Consider water in terms of baptism. Even in baptismal contexts, water is used figuratively. Water is shown, not as a cleansing agent, but as a type of death, burial, and resurrection. In baptism, water becomes a grave from which we must be spiritually resurrected, not a symbol of life and regeneration. Paul makes this clear in Romans 6:1-8:
What shall we say then? Shall we continue to sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him.
In these verses, we see pictured the figurative burial of the old "dead" man living in trespasses and sin (Ephesians 2:1-2) in preparation for the birth of the new man in Christ. Jesus permitted John the Baptist to baptize Him as an example for our benefit, though He had committed no sin:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, "I have need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?" But Jesus answered and said to him, "Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he allowed Him. Then Jesus, when He had been baptized, came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. (Matthew 3:13-16)
John 1:32-34 adds to this account, helping to pinpoint the time of our receipt of God's gift of His Holy Spirit:
And John bore witness saying, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me. 'Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God."
Our receipt of God's Holy Spirit occurs when we are spiritually resurrected from our watery grave and by God's grace cleansed through faith in the blood of Jesus Christ. God's Spirit gives birth to the new man as a child of God. It is not the waters of baptism that cleanse us but Christ's blood and the receipt of God's Holy Spirit.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Born Again or Begotten? (Part Two)