This encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus is obviously about baptism. We Christians know this, because for centuries we have turned ordinary people into extraordinary disciples of Jesus Christ by bringing them to the font. In the font they are reborn of water and the Spirit.
Throughout salvation history, water and the Spirit have been washing and soaking and anointing and inspiring and generally making things new. God fashioned this planet, we are told, by blowing the Spirit across the chaotic primordial waters. God pushed and pulled the Israelites through the water of the Red Sea, and they were changed from slaves to free people.
And so too in the water that Jesus was baptized in, we bury a mortal body and pull up a new creation. Flesh born of flesh goes into the water, and spirit born of the spirit is reborn with a gasp of air and a shout of praise.
We know this is baptism that Jesus is talking about. Nicodemus doesn’t. He hasn’t heard of the rebirth that Jesus requires. He’s confused at first – you mean we have to go back to our mother’s wombs? You’re joking, Jesus. You’re mad.
No, Jesus is speaking the poetry of sacrament.
This is the language of religion, to speak in poetry and metaphor and symbol and sign. But we live in an age that struggles with this sort of thing. We modern people struggle with it. In a sense, Nicodemus here stands in for a sort of modern, literalistic, scientific way of thinking. He is concerned with facts and material truths.
What do you mean “born again”. A person is born from their mother’s womb. Nicodemus knows this much about the ways of the world. And he knows that neither our long-suffering mothers nor the mechanics of biology will permit such a bizarre notion. It’s impossible!
Nicodemus tries to know what Jesus is saying that he fails to understand what Jesus is saying.
Jesus speaks in the poetry of sacrament. He speaks in poetry of a new kind of birth from the womb of the waters. He speaks in poetry of a new kind of breath from the Holy Spirit, who is like the wind, like a dove, like fire and tongues of flame.
We can get caught in the trap of our modern thinking all the time. In the eucharist, does the bread stay bread or become Christ’s body? Does the wine stay wine or become Christ’s blood? Will you Christians please answer the question, so we may know whether to laugh at you or pity you for being mad?
But wine blessed with sacred words of sacramental poetry is blood. Bread blessed with sacred words of sacramental poetry is bread. Not, perhaps, to the precise measurements of the scientist’s instruments, but to the heart of faith that believes what Jesus has said. Faith makes us see that deeper truths lie in the poetry, in the mystery, in the hauntingly beautiful parables that Jesus tells where the kingdom is like finding a lost coin, the return of a son we thought was gone forever, like a precious pearl in a field.
The heart that seeks God is tuned to the truth of these words where the meaning slides past our brains and settles into our souls. We understand before we know, because only poetry and metaphor and symbol and sign can speak of the divine world. A God who can be described precisely in facts and figures would be merely a God of our own making. But our God tells us the divine name in cryptic riddles: I am who I am. God who is beyond knowing can only be suggested, hinted at, woven in language that lifts us high and slips through our fingers.
Rebirth, Jesus says, in water and the Spirit. We don’t understand all of what God is doing when we are present at the font. Thanks be to God that we don’t have to. It is enough to sense that Jesus taught us something about these rituals, and at the font something new and exciting and brilliant is happening.
Nicodemus didn’t seem to get it with his modern and literal mind. But poetry and sacrament reveal their secrets slowly, opening like the bouquet of an aged wine. He came back to Jesus. He came back much later, when Jesus had died, when his body was taken down from the cross, and his mother held his corpse in her arms, and they took him to a tomb that someone else had given, Nicodemus came quietly with 100 pounds of myrrh and spices to prepare his body for burial.
That Friday morning, perhaps Nicodemus remembered something that Jesus had said. It didn’t made sense at the time.
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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. 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.John 3:14-17
That Friday, Nicodemus saw Jesus the rabbi, the miracle-worker, the poet, the mystic lifted up, and maybe something inside his heart clicked. Something about needing to die before we can be born again. Something about water and the Spirit. Something about the cross. Something about God’s love.
It still didn’t make sense, but somehow it made perfect sense. Nicodemus understood, and so he left what he was doing, and brought his offering to the Lord.