I have always lived near water; at least I have always talked about the places I have lived in relation to water. My life, it seems can be traced by waters. I was born in Holland, Michigan, near Lake Michigan, the sixth largest freshwater lake in the world. My family lived for a time in Hudson, New York, near the Hudson River, where we would take my dad’s little boat out for rides. My hometown of Pultneyville rests on the shores of Lake Ontario, stretching north as far as you can see. Even at Seminary in New Brunswick, New Jersey, I would cross back and forth over the Raritan River most days, and when I first moved to Philadelphia, I lived a stone’s throw from the Delaware Riverfront. Now, E and I find ourselves near another significant waterway: the Erie Canal.
Waters are important to me. First of all, I grew up fishing with my Dad and brother, modeling ourselves after the disciples, imperfect reflections of professional anglers, but always striving to perfect the art of the cast: ten, two, ten, two, cast, reel, repeat.
I think it is the moving, constant motion of water that indicates to me newness and change, freshness and action. Waters to me, are holy places.
Of course, the Bible is filled with holy waters. Our text from Mark this morning brings us to the shores of the Jordan River where Jesus has come to be baptized. The Jordan River, throughout scripture, is a holy place, playing a crucial role in the formation of Israel’s identity and within its history.
- It was at the crossing of the Jabbok, a tributary of the Jordan, that Israel first received its name after Jacob wrestles with God.
- It was the miraculous crossing of the Jordan under the leadership of Joshua that marked the entry of Israel into the Promised Land after their period of wilderness wandering.
- It was on the banks of the Jordan that Moses passed the baton of leadership to Joshua and where Elijah passed the prophetic mission to Elisha.
By opening his gospel on these shores, Mark is connecting us with our history rooted in the Old Testament, and the stage is set for a dramatic new period of ministry to commence; the dryness of the desert will be left behind for the opened heavens and the Spirit’s descent upon a blessed new land.
Reading this first chapter of Mark, we find a couple of striking things. First, Mark does not begin with a Nativity story. Rather, he jumps right into the action with the beginning of Christ’s ministry. I have always loved Mark the most of the gospels, and not because it is the shortest! By beginning with John the Baptizer, and Jesus’ baptism, Mark conveys a real sense of urgency; there is something happening here that cannot wait, it is happening now, and we have no time to waste on singing angels and cooing babies!
While this sudden beginning may leave us feeling disoriented, as if we have just come up from under water gasping for breath, he does orient us with a quotation, a person, and a location. We are rooted in a time and a place.
Which leads to a second striking idea: this beginning is very earthy and very gritty. The gospel is “grounded in the real, tactile, sensual, fleshy world. In these few verses are references to river water, clothing from camels, diet from bugs, and tying shoes, a bird analogy, and an interesting weather phenomenon.” Even in John’s gospel, which at first glance can appear quite mystical and vague at times, Jesus’ grabs us with very real images and ideas, like his allusion to thirst that we read from a few moments ago. Thirst is something we have all experienced. The dry lips, the parched throat, the desire for the refreshment of a cool glass of water.
Now, before we move on, perhaps we should remind ourselves of what exactly it is we believe about baptism. We in the Reformed traditions believe baptism to be a sign and seal of God’s covenant grace with us and our children. It is the visible word of God that we are cleansed by Christ’s blood, buried with him unto death, that we might rise with him and walk in newness of life.
We believe that baptism begins an individual’s journey of faith that continues in a church community, which is why baptism is always performed in the context of a congregation of God’s people. It is the mark of corporate as well as individual faith. It is God’s promise, by grace alone, to forgive our sins; to adopt us into the Body of Christ, the church; to send the Holy Spirit daily to renew and cleanse us; to resurrect us to eternal life.
The rootedness in place is essential to our theological understanding of baptism. When we baptize and are baptized, we do so in a specific context, in a specific place, with a specific people. It is not about something that we do, but about what is done to us and through us: we baptize in a congregational context because it is the congregation that commits itself to the spiritual nurture of the infant, the child, or the adult being baptized. The person being baptized needs to do nothing more than come forward or be brought forward.
Steve Thorngate, writing in the Christian Century, draws upon the liturgical theologian Gordon Lathrop, by noting that baptism is locative. He writes, “we are baptized in the water of a particular place, into the physical life of a particular community. The earth as universalized abstraction, the faith as otherworldly or purely cerebral- the water of baptism pushes hard against such tendencies. This place, here- this ground, this water- is holy” (emphasis mine).
However, something else happens in our text from Mark that complicates matters. In verse 10, we read that, “just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’” In this moment, the heavens are torn open! The clouds do not simply part with a pleasant ray of sunlight illuminating Christ, still dripping Jordan River off his beard. God tears open the heavens “because God cannot stand the separation any longer.”
Here we find that space between heaven and earth to be so thin it is barely recognizable. For a moment, we can see what the new kingdom will look like, fully in the presence of the Triune God. It is here that, for a moment, God, Christ, and Spirit, are all present together, as one; the Trinity expressed fully, here at the beginning of Christ’s ministry.
It is here also that we note the other half of the story. Yes, baptism is locative, rooted in earth and water, but it “is also liberative. We are baptized into the global body of Christ, into solidarity with the whole earth and its people. The closed and insular community, the impulse to contain God within four walls- baptism pushes against these tendencies… The earth and water here are intimately connected to earth and water elsewhere, and those places are holy, too.”
Perhaps this is part of why I am so drawn to living near water… it connects us to the world in a way that we are unable to ourselves. The water that runs past, over, and through my hand when I stand waist deep in the Nantahala River in North Carolina, may one day pass over and through the hand of another, half a world away. It is only God that makes that possible.
The water of the Sea of Galilee may one day be the same waters that run through the land at Standing Rock in North Dakota, where so many have gathered to protest the poisoning of water. When our waters are poisoned, so are we.
What do you remember about your own baptism? If you are like me and were baptized as an infant, then you likely remember nothing. If you were baptized later in life, there is a part of me that envies you a bit, because that is a very special moment to hold dear in your memory.
At the same time, all that matters is the water that was splashed or poured on you, or, in some cases, the water you were submerged in. “Too often, our churches create systems and structures that mediate God’s presence. In baptism, we insist on rituals and formalities to regulate God’s grace. We do that because we are under the illusion that we can control the means of God’s love, not for the sake of good order, but for the sake of our own power.”
What we must remember, is how Mark tells the story. And he is saying, “You better hold on for dear life, cause it’s about to get bumpy!” There is nothing tame or complacent or orderly about baptism at all! “There are no rules, no ecclesial documents, no constitutions or bylaws. Rather, we are plopped in the middle of the wilderness with Elijah and the heavens ripping apart before our very eyes.” If we practiced baptism the way Mark has it in mind, we would likely feel much less comfortable, much less in control.
We do not come to be baptized simply because it makes us clean or ready for entry into the heavenly kingdom. “It is not a ritual purity bath so much as a subversion of the very concept, a paradoxical initiation rite that turns us toward the world’s uncleanness.”
One of our family’s favorite movies is A River Runs Through It, about a Presbyterian minister and his sons and their love of fly-fishing. Fishing, and fly-fishing, in particular, is a calming and meditative experience. For me, the repetitive action of casting, the flow of the stream around my legs, the quietness of an early morning, all tie together into a familiarity with God.
Norman Maclean, who wrote the book of the same name, puts it perfectly: “As a Presbyterian, my father believed that man by nature was a damn mess. And that only by picking up God’s rhythms, were we able to regain power and beauty. To him, all good things, trout as well as eternal salvation come by Grace. And Grace comes by art. And art does not come easy.”
When we are baptized, we are saying, as individuals and as a community, yes! We will follow you!
Into a world that deeply thirsts for rivers of living water.
Into the slums of our cities…
Into the heart of the world’s hunger and pain…
To the place where the widow and the orphan cry out in desperation…
To the edge of the water (a lake, a river, yes, even a canal) where we will not stay dry, but instead, be drenched in the love of the Spirit. Amen.