Parallel Conversations in John
Born of Water
Reading through John we find at least three of what I call “parallel” conversations. I call these parallel conversations because, as you know, parallel lines never meet. In these conversations Jesus purposely starts a conversation about some earthly items and activity and the other person in the conversation begin to focus on the subject Jesus brought up. In each case Jesus, after making some points in regards to the physical subject, switches over and begins to talk about some spiritual truth, usually comparing it and contrasting it to the earthly item or activity Jesus had brought up for this very purpose. At this point the conversations seem to be parallel and you wonder if they are ever both going to talk about the same thing! Of course Jesus knows how to communicate His truth, so at some point the other person realizes that Jesus is now talking to them about spiritual things.
My perception is that Jesus has the task of explaining spiritual things to them when they really know nothing about these! So parallel conversations are in a sense like a parable, except that they play out in real life conversations and then at some point the jump is made over to the spiritual.
The three obvious parallel conversations in John are here in chapter 3 with Nicodemus, with the Samaritan woman in chapter 4 and with the crowd that follows him in chapter 6. Let me discuss the other two cases before returning to chapter 3.
With the Samaritan woman Jesus starts a conversation about normal everyday water. He does this by asking the Samaritan woman for a drink of water. The conversation about water that follows covers the whole gamut from water, thirst, water pots, wells, prejudice of men against women, prejudice of Jews against Samaritan and the digging of wells. Jesus uses several points about water to jump the conversation over to the spiritual water. Jesus points out that whoever drinks of that water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water (this “other” water) He gives will never thirst again. Jesus points out his greatness in his ability to give this totally thirst quenching water. So at least on these two points he contrasts normal water with spiritual water. It is not until Jesus asks her to get her husband and then points out that he knows she has had five husbands and one man now that is and is not at the same time her husband. At that point I think the Samaritan woman jumps to the other side of the parallel conversation and realizes that Jesus is talking about spiritual thirst and the satisfaction of spiritual thirst.
In John chapter six we have, what I call a rolling conversation, with a group of people that continues over several days and moves from one location to another. This whole conversation is sparked by the miraculous feeding of 5,000 people.
A crowd follows Jesus to the other side of the sea. Rather than answering their question about how he got to the other side, Jesus goes right to the issue in their hearts and tells them that they are following him only because they ate the bread till they were filled.
With this, another parallel conversation begins. They are asking for bread, Jesus from the very beginning distinguishes the bread that he will give them from normal everyday bread. They cannot get their minds off the everyday bread they want. Jesus makes several statements about the earthly bread. For one he says they will hunger again. He also points out that they will die. When they try to use the case of the daily mana in the desert Jesus points out that even those who ate this daily miraculous bread died.
It is not until Jesus begins to change the talk of spiritual bread to explain that he himself is that bread that they begin to understand that he has used bread to talk about spiritual things.
Getting back to John chapter three and Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus here the parallel conversation is around being born. Again Jesus is the one who chooses to begin to explain what he has to tell Nicodemus using being born, “you must be born again.” Nicodemus initially and rightfully thinks of normal human birth. While Nicodemus is trying to figure out how a person could be physically born a second time, Jesus steps in to clarify and contrast the original first birth with the birth he refers to as, “must be born again”.
Let me give some running commentary on three verses to see if I can clarify.
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
In essence Nicodemus is saying I don’t understand how you can have a second physical birth.
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.
In his reply Jesus does not throw out the physical birth, which is of water, rather adds the second, being born again of the Spirit.
Why do I say that? The following verse explains.
6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”
The two parts of this verse correspond to the two parts of the previous verse. Born of water = flesh gives birth to flesh and born of Spirit = Spirit gives birth to spirit.
It is interesting to note that Jesus does not throw out the physical birth, as unrelated to the new birth, rather he includes it side by side.
This verse in Ecclesiastes really gives a deeper understanding to the verses that follow in John 3.
5 As you do not know the path of the wind,
or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb,
so you cannot understand the work of God,
the Maker of all things.
Jesus seems to quote the first part of this verse to tell Nicodemus why he should not expect to understand the inter-workings of the new birth if he could not understand the path of the wind, and if Nicodemus knew Ecclesiastes, then he would be able to complete the text and see that neither does he know how the body is formed in a mother’s womb.
7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Lastly, immediately following this passage of the conversation with Nicodemus, we read this verse.
22 After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized.
We can see two things here. First of all Jesus could have just said you need to be baptized rather than an obscure “born of water”. Secondly, Jesus could just have told Nicodemus, if you want to see the kingdom of God then you need to come out the countryside and be baptized.
In summary I think the interpretation I propose here is most literal and simple. To try and read ,“born of water”, as baptized is to assign a meaning independent of the words of the text and independent of the context.