3:22 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized.

23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized 24 – John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.

25 Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew.  

26 They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27 John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. 28 You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ 29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

At first glance this passage may seem like an odd, slightly irrelevant little transitional text. But at the heart of these verses is an important word. It occurs only twice in the whole of John’s Gospel. The first time it appeared was in John chapter two in the story of the wedding at Cana where Jesus turned water into wine. In the lead up to the miracle, John said,

Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. (John 2:6)

The second and last appearance of this word in John’s Gospel occurs in John 3:25:

Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew.

Reflecting on these “six stone water-jars” I suggested that they,

represent the old system of established ritual purification, law, and religious hierarchy. They are essential to the religious Jewish observance of elaborate hand washing in order to purify oneself in preparation for eating.

Everything we know from the Gospels about Jesus’ life, ministry and teachings shows that, while he did not entirely dismiss this old system, he came to call the Jewish people back to a deeper awareness of the true intention of the ritual practices of their tradition. This creates tension for John’s disciples. They trust their Rabbi’s teaching; it sounds familiar. It fits within the law paradigm they have been taught from the beginning by their faith tradition.

But now this upstart has come upon the scene. John’s disciples are not sure they should trust this new teacher. And, to make matters worse, he seems to be gaining a stronger following than John. They come to their teacher and complain about Jesus that “all are going to him”.

How will John respond? Is he threatened by this young unorthodox teacher who seems to be usurping his place? Will John warn his followers to keep Jesus at a distance and stay close to the proven path that John is laying down? Will John fight for “the truth” and defend his little piece of the spiritual landscape?

John’s reply from verses 27-30 is a model of humility, acceptance and the joyful embrace of his place in life. John presents a profound portrait of spiritual maturity.