Welcome to the third reflection in the Lent devotional series entitled, Lent, In Other Words. This week’s word is inspire.
Air and water are essential elements for survival. These truths are self-evident but if you need proof, science teaches us that on average a person can survive for only three minutes without air and three days without water. When the body is deprived of either air or water it will physically die.
As it turns out, air and water are essential for our spiritual health too, but not exactly in the same way. Jesus used these two elements, metaphorically speaking, to describe how deprivation of water and air leads to spiritual death. It’s explained in the story of Nicodemus’ visit with Jesus, the lectionary reading for the second Sunday in Lent found in John 3:1-16.
The story begins when a spiritual leader called Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus one night to get to the bottom of some lingering questions. Imagine the story unfolding…An unexpected guest knocks on Jesus’ door. He answers to find a man who has witnessed Jesus’ unconventional ministry and demands an explanation. Jesus’ teaching ran contrary to everything his community—and moreover his faith—has established as truth.
Nicodemus is as curious as he is bold. He wants to know how Jesus performs such “signs.” How is it possible, for example, for Jesus to turn water into wine? And what does it all mean? No one can do these things apart from God, Nicodemus insists. Jesus the radically hospitable host is not offended by his questions. Instead he welcomes them as an opportunity to teach a new truth.
Jesus teaches truth by offering his guest an even more confounding answer to ponder. He tells Nicodemus that no one can live in the kingdom of God without being born from above, of water and Spirit. Like most modern readers of this text, Nicodemus didn’t get it at first. How can one be born from above and of water and Spirit when we were already born of our mothers’ flesh?
Jesus’ teaching relied on metaphor rather than the signs that Nicodemus was curious about. And he was a wordsmith too. Here’s what I mean: the Greek word in the scripture for above can also be translated as anew in English. Additionally, the Greek word spirit, pneuma, can also be translated as breath or air. Jesus makes use of these dual meanings to make his point. When he said that we must be born anew of water and Spirit, he wasn’t talking about the same water and air (i.e., spirit) necessary to sustain the flesh, instead…
Jesus was talking about the waters of baptism and the Holy Spirit (or breath of God) necessary to enter the life-giving kingdom of God.
So to live in the mysterious kingdom of God which Jesus also describes metaphorically (like a pearl of great value, where where love reigns in the midst of us and human ideals are turned on their heads), we must be born in baptismal waters, and be led by the orienting breath of God—or holy Spirit–everyday thereafter. It’s starting to get clearer but it’s still a little hazy, right?
Here’s what I take away from Nicodemus’ story. First and somewhat tangentially, it’s A-OK to question my faith. Like Nicodemus, Jesus welcomes my “but-how-can-that-be?” questions. Actually, it’s even more than OK to question my faith because if I didn’t question it, I wouldn’t get a chance to ponder Jesus’ wise answers and my spiritual growth would be stunted.
Second, if I am ever to live in the kingdom of God I must understand what my baptism means—and it doesn’t have anything to do with the delicate white lacy gown and matching bonnet I wore. At my baptism, by the grace of God I was born anew in holy water in the presence of others who promised their support as we tread this complicated journey together. My baptism wasn’t a one-time event, though. It’s a process I’ve lived every day since, constantly born anew by God’s grace.
Finally, Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus reminds me that I can’t get there alone. Sure, I need others like those who vowed to support me at my baptism, but I need more than what my fellow humans have to offer. I need God to guide my steps. I need the breath of God to orient me towards the way of Life; to point me toward goodness, and beauty, and love. I need the Holy Spirit to inspire me to communicate with God in prayers of praise and petition alike. My spirit needs the breath of God to survive!
It’s not self-evident that water and air are vital to our spiritual health, but Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus teaches a new truth. Here’s where I ask you, dear reader, to image the story for yourselves. Using the context of your own life, take a walk in Nicodemus’ shoes. Be bold, ask your questions. Don’t be afraid to admit that you just don’t get it (this confession is an exercise in humility, in my experience). Consider what it means to be born from above, or born anew? Does baptism symbolize this for you? How does the Holy Spirit inspire you?