Weekly Seeds: Born of Water and Spirit

Sunday, May 26, 2024
Trinity Sunday | Year B

Focus Theme:
Born of Water and Spirit

Focus Prayer:
God who comes to us, thank you for meeting us by night, in the day, and in all the places you find us. Amen.

Focus Reading:
John 3:1-17
3 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with that person.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”, 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 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.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man., 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.,
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.

All readings for this Sunday:
Isaiah 6:1-8 and Psalm 29 • Romans 8:12-17 • John 3:1-17

Focus Questions:
Have you ever witnessed a birth? What was the experience life from your perspective?
What does the phrase “born again” mean to year?
What does it mean to be born of “water and the Spirit”?
What commitments does following Jesus require of you?
What hopes do you hold for new life in Christ?

By Cheryl A. Lindsay

Birthing is full of seeming contradictions and tensions. It’s beautiful and, honestly, gruesome. It holds pain and joy. It’s violent and literally life-giving. It evokes fear and anticipation. It’s a start and an end at the same time. Birth is a transition, and transitions are almost always like that. As full of wonder as they might be, they also inspire terror. So why does Jesus use the metaphor of birth for committing to a life following him?

Perhaps, we do not consider the trauma Jesus experienced being born enough. Virtually no one remembers their own birth, and many people who have given birth claim to forget the pain once they experience the joy of holding their new baby. It’s part of our custom to gloss over the moment of birth as being harrowing, desperate, and dangerous for the birthing parent and offspring.

We don’t know if Jesus remembered his birth…if his divinity helped him to retain the memory that proves elusive for the rest of us. I do wonder if he had as much trepidation about entering the womb as he did the tomb. Was Jesus as anxious about being born of flesh as he was of dying at the cross? Did the co-equal God of creation also declare before his incarnation, “Not my will but yours be done”? Even for the Holy One, transition and sacrifice do not come easily.

Perhaps that is why Jesus shows Nicodemus so much compassion in their encounters. Nicodemus is an interesting biblical character. We know he was a religious leader, and as a teacher of the Law he would have been held in high regard for the knowledge he acquired from a lifetime of study. Like the best of teachers, he displays curiosity and a willingness to be taught as he comes to Jesus as a pupil. Yet, Nicodemus does not want to jeopardize his elite status so he meets Jesus under the cover of night. The darkness provides a safe space for him to ask his questions, to be challenged, and to be inspired.

Perhaps Nicodemus represents that member of the faith community who has been immersed in the faith for their entire lives and then something happens that challenges what they believe…in a fruitful way. They begin to attend a Bible study class or join a small group. A life event tests their faith. They attend a spiritual retreat, a healing service, or a week long camp and have a holy encounter with the divine. A stranger speaks a word into their lives that seems to have been delivered by the angels.

Whatever the case for Nicodemus, he has decided to meet with Jesus. He was not part of the “put down your nets and follow me” group of disciples. Yet, he does turn to Jesus as teacher even if he attempts to keep the connection secret. Later, Nicodemus will use his position to advocate for Jesus to receive a fair trial. Finally, at the death of Jesus, when Joseph of Arimathea offers his tomb to bury Jesus, Nicodemus brings a quantity of spices sufficient to prepare the body of a king.

In her recent monograph, Susan Hylen proposes that Nicodemus is certainly “one of the Gospel’s most ambiguous characters.” Until recently, interpreters had often felt that they had to cut through the ambiguities, and that they were required to make Nicodemus fit within the clear-cut categories of the Fourth Gospel’s alleged dualism (light/darkness, believer/unbeliever, etc.). But following a recent trend in Johannine characterization studies, more and more interpreters are happy to leave this character ״out of the box” and to let his ambiguities challenge readers. For instance, Cornelius Bennema concludes that “John implicitly gives a negative evaluation of Nicodemus’s ambiguity—to stay in the twilight zone is not acceptable”; thus “John’s implicit message to the reader is that anonymous discipleship or secret Christianity will not suffice’ Hylen, on the other hand, prefers to see in this ambiguity a different, more positive, rhetorical function: “Interacting with Nicodemus’ character brings the reader to a place of reflection on the complexities of following Jesus.”
Nicolas Farelly

Nicodemus journeys from a faith of curiosity and learning to a faith that advocates and defends on the way to a faith that honors and claims. He grows in it by rethinking what he has been taught and by recognizing the power of Jesus. One may wonder how much more development would have occurred in Nicodemus if he had not segmented and separated his belief and affinity for Jesus. What if Nicodemus had decided that his power, position, and prestige paled in comparison to the privilege of a fully committed relationship with Jesus? How many of us relegate our faith to a corner of our lives, cloaked in the cover of night or the sanctuary or the hidden recesses of our hearts when the invitation to Christian discipleship is a life following Jesus out loud and in the open?

Nicodemus’s story is only told in the Johannine account in the three instances noted above. Yet, this story that introduces him has become foundational to Christian faith and practice. It’s clear from the onset of their conversation that this is not their first conversation. Nicodemus begins with a profession of faith in Jesus as being sent from God. Jesus then responds by insisting that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” It’s a curious response that makes one wonder what part of the conversation may be missing from the account. On the other hand, Jesus may have wanted to shift the conversation from questions about his origins to the kindom of God. Jesus may have wanted to equate himself with the kindom. Or, Jesus wanted to affirm that being “born from above” is part of the human condition or a sign of discipleship.

The word “see” in that statement reflects the ability to perceive or to recognize something. It does not mean that the kindom is hidden or only shown to an exclusive set of people. Nicodemus interprets Jesus to mean being “born again” but that is not strictly what Jesus says. There is nothing in Jesus’ statement that suggests that human beings, born of the flesh, cannot be born of water and spirit at the same time. What would it mean to our understanding of the Christian faith, and interfaith relationships, if we reconsidered this statement to be expansive rather than exclusionary?

The Holy Spirit’s role in regeneration or the new birth has been the subject of many theological discussions. A text that has received considerable attention is John 3:5, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” A major interpretative problem with this verse is the meaning of “born of water and the Spirit.” Is “water” to be equated with baptism? Should water be correlated with procreation? Or, is water used as a symbol for the Word of God or cleansing? Furthermore, what is the relationship between “water” and “spirit”? Is water set in contrast to the spirit, or do water and spirit reflect a conceptual unity?
Robert V. McCabe

Two thousand years later, biblical scholars and theologians continue to debate the meaning of these words, perhaps because Christian faith traditions have turned them into a litmus test for salvation rather than an invitation to participate in the work of salvation of the world…and God’s precious gift of life born of water and spirit. As Robert V. McCabe notes, “We should initially observe that Jesus’ use of the passive voice unequivocally stresses that the human participant in the new birth is completely passive.” When we are born, most of the labor falls on the one giving birth.

Our divine Mother carries us to the point when we have developed enough to live outside the womb. She pushes us forward and rejoices at our first cry, a sign of the breath of life flowing in and out of our bodies. The Mother will nurture and sustain us and lead us to maturity. The Mother will always be our mother and will give of herself that we may have life abundantly. And, the Mother will challenge us to be who we are created to be—Her beloved children—born of water and spirit.

Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.

“The first time he had taken the massa to one of these “high-falutin’ to-dos,” as Bell called them, Kunta had been all but overwhelmed by conflicting emotions: awe, indignation, envy, contempt, fascination, revulsion—but most of all a deep loneliness and melancholy from which it took him almost a week to recover. He couldn’t believe that such incredible wealth actually existed, that people really lived that way. It took him a long time, and a great many more parties, to realize that they didn’t live that way, that it was all strangely unreal, a kind of beautiful dream the white folks were having, a lie they were telling themselves: that goodness can come from badness, that it’s possible to be civilized with one another without treating as human beings those whose blood, sweat, and mother’s milk made possible the life of privilege they led.”
― Alex Haley

For Further Reflection
“How I wish I was like the water,
Flowing so freely with every drop
Let my every emotion wonder,
No need to start, nor even stop.”
― Virgil Kalyana Mittata Iordache
“My mother groaned, my father wept,
into the dangerous world I leapt.”
― William Blake
“All children mythologise their birth. It is a universal trait. You want to know someone? Heart, mind and soul? Ask him to tell you about when he was born. What you get won’t be the truth: it will be a story. And nothing is more telling than a story.” ― Diane Setterfield

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at //ucc.org/SermonSeeds.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (lindsayc@ucc.org), also serves a local church pastor, public theologian, and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

About Weekly Seeds

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.