I don’t remember being baptized. I know that I was a few months old and that a Methodist minister in a black robe dipped his fingers in a silver bowl and sprinkled a few drops of water on my fuzzy blonde head.
It’s unfortunate that baptism has evoked such debate and division among Christians. What is the right age for baptism? How is it properly administered? There’s a lot of disagreement. In the first church I served was a woman who had been struck with polio as a child. She came to church in a wheelchair, the same church her father had served as pastor many years before. Her husband suffered a stroke and walked with difficulty. They were amazing examples of faithful Christians and all-around wonderful people. Their adult son came to visit me from out of state one day. He was deeply concerned by the fact that his parent were destined for hell because they had been sprinkled instead of immersed. His chosen brand of faith led him to believe it was so, and his mission was to convert me so that I could in turn rescue his parents from a terrible fate.
Jesus appears to have been immersed during his baptism in the Jordan. At least that’s implied when Matthew says that Jesus came up from the water. Some Christians make a big deal of that. Others don’t care, as long as some amount of water is involved. Personally, I cannot believe that God is that fussy. In fact, at times I struggle with how essential baptism is in the first place. In the United Church of Christ, like most Protestant denomination, baptism is one of two sacraments. The other is Communion. Both have a central place in our worship and are understood as means or channels of spiritual grace. We offer and practice both sacraments, but never do we say that refraining from either will keep someone from receiving God’s blessing in other ways.
On a very practical level, we are different from most churches, even within the UCC, in that we have not required persons to be baptized in order to join our local congregation. Membership in our church is a commitment to this community, not to a detailed system of belief. For that reason, there are some who belong to our church who do not identify as Christian. That’s a pretty radical concept for a Christian church, but it indicates the religious and philosophical diversity that is our strength.
People in the Boulder community ask me about our church all the time. Sometimes they are just trying to be polite or make conversation. Sometimes they are sincerely interested. Either way, we are a little hard to explain. I usually tell them that we are a Christian church in perhaps the broadest way imaginable. We are centered on the story of Jesus, and we use the Scriptures that are the sacred texts of Christianity. That doesn’t mean, however, that we all believe and think alike.
Even though I don’t remember my baptism day, and even though I struggle with how essential it is to be sprinkled in a church or dunked in a river, I value my baptism immensely. I embrace the understanding of baptism that says that we are brought into a family through this ancient ritual. I don’t always agree with the members of the very broad and far-reaching family that is the universal Christian Church, but I’m kind of glad that I can’t easily brush them off. I’m often irritated by religious leaders who try to speak for God in ways that seem so wrong to me, but being connected through baptism means that I have to keep engaging with them. Hopefully some good will come from that. As they say, you don’t get to choose your family.
The few drops of clear, clean water that fell on my head in November of 1961 looked very different from the water in the stream that flowed from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea. There is a hymn by Poet and hymn-writer Tom Troeger in our New Century hymnal that is not especially singable but beautifully describes Jesus wading through “murky streams” as he gleams with water brown with clay. The Jordan is definitely muddy. I can imagine what people would say if I tried to baptize a baby dressed in a pristine white gown using muddy water. But that’s the kind of water Jesus was immersed in.
Water and earth were mixed in the Jordan. The baptism of Jesus by John not only identified him with a new movement of God but with creation itself. Water and dirt connect us to the earth.
The Jordan River flows at historically low levels today. Although it flows through Palestinian territory, Israel regulates its flow and diverts water away from where it is needed for agriculture on the West Bank. Further down its one hundred and fifty mile length, the river empties into the Dead Sea. When I visited the Dead Sea thirty years ago, I was able to walk from the parking lot at Ein Gedi on the west shore right into the water. When I returned three years ago, I had to take a mile-long shuttle ride from the parking lot to reach the shore and swim in the sea. The diversion of water from the Jordan has caused the sea to diminish rapidly. Even at the place where Jesus was baptized, we see injustice for those who need access to water and injustice for earth whose resources are disappearing.
It’s similar to what the water protectors face at Standing Rock. The river flowing by the Reservation is much like the water flowing by the West bank. People are attempting to decide for others the value of the water and who should benefit from it or be put at risk. As a result both people and the earth itself suffer. Water is a gift to all of us, to be used gently and justly.
Psalm 29 is paired in the Revised Common Lectionary to the Gospel reading from Matthew because of these words: “The voice of the Lord is over the waters, the God of glory thunders over the waters.” As Jesus was baptized in the waters of Jordan, the voice of God is said to have said loudly, "This is my child, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.”
That’s just a small piece of Psalm 29, though. The Psalm is a dramatic description of the power of God that is tied closely to the created world. As God speaks, the water ripples and sturdy trees split. Nations hear God’s directions and skip like a calf or a baby ox. Flames of fire erupt and the wilderness shakes. Oak trees dance in the forest. Some of the images look a bit like destruction, but mostly it feels like creation responding in joy to the voice of the creator.
Jesus’ got down in the water as he began his recorded ministry of teaching and healing. Immediately after his baptism, he disappeared into the wilderness for further preparation. As he felt the hot sun on his skin and sat in the dust among the rocks, he must have thought again about the cool water in the river. Maybe the memory sustained him until he could quench his thirst again.
Do you have any memories that are closely associated with water” I love the mountains in Colorado, but what I miss most here is the abundance of water that I knew from earliest childhood on the Atlantic and later in the Great Lakes. Many of my strongest memories have to do with splashing, swimming, and floating in bodies of water.
Directly across the Niagara River from my childhood home was Love Canal. I took my daughter there on my last visit to New York and told the story of barrels filled with toxic waste buried beneath the earth by a nearby chemical company. I pointed to where an elementary school had stood, built on top of the barrels. I told her about the children and adults who developed cancers and other debilitating illnesses as underground streams of water spread the toxins throughout the neighborhood and into homes through cracks in basements. We drove through a virtual jungle on a path that was one a suburban street lined with neat one-story homes. That street was the site of the first protest of sorts that I ever participated in. Members of my church walked through the neighborhood with folks from other congregations to show support for the residents and call for the chemical company to take responsibility and for the local government to take action on behalf of those who were suffering unjustly. Some residents welcomed us. Other, still in denial, jeered at us from their front porches and told us to go home.
The Niagara River, a source of so much beauty, started attracting industry in the early nineteenth century. Large volumes of the mighty river were diverted to generate power to run chemical factories, which ultimately led to the tragedy of Love Canal. The eyes of our nation were then opened wider to the ecological disasters all around us.
Water is intended to bring life, not death. How does water connect you to the rest of creation, to other residents of this planet and to the earth itself? What price are we willing to pay to protect the water so that creation itself does not wither without it?
Water connects us to other people of faith, as well. Within the broad span of the Christian Church, with many perspectives and cultures and commitments, we are related through baptism. Whether water was sprinkled or poured on us or whether we were immersed beneath it, we who are baptized belong to one another. It is not doctrines and dogma that unite us. In fact, they are more likely to divide. We are united by water that reminds us that before we are part of the church, we are one with the elements of earth. While baptism marks us as Christian, I like to think that it also marks us as human. Our bodies, after all, are mostly composed of water. We are therefore kin with people of other faiths as well.
May we live in unity with all people of faith, and may live in unity with creation itself.