(Note: This passage is used in Lent, during the period of intense preparation for Baptism. The Book of Occasional Services can provide advice on establishing the liturgical setting, especially if Catechumens are present.)
Water and wind.
You can't escape water and wind. From the top of the highest mountain to the deepest part of the sea; from the water of the womb until the last breath that escapes from our lungs, water and wind define life and the beauty of life.
The power of water and wind is often so subtle that you can temporarily escape noticing their influence. Yet from ancient times humanity has known that, of all the powers of this universe, water and wind are awesome and wonderful beyond words. Of the many things that command respect and reverence in this earth, water and wind are first in priority and honor.
If you try to ignore water and wind, you will learn to regret it. Recent weather patterns in North America taught us this lesson, a lesson we had already learned long ago. Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and fires all testify to the untamed power of wind and water.
Yet, raw power is not the greatest thing about water and wind.
In many languages and cultures, water or wind describe human life in its most simple and beautiful aspects. Unnumbered creation stories, including the Genesis story, describe water and wind as the beginning elements of life. In Chinese, the combination word "wind-water" is used to describe balance or harmony. From the plagues of Egypt to the Baptism of John, water and wind are ways that our Sacred Writings show both the distress of humanity and the way to healing. In today's Gospel passage from John, the words we read in English as "spirit," "life," "breath," and "wind" are all one word. In the Greek of the original writing, the word is pneuma.
So, Jesus was surprised that Nicodemus didn't understand his teaching about being "born of water and spirit (or wind)." Even though we are not "teachers of Israel" we can understand the basic reference: From the beginning, water and wind describe the primal elements and harmony of created life. When water and wind are out of balance, life is out of balance and something must be done to restore it.
Life is not possible without water and wind - new life isn't possible without them either. Creation began with wind moving on water - the New Creation would begin the same way. Nicodemus craved a new creation. He would only be able to find it through water and wind.
But, beyond this basic understanding of water and wind, is there something else Nicodemus should have known, as a "teacher of Israel." Is there a reference to Scripture he failed to recognize?
Everything we read indicates he is well meaning and earnest. What did he miss?
On the night of The Great Vigil of Easter, we will read the story of "the dry bones" in the Thirty-seventh chapter of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel is brought by the "spirit (wind) of the Lord" to a "valley full of bones." He is told to command the Four Winds to "breathe" on the bones and give them life. As in our Gospel passage, the Hebrew original of Ezekiel also uses only one word (ruach) to describe what we read in English as "spirit," "breath," and "wind." The life of the bones and the hope of the people are restored when the spirit/wind blows/breathes.
Later, in the Forty-seventh chapter of Ezekiel, we read of Ezekiel's vision of water flowing in Four Directions from the throne of the Temple of God. The water will restore life to "every living creature," including trees on the banks of the rivers whose "leaves are for healing."
It is to the promise of these prophecies that the words of Jesus call us. What he describes to Nicodemus, in short hand, is Ezekiel's vision of a renewed life and the fulfillment of God's ancient promises to all of creation. The disorder and imbalance of life, so powerfully described by Ezekiel as the absence of water and wind, is healed in the wind and water that come from God. As Ezekiel describes and Jesus affirms, the gateway to this "saved world" (John 3:17) is re-birth in water and wind. The importance of the words of Jesus can not be over stressed. He is announcing the beginning of the renewal of all of life.
We hear these words in the midst of a Lenten journey. The Lenten path leads not only to a reminder of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus. It also leads to our own death and resurrection in Baptism. For some, it will be the very first time.
The whole Church, walking with these candidates for Baptism, remembers and renews its birth in the water and wind of Baptism.
The wind of renewal - The Holy Spirit - blows and breathes in Baptism. In Baptism, as well, the water from the temple of God flows. The ancient elements of Baptism, water and oil, are symbols of water and wind. In ancient practice the priest would breathe on the candidates as a sign of the Holy Spirit/Winds activity in the ceremony. In the font of Baptism, we are revealed as the children of Water and Wind, signifying a new relationship both to God and God's Creation.
It is essential to note, however, that the implications of the water and wind reach beyond the personal renewal of individuals, even a large number of individuals. Both Ezekiel and Jesus clearly indicate that the life that will flow through the water and the wind will "save the world."
In the context of the world in which we live, how do we hear the words of Jesus? What does it mean to be born anew of wind and water in the world we inhabit?
At a basic minimum, we are people of hope. Hope is recovered in the water and wind. But, this does not mean belief in the inevitability of human progress. We have, instead, a confidence in the Creator's love which does not allow us to ignore or abandon creation.
Through eyes of hope, then, we are forced to confront a world that is threatened. It is threatened by a disorder of wind and water so vast and deep that it appears to reach cosmic proportions. Even as we make great advances in our potential to help humanity, we have created toxic by-products that may prove to be our downfall. As so-called modern society has become mechanized and isolated from the natural environment, the relationship of humanity to water and wind have suffered.
Closer to home for us as members of the Church, a further indication of the modern alienation between humanity and the environment is found in the passage we are exploring today. We have difficulty understanding this passage because the connection between wind and spirit have been lost in modern English. In fact, Spirit is usually a word that is used to describe something disconnected to our basic physical existence. Unlike the ancient teachings of the church, we do not see, in present day usage, that spirit and wind are one.
Modern society has become increasingly disrespectful towards wind and water. You don't have to walk far in an urban area to find architecture that displays in-your-face defiance of wind and water. Although older cities were often built to accommodate wind and water in both its life giving and life threatening aspects, some of our most sought-after contemporary living areas are in open revolt against water and wind.
With all the good that modern society has produced, it can not erase the imbalance created in our relationship with the natural environment. It can not be erased because it is the result of our disordered relationship with the environment's Creator. Our Gospel passage allows us the opportunity for a unique and healing insight into this human dilemma. Our distance from the Creator produces an imbalance and disorder that is reflected in our troubled relationship to the environment.
Because the Creator loved the creation, the Son was given to Creation. In the Son, a new relationship with Creator and Creation is possible. A new balance is made: Born of God through the wind and water of Baptism, we are reborn, not just to God in a manner alienated from the world in which we live, but also to wind and water, the most basic and profound elements of our physical existence.
We arise from the waters of the font as a revelation. Bathed in the promise of our ancient tradition, we are revealed to be the Children of God. Revealed as the sign of ancient hope, we stand like rainbows over the water of the font - Children of God, but Children, also, of Water and of Wind.