Harrowing Of Hell
March 26, 2016

The Great Easter Vigil: Baptism with Water

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

It has become my habit now that we have the baptismal font here at the center of the church to dip my hand in as I walk by, making the sign of the cross. These two powerful symbols, water and the Trinity, intersect tonight in the service of Holy Baptism. One represents a profound mystery in the ordinariness of life. The other represents the profound mystery of eternal life. Both are about relationship.

Tonight we will explore the mystery of water, as a way of pointing us to the greater mystery that is God. Matias and Noella will be baptized this evening. Water will be poured in the font by Kate, as I say: “We thank you God for the gift of water.” Then, three times, water will be poured over their heads: I baptize you in the name of the Father (water), and of the Son (water), and of the Holy Spirit (water).

In this service water points us to the more mysterious relationship that exists between humanity and God. It begins in the beginning: “When God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the deep, while the wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” That is the opening sentence of the Bible.

Water was the face of chaos: formless, dark, and deep. It was there before the beginning, and upon it, as the prophet Isaiah tells us, “The foundations of the heavens and the earth were laid” (Isa 51:13). They were laid upon water.

Water points to the mysterious relationship that exists between humanity and God. Water is what stood between the Israelites and freedom. “When God saw, God said: ‘Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. Lift up your staff, stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it.’ Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back as the waters divided; and the Israelites went to freedom on dry ground, with water forming a wall on their right and on their left.” Water was their barrier, and then their passage.

Water is complicated. It is critical to life, and it can bring death.

I remember swimming lessons at the YMCA, diving to the bottom of the pool to retrieve one of those rectangular, black, heavy, rubber bricks. Sometimes I’d hold it, so I could settle to the bottom, my knees bent like springs. Then I’d drop that brick, and push up, arms outstretched like an arrow, shooting to the top, lungs burning, ascending up up up, piercing the surface, gulping the air, breathing new life, as the water splashed away. The Great Vigil of Easter is a bit like that: moving from the bottom of the pool up up up, breaking the surface, and breathing new life. That is what tonight is all about,
and it begins in the water.

Water represents the mysterious relationship between humanity and God. Jesus stepped into that mystery as he stepped into the River Jordan to be baptized. I am sure he drank from that river, probably many, many times. It was cleaner back then.

We need water, don’t we? Sixty-five percent of our bodies is water. We are made of it. We need it to live. Without it we die in three days. Three days with no water, we are in the grave. Most people consider that the end. We know it is just a part of the journey, when we are moving up up up.

The amount of water in our world is fixed. It stays in the system; raining, pooling, evaporating, collecting as clouds, and raining again. The water we drink is the same water the dinasours drank. It is the water that left the bodies of our ancestors when they died, and returned to the sky, and rained down, and went up, and came down, and runs through the pipes in our houses, into our kitchen sinks, so we can cook pasta. Water is so ordinary.

We know quite a bit about water. It is two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. We know the atomic weight of each. We know the temperature at which both exist as solid, liquid, or gas. We also know hydrogen is highly combusible and oxygen supports flammability. We know both are dangerous.

Yet, for all we know about hydrogen and oxygen, water remains a mystery. That water should appear as H2O is incomprehensible. There is nothing, given our knowledge of hydrogen and oxygen, that would enable us to predict that bringing them together would produce water. They should produce a bomb, but instead they become the foundation of life.

There is something about this relationship that confounds the mind. Contrary to their natures, hydrogen and oxygen transcends the simple addition of H + H + O. What should be utterly destructive is profoundly essential. Water is transcendant. The mystery is in the relationship.

he curious thing about H2O is that the parts, H and O, do not surrender their unique identities when they are in relationship as water. When dissolving H2O through chemical electrolysis, hydrogen and oxygen return to themselves; volatile and dangerous. And yet, when brought together again they once again transcend themselves to be water.

Scientists believe water came to earth on meteorites and comets. That is their best explanation, even still, those who think this is moderately plausible don’t agree on the specifics. It is just their best guess, and I suppose if we had to make a guess, this is as good as any.

Luckily we don’t have to know the mysterious origins of water. It is enough to know that it points to the more magnificent, beautiful, mysterious relationship between humanity and God. Water fits the principles of our transcendence.

Which is why water is the central symbol in baptism. We transcend ourselves in baptism as we acknowledge our mysterious relationship with God. And that is what we promise to teach Matias and Noella tonight; about their mysterious relationship with God.

We don’t choose water, though we need water. Even if we ignore water, it is 65 percent of who we are. Even if we discount its value, we’ll drink it at least once every three days. Water keeps us from death. Without it we are thirsty.

We also don’t choose God; God chooses us. Jesus came to stand in the river and to drink from it, but also came to be the river, gushing up from beneath the foundations of creation, a great spring that renews us in our eternal life.

Jesus came from God so we could go up up up from darkness to light, from chaos to order, from bondage to freedom, from death to life. It is this mysterious relationship that we sit in and celebrate tonight. And it begins with water. Water is essential. It is essential for point to God; who is more essential.

I have sat at the bedside of more than one dying person—Barbara Himmelman, most recently, and she asked for water. This is common. Often I use a small sponge attached to a stick provided by the hospital. I dip it in the water, and rub it on the gums and lips of the person who is dying. They are always thirsty. Death has dominion over water. God has dominion over death. God gives us living water.

The water in the font is water, H2O. If we drink it we’ll need more in three days. The water in the font is also living water. Jesus tells us the difference: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up up up to eternal life.”

That water in the Baptismal font is also living water, an outward and visible sign of our mysterious relationship with God. Tonight let that living water quench your thirst.