How Can Water Do Such Great Things? – St. John 3; Titus 3
(Lenten Midweek Vespers Sermon Series on Holy Baptism, Small Catechism)
Seminarian Brendan Harris, Vicar
“Born Again from Above”
In the Name of the Father and of the ☩ Son and of the Holy Spirit; Amen.
There are few things in this life that are as necessary as water. Everything that lives and breathes—from the bugs on the ground to the plants to the birds of the air—needs water to survive. We are even ourselves largely comprised of water: water is mingled with the blood in our veins. Everywhere there is life, there must be water in some way, shape, or form, or else everything will die. But despite its importance and its life-giving value, too much water is of course also bad. We’re not meant to live floating in the sea. God once indulged the world in a great Flood, a massive deluge of water that nearly wiped life out on the earth, if it were not for his grace towards Noah and his family. To drown is to die, yet to go without water is also to die. There are parched desert places which beg for water to come, and there are also oceans so deep and full of water that we cannot even fathom it. Truly, this is perhaps the most magnificent and important element the Lord has created.
Yet water on its own will not save anyone. By itself—well, it’s just plain water. I can drink it if it’s in the right conditions, maybe it will even refresh me, but I will shortly become thirsty again. Even if I have a constant supply, someday I will grow older and weaker, and nothing the water can provide will reverse this condition. But our Lord Jesus promises us a kind of water that will do just this: “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” What is this water that Jesus speaks so highly of? How can this water do such great things?
This well which Jesus speaks of is not one that is dug with hands. There is no reservoir on earth, no fountain of youth, that one can strike to find salvation. Rather, He speaks of an entirely different image, not that of a well, but of a womb: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” And at the confused expression of Nicodemus, Jesus elaborates further: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” One sure sign that a child is about to born is water; when the “water breaks,” you know the child is shortly on the way. Children must be nurtured with a proper amount of water while in the womb, and they are completely surrounded in water until they are born. Our Lord directly compares the rite of Baptism here to birth, which is not a literal birth from a human womb, but a birth from the water of the womb of the font. This is not a birth according to the flesh, but of the Holy Spirit and the incarnate Word of God, according to the spiritual flesh.
This meaning is further indicated by the choice of word Jesus uses here. When He says, “unless one is born again,” the Greek word used here for “again” is ἄνωθεν, which has a double meaning. It can very well mean “again,” but it also means “from above.” That is, born of heaven, born of the place where all things truly trace their origin: from God Himself. In this light, Jesus continues: “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” To be born of heaven, born from above, is to be born of the Holy Spirit, to be born of the Word of God joined to that water, so that it is no longer plain water, but a, “washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life
So it is certainly not just the water which causes one to be born again from above, but the Word of God in and with the water that does these things. In this womb of water and the Word, we enter with nothing to contribute of our own, as infants in the womb with equivalently little understanding of what is going on. The Word of God goes forth and forms us new again, with His own hands, He lifts us out from the water as newly created, newborn babes, who may finally breathe the air outside and cry out for the first time. Here, we are remade in the image of God, now instilled with the gift of the Holy Spirit and of faith, that we may cling to our Father in Heaven through His Son, the Word He has given us and joined to water.
And because we have been remade through the Son, we are called to live a life after the pattern He has set, for He is the one who has given us life at all; it was according to His own mercy He saved us. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” It is thus through Him, through His birth into the world by the Blessed Virgin, through His walking in human flesh according to the Spirit, through His Baptism in the Jordan, through His preaching and teaching, His love and His healing, through His suffering, death, and resurrection, and His ascension to the right hand of God in the Kingdom of Heaven that we enjoy the blessing of Baptism at all. God so loved the world in this way, that He raised His Son upon a Cross, that we may look upon Him and live, that we might be drawn unto Him, we who were dead to God in our sin, that we would be born again from above. That is, born of the Cross of Christ, born from where the Son of Man is lifted up on the hill, where the water of the womb of our Baptism flowed from His piercèd side. And likewise, we too are raised out of the water to a new life like His, where He continues to give us the nourishment we need, to water us with Himself in His Word and His Sacrament. Rejoice, dear brothers and sisters, and be nourished by His life-giving water. Walk as God’s children, born again of Heaven. In Jesus’ ☩ Name; Amen.