Jesus refers to this universal ‘water breaking image,’ with Nicodemus, to try and evoke the birth he is talking about, a birth we receive in Baptism that comes from the Spirit. “No one can enter the kingdom of heaven,” says Jesus, “without being born of water and the Spirit.”
One of the leading indicators of public health, we know, is the rate of infant mortality. And in the U.S., we’re lagging behind. In fact, compared to other industrialized countries we are one of the worst, coming in at number 46. We’re also one of the only wealthy countries where health care isn’t seen as a fundamental right. One of the only ones, in short, that hasn’t had a public plan to cover medical care for every citizen, although there is hope with last years’ legislation under the Obama administration that this is changing. But it is still painful and embarrassing that the U.S. trails behind countries like the Czech Republic, and even Cuba, on the scale of infant mortality!
As usual, the devil is in the details, for we find that the rates of infant mortality are not the same across the board in our country, even in our city. In communities where nutrition is low, a key ingredient to healthy births, the infant mortality rate can be double the average. Low nutrition, usually follows low income, and where these two come together, we discover that we have what’s being called, “food-deserts,” in our city.
So if, say, by the luck of the draw, you’re born into a family of low income and have no health insurance, and your mother had no one to tell her about the importance of nutrition during pregnancy, your chances of dying in the first year of life are roughly double that of all others, here in Chicago.
Jesus told Nicodemus, “if I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” Where is God in the darkness of our earthly desert wanderings?
Nicodemus, we know, came to Jesus by night, a metaphor for unbelief, ignorance and temptation, in John’s gospel. But Nicodemus is at least trying, compared to the other Judean leaders, who don’t have any openness to Jesus at all, and didn’t even bother to approach him. And Nicodemus, toward the end of the gospel at the cross, is there with Joseph of Arimathea, helping to prepare Jesus for burial, an act that can be seen as a great kindness and showing faith.
But here, meeting Jesus for the first time, Nicodemus is missing the boat at every turn. He shows his night-time ignorance by assuming that it’s the signs, or miracles Jesus does, which are the proof that he is the Son of God, instead of his glorification in the cross, resurrection and ascension. And finally he misunderstands Jesus when he says born “from above,” assuming Jesus is using the Greek words’ other meaning, which is, “born again,” or “born anew.”
So, no matter what Jesus says to Nicodemus, he doesn’t get it: he doesn’t “see” the kingdom of heaven, or know how to “enter” it, because he can’t even understand the earthly things about being born.
How about us? Can we get the “earthly things” right at least? Can we understand how food deserts are created, and sustained, day after day, right here among us? Can we learn how to care for the least of these, the mothers and babies in all our hospitals, our elderly and mentally ill in our nursing homes, with passion and commitment? If we can’t understand these earthly things, how can we understand the heavenly things Jesus is offering us?
“What is born of the flesh is flesh,” said Jesus, “and what is born of the spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’”
Not everyone can be categorized and statis-ticized into a little box, of course. This isn’t just a social experiment, but this is the world that God loves, instilled with the Spirit of Christ, who has interjected salvation into our lives, by way of the cross. Out of our food-deserts, God chooses to raise people up, and the Spirit is alive, even if we can’t see where the wind is blowing. Who would have guessed, for example, that one Michelle Robinson, growing up in a food-desert neighborhood, would have married one Barack Obama, and be living in the White House, and teaching America now about child nutrition?!
“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”
Jesus is abundantly clear in the gospel of John that he is the Son of God: he is the light of the world, and the light of day that conquers the night, and he testifies to how God will vindicate and glorify him through the cross, resurrection and ascension. We can come by night, and take our chances that we’ll be courageous enough to be there with him at the end. But we have everything we need to follow and believe right now – to be “born from above.” “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
The journey of rebirth “from above” is to be born anew in baptism, by “water and Spirit.” Just as a new birth here on earth is signaled by the breaking of a woman’s water, so are we reborn as children of God, when we are washed in the water of baptism, and we receive God’s Holy Spirit. It is a mystery why we are chosen, but not to who we testify about. We may be astonished that we have been given faith, and “born from above,” but as we begin to live a new life, washed and clean and new, we are clear that we do not walk through the desert alone. But together, the whole people of God are being brought to the promised land. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”