Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (John 3:5)
When the church speaks of being baptized by water and the Spirit, we usually think of the rites of admission; in some churches, water baptism and in others, outward manifestation such as glossolalia (speaking in tongues) or ecstatic trance. In all cases, we understand that — by a spiritual intervention — the individual now lives as a transformed being, in new relationship with the divine and with community. This construct continues to be a way to separate the limits of the physical body from the eternal potential of the spiritual body.
In our time, we are working with a renewed emphasis on God’s expansive love for all, and our urgent need to remember the holiness of creation. Perhaps we could think of being born of water and the Spirit in an expanded metaphor.
Two images come to mind. Recently, on Facebook, a meme was circulating of the world. It was a globe showing how the world appeared from the perspective of the centre of the Pacific Ocean. Almost no land could be seen. Then, in the series, “The Reluctant Traveller,” Eugene Levy visits Lapland where it takes the whole episode to get him into a freezing water dip. He had resisted this idea although his hosts tried to convince him it would bring him happiness. Eventually, he gets in the water and is able to relax into the joy of the experience. We often forget how much we are beings of water, from our evolutionary beginnings to the womb from which we are born. So we tend to think about water as external, although mostly we are made up of water. “…[T]he brain and heart are composed of 73% water, and the lungs are about 83% water. The skin contains 64% water, muscles and kidneys are 79%, and even the bones are watery: 31%.” (from “The Water in You: Water and the Human Body”)
My own experience in developing in faith has been to notice how instructive children are. One little girl explained to me that one could hear the Spirit as it rushed around buildings and see it in the crackle of electricity. As she said, “It’s everywhere when you pay attention!” Another little one said to me, “Can’t you feel it?!” There are many books written about meditation, but sometimes it seems that to me that the children carry a direct link to a reality we must cultivate as we age.
From these naive responses to more sophisticated theology, we can know the creation and the Spirit are one in that we share in these expressions of the Divine with our bodies. The relevance of God to our lives depends on our willingness to “walk in the garden,” both as cognitive beings and as responsive life forms. Paul’s “great mystery” can be experienced but not defined or contained by human knowledge alone. Our knowledge changes as we learn, but the sense of oneness with the creation only deepens. Maybe instead of dreading the gate of death, we could prepare for a deep plunge into what we thought would be freezing water, but turns out to be the womb of new birth. I wonder if Laplanders would be amused to think of their land as a metaphor for eternal life.
Nicodemus’ question about being born again is a question about the deep plunge into reality as it resonates in the life of the cosmos. And that plunge will require commitment and bravery. Jesus models courage in the face of the unknown, willing to defy the temptations of power for compassion in relationship, willing to defy the punitive forces of politics for the integrity and solidarity of community. For Christians, our reception of Spirit and water must be more than signs. It must be a way of life that seeks relationship, empathy, honesty, and openness to revelation, especially when we are anxious or fearful. We cannot be born again from our mothers’ wombs, but we must be born again and again in the wildness of the Spirit, in the cleansing, bracing waters of revelation, trusting in Jesus who shows us the way.
Here is a poem “Taom” by irish poet Moya Cannon from her book Oar.
The unexpected tide,
the great wave,
uncontained, breasts the rock,
overwhelms the heart, in spring or winter.
Surfacing from a fading language,
the word comes when needed.
A dark sound surges and ebbs,
its accuracy steadying the heart.
Certain kernels of sound
reverberate like seasoned timber,
unmuted truths of a people’s winters
stirrings of a thousand different springs.
There are small unassailable words
that diminish caesars;
territories of the voice
that intimate across death and generation
how a secret was imparted –
when someone, in anguish
made a new and mortal sound
that lived until now,
to waves succumbed to