"How can these things be?"
Just as the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness last week, so does the lectionary drive us into the wilderness of the Gospel of John this week. My New Testament professor used to tell us that reading the Gospel of John was like getting on a bus to go to UBC and ending up on Mars. So let’s put on our space helmets.
Nicodemus enters the story, by night – literally and figuratively in the dark, with a fixation on the signs. The miraculous things that Jesus does in this Gospel are not called miracles, but signs. Signs do not exist for themselves; they point the way to something. They illustrate a much deeper truth than a simple manipulation of matter. This is why the true believers in the Gospel of John come to Jesus and confess him as Lord without seeing signs, like John the Baptizer.
Why does Nicodemus come? In the previous chapter, Jesus transforms water into wine at the wedding in Cana. Then he drives out the moneychangers in the temple. The text says many believed because of the signs he was doing, but this doesn’t impress Jesus, and he “refuses to entrust himself to them.”
Nicodemus would have heard of all this, surely. And he’s a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews. Wouldn’t you love to know more about this pillar of the religious elites who was intrigued by a Galilean peasant’s bizarre antics in the very holiest site on earth? Why would someone like Nicodemus want anything to do with Jesus? We don’t know. We only know that he came by night, clueless and full of questions.
Maybe he wanted change. Maybe he was tired of the Romans and their demands on the religious leadership in Jerusalem, God’s holiest city. Maybe he was tired of the corruption that had grown up like weeds in the establishment, an all-too common byproduct of imperialism and the fear that accompanies it. Maybe he wanted to get things back to the glory days, when Jerusalem commanded respect on its own without having to kowtow to a cultural juggernaut of competing theologies, an Empire with its own imperial cult and all of the exploitation that comes along with it. Maybe he heard about this prophetic figure rising up out of the backwaters like Amos, ready to wage full on war in the name of the God who had promised to liberate, and thought, “I want in.”
He comes to talk about how Jesus must have come from God, because no-one could do these signs without God.
He’s made a good start…but he’s only halfway there.
Perhaps this is why Jesus decides to engage with him, rather than avoiding him as he did with the others who believed in his signs.
And so he responds. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus immediately blows it. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” To us it probably seems clear that Jesus is not talking about literal birth. Is Nicodemus being facetious? Or is he just not the brightest crayon in the box?
Actually, what we have here is a simple misunderstanding that is totally unclear in English. In Biblical Greek, this passage contains a word with a double meaning: anouthen, which can be read “born from above” or “born again.” It is significant that our New Revised Standard translation uses that first rendering, because other translations do not. This is why the phrase “born again” is so popular among certain Christians. The ambiguity of the phrase is deliberate, but many scholars believe that the first rendering is the more accurate one.
Jesus continues. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
Water is an incredibly prevalent symbol in John. It is turned into wine. It is used to baptize. It is in the well where Jesus meets the Samaritan woman. It is in the pool of Siloam where Jesus heals the paralytic. It comes forth from Jesus with blood after he is pierced with the spear. It seems to symbolize purity, communion, and death. Being “born of water and Spirit” is often interpreted baptismally, which according to this symbolism seems fair, and especially as Jesus and John the Baptizer are both baptizing immediately after this conversation.
But just in case we thought we could see the light…nope, sorry, we’re still on Mars. Jesus makes yet another beautiful play on words, using pneuma for both “wind” and “spirit.”
“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Now I asked a dear friend and retired priest what this meant to him, and he brought up marketing techniques. “You’ve got to know where people come from and where they’re going,” he said. “Otherwise you can’t make a deal.” Being born from the Spirit would force people entirely out of their universe and into a completely new one. This would imply that there was no way to latch onto someone, no way to force an identity, no way to lay a claim.
Think of all the things that lay claim to you every day. Your family. Your friends. Your job. Your nation. Your brands and preferred products. None of these have a hold on you like the Spirit does.
That might seem like a relief, but in some ways it really isn’t. Because just as those things hold onto us, we hold onto them.
Think of your Lenten fast. The good ones unseat you. They drive you out into the wilderness – just as the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. They make you question yourself. Last year I gave up jewelry. I wore the same pair of stainless steel earrings every day, and my wedding ring, and that was it. My vegetarian fast the previous year was nothing compared to this. I felt like every outfit was incomplete, that I was missing something much bigger than just a simple accessory. I’m still trying to figure out what that was about. I had never felt so disturbed in thirty-two Lents.
You better believe I took it up again this year, and it’s just as difficult.
Being like the wind is not about being free and fully actualized individuals. For people living in first century Palestine, that did not exist. It meant being outcast, being forced to choose a brand new family out of a bunch of other outcasts in a region where your ancestors, your name, your birth family, were everything you had.
In a certain sense, it meant a kind of death.
From the first chapter, where “Jesus’ own people did not accept him,” to the last where Jesus warns Peter that he will be taken where he did not wish to go, Jesus’ message is intractably bound up in his death on the Cross. Our baptism and our work, as those born of water and the Spirit, is also a kind of death on a Cross. It has never been about just being good, or being nice, or sharing with others, or loving people.
Even the tax collectors do this.
It is about loving our enemies, praying for those who hate us, accepting a certain level of disturbance for the sake of the kingdom, walking toward our cross head-on, whatever it looks like. It’s about being sent out into the world as disciples without more than the clothes on our backs; trusting only in God for what we need; living with a wide open heart, knowing that someday it’s possible that someone will walk in and leave muddy footprints everywhere.
This, Jesus says, is the kind of person who sees the kingdom of God.
No wonder Nicodemus says, “How can these things be?”
And that is the last we hear of him until Chapter 9. He just sort of disappears. This isn’t a mistake. He can't handle it. It was probably a lot easier to understand when we were all baptized in rivers, or forced to testify before governors about who was Lord. Things change when you go from being rejected by Empire to being in charge. But now the pendulum’s swinging back, and we’re being forced to re-learn what our faith is really about.
But seeing the kingdom of God is worth it. Because God chose to love the world by sending Jesus to bring eternal life. The gifts of this state of being are not future gifts to be enjoyed in heaven, but present gifts. It’s an indescribable wildness of the soul that seeks only to know and be known by the one who is all-knowing.
This Lent, I invite us all to live into that wild openness, to embrace voluntarily what so often gets foisted on us. This Lent remember your birth of water and Spirit, or consider it. Let yourself be called out of your cradle of flesh and bone, to walk beside Jesus on the way to the cross.