Pilgrimage: Womb and wind
Text: John 3:1-10
Speaker: Joel Miller
John chapter 3 contains one of the most common phrases in American Christianity: “Born again.” “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kin-dom of God unless they are born again.” Other English translations say “born anew,” or “born from above,” but “born again” seems to be the one that stuck in the culture. As in, “I’m a born again Christian. Are you?”
I know a significant portion of this congregation considers themselves recovering evangelicals, and another portion actively resists being identified with that version of Christianity. So I’m curious, if you’re comfortable outing yourself a bit – I’m pretty sure you won’t be alone – I’m wondering if we could get a show of hands for anyone who has some baggage with this verse about being born again.
I may be in the minority of folks here even interested in giving this a go, but I’d like to attempt to reimagine this phrase. Maybe even – GASP - reclaim it as an integral part of our faith.
We’ve actually got some decent material to work with here. Because the call to be born again, born anew, or born from above is a clear feminine image of God. It’s short. If you blink you can miss it. But it’s definitely without a doubt referring to a womb. You can’t be born, or born again, without a womb. In this case, it’s the womb of God. Jesus says, in effect, no one can even see this thing I’m referring to as the kin-dom of God unless they are formed and re-formed within the womb of God, and born anew, like a baby, seeing as if for the first time.
This phrase appears in a conversation between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus. In the spirit of pilgrimage, we could perhaps think of Nicodemus as the patron saint of the stealth pilgrimage. As John tells it, he came to Jesus by himself, at night, under the cover of darkness.
Much has been made of this little detail in the story. In John’s highly symbolic gospel these particulars are not to be discounted. Perhaps the night represents the darkness of Nicodemus’s understanding. Perhaps he was unwilling to be seen with Jesus in the light of day. Perhaps, as a “ruler of the Judeans,” a member of the central legal authority known as the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus is on a fact finding mission to determine the threat level this water-into-wine, temple-disrupting Galilean poses to the establishment.
Perhaps. Maybe he’s curious - coming to Jesus after the crowds have gone home, after his scholarly colleagues have called it a day. It might have been the safest scenario to get closer to Jesus. A stealth pilgrimage.
Maybe he had rehearsed that opening line many times as he imagined what he would first say, as he walked in the dark toward wherever he surmised Jesus would be that evening. They meet. Nicodemus speaks: “Rabbi, teacher, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs you do apart from the presence of God.” Is it flattery? Is it a confession of faith? It’s dark, and we can’t make out facial expressions or body language for clues.
Is this kind of like a city council member meeting up with a community activist in the corner of a bar well after the 9-5 world has clocked out for the day, starting the conversation by saying “We know you’re speaking for the people; no one can organize these rallies unless they truly stand for justice”?
Words of an opponent? A potential ally?
Jesus does not pull a policy proposal out of his cloak. Although he does so elsewhere with other leaders, he does not engage with Nicodemus in a scholarly debate about interpretation of the laws as they pertain to the poor and the Judean’s relationship with Rome.
Instead, Jesus talks about wombs:
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kin-dom of God unless they are born again.”
Nicodemus gets that it’s about wombs, but that’s about all he gets at this point, wondering out loud about the impossibility of this for himself and his dear mother, both well past the age of such things.
Jesus responds again, and keep in mind that the word for spirit and wind is one and the same. Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kin-dom of God without being born of water and wind/Spirit. What is born of flesh, is flesh, and what is born of spirit wind is spirit wind. Do not be astonished that I said to you, You must be born again. The wind/spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the wind/spirit.”
It’s not the conversation Nicodemus was expecting to have.
It’s possible to get bogged down in the language and translation issues here. Is it born again, anew, or from above? Is spirit or wind, or should we say wind-spirit or spirit-wind since it means both?
At the risk of getting even more bogged down I’d like to introduce one more biblical word, this time from the Hebrew. Because the womb of God, as beautiful an idea as that is, is still pretty abstact. But the Hebrew language, closely related to the Aramaic Jesus would have spoken and thought in, is anything but abstract. It’s very concrete. It’s earthy. It’s substantive.
And so the Hebrew word for womb, rechem, is the basis for the words mercy and compassion. Any time you see mercy or compassion in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, it almost always derives from rechem, womb. Same consonants, you just tweak the vowels, which is how Hebrew works.
So when the Psalmist says: “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love,” the imagery is “The Lord is womb-like and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love,” Psalm 103.
And when the prophet Jonah complains to God after God forgives those evil Ninevites, Jonah says: “Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That’s why I fled to Tarshish. For I know that you are gracious and merciful.” I knew it God - that you are womb-like. And now even the Ninevites know it too.
It puts a different spin on what we sometimes say during Joys and Concerns after each sharing: “God in your mercy, hear our prayer.” “God in your womb-ness, hear our prayer.”
Rechem. Womb, compassion, mercy. It’s a good word to put on your short list of Hebrew words to memorize. Right up there with Shalom and Amen.
Jesus doesn’t use this word with Nicodemus, but he does evoke it by saying he must be born anew.
Whenever we encounter or practice compassion or mercy, we are encountering the womb of God. It’s this hospitable space created within an often-inhospitable environment. To be enveloped in compassion and mercy is to be in utero, knit and reknit together, born anew. It can happen anywhere. Like the wind, it’s hard to tell when it’s going to show up and where it’s going. When it does, you might get knocked off course from where you thought you were going.
This is the kind of pilgrimage Jesus is asking Nicodemus to take – towards compassion and mercy. For now, after that opening statement, Nicodemus has nothing but questions. What will he do with this?
Nicodemus shows up two more times in John’s gospel, and nowhere in the other gospels.
His second appearance, very briefly, is four chapter later, just as Jesus’ teachings have stirred up more trouble in Jerusalem. John tells it this way: “The guards returned to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked, ‘Why didn’t you arrest him?’ The guards answered, ‘No one has ever spoken the way he does.’ The Pharisees replied, ‘Have you too been deceived? Have any of the leaders believed in him? Has any Pharisee? No, only this crowd, which doesn’t know the Law. And they are under God’s curse!’ Nicodemus, who was one of them and had come to Jesus earlier, said, ‘Our Law doesn’t judge someone without first hearing him and learning what he is doing, does it?’ They answered him, ‘You are not from Galilee too, are you?’” (John 7:45-52)
In other words, “You’re not sticking up for this guy, are you Nicodemus?” Into a hostile situation, Nicodemus suggests mercy, womb-ness. It’s a risk. It’s a sign of something at work within him, perhaps a rebirth in the making.
We don’t hear from Nicodemus again until the end. Jesus has just been crucified under the command of Pilate and is now dead on that Roman instrument of capital punishment and torture, the cross. John writes:: “After this Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate if he could take away the body of Jesus. Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one because he feared the Judean authorities. Pilate gave him permission, so he came and took the body away. Nicodemus, the one who at first had come to Jesus at night, was there too. He brought a mixture of myrrh and aloe. Following Jewish burial customs, they took Jesus’ body and wrapped it, with the spices, in linen cloths. There was a garden in the place where Jesus was crucified, and in the garden was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish Preparation Day and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus in it” (John 19:38-42).
What began as an invitation into the symbolic world of rebirth and wind and Spirit, what continued as a lone voice urging a merciful reading of the law, continues further down the pilgrim road. All of the official disciples – Peter, Andrew, James, and the crew - have fled and are nowhere to be found, for fear they will meet the same fate as their master. And so Nicodemus takes one more step forward in the darkness, and joins one who himself had been a secret disciple, to perform this risky but necessary and sacred act of caring for a bruised and tormented body. He and Joseph of Arimathea would have grasped and carried this body, held it, felt its dead weight, laid it down on a level place, and begun the work of touching the spices to the arms, to the legs, to the face. Gently but firmly wrapping the linens, according to the burial customs of their people. An act of compassion toward this otherwise abandoned man.
How long did it take? Who was watching? Were they looking over their shoulder the whole time or had they stopped caring what others thought? They laid him in his tomb and went away. Did they feel love, relief, or a heavier kind of darkness than they’d ever known?
Whether or not you’re interested in reclaiming the language of born again, I think Nicodemus serves as a pretty good model of what it looks like to be right in the middle of the process: Hesitant, occasionally bending to the wind even while trying to hold on to what he knows, a stealth pilgrim wondering around in the dark. Transformed little by little by compassion and mercy.
It’s enough. It is enough.
Without knowing it, he has prepared the space for even a tomb to become a womb of a new creation. After he and Joseph of Amirathea leave the scene, the very next verse says this: “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb…”
The midwife of the resurrection arrives. While it was still dark…