This morning, “You must be born again” brings to mind Pittsburgh.
“By night” is the Allegheny. “We” is the Monongahela. One of those rivers should win out at their confluence.
But Jesus’s response is the Ohio. A new river.
He addresses neither the loaded setting (Nicodemus’s coming by night) nor Nicodemus’s words (“We know you are a teacher come from God”) nor the tension the setting and words create.
“By night” / “we” is a minor chord that instead of resolving becomes the playground for Jesus’ notes on birth. “You must be born again” only adds to the “by night” / “we” tension.
“You must be born again” may not be a koan plastered over with Protestant doctrine, after all. Maybe the junction of “by night” and “we” at “born again” is the koan. They say the Ohio starts in Pittsburgh. But how can a river start? It’s the sound of one hand clapping.
Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about birth; he spoke to Nathanael about a fig tree. We don’t pull the fruit of doctrine from Nathanael’s tree. Should we take doctrine home from Nicodemus’s delivery room?
Maybe it’s John’s tenuous hold on narrative that lets us pick doctrine from it like a fruit tree. The setting is the husk or the root and branch, easily discarded.
“You must be born again” coming amid the tension of “by night” and “we” feels like Jacob’s wrestling with the man at night amid the tension of (at the junction of) Laban and Esau. It feels also like “neither,” the reset button the Lord’s captain pushes in the overwrought Joshua at the junction of “us” and “them”:
When Joshua was near Jericho he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua approached him and asked, ‘Are you for us or for our enemies?’
The man replied, ‘Neither! I am here as captain of the army of the Lord.’
Joshua prostrated himself in homage, and said, ‘What have you to say to your servant, my lord?’
The captain of the Lord’s army answered, ‘Remove your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy’; and Joshua did so. (Joshua 5:13-15, REB)
[I’m reading John’s gospel. My reactions here vacillate between notes — a list of impressions — and something less sketchy. A note on nomenclature: the note number in my post’s title indicates the chapter of John’s material I’m reacting to. A title’s letter, though, differentiates the post from earlier posts about that chapter. “John field note 2c,” then, is my third post about something in John’s second chapter. N.B.: 12a may precede 3d: I skip around.]