Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
All week long I’ve had water music running through my head. No, I don’t mean Handel, nothing as elevated or classical as that. I’m thinking Jazzy Blues. The song that has run through my head every time I think of baptism is Eva Cassidy’s version of an old spiritual “Wade in the Water.” This is what I’ve been tapping my foot to all week. (Play cut #2 from Songbird.)
“Wade in the Water” is a lively reminder that water is a religious symbol that has deep roots in both Jewish and Christian scriptures. Both religions have stories to tell about great moments with God that involved water: the spirit of God moving over the waters of creation, Noah navigating the waters of the great flood in the boat everyone thought ridiculous, Moses leading the people of Israel safely across the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army in hot pursuit, Moses striking the rock to bring forth water, Naaman, the leper, bathing himself in the Jordan seven times at the command of the prophet Elisha, God telling Gideon to choose his troops according to how they drank water from the river.
And in the Newer Testament: Jesus being baptized by John in the river Jordan, the man waiting beside the pool at Bethsada for the angel to trouble the waters so that he might be healed, Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well and promising her “living water,” Jesus walking across the storm raged waters, Jesus dipping his hands into the basin to wash his disciples feet on their last night together, the water that poured out of Jesus’ pierced side as he died on the cross.
Our religious associations with water are many, for water plays a consistent supporting role in our sacred dramas. The water music that plays in my head sings the stories of God.
Today, we will celebrate the ordinance of Baptism as John Trevor is baptized. Christian Baptism is an old story, repeated over and over throughout the generations. A story of those who follow Christ in baptism, of casting their lot with Jesus as guide and savior, an ancient story that becomes totally new today with John’s choosing.
For Christians, baptism by immersion can mean many things: it can represent dying to the old life or self and being born anew; it can be the way that we become a part of a community of faith. Baptism can be a public profession of something that is already true internally. We baptize because Jesus asked us to baptize the world in God’s love. We baptize because Jesus himself was baptized in an act letting go of the old a welcoming of the new.
Perhaps you have not yet been baptized, but you think about it, and wonder if it is for you. If you have been baptized, do you remember your baptism? Maybe you were an infant, and know only what was told you about the event. Or perhaps you were baptized as a teenager, and remember only the shock of cold water and the sputtering for air. Whether you remember it or not, your baptism is the prototype of many turnings in your life: a turning from the old toward the new; a clean slate.
Was Jesus also thinking of a clean slate, a new beginning, as he waited for his cousin John to baptize him? Was Jesus imagining what it would be like to put the old ways behind him? Did he think with sadness of all the years he spent at his father’s side, learning to smooth the wood just so, bringing out the innate pattern in the wood as he worked with it? Was Jesus aware that putting aside the old ways meant that no longer would he have those late night conversations with his mother at the kitchen table, where they reviewed the little events of the day and she always asked him “Where did you meet God today?”
Putting aside the old ways can be an enormous relief for some, and a painful loss for others, or some combination of the two. Baptism means different things to different people. It’s hard to guess what baptism meant for Jesus as he walked into the river to be baptized by his own cousin.
Perhaps baptism for Jesus was a bittersweet combination of letting go and moving into something new. For this is the truth of what it means to be human: that even when change is welcomed, it demands some grieving in the letting go. As Jesus walked into the Jordan River, he too experienced loss and newness.
We have all come to stand in the river with Jesus again today, to renew our baptismal vows. Can you see Jesus; he is standing just in front of you, up to his waist in water, waiting for his turn. He joins all of humanity in those waters. Jesus trails his fingers in the water, skimming them back and forth like a dragonfly. He turns his head, and looks off beyond the tree-thickened shoreline to some distant future that he tries to comprehend.
You, too, are straining to see a future that is not yet visible. You strain to detect the shape and feel of your future. But all you see are shapes and vague images, and all you hear are the far away voices you hear in your dreams. Baptism is a letting go. Our endings are also our beginnings. That much we know. But forget not this other truth: that Jesus stands just before you in the river of life. He joins you in the current of uncertainty. You both stand together at the end and the beginning, always.
Notice how Jesus grips the arm of his cousin John, how he gulps for air as he is plunged beneath the waters which will wash away the old, water that will hide his tears. And see how the light sparkles all around him, as he emerges, shining, shining; turning toward something new. And the sky splits open and the voice speaks both to Jesus and to us, for we are all together in that river of change and transformation. And we hear the celestial water music, singing to each one of us: “you are God’s child, chosen and marked by God’s love.” Amen.