When Jesus speaks to Nicodemus in the third chapter of John’s Gospel, Christ speaks of being born from above in water and the Spirit. What does this mean? In order to understand this, we must first of all realize that this is just one small piece of the jigsaw puzzle that John has given us. When viewed through the overall lens we see that John is actually sending a message which extends through the entire first few chapters of his Gospel: the necessity of baptism as a means to salvation. One of the recurring symbols used by John is that of water. In fact, a good rule of thumb, when reading John: whenever you see water mentioned, re-read the passage as if the water referred to baptism, and you’ll probably see an insight you missed before.
Baptism Comes from Heaven
This focus is in place from the very start of the Gospel. It is no coincidence that John’s Gospel opens with “In the Beginning,” which recalls Genesis, and specifically, the creation story. (This is an important detail to note whenever reading John: the first line of any narrative sets the scene. For example, in the next chapter, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, when he is literally—and figuratively—“in the dark”).
The parallels between John 1 and Genesis 1 are too deep to be explored in this blog post, but it is important to note a few similarities. In Genesis 1, God’s first creation is light. The second creative act is separating the waters of heaven from those on earth. Chapter One of John opens with a prologue stating how the light comes from the Word (Jesus), and the light shines in the darkness.
The Gospel next introduces us to John the Baptist. The very first person named in the Gospel is someone who baptizes. This reveals the importance of baptism in the eyes of the evangelist. Also, read in the light of Genesis, we see even here a difference between John’s symbolic baptism (water of the earth) and Jesus’ sacramental baptism (waters of heaven), which the baptist himself confirms a few verses later: “I baptize with water, but among you stands one … whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.”
Chapter Two of John’s Gospel continues this theme. In the Cana wedding, Jesus did not have to perform the miracle as he did. Jesus could have simply multiplied the wine, as he will do with the loaves and fishes in Chapter Six. They could have simply continued to pour the wine from skins which would never have run dry. But Jesus instead chooses to start with water. Only after the water is poured into ritual purification jars does it become wine. This links the water with a ritual, and one of purification. Also, the wine can be taken as a prefigurement of the Eucharist, another sacrament of initiation. But in order for the good to come, Jesus begins with water. Our faith journey begins with baptism!
Baptism Reveals the Kingdom
In Chapter Three, as I mentioned above, Nicodemus is told by Christ that he must be born “of water and the Spirit.” But as if the water mentioned here was not enough to point us to baptism, what is the very next thing that Jesus does? He goes out with his disciples to baptize.
Chapter Four of John tells the story of the Samaritan lady at the well. The location in Samaria is important, since it’s showing that Christ is not just for the Jews. At the well, Jesus tells the woman about the water he can give her. When the woman hears of the rewards Jesus offers, she asks how she can take part in this. The Lord is willing to work with her, once she faces and moves beyond her sins. There is another new aspect of baptism revealed here; we see that baptism washes away the sins of the past.
In Chapter Five, we see the man waiting to be healed at the pool of Siloam. The reader may be confused at the manner of healing. If water represents baptism, then Jesus’ response to the man does not seem congruent with previous chapters, in that he does not use the water. Specifically, it differs from Cana, where he chose to use water. In the context of Cana, and the obvious effort that John has made to show the importance of baptism, it would seem that Jesus would work with the tools he has, and assist the man to the water. Instead, he heals him directly. It is important to remember that baptism, like all sacraments, was instituted by Christ. It is the way he gave man to bring people into the Church. He, however, having created the sacraments, is not limited by their rites.
An application of the above would be those described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1259-1260) as having (or would have had) an explicit desire to receive baptism, but for whom the rites and trinitarian prayers were not said. Such a baptism of desire, though, is no less of a baptism: they are indeed born “from above (the Father), in water (Christ is the source of living water, as he told the Samaritan Woman), and the (Holy) Spirit.”
Baptism, like all sacraments, was instituted by Christ. It is the way he gave man to bring people into the Church. He, however, having created the sacraments, is not limited by their rites.
Let’s review what John has revealed so far regarding baptism. Chapter One describes the difference between the baptism of John, and the heavenly waters of Jesus. In Chapter Two, we read of a transformation in our very nature that comes from the waters of baptism. Jesus tells Nicodemus in Chapter Three of the connection between baptism and heaven. Chapter Four reveals the sanctifying power of baptism with regards to sin. Chapter Five shows that baptism by desire can occur outside of the sacramental norms. With each chapter, something new is revealed. In short, John layers baptism’s roles, revealing it to the reader in bits and pieces, as such: Baptism comes from heaven (Chapter One), it transforms (Cana), it reveals the Kingdom of God (Nicodemus), it washes away the sins we carry with us (Samaritan woman), if we desire to receive it (man at the pool).
Perhaps you have noticed other examples of symbolism in John’s Gospel. Feel free to share in the comments.