Scripture: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22; Sacred Signposts: Water
In my first pastoral call, I served two small churches in Vermont, both in the town of East Montpelier. They were the only two churches in that town, and both churches were affiliated with four different denominations: Baptist, Methodist, Unitarian-Universalist, and the UCC. Covering all the bases, you might say.
If you grew up Baptist, you know that Baptists practice what’s called believer’s baptism, and all are done by full immersion. The person is dunked entirely under the water, and only once they have reached an age when they can properly make their own decision about the sacrament.
So, because we didn’t have a baptism tank in either Vermont church, when a Baptist family desired a baptism, we would wait for summer, and then baptize the person in a local pond. We would have our Sunday morning worship service at the home of someone with a summer camp on a body of water, and I would baptize anyone wanting to be baptized by walking them into the pond and dunking them under the water. I found it compelling and memorable.
If you stop and think about it, though, it may seem kind of odd to use water to initiate a person into a community. It doesn’t matter whether it’s dunking or pouring or cupping the water. Why use water at all? Why not just shake hands with the person and say “Welcome. We’re so glad you’re here.” Baptism is a rite of welcome and initiation. If you came to my house, and I tried to welcome you by pouring water on your head or dunking you in our tub, you’d run away as fast as you could. So why do this strange ritual in church?
Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell a story about Jesus being baptized, each with its own distinctive characteristics. In Luke’s version, there’s no mention of the Jordan River, and it never even says that John the Baptist performs the baptism. John, in fact, has been imprisoned by the time of Jesus’ baptism. And strikingly, the baptism itself isn’t described. The story treats it parenthetically, as a prelude to what it considers most important, and just says, “when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying” (3:21), meaning it had already happened. In grammar class, that’s called a “subordinate clause,” meaning that what it describes is subordinate to the real action—which, in this case, is not the baptism itself, but the praying and the coming of the Holy Spirit. So for Luke, no Jordan River, no John the Baptist, no description of the baptism itself.
What Luke’s story does say is that “all the people” were baptized and that Jesus was among them. Jesus was one of many, all undergoing this distinctive ritual. All of which goes to say that, when Jesus is baptized, he is at one with all the people. There’s a distinctly communal cast to this baptism of his. It connects him to the crowds. It joins him to us: Jesus; all the people—they go together. We go together. We are one.
Odd ritual? Maybe. But when the same water that washes over Jesus washes also over us, it snaps us to attention. What is more common, after all, more crucial, than water? Seventy-one percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water. Over sixty percent of human body weight is water. And as somebody just said to me, a watermelon is ninety-two percent water. Water is needed and utilized by every living thing.
So when Jesus and we are baptized, we are figuratively immersed in the same life-giving water. We all join in this common humanity that we share. And no matter what trials and struggles and joys we are going through, what we join in, at its core, is the embrace of the God who never lets us go. That water joins us to each other. It joins us to God. And it conveys that, no matter how we may feel, we are adored.
Seminary professor Stephanie Paulsell tells the story of a woman she knows. As a teenager, this woman “was plagued by outbreaks of acne. One day, when she felt unable to leave the house because of anguish over her face, her father led her to the bathroom and asked if he could teach her a new way to wash. He leaned over the sink and splashed water over his face, telling her, ‘On the first splash, say, “In the name of the Father”; on the second, “in the name of the Son”; and on the third, “in the name of the Holy Spirit.” Then look up into the mirror and remember that you are a child of God, full of grace and beauty’” (Practicing Our Faith, ed. Dorothy C. Bass, p. 19). Splashing water on her face is a reminder of her baptism, and of the God who treasures her just as she is.
“All” is a crucial word in this story: “all the people” were baptized. Meaning everyone. Meaning even the people from whom we recoil. The odd and sometimes discomfiting thing about God’s grace is that it isn’t just for you and me and people who are similar us. It isn’t just for people we like and admire. It’s for everyone—the people who scare us, the people who make us uncomfortable, the people who are so different from us that they seem as though they’re from another planet. In God’s world, grace is for everyone.
Lutheran minister Peter Marty recounted a story recently that I want to tell you. It’s a story about a football game. I’m guessing there are a few people here who don’t give a hoot about football. Well, I’m going to say gently to you: this is a game we’d all do well to pay attention to. Several years ago, the Gainesville State Tornadoes played a team from Grapevine Faith in a Texas high school game. The game was at Grapevine because all of Gainesville’s games are away games. That’s because Gainesville is a maximum-security correctional facility 75 miles north of Dallas. The team had only 14 players, and all of its players were prisoners. So when Gainesville played, they were always on someone else’s turf, and there was never anyone there to cheer for them, except for maybe a handful of their faculty.
On this particular night, though, the Grapevine coach, Kris Hogan, tried something unique. His own team had “70 players, 11 coaches, the latest equipment and involved parents.” And he knew that “Gainesville [had] a lot of kids with convictions for drugs, assault and robbery—many of whose families had disowned them—wearing seven-year-old shoulder pads and ancient helmets.
“So Hogan had this idea. What if half our fans—for one night only—cheered for the other team? He sent out an email asking the Faithful to do just that. ‘Here’s the message I want you to send,’ Hogan wrote. ‘You are just as valuable as any other person on planet Earth.’
When some of his own players were naturally confused and asked why they were doing this, “Hogan said, ‘Imagine if you didn’t have a home life. Imagine if everyone had pretty much given up on you. Now imagine what it would mean for hundreds of people to suddenly believe in you.’”
So when it came time for the game, hundreds of Grapevine’s fans went to the visitors’ side of the field, along with half the cheerleading squad. And they cheered raucously for the Gainesville team. “‘I thought they were confused,’ said one of the Gainesville linemen. ‘They started yelling “DEE-fense!” when their team had the ball. I said, “What? Why they cheerin’ for us?”’ The fans on their side of the field cheered for the Gainesville players by name, something these players had never heard before.
Grapevine Faith still crushed Gainesville, and Gainesville ended the season 0-9. But “after the game, both teams gathered in the middle of the field to pray and that’s when Isaiah [one of the Gainesville players] surprised everybody by asking to lead. ‘We had no idea what the kid was going to say,’ remembers Coach Hogan. But Isaiah said this: ‘Lord, I don’t know how this happened, so I don’t know how to say thank you, but I never would have known there was so many people in the world that cared about us.’
Later, “as the Tornadoes walked back to their bus under guard, they were each handed a bag for the ride home—a burger, some fries, a soda, some candy, a Bible and an encouraging letter from a Faith player.
“The Gainesville coach [Mark Williams] saw [opposing Coach Hogan], grabbed him hard by the shoulders and said, ‘You’ll never know what your people did for these kids tonight. You’ll never, ever know’” (http://www.espn.com/espn/rickreilly/news/story?id=3789373).
After Jesus has been baptized—and if you’ve heard me say this once, you’ve heard me say it 100 times—“the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Child, the beloved; in you I have taken delight’” (3:21-22; NRSV adapted, and Joseph Fitzmyer in The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, p. 479).
Isaiah the prophet reminds us in our first reading this morning that God says to us, “I have called you by name, you are mine” (43:1). Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism declares that God has taken delight in Jesus, and in each and all of us. There is nothing quite like being called by name. And there is something remarkable and life-giving when someone takes delight in us—especially when God takes delight in us.
This is who baptized people are. And it’s what baptized people are about. We call each other by name. And we take delight, not only in each other, but in everyone we meet. If we are immersed in our faith, if we are shaped by its core, affirmation and blessing are what we do.
A story in this morning’s Plain Dealer brings this home. In considering how prisons might be improved, it explores a “model founded on the premise that inmates are people,” and suggests that one important facet of effective prisons is what’s called “direct supervision.” With direct supervision, officers mingle much more with inmates, treat them with authority but also respect, and call them by name. Just that respect and calling inmates by name changes the tone and reduces bad behavior (http://plaindealer.oh.newsmemory.com/publink.php?shareid=6508c45f5). Blessing and affirmation make a difference.
There may be no place where this affirmation and blessing are more crucial than between parents and children. Whether you’re a parent or a child or both, have you said to the other one—a parent or a child—how special they are, how much they mean to you, what a difference they have made in your life? Have you told them recently, not just casually and flippantly but with real intention, that you love them? In Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Version of today’s story, the voice from the heavens says, “You are my dear [Child]; I’m proud of you” (p. 23). What could be better for a parent or child to hear than that: you’re dear to me; you matter to me; I’m proud of you. This is what the waters of baptism convey.
In the lobby behind you, as well as here in this baptismal font, there is water. In each bowl is also water from the Jordan River. As you leave the sanctuary today, immerse yourself figuratively in that water. Take some with your fingers. Touch your forehead with it, maybe making the sign of the cross. Remember that, with that water, God calls you by name, that God delights in you, that God is proud of you. Take in the feeling of what that’s like and make it a point, today and in days to come, to extend the richness of that blessing to those in your family and to everyone you meet. It will make all the difference. And salvation will have come to this place.