Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. For me it is a celebration that gives me cause to wonder: Why water? Why do we douse people’s heads with water? Why is water the symbol at the center of our faith; the sign of Baptism, one of the two core sacraments in Christianity?
This morning I want to think about the baptism of Jesus in the context of our lives and our relationship with water. And I want to do so as a way of linking water and God. It is my goal today for you to leave this place and for the next 24 hours every time you experience water, whether it is splashing on your face, or falling from the sky, as a source of exercise, or an activity of nurturing. Whenever you experience water it is my hope that you think of God.
We have a baptismal font that sits at the center of this sanctuary, and it is full of water. We call it holy water, though I think all water is probably holy water. Oftentimes when people walk past the font they put their hand in and with dripping fingers make the sign of the cross on their forehead. It is an outward visible sign that calls to mind the fact that there is no life if there is no water, and there is no water if there is no God. God gave us water as the most prolific source through which to turn our minds to God. When you experience water think of God.
Each of us have a story about water. Each of us could probably write a book about how water has impacted our lives. The more we think about water, I imagine, the more stories we have about water, and how it formed and transformed us… how it has saved us or renewed us, how it frightened us or connected us, how it inspired us. Water and God go together, which is why water is at the center of the singular, once in a lifetime sacrament of baptism.
While baptism in our religious tradition happens only once, water happens all the time. Baptism is that rite celebrated in a person’s life to acknowledge that God is the singular most important…essence, being, reality, vitality, thing, indescribable, immutable… baptism seeks to link us to that – God – through the everyday experience of water.
I’ve told you before that the first thing I do every single day when I get up is pray. And that happens every day, no matter what. But, as I think about it, really the very, very first thing I do is revive myself with water. I wake up in the morning and I drink a large glass of water, first thing. I set it out the night before, so I don’t even have to pour it. It is there on the bedstand ready for me to drink. Then I go into the bathroom, I turn on the faucet and splash cold water on my face. Water revives. Water wakes me up, it brings me back to life.
There is no life if there is no water. Water is what you throw on someone face when they pass out. Water revives us, which is why water and God go together.
But water also destroys. I remember as a child, probably late elementary school age, living in Rochester MN, and there was a massive deluge and the Zumbro river overflowed its banks. The Zumbro ran through downtown Rochester, but it also ran across the street from where we lived.
I don’t know if anyone died in that flood, maybe, but what I do remember is watching, with anxiety, the water rising across the street from our house, all the way to its very edge of the road. And after it receded the field was full of debris. I remember driving around town and from the back seat of the Buick Estate Wagon witnessing the complete wreckage… buildings moved off their stanchions, mud everywhere, and trash. For weeks we all worked to clean up neighborhoods that the water had destroyed.
Water is life, water and God go together, and water is death. So, I suppose God and death go together as well… and still, because of the person Jesus we have a little insight into the limitations of death, don’t we? We know it as resurrection.
For each person who walked into the Jordan river and into the relentless arms of John the Baptist, I imagine, there was a moment when they thought that water might lead to death. Back in the day, John grabbed those he was baptizing and thrust them under the water, holding them down. Maybe shaking them a bit. Pulling them out, gasping, only to thrust them back under again.
Within the Jewish tradition being washed, ritually, from one’s sins had a name. It was called a mikvah. There was a belief at the time, not only in Judaism, but in many religions, that sin could come upon a person from the outside. That if you encountered a dead body, or person menstruating, or ate the wrong food you were thrust out of relationship with God by a sin that you rubbed up against.
And so, what came upon you, what polluted you, needed to be washed away. A particular sect of Judaism, the Essenes, believed this thoroughly. They built whole communities around baths, so that people could be made ritually clean on a daily basis.
But the baptism of John was a little different from this. He believed that uncleanness wasn’t put upon an individual by something that they bumped up against, but by the state of their heart.
As Jesus later said in scripture: “Whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and out into the sewer. But what comes from the mouth proceeds from the heart and this defiles a person.” (Matt 15:18)
And so, as John took them by the shoulders and thrust them under the water it was as if he was shaking the sin out of them, drowning it, killing it, and letting it wash downstream into the Dead Sea… aptly named. Baptism was terrifying and invigorating all at the same time.
Water can be terrifying and invigorating all at the same time. My son and wife are in San Francisco right now where they are experiencing an atmospheric river. Torrents of rain falling from the sky. It is awesome to encounter and is unsettling. If you have ever been pinned down by a storm, trapped under a tree, or in a tent, or maybe even a car, unable to move because of the torrent of water cascading from the heavens, you know what I mean.
Water at once nurtures the earth and wreaks havoc at the same time. If you’ve ever seen a hill ripped away, sliding from its foundation and burying all that it encounters, you know what I mean. Water can provoke such awe. Niagara Falls, mountain peaks covered with snow, rushing rivers… terrifying and invigorating simultaneously.
We each have a story of water. We could each write a book about our relationship with water. It might include summers at the neighborhood swimming pool and the joy that provoked. It might include floating down a river with a fly rod in your hands. The water carries you forward while issuing forth from its depth the beating heart of a trout. Rivers have a way of creating stillness in the heart, provoking contemplation, and providing joy.
Maybe it is the ritual watering of things that you love; washing your dog, or your car. Water connects. I remember after having recently moved to Seattle, I was in front of our house washing my car. A neighbor approached, and in a friendly way, let me know that I shouldn’t hand wash my car because the debris from the car, the oil and tar and the like, would run into Lake Washington and pollute it.
Water connects. Baptism connects with a promise made by a community to nurture the new Christian in the faith and fellowship of Jesus. Water is an apt symbol for baptism because it gives and sustains life. We nurture things we love with water, like plants that we have put in the garden, or trees we have planted in the yard. Water nurtures.
The Bible begins with water at the very beginning. It is included in the opening sentence: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God’s swept over the face of the waters.” (Gen 1:1-3)
Water has always been and will always be. And we must have it. Water nurtures, water revives, water destroys, water provokes awe, water inspires joy, water draws us into contemplation. Water builds community. Water connects.
It is no surprise then, that water sits at the center of baptism. It is no surprise that it is poured over our heads as an outward and visible sign of our complete connectedness to and dependence upon God. Water and God go together.
Whenever you experience water think of God.