March 13, 2021

Born of Water and Spirit

March 13, 2021

By Blair Meeks


Romans 6:1-11; John 3:1-10

Tomorrow on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, churches in England will celebrate “Mothering Sunday.” In recent years, stores like Hallmark have added some frills borrowed from Mother’s Day in the US to the English observance, but Mothering Sunday is still essentially a church celebration with origins in the Middle Ages. Its intention was twofold: Young men and women “in service” at the great English houses (think Downton Abbey) were given a rare day off to visit their own families, and they were also reminded, explicitly, in the middle of Lent, to honor their “Mother Church,” the church where they were baptized.

How often do we think about our Mother Church? I haven’t been back to the church where my grandfather, a retired Presbyterian minister, baptized me as an infant in several years, but I pray for the community there. In Lent the remembrance of our baptism takes on heightened meaning. The ashes we receive on Ash Wednesday remind us that we were marked with water at our baptism—our mark of freedom from slavery to sin, our sign of belonging to the communion of saints—and we may hear the words: “Remember your baptism and be thankful.”

On Ash Wednesday we are marked on our forehead with the shape of a cross, reminding us of the holy days to come at the end of Lent and also of Paul’s words: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-4).

In John’s Gospel, Nicodemus asks Jesus to show him how to enter God’s reign now, or in Paul’s words, how he can “walk in newness of life.”  Nicodemus comes in the night wanting confirmation of his own credentials and knowledge. Instead of affirming what Nicodemus thinks he knows, Jesus presents him with a bewildering new thought. If he wants to enter God’s kingdom, he must be born anew, this time not from water only – Nicodemus has been thinking of a mother’s water breaking as the baby comes – but also from the Spirit. 

The Greek word for “spirit” also means “wind,” so this wordplay brings us up short. We may be like Nicodemus, thinking can always rely on our training, our status, our common sense to nail things down, but the Spirit may have other ideas. The wind, Jesus says, blows wherever it will. Accepting new birth in the Spirit means accepting a call to ministry in God’s kingdom, and who knows where that will take us?

At our baptism we answer questions and make promises, or promises are made for us by our parents. The congregation also makes promises, and above all God makes promises to us. Those of us baptized as infants may not remember the details of that day, but we hold on to the promises and act on them as disciples, walking in newness of life, empowered by the gifts of the Spirit.

Child of blessing, child of promise, baptized with the Spirit’s sign, with this water God has sealed you unto love and grace divine. (Ronald S. Cole-Turner)