theology all night with you if that’s what you want. But what I really want to do is invite you into a relationship with me.”
How does Jesus invite us into a relationship with him?
Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Truly I tell you, know one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born out of water and the Spirit.”
Now when Jesus is talking in the Gospel of John, he often uses big metaphors like this to point to something really important about our relationship with God. But sometimes we’re tempted to take Jesus too literally, and when we do that, it’s likely that we’re missing the point. Nicodemus gets stuck on the literal meaning of Jesus words. He asks, “How can a person be born again? Can an old person crawl back into their mother’s womb and be born again?” Nicodemus is taking Jesus too literally, and he’s missing the point.
As Christians, we’ve often taken Jesus too literally as well, especially with passages like these. Remember last week, we talked about how we’re often tempted to take this relationship that God wants to have with us, and turn it into a transaction. This is a prime example. When Jesus says, “You must be born again out of water and the Spirit,” some of us would say, “That means you need to be baptized! Baptism is the ticket! Baptism is your membership card that will get you into heaven. If you’re baptized, then you’ll be saved.”
Now others of us would disagree, and say, “Wait a minute. Jesus says that you need to be born again. That means you need to have a conversion experience. There needs to be a time in your life when you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Saviour. That’s how you know you’re saved.”
So which one is it? Is baptism our ticket into heaven? Or is being born again? Or maybe it’s a checklist – maybe we need to do both?
When we fall into this trap, we make our relationship with God about a transaction. But God doesn’t want transactions. God wants to invite us into relationship.
The question isn’t, “What do I need to do to be saved?” Instead, it’s “how is God inviting us into relationship?”
Jesus says to Nicodemus: “I’m inviting you into the Kingdom of God. I’m inviting you to be born anew, to be born again, to be born from above. I’m inviting you into a new birth through water and the Spirit. I’m inviting you into relationship with me.”
So what does water and the Spirit have to do with our relationship with Jesus?
Well, I think Luther’s teaching on baptism is really helpful here. In the Small Catechism, Luther says, “baptism isn’t just water, but the Word of God in and with the water, along with faith which trusts this Word of God in the water. For without God’s word the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.”
In baptism, God touches us with water, bathing us in God’s promise. God’s promise: “You are my beloved child.” God’s promise: “I love you so much that I gave my only Son, so that you might have everlasting life.” In baptism, God bathes us with this life-giving promise of grace.
Then it’s the Spirit’s turn. The Spirit moves in our lives, and stirs up faith in our hearts – new faith every day – so that we may trust in God’s life-giving promise of grace.
Through God’s promise, God’s Word acting on us in the water, and God’s Spirit stirring up faith in our hearts, we are drawn into relationship with Christ. Through water and the Spirit we are joined to Christ, joined to his death and resurrection: so that as Christ was crucified, we are crucified with him, and as Christ was raised from the dead, we are raised with him to new and everlasting life.
Through Jesus Christ, God gives us new birth, new life, through water and the Spirit.
For God loved our world so much, that God gave God’s only Son, so that all people might be invited into relationship with the Son, and through him, receive everlasting life.