I have always had an affinity for water. I am not sure why, but something about water connects to something deep in my soul. Whether listening to water bubble over rocks in a river, hearing the roar of a waterfall, listening to a lake lap on the shore, or hearing the crashing of waves on the beach, something about the sound of water quiets my mind and connects with some deeper part of me. Some of my most intimate conversations with God have taken place near water – times when I was facing a big transition, times when I was worried about a major life event, or times when I had run out of things to say and just needed a place to just listen. Whether a quiet drip or trickle or a roaring rush, somehow the noise of water connects me to the mysterious and transcendent voice of God.
To be honest, I have always thought my connection to the water was a little strange. But this week, as I studied our lessons, my connection suddenly made sense. Water has always been a part of our faith narrative. When we celebrate a baptism, we always retell the biblical story of water. One denomination retells the biblical story this way, “Eternal Father, when nothing existed but chaos, you swept across the dark waters and brought forth light. In the days of Noah you saved those on the ark through water. After the flood, you set in the clouds a rainbow. When you saw your people as slaves in Egypt you led them to freedom through the sea. Their children you brought through the Jordan to the land which you promised. In the fullness of time you sent Jesus, nurtured in the water of a womb.”[i] Of course we know there are countless other water stories in scripture: Jonah who is thrown into the sea and swallowed by a great fish, Jesus who calms the seas and walks on water, women encountering God as they draw water in wells, and eunuchs running to rivers to be baptized. Water is everywhere in our biblical narrative, and is where many people see, hear, taste, and feel God in their lives.
Today, we hear one of those ultimate stories of water – in fact, today is a feast day in the Episcopal Church: Jesus’ baptism in the waters of the river Jordan. When Jesus comes to be baptized, baptism in the river Jordan has already been transformative for many. People from all over the Judean countryside have been coming to John to confess their sins, repent, and be baptized into forgiveness. As if those experiences of conversion were not enough, something even more extraordinary happens in that water. Jesus comes from Nazareth to be baptized by John, and when he comes up out of the water, the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descends upon him like a dove. Then a voice comes from heaven, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Just like all those other stories of water in the biblical story, something sacred and transformative happens in water – something so powerful that the heavens are torn apart, the Spirit descends, and the Lord proclaims favor, love, and affection.
Many of us do not remember our own baptism in water. Though adults and young people are certainly welcome to be baptized later in life, most of us are baptized as infants. Unless our parents or godparents told us the story of our baptism, we have no idea if we cried or cooed that day. We have no idea what emotions or thoughts the priest or our sponsors had that day. We have no idea whether we were inherently changed by the water that was poured over our heads. For most of us, the holy experience of water at our own baptism is a lost memory. But the Church does not let us forget the power of baptismal waters. Every year we celebrate the feast of Jesus’ baptism. Every year, we reaffirm our baptismal covenant – often multiple times per year. And depending on the membership of the church, every year we baptize new members into the life of the church. So even if we do not remember our own baptism, the repetition of the story of baptism, and the experience of reaffirming our vows, creates new memories for us. That formation is so powerful that many of us will dip our fingers in Holy Water, looking for a blessing and a reminder of another water that was once poured over our heads.
But today is not a day just to celebrate sacred experiences with water. Today is not just a day when we think back to our own encounters at the font and how holy they were. Today is not just a day we think back to those biblical stories of water in our faith and marvel at the miracles that have happened through water. Today is not just a day that we remember those moments by a river, lake, or beach where God seemed to be whispering comfort, truth, or blessing to us. The danger with the text we hear from Mark today is that we could be tempted to do just that. Our lesson ends with those words from the voice of heaven that says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” We could sit here today and savor those words for Jesus. In fact, I could tell you today that those words are words for you – that you are God’s beloved and with you God is well pleased. I could do those things because they are true. You are God’s beloved and God is well pleased with you. The baptismal waters should always remind you of that – and others waters, like rivers, waterfalls, and oceans, may do the same.
But today we do not simply celebrate the gift of blessing, beloved-ness, and bounty. Today is the day when we celebrate the “so what?” of Jesus’ baptism. As one scholar explains, “Jesus did not receive the Spirit in order to enjoy privately its spiritual benefits, but rather in order to pass it on.”[ii] In Mark’s gospel, in the immediate next verse, Jesus is driven out into the wilderness to be tempted. His baptism opens a road that will lead to the cross. For Jesus, his entire ministry is informed by this moment – this tremendous in-breaking of the Spirit and a declaration of Jesus as being the beloved of God. But Jesus does not tarry in this moment. Jesus keeps on moving, holding fast to the moment, but using the moment to change his future.
That is our invitation today too: to think about the “so what?” of our own baptisms. When I think about all of those sacred moments I have had near water, a distinct part of that memory is what walking away from those moments felt like. Sometimes I walked away from that bubbling brook with a sense of peace that God would be with me in the trials that were ahead. Sometimes I turned from that lapping lake with a sense of empowerment and energy about what new thing God was calling me to do. And sometimes I walked away from that roaring ocean having no idea what was to come, but knowing that God would help me face whatever came.
Our invitation today is to consider the “so what?” of our own sacred watery moments. You can come to Jesus’ story today like you would come to a body of water for renewal and refreshment. You can soak in the blessing and affirmation that come to Jesus and to you. But you will also need to walk out of those doors today. In fact, our liturgy does not let you leave this place without a dismissal that sends you out in the world to do the work that God has given you to do. The question this week is what that work is. What is God renewing you for? What is God empowering you to do? The answers will be different for each of us. But the answer is there, if you are willing to listen to the sacred sound of water. Amen.
[i] Barbara Sholis, “A watery solution,” Christian Century, vol. 119, no. 26, December 18-31, 2002, 19.
[ii] Lee Barrett, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 240.