This past weekend marks the transition from Christmastide to the season of Epiphany, the liturgical time we celebrate the ways God in Christ is revealed. The scripture in Epiphany tells the events of Jesus’ early life and ministry. This year, we read from the Gospel of Mark, a Gospel account that leaps right into Jesus’ adult life and the scene of his baptism at the banks of the River Jordan.
It’s become our tradition when we have a baptism to invite children to come forward to help pour the water. I always ask them why we use water for a baptism. And we talk about the symbolism of water--what amazing power water has. It gives us life as it nourishes our crops or quenches our thirst. Water provides a habitat for some creatures and provides us food to eat. It can generate electricity and can cool or heat our homes. Water is wonderful as we ride the waves at the beach, yet it can devastate us in floods or tsunamis, as we’ve become so painfully aware in the wake of so many natural disasters.
In this passage we learn that Jesus’ cousin, John, was down in the water of the river Jordan baptizing. Crowds were flocking to him there to be washed in the river. John the Baptist was quite a character, wearing camel hair and eating wild locusts. He stood as God’s messenger--a prophet, even an angel maybe--calling us to open our hearts, repent, and prepare for the coming of Christ.
And he understood the power and symbolism of water, with its deep roots in the Jewish tradition of mikvah, bathing in water as a ritual of cleansing, purity and holiness—physically and spiritually. For those who went down into the water and came up out of it, it was a sign of repentance, that the past was washed away, a sign of embracing a new life, cleansed and made whole by the grace of God.
So, knowing this, Jesus sought John out at the Jordan. Jesus deliberately went down to the water, to a place where God's power and love were being proclaimed, and asked to be baptized.
This baptism scene at the river Jordan reminds me of one of my favorite movies from a few years ago, "O Brother Where Art Thou." In the movie, there’s a scene of a baptism at a river. Presbyterian Pastor Tom Coop described it like this.
“The story is set in the Deep South during the Depression. Three white convicts named Pete, Delmar, and Ulysses escape from their chain gang. The sheriff is in hot pursuit. At one point they’re hiding in the woods when all of a sudden they hear around them the sound of angelic singing. It’s a congregation headed for the river.
“Drawn by their singing, their white robes glowing through the trees, the look of joy on their faces, the three convicts follow. Delmar is mesmerized by the scene at the river. The three escapees stand there, gaping as men and women come forward to be dipped under the muddy current by the minister.
“At this point, Delmar is desperate for what they are receiving. He’s transfixed by what he sees. Unable to hold back, he plunges in, splashing over to the minister who takes him, utters the words of baptism, and thrusts him under the water. A moment later up he comes, grinning at the newness of everything.
“Pete, who's been taking it all in from the river bank, says, ‘Well I'll be, Delmar's been saved.’
“Delmar leaps with joy in the water. ‘Well, that's it boys,’ he cries, ‘I've been redeemed! The preacher done washed away all my sins and transgressions. It's the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlastin' is my re-ward.’
Delmar is beside himself with bliss. ‘The preacher says all my sins is washed away, includin' that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.’
“A skeptical Ulysses says, ‘I thought you said you was innocent of them charges.’
“To which Delmar replies, ‘Well … I was lyin', and the preacher says that that sin's been washed away, too. Neither God nor man's got nothin' on me now.’
“And then throwing his arms up, he shouts, ‘Come on in, boys, the water's fine!’
“Isn't that one of the great theological lines in the history of cinema? ‘Come on in, the water's fine!’”
Now I know it’s our tradition to baptize infants. Yet, even when we baptize a young adult or a grown up person, which we do from time to time, we only sprinkle a little water on their forehead. No full body dunking in a muddy river. And that’s a shame, in some ways, because we’ve lost this sense of a major life transition, a full-bodied experience of baptism as a turning point in life. We miss the full body experience of the water… whether it's in a river, an ocean, or comes from a baptismal font right here at the church. The water that symbolizes God’s love that pours out over all of us, available all the time, to change us, transforming our lives, from dry to wet, from messed up to cleaned up, from dead to alive, from sinners to forgiven. No wonder Delmar shouted, “Come on in, the water’s fine!”(1)
For me, part of the power of the act of baptism is that, spiritually speaking, it does not happen only once in our lives and then it’s over. That water is only the beginning. As we mature spiritually, the need for cleansing our hearts and our minds, going deeper into to understand and shed our self-centered and sinfulness, is a life-long journey. Like washing our hands is not a once in a lifetime event, certainly.
I wonder if Jesus, too, throughout his adult life, in the time away he took away from the noise and the crowds for prayer, was doing that spiritually cleansing soul searching. As followers of Jesus Christ, each on our own spiritual journey, we are following in his footsteps...wet from baptism...every step of the way.
On this, the first Sunday in Epiphany, we’re reminded that it all gets started down at the river when Jesus’ baptism marked the start of his ministry. We, too, are introduced to God's love in the water of our baptism as a rite of welcome and initiation into the Church, but then we stand in the water of that river all the rest of our days. Every time we participate in a baptism, it’s a reminder of our own baptism promises, whether we made them ourselves, other spoke them for us, or we recommitted to them at our confirmation.
And no one stands without need of this cleansing, this forgiveness and transformation, in their lives. Everyone is in need, and everyone welcome. So, come and walk in wet footsteps...following, learning, growing. The water's fine, and the love powerful enough to wash, redeem, welcome and transform us.
(1) Thomas Coop, “Come on in, the Water's Fine,”www.sthpc.org/sermons/sermon_09jan05.htm