All Washed Up
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Baptism of the Lord Sunday/C • January 10, 2016
“How have I ever deserved such love?”
A woman asks this question near the end of The Danish Girl and I wonder if it is Jesus’ question at the end of his baptism.
I imagine it as a hot day; this is desert country after all. The stories about John tell us there were crowds but what’s a crowd? Twenty people? A couple hundred? Thousands? We don’t know. John is a striking figure, a man evidently filled with the Spirit of God, who speaks a fierce message, calling people to repentance. He’s on the shore of the Jordan River. This is the river that had to be crossed centuries before by God’s people to enter the promised land. This is the water that had to be waded, this is the stream that stood between them and the fulfillment in history of God’s love and covenant. Is there a line to be baptized? Did Jesus stand behind others as one after another they came to John, talked to John, heard him pray and then felt him forcefully plunge them into the water, let the water cover them like someone drowning, and then lift them up, wet, wondering what comes next, clean, ready for the next chapter. Now Jesus comes; now he looks at John, now their eyes make a private space only they understand. Now John is taking Jesus in his arms, as he has with all the others, now Jesus is plunged into the water, there is perhaps that instant of fear so instinctive when we are underwater, now he is lifted up and heaven opens, Jesus hears what we all want to hear, “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This is baptism.
Baptism is rare here and in church life, we’ve become fussy about the rituals that surround We have considerable evidence for baptism, both of children and adults, in the early church. The Didache, a collection of sayings and teachings probably written about the same time as the New Testament says this about baptism.
Concerning baptism, you should baptize this way:
After first explaining all things, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in flowing water. But if you have no running water, baptize in other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, then in warm. If you have very little, pour water three times on the head in the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. Before the baptism, both the baptizer and the candidate for baptism, plus any others who can, should fast. The candidate should fast for one or two days beforehand.
This is great news if you’re one of those people who think details aren’t important; bad news if you’re a ritual maker. What says is that the form of applying the water, the part that most interests us, doesn’t really matter. Use running water—if you’ve got it. Use a few drops if that’s all you’ve got.
The formula, the amount of water, the exact things we do—really don’t matter. And by the way: the last line, about fasting? That clear direction is almost universally ignored. But it’s the details that most interest us. As one writer says,
Baptism has become its customs, once meant to celebrate its meaning, but now the only meaning of the celebration: a time for dressing the baby in something outlandish, an occasion of presents and promises and family. And none of this has anything to do with profound and dangerous journeys of the spirit. The danger of water and demons, the spirit journey, the profundity, have gotten lost in ritual huzzahs, so much so that most Christians, in their own profound journeys, do not think of them as part of their baptism.
I know from my own experience how true this is. Once, years ago, in the midst of pronouncing the formula, “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, my voice caught and the last phrase wasn’t heard. The next day I got a phone call from the church moderator; a person had called him claiming the baptism was invalid and the child’s immortal soul was in danger because I had supposedly left out the full phrase. I didn’t know how to treat seriously the idea that someone’s salvation could be determined by whether I coughed in the midst of claiming it.
But if the details don’t matter, what does? The clues are in the scripture we read this morning and they have nothing to do with measuring out water. Isaiah says,
But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
This word is addressed to people who feel themselves lost. Every day the news shows us pictures of refugees from Syria and other places. Israel had become refugees and this is God saying, “You’re not forgotten: you’re still mine.” There’s a reason every baptism begins with a question: “What name is given this child?” We name a person at baptism in a way that honors them uniquely but also connects them with a family, a heritage. Whose are you? You are God’s own child, regardless of your age. Baptism is a reminder we’re not on our own; we belong and we belong to someone, to God. In the visible church, here, we are meant to be the emblem of that belonging. Baptism is first, then belonging.
But it’s also a response to fear. Swimming is taught to children these days and we forget that for most of history and still today in many places, people fear water. In fact, that primal fear is deep within us. Water is dangerous. Once my son was teasing me about not playing sports; he talked about having the courage to go out on the soccer field, knowing he might get bruised. I pointed out that I sailed and commented, “Every year, some sailors die when they drown.” It was a poor joke yet it had a truth: water is dangerous. Baptism began as a way of making sacred what we feared. In John Irving’s novel, The World According to Garp, a family retreats to a home on the ocean shore in New Hampshire. There’s a beach and the children are warned about an undertow that can suck them down. Misunderstanding, the way children do, they call it “the undertoad”. I know about the undertoad. Once, long ago, I was on a beach in New Jersey, swimming while my parents watched a few yards away. The undertow—the undertoad!—caught me, swirled me around and I’ve never forgotten the fear of that moment. “When you pass the waters,” God says, “I will be with you”. When the undertow grabs you, you will still be God’s.
But it’s not all water; baptism is more than being washed up and set down fresh and fancy. Acts tells the story of an early church mission. Someone has gone up to Samaria and baptized some folks there. They didn’t ask the Deacons, they didn’t follow the ritual, they just went ahead and did it. But somehow, the baptism wasn’t effective and the disciples know this because there has been no evidence of the Holy Spirit among these folks. We don’t know what this means; we only have this little testimony. Yet clearly the early church knew that baptism wasn’t simply a human act of applying water; it had a deeper, transforming significance. Today, baptism has become about the water; God meant it to be about the Spirit, the breath, the wind that blows through life. In the beginning, Genesis says, the Spirit of God blew on the face of the waters and it’s from this ordering that creation follows. Baptism is meant to be a sign of a deeper spiritual blowing in us that causes us to live out the gentle, loving, forgiving way of Jesus. No amount of water can do that; it takes the Holy Spirit. Our task as baptized Christians is to nurture the presence and experience of that Spirit in those who come here, those God sends.
The final clue I want to call attention to this morning is simple and direct. At the end of the account of Jesus’ baptism, it says, “heaven opened”. We live in a world caught up in the details of earthly life: what to wear, eat, how to get through the day. What we miss if we forget our baptism is that heaven is open; God is calling. The question with which I began, “How have I deserved such love?” has a simple answer: you don’t, you can’t. We don’t deserve love: it is pure gift, the gift of the God to whom we belong, whose children we are. If we believe we are indeed, God’s people, if God has given us the Spirit to bind us and energize us in living out love, if we know heaven is open to us, then indeed, we are loved in a way beyond deserving. You are my beloved, God says to Jesus: you are my beloved, God says to you.
The movie I mentioned earlier, The Danish Girl, is a fictionalized account of a real person, a man named Einar Wegener, married to Gerda, who discovered within himself a female identity he named Lili. It was a time and place with little understanding about such things and as Lili emerged and his life became living as Lili, as Einar receded and this woman became fully alive, he faced the conflict of being a woman living in a man’s body. At first treating this as a problem to be solved, Lili and Gerda struggled to find a way forward. Ultimately, Lili became the first person known to have undergone a series of operations to remake the body to match the identity as a woman. What’s clear from the real history, not as clear in the movie, is that there were years during which Lili faced the conflict of hiding her real self, living in shame, keeping the secret. Finally, near the end of the movement, Lili sees how loved she is, asks the question with which I began, “How have I deserved such love?”, and answers it in the only way it can be answered.
“Last night I had the most beautiful dream…I dreamed I was a baby in my mother’s arms…and she looked down at me…and called me Lili.”
The dream is being called by your true name: known in your true self. And loved. Like the mother in the dream, like our father in heaven, God is calling out to us, loving us, loving us beyond anything we can or ever will deserve. In the moment we see this, in the moment we know this, heaven does indeed open. And that is baptism.