The Recklessness of Water
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4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
It is a classic question on the ordination exams. It is something my care team emphasized to me while I was preparing to become a minister. One of the distinctive marks of mainline, reformed Protestants – Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians — is that we baptize infants. We do adult baptisms too, but mostly we baptize babies. And the reason we do that, according to our Book of Order – is this: “The Baptism of children witnesses to the truth that God’s love claims people before they are able to respond in faith” (W-2.3008). In other words, the gift of grace we receive in our baptism is God’s gift to us, not one we choose for ourselves. And baptizing little bitty babies who cannot speak for themselves is an extremely persuasive and visible symbol that we believe God is in charge, not us. Just as circumcision of infant boys was the sign and symbol of inclusion in God’s grace and covenant with Israel, so too baptism of infants is a sign of inclusion in God’s grace and covenant with the Church.
When we were at Community Presbyterian the Sunday after Christmas, we witnessed the baptism of a baby named Mason. Everything about the service was beautiful – right down to Mason’s white satin suit with matching bow tie and booties. Most baptisms I’ve seen look a lot like Mason’s – cute babies who seem to cry on cue, parents looking anxiously on as they hand over their precious bundle to the minister, beaming family members sitting in the front pew. I remember very little about the baptism of my children, but I do remember the promises we made to nurture Rachel and David’s faith and help them grow into the baptismal vows we made on their behalf.
All of that is great. Both of my kids were baptized decently and in order. Baptisms are fun. Baptisms are joyful events in the life of any congregation. But baptism today bears little if any resemblance to the scene we have just heard described in the Gospel of Mark.
For one thing, there’s a whole lot more water involved when Jesus shows up at the Jordon River to be baptized by John. We’re talking about a big river in the middle of nowhere. No church sanctuary, no session meetings, no gentles sprinkles of water on the forehead. Mark’s description of Jesus’ baptism is stark and spare. All we’ve got is a wild flowing river and a wild-eyed John the Baptist, clothed in camel hair with bugs and honey stuck in his teeth. There’s no well-dressed group of congregation members on the scene, or even a cadre of Pharisees as there is in Matthew’s gospel. Instead, there’s just this teeming mass of motley people – unapproved, unexamined, uninstructed – waiting in line to be dunked under by John. And twithout introduction or explanation, Jesus comes out of nowhere and gets in line with everyone else.
In Mark’s gospel, this is our first glimpse of Jesus – there are no accounts of Jesus’ birth. No angels, no annunciation, no nothing. Nobody knows who Jesus was. Not even John, it seems. Jesus is just one of the folks waiting to be baptized, hanging out with all the sinners who knew, somehow, that getting down into that river with that crazy prophet, John, might just be their last, best chance to change their lives.
Jesus is dunked under by John, just like everyone else. But after Jesus comes up out of the water, we can see this is no ordinary baptism. Or maybe it is. Maybe what happens next happens all the time, and we have just never noticed it before.
Back on the first Sunday of Advent, Mark Shannon preached on Isaiah 64, which begins with: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence!” Today’s text doesn’t tell us if anyone else sees it, but Jesus sure does – the heavens being ripped apart – not just opened as in Matthew and Luke – but TORN open, split at the seams, with the Spirit of God descending upon Jesus not like a cooing dove, but like a crazy, dive-bombing bird. And then the thunderous voice of God: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And then, not ten minutes later, his hair still wet from his baptism, that same Spirit kicks God’s beloved Son into the wilderness to battle Satan. So much for comforting words. From the get go, being baptized seems to mean that life will take a very different course. For 30 something years, Jesus has been a child of Joseph and Mary, a carpenter, living an ordinary life in Nazareth. But that’s all changed now. Jesus knows who he is and there’s no turning back.
All of this seems to suggest that baptism was never meant to prepare us for a quiet, Christian life, but for a rather wild ride. Perhaps, as the great writer, Annie Dillard, once suggested, in our baptism “…we should all wear crash helmets and life preservers. Perhaps we should issue warnings with our baptismal certificates – ‘This is a passport to places you never thought you would go, to be an emissary of the living God in the desert and the wilderness, to plant seeds of hope and healing and life.’” Maybe that is reason enough to baptize babies instead of those of us with graying hair and creaking joints, who are not at all in the mood for adventure. Or maybe it’s reason enough to rethink whether we’re doing our babies any favors by giving them that particular bath.
Even if the mechanics of make us a little queasy, you must admit that God does some of God’s best work if not completely underwater, then in the middle of watery chaos. We heard that in the text from Genesis read earlier. The earth begins in chaos with dark deep swirling water, and the Spirit of God brooding and hovering over it and suddenly there is a thunderous voice saying, “Let there be light!”
You see it again when God gets so disgusted with everything that God decides to drown the whole creation operation, but preserves life on the planet because God just can’t help being who God is – a God of mercy and love. Even when human beings completely do not deserve the benefit of the doubt.
Later, the Israelites stand at the edge of a swirling Red Sea, scared to death that they will either be destroyed by Pharaoh’s army or drowned in the water. And we hear it again, God’s voice telling Moses to lift up his rod and lead the people through the parting of the waters.
Such watery terror seems far removed from our cautious sprinkling of water on a baby’s forehead, or even full immersion in a sanitized swimming pool. But people who have had their homes flooded by a creek rising in a heart beat, or farmers who have seen their crops dry up and blow away from lack of rain, or sailors who have been caught in a raging storm– all of them know that water is a powerful thing. It is life and it is death.
So we baptize our children and we baptize adults, but somewhere along the line we’ve lost the power of our own baptism. Perhaps we need to consider the recklessness of that baptismal scene in Mark. Perhaps we need to reclaim our baptism and let it remind us of who we are, to whom we belong, and the power that resides in us.
I read an article this week in which the writer said it’s far too easy to join a church these days. He said, in fact, that it’s harder to get a Costco membership than it is to become a baptized Christian. He said he wished that baptism was understood to be a much bigger deal. He wondered what would happen if the only way to join a church was by skydiving? He writes: “What are the reality of sin and redemption and the dangerous thrill of falling and the great vista of salvation and the recognition that our lives are not really in our own hands, if they aren’t like skydiving? Imagine what it would mean to go through that experience, with its terrors and its rushes and its ultimate relief – and then show up at church on Sunday to be greeted by a room full of people who had been through all of that too?”
Skydiving does seem to have much more in common to what Jesus experiences on the Jordon than we experience in our baptisms in the modern church. I’m not suggesting we all take up skydiving. What I’m suggesting is that we see our baptisms as a radical act of radical faith in a God who has radically broken into the world. I am suggesting we see our baptisms not as the day when we settled into a settled life of faith, but as a moment when we took a leap into thin air and into the hands of God. I am suggesting we live as though believe the promise that we are still being held.
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The tears in heaven are reflected by the tears in the lives of God’s beloved children. Not just little tears, but big giant gaping holes with ragged edges. All over the world. Once scarcely knows where to begin or how to respond to the Spirit’s urgent nudging into the wilderness. But respond we must. Somehow. But it’s hard. Hard in South Sudan. Hard in Paris. Hard in Ferguson and New York. Hard in Emsworth.
But this is the life we were promised when water was poured recklessly over our heads when we were babies, or even more recently. What were our parents thinking? What were we thinking? This is the life we get for being grafted into the body of Christ. This is what we get for becoming a member of the family of God. This is what we get for being sealed by the Holy Spirit. This is what we get for receiving the gift of sheer grace that we never asked for, but was given to us anyway and now we’ve got to spend our lives responding to God’s grace.
Lots of people doubt that the Western church has it in us anymore to reflect the reckless spirit of John and Jesus and that crowd of sinners at the River Jordon. I’m not sure we have the energy to be skydivers for Jesus. And I think if you pushed most ministers, they would admit it, too. They are tired. Their congregations are tired. It’s as if we’re pushing a very big boulder up a very big hill, and we’re all getting older, and there aren’t as many of us as there used to be and, gee – is it my imagination, or is that boulder getting bigger?
One of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner, writes: “Maybe the best thing that could happen to the church would be some great tidal wave of history to wash it all away – the church buildings tumbling, the church money all lost, the church bulletins blowing through the wind like dead leaves, the differences between preachers and congregations all lost too. Then all we would have left would be each other and Christ, which was all there was in the first place.”
The other night, I was sitting with the folks with whom I will be journeying to South Sudan. And one of them, a young woman I do not know well, asked, “Will each one of you tell me why you’re going on this trip?”
Two months ago, I would answered her question this way – I’m going for my congregation. Perhaps my journey to Africa will kick start a new commitment to engage directly in the mission partnership between the presbytery and the Malawi/South Sudan churches. And, frankly, it seems like a once in a lifetime opportunity to go to a part of Africa hardly anyone goes to.
But in the last two months, I have realized that I am being called to this trip so I can learn something I need to learn and something Christians in developing countries seem to know that we in the established, mainline church have forgotten. I need to learn again to love Jesus like my life depends upon it. Because right now, my life depends on many other things that, as far as I can tell, have pretty much nothing to do with Jesus. Right now this congregation depends upon many, many things that, as far as I can tell, have nothing to do with Jesus. I don’t have a thing to offer our brothers and sisters in South Sudan. Not one useful skill. I’m not a doctor or a nurse. I don’t know how to dig a well. All I have are ears to listen, a heart to pray, and a voice to encourage. That’s it. Pretty small potatoes.
A friend of mine who actually is a doctor just returned from another part of East Africa a few months ago. When I asked him what he learned there, he said he came back less fearful and more loving. And that seems to me to be what we in the church need more than anything. More love. Less fear. And, I might add, we need to depend upon the reckless water of our baptism that still clings to us as we venture out to places we are afraid to go and people we are hesitant to love – even if that place is not 7,000 miles away like Africa, but even 7 miles away. Or seven blocks.
I have performed two baptisms. Just two. Both in hospitals. Both with dying babies. The first time was when I was a student chaplain at Children’s Hospital. My supervisor and I were with a family who’s new born baby was in crisis in the NICU, when we received a page about another family whose baby was about to be taken off life support and the parents decided they wanted to have their child baptized right now. My supervisor took me out into the hallway and said, “Susan, go up and baptize that baby.”
My mind was spinning. I wasn’t ordained yet. I didn’t know the baptismal liturgy. I didn’t know if I had to use a special holy water or if tap water would do. What would the presbytery say if I baptized someone without a license? Why couldn’t my supervisor do the baptism? It all seemed very reckless to me.
I must have been babbling badly because supervisor held my face in her hands, stared deeply into my eyes and said, “Susan, I want you to go up there and I want you to baptize that baby and I want you to do it in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Now GO!!”
I went. I went up and prayed over the sick baby, baptized her in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Reckless. Reckless. Reckless. The heavens were torn open and I could hear a voice saying, “You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.”
Although I am as frightened as anyone to dive into that crazy river, I know that it is where God leads you and me and all of us. Because we bear God’s name. You are God’s son. You are God’s daughter. With you God is well pleased.
Now, let’s dry off and get to work.
Thanks be to God. Amen.