Baptismal Waters: Creation, Choices, Beloved
Speaker: Joel Miller
In the Genesis 1 creation story, there’s no need for God to create water. It’s there from the beginning. Along with the darkness. And the Ruach Elohim – the Wind from God or the Breath or Spirit of God, depending on the translation, hovering, like a mother bird, over those primordial waters.
There’s something about water – something so essential, so given – that makes it hard to imagine existence without it. Genesis 1, the opening words of scripture, doesn’t even try. In the beginning there was darkness, there was the Divine Breath, and there was water.
A creation story told by Native peoples of this continent, the Haudenosaunee, shares this sense. It’s the story of Skywoman, who descended on a beam of light, down to our world. At that time, the story goes, there was only darkness and water, and those who lived in the water like the beavers and swans and fish.
As she descended these beings held a council and determined she would need a patch of earth to land on. It was muskrat who dove down deep and retrieved a fist full of earth, even though it cost him his life. The other animals spread the earth on the back of turtle, and the swans flew up to guide Skywoman to a soft landing. With her presence now on the earth, surrounded by those waters, the turtle grew and grew until it became a large island, our present home, Turtle Island. (See Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, pp. 3-5, and HERE for two versions of this story which I conflated)
There’s something about water and creation stories. No water, nothing for the Wind of God to sweep over and stir into life. No water, no council of creatures to prepare a place for Skywoman and her many gifts. No water, none of this. No you, no me. We are children of water, every one of us.
It’s fitting then that the church has as one of its central markers of identity, a water ritual. The waters of baptism connect us all the way back through the long line of descendants of water, all the way back to the beginning. There is nothing here to earn, nothing to accomplish. Merely to receive and accept a gift already given. To acknowledge, with the community, one’s own miracle of existence, one’s own participation in the unfolding of creation.
A reading from Esther was Lily’s request. I am, however, vetoing her follow up request that I do an interpretative dance of the Veggie Tales version of the story. I have no idea what that would look like and I don’t want to find out.
Water doesn’t play much of a role in Esther, but the story does contain another element of how Mennonites practice baptism: Choice.
There are many parts of Esther’s life over which she has little to no choice. She is a third or fourth generation exile from her homeland of Judah, living under the rule of the powerful Persian empire. Her parents have died and she has been raised by her uncle Mordecai. And she’s been enlisted as one of many women in the king’s harem. In case we’re tempted to believe she was happy about winning this beauty contest we might revisit the text which uses phrases like “the king’s order, with the women “put in custody.”
But the story does hinge on one defining choice for Esther. Will she or won’t she use the power she has to risk her life to save her people from destruction?
It’s a rather high stakes, all or nothing, dramatic situation. Not quite the kind of choice we face in our every day situations. But hey, I didn’t choose this story, Lily did. She is a theater kid and enjoys some high drama.
From our origins in the 16th century, Mennonites has emphasized baptism as a choice for people who are of the age to choose for themselves. No orders or edicts from kings or priests or parents. And as a choice, baptism sets the stage for other choices. Big, high stakes choices, and, mostly, small every day choices. Most of which don’t have clear right or wrong options. But more like - the kind of person we choose to be. How we choose to relate with others. How this gift of breath and life we have gets expressed in our community, for the good of the community. A baptismal identity can inform all these choices by grounding us in a larger story, that we’re only beginning to understand, as big as creation itself.
It’s not exactly a creation story, but it’s not exactly not a creation story. There’s the water, without which there would be no story. There is the Spirit of God, birdlike, descending from heaven, like Skywoman alighting on her creation, preparing a space for other life to thrive. There is the voice, like in Genesis, that calls the world into being. “Beloved,” that voice calls out here.
The baptism of Jesus is a model for our own baptism. From these waters, Jesus sets out as The Beloved and encounters the people of his community as if each of them too are beloved. In baptism, we too claim this truth, Beloved child of God.
We are not beloved because we’re baptized. Baptism is a public celebration of what is already and always true. Baptism doesn’t recategorize us into now being loved, now belonging. It celebrates what is already and always true. We belong. We, children of water, are beloved children of the Creator, members of the Beloved Community.
In baptism, we come alongside Jesus in his work of loving the created world. We too are creators. We are partners with God. Our choices, freely made, can add to the richness of this world. We do this as part of the great communion of life - past, present, and to come. Beloved of God every one.