Sermon: Living water, living people, living world
Texts: Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17
Speaker: Joel Miller
Chances are, if you had nativity sets in your home during Advent, they’re put away for the year. Each figure carefully wrapped in newspaper, or not-so-carefully tossed in a box, placed back in the basement, or attic, or wherever might be your storage area of choice or necessity. Our ceramic set managed to make it through another season without any further casualties to add to the broken right donkey ear and broken right angel wing from past years. Fortunately, our wood set looks as good as the day we got it.
If you still have a nativity or ten sitting out, don’t let me rush you. I would, actually, like to keep the nativity in mind for this one more Sunday.
A lot of time passes between the birth of Jesus and the baptism of Jesus, about 30 years, but not a lot of text in our Bibles. In Matthew the baptism occurs right after the story of the visit of the magi. We simply know very little, if anything certain, of what happened in between. Liturgically, Jesus’ baptism is observed every year on this early Sunday in January and is very much connected to the nativity we just celebrated. At his baptism, the adult Jesus is birthed through the waters of the Jordan River and proclaimed to be a Beloved child of God. Rather than star and cattle, sheep and perchance a hard-of-hearing donkey, other elements of creation serve as witness: wilderness, water, an opened sky, and dove. This too is a scene of birth, now by choice. This too is a scene of the divine and human and other-than-human worlds joined in harmony. This too is a scene of reverence.
And, perhaps surprisingly to us, it’s this question of reverence that must be addressed first in order to proceed with the baptism.
John, we are told, has been out in the Judean wilderness, baptizing people in the Jordan River. We aren’t told much of what baptism meant at the time. John does make clear it is an act of repentance, a word that can mean both to turn from doing harm, and to enter a new way of thinking. In Roman-occupied Palestine any efforts to organize people and promote an alternative way of viewing reality to the one the empire was pushing would have been noticed by the powers that be. John will eventually be martyred on the orders of Herod who had no interest in repenting of anything – be it turning from doing harm or entering a new way of thinking. Baptism, it seems, is a risky act. Deeply personal. Subversively political.
John had made quite a name for himself and scholars find it plausible and even likely that one of the things Jesus was up to toward the end of those unreported years was being a disciple of John out there in the Judean wilderness.
Which makes it a bit awkward for a Gospel writer telling a story about God’s Anointed One – to have him submit to the spiritual authority of another person, as Jesus will do at his baptism under the hand of John. And so each of the Gospel writers are sure to clear this up before the actual baptism, John either resisting or proclaiming Jesus’ superiority to himself. Matthew writes that John would have prevented the whole thing altogether, saying to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus wins the argument, insisting this is as it should be.
And so there, in the wilderness, surrounded by undomesticated wildness that can be risky in itself, they go down to the river, where Jesus goes under the hand of John, beneath the water. This is how Matthew tells it: “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens, the dome of the sky, opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’”
Nativity 2.0. Just a little more challenging to capture in ceramic or wood.
This scene, and this act of baptism, would carry forward with the Jesus-followers. An initiation rite, a new birth - each disciple placing themselves into the scene, surprisingly, in the place of Jesus. The one who passes through the waters under the hand of another. Each baptized person is a disciple that could soon become a teacher.
One of the early church documents that gives instruction for baptism is called the Didache, which simply means, the Teaching. It’s so early it was most likely written during the same generation as Matthew, toward the end of the 1st century, and contains some similar material that Matthew puts in the Sermon on the Mount, like blessing those who curse you, praying for enemies, and turning the other cheek. These teachings serve as a catechism that eventually lead to instructions about baptism. About baptism the Didache says this:
And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have not living water, baptize into other water; and if you can not in cold, in warm. But if you have not either, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whatever others can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.
First of all, “living water,” meant running water. As in, a stream or a river – water that was actively flowing. Living water.
Second of all, I love the flexibility. You should baptize in some flowing water, but if you can’t or it’s too cold outside or you’re not close to a river, that’s OK, use other water. And cold water is good. But warm works too. And if you don’t have a river or a pond or pool, just pour some water on their head. And, by the way, you should fast before you’re baptized. And so should the person doing the baptizing – and others, if they can. It could be for a day, it could be for two days if you’re up for it.
Think how many church splits over the centuries could have been avoided if all our official documents were like this: You could do it this way, or, this could work too.
But – Water. All those ways still include water. Warm or cold, flowing or still, dunked or poured. Water is an essential element for biological life - we can’t live without it. And water is an essential element in this personal/political act of turning from doing harm and entering a new way of thinking, a new birth, into the way of Jesus, the mind of Christ.
And Yes, I know, water is technically two elements, which makes it all the more glorious. The baptism nativity scene doesn’t include a star, but for those with eyes to see, baptism would be impossible without the stars forging hydrogen into the higher elements and giving us the raw materials that make water, that make up our bodies, binding the heavens and the earth together, all children of the same Creative unfolding. We can imagine that voice from the heavens proclaiming, “This is my beloved child, these are my beloved children, all this, with which I am well pleased.”
And this is where I’m going with this. I understand we’re not quite sure what to do with baptism these days. Once you leave behind the idea that baptism is necessary to save your sinful soul from eternal torment in a fiery hell – it makes sense there’s slightly less urgency to go through with it. That wasn’t part of the original purpose of baptism, but, you know, history, and religious power plays, and institutional self-preservation and all that.
Beyond all that, 500 years into the Anabaptist movement, there’s some general ambivalence around baptism. Most of us could probably say more about what we don’t want it to mean than what we would like for it to mean. Or maybe we just don’t think about it enough to have much of an opinion at all.
I’m not here to sell baptism, but it’s probably not surprising I continue to find it a compelling possibility for spiritual formation in the way of Jesus.
Here’s something to chew on, or swallow, or swim in, or whatever water analogy you want to go with: In an age of global ecological crisis; when our species is coming face to face with the limits of what we can take from this planet, our home; when water or lack thereof will decide the fate and migration patterns of millions, perhaps billions; when we are rethinking our relationship with the natural world, trying to find a balance, trying to turn from doing harm and change the way we think; we in the church have this water-based ritual that has everything to do with these very things.
Like Matthew tells it, we can’t even get to the waters until we properly orient ourselves as a disciple to the great teachings that lead to life. And once we’re there, once the living or pooled or poured water comes over us, the sky opens and the Spirit-bird alights on us, and we hear deep within us that we are beloved children of the Creator. And we ritually pass from childhood into adulthood. A rebirth. A second nativity. With all the blessings and responsibilities that come with being a mature human being, a member of a community, woven into the kinship of life that includes humanity, the wild and domesticated creatures, the waters and sky, the wilderness and the city.
And speaking of city, our city has some good things going for it when it comes to water.
Fairly recently a Central Ohio based coalition formed called Rapid 5. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s currently led by Amy Acton who served as the state health department director during the beginning of the pandemic. Rapid 5 is a vision for our area based on one of our greatest natural assets, five rivers – The Olentangy, Scioto, Big Darby, Big Walnut, and Alum Creek. The idea is to rethink development, transportation, education, parks, and community around these five rivers.
The goal is to create the largest interconnected park system in the US. The vision: “connects over 30 communities with 146 miles of waterways, provides access to 38,300 acres of parks, and links neighborhoods with 143 trail miles. When complete, every resident in the region will be within 1.5 miles of a park or greenway.
In short, we’ve got a lot of living water around here, and the sooner we become its disciples for how we design our collective life, the better for everyone.
The waters of baptism have the power to reorient even our public priorities.
Baptism begins with the deeply personal. The catechism of faith and the catechism of creation converge to call us to toward the waters, the basis of life. Water becomes the site of our pledge to turn from harm, our willingness to have our minds changed and changed again, our receptivity to claiming our place as a beloved child in a beloved world - which has nothing to do with achievement and everything to do with the grace of simply being here.
And so, as we float into this new liturgical year, as we begin 2023, we do so as kin with one another and kin with creation. We consider how we are part of this second nativity, the Beloved Community writ large. We seek out teachers. We submit to water. We relearn the Jesus way.