John 3:1-17

March 9, 2014 Lent 2    Listen

get in the water

Roy W. Howard


Brene Brown is a professor of Social Work at the University of Houston and a researcher on shame, vulnerability and courage. She believes the way in which we discover a “whole hearted” life – one with a healthy relationships in community and a sense of joy – is by being “fully engaged” in life. The way to be fully engaged is to risk vulnerability, to speak truthfully and be courageous. So what holds us – you and me – from daring greatly – being courageous and truthful? Shame: the lurking sense that you are not good enough is the chain that binds you from living a wholehearted life. Brown says the path to wholeheartedness is risking being vulnerable with another, to dare greatly and be fully engaged in this life.


I think this description is close to what it means to be born again. I’m not suggesting this is what Brown means; I’m saying whether by accident or not, she has described pretty well what it is to come alive in communion with God and find your life purpose.


Jesus describes wholeheartedness as abundant life that flows on eternally as an endless divine river. It’s another name for salvation, which at its root means “to be made whole.” When you are saved, you are made whole. The rest of your life and mine is learning how to live into this abundance of life, the wholeness that is given to us freely and wonderfully by God. The Psalmist says of those who experience this wholeness:


How precious is your loving-kindness, O God,

to all who take refuge in the shadow of your wings.

They drink their fill of the abundance of your house;

and you give them to drink of the river of your delights.

For with you is the fountain of life; In your light we see light.


Jesus says the doorway to wholeheartedness is the experience of the Holy Spirit. He uses a very precise image to describe what this experience is about. It is like being born. Again; only this time through the womb of the God, from above.


So we’ve talked about a path to wholeheartedness that requires vulnerability and courage, daring greatly to be liberated from shame. We talked about Jesus’ path to abundant life that requires an experience of God’s Spirit that is so transformative that it can only be described as coming down the birth canal of God.


Now enters Nicodemus, the learned Pharisee who comes, with his entourage by night, to question Jesus whom he kindly and respectfully calls Rabbi. Now only does Nicodemus honor Jesus as a fellow teacher, he acknowledges that Jesus is doing things that can only be done through the power of God. We could speculate why Nicodemus comes by night rather than day. Did he not want to be seen speaking with Jesus during the day? Or did he come at night because it was the easiest way to have a conversation. We don’t really know. What does seem apparent to me is that he is a seeker. He comes to Jesus with serious question about his experience of God. That is enough to describe Nicodemus as one who is being vulnerable. He risks acknowledging what he doesn’t know and the further the conversation goes the further he risks by admitting his cluelessness.


The path of salvation – wholeheartedness – doesn’t appear to each of us in the same way. But it is likely to begin with vulnerability; with the readiness to seek God, to dare asking the questions that may open your heart. In this sense, salvation – the experience of being made whole – requires everyone to be a seeker.  To be a seeker is to be vulnerable. It is to risk everything to be born again. How we get there varies from person to person, place to place, culture to culture. Night or day; young or old. Jesus stands before the seeker to tell the truth. He does not shame him or get into an religious debate between scholars. He simply says directly: you have to be transformed by the power of God. You will have to be born again.


Last week a pastor friend of mine posted this question on her Facebook page:  “When you read Jesus’ words and think of the phrase “you must be born again”, what do you think of? How has that phrase changed in your minds over the years?”  And this is what I replied:


I still believe Jesus is referring to a necessary encounter with the Holy Spirit that transforms your life from unbelief to a belief in Jesus and commitment to be his disciple. At 60 years old it occurs to me that the actual metaphor of birth is no accident. Birth is painful; coming down the birth canal into the world is fraught with difficulty and pain. To be born again requires all of that experience with the Holy Spirit. It bothers me when mainline Christians (of which I am a card carrying one) say “I’m not one of those born again types”, meaning not a fundamentalist. I get that, but if you are not a “born again type” then just what “type” are you and what experience of the living God has occurred in your life that compels you to be a disciple and risk everything to follow Jesus Christ?


This is the heart of the encounter with Jesus in this story. Jesus is talking about an experience of the Spirit of God that will utterly change your purpose in life, that will save you. You have about as much control over this Spirit as you control where the blows or the choice of your parents. Nicodemus is discussing religion. The two are not the same. Jesus is helping him get the difference. 


When I was very young I came across a swimming manual. It had cool black and white photos of every stroke possible and detailed instructions on how to perfect each stroke. Chapter after chapter gave insiders knowledge on swimming; everything you needed to know. But the one thing it didn’t do, and couldn’t do, was throw you in the water. One could memorize and recite the whole swimmers’ manual, know everything there is to know about swimming well, without every getting in the water.


Do you want to know the manual or experience the water?


That is the difference between the knowledge of religion and the experience of the Spirit. To open your life to Jesus Christ is to get in the water. It is to be vulnerable. It is to be born again. The rest of the Christian life is living into this new reality in which the love of God that makes the world whole is at the center of everything.


Because God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal. Indeed God did not send the Son to condemn the world but that the whole world would be made whole in him.