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Ever New and Ever Old

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Luke 3:15-16, 21-22 (CEB)

The people were filled with expectation, and everyone wondered whether John might be the Christ. John replied to them all, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire….” When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

Now let’s turn in your bulletins to the song “Crashing Waters at Creation”. Since this is an unfamiliar tune, I’ve asked the choir to sing the first verse; we will join in on the rest of the verses.

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Throughout Advent and Christmas I chose a different carol each week and used either the history of the hymn or the lyrics of the hymn as a way into the story.  Many of you expressed your enjoyment of the series, as it helped you see the carols in new light. Today is different. Obviously you don’t know this song. It’s not in our hymnal. It is printed in ten different hymnals, to four different tunes, this one being the original. I chose it because it does a beautiful job of talking about the role of water in our scriptures. The first verse is about the waters of creation; the second is about the crossing of the Red Sea; the third about Jesus’ baptism. The lyrics also parallel the prayer in the United Church of Christ Book of Worship to be prayed at the blessing of the water for baptisms. Listen for all these different stories of water in this prayer:

We thank you, God, for the gift of creation called forth by your saving Word.

Before the world had shape and form, your Spirit moved over the waters.

Out of the waters of the deep, you formed the firmament and brought forth the earth to sustain all life.

In the time of Noah you washed the earth with the waters of the flood, and your ark of salvation bore a new beginning.

In the time of Moses, your people Israel passed through the Red Sea waters from slavery to freedom

and crossed the flowing Jordan to enter the promised land.

In the fullness of time, you sent Jesus Christ, who was nurtured in the water of Mary’s womb.

Jesus was baptized by John in the water of the Jordan, became living water to a woman at the Samaritan well, washed the feet of the disciples, and sent them forth to baptize all the nations by water and the Holy Spirit.

Bless by your Holy Spirit, gracious God, this water. Create new life in the one/all baptized this day that she/he/they may rise in Christ.

I really like this prayer, but I admit that I sometimes shorten it, especially if the baby I’m getting ready to baptize is fussy! But I always struggle with which waters to leave out. Do I leave out creation’s water? No, of course not, that’s where it begins. Maybe Noah, but certainly not God parting the Red Sea. After all, we need some parted waters; we need a way when we can see no way. Do I leave out the second time they crossed water—when they entered the promise land? All of these individual stories are an important part of the arc of the story of our faith. But regardless of which other stories I leave out of the prayer, I cannot skip the story of Jesus’ baptism—for without that story, we would have no sacrament of baptism and therefore no need for that prayer.

As you know, I grew up in a conservative evangelical church that practiced believer’s baptism. You weren’t baptized until you had made a decision to follow Christ. A parent cannot make that decision for a child, so in that tradition, baptism only occurs when the individual chooses it; whereas for us, baptism often is chosen by the parents, and it is a sign of God’s grace and our welcome, rather than the individual’s choice. Many years ago I heard two people from these opposing theological camps discussing baptism. One said, “How can you baptize babies? They have no idea what’s going on!” The other responded, “And isn’t that just how God is—working within us when we have no idea what’s going on!”

I like that because there’s a lot of time I have no idea what’s going on! I often feel that way as a parent, unsure of whether I’m parenting either of my very different children correctly. And it’s a bit embarrassing to admit as a pastor, but I’m that way theologically, too—I don’t always know what’s going on, or how God is working, or even what I believe. For years I have said that one of my favorite Bible stories is Jacob wrestling with the angel, or messenger of God. Jacob refuses to let go until he gets a blessing, and that’s a great metaphor for my relationship with the Bible. I don’t always like what I find there, but I keep wrestling with it until I get a blessing. But recently I’ve begun to wonder if I’ve allowed my metaphorical wrestling to get a little too realistic in its goals. My goal for wrestling with scripture cannot be to pin it and be declared the victor!

I was thinking recently about my time in seminary, and how I worked to come to some strong, central, core beliefs; but I was happy to leave seminary without all my beliefs nailed down. I liked being open, enjoyed the slippery slope of questioning. Recently I have found myself trying to define things more—not like Martin Luther, to nail my theses to the door, but to nail my feet to the floor, to keep from wandering and wondering. I’ve found myself wanting concrete answers, and I haven’t wanted that for years.

I met with someone recently and said to them that, rationally speaking, I don’t tend to believe God works in the particular way we were discussing. And then, hours later, when I was praying for them, I asked God to work exactly in that particular way! And it’s not just that I want or even need to believe certain things. It’s not just that I need to believe in a God who parts the waters—I need a God who parts the waters.

I asked myself, “Am I going backwards in my faith, that I suddenly want more certainty, when the people whose spirituality I most admire are so free and open?” I had forgotten that my spiritual journey is not a straight path. If you could map out my spiritual journey with little footprints, I would look like a drunken toddler with an especially short attention span. My core beliefs are constant, but on other things, I vary with the circumstances of my life and the needs of those around me. I realized that I don’t want a more active, involved God because my faith is less evolved. I want a more active, involved God because I am more involved in the lives of people who are hurting.

I need all the water mentioned in that prayer. And I think you do, too, or I would have saved all of this for my journal.

We need the water of creation to bring forth life.

We need the water that cleansed the earth to wash away our cynicism.

We need the water that freed the slaves and the water that fulfilled the promise.

We need the water of the womb to nourish us.

We need the living water that recognizes the pain in a stranger and welcomes them into community.

We need the water to wash our feet whether they’ve wandered or refused to move.

We need all the waters, and we need this water, the water of baptism.

There are many messages we can take from the Gospel tellings of Jesus’ baptism. But what is holding my heart today is the truth that when Jesus came to the water of humanity, he didn’t come to walk on it. He came to wade into it! He came to wade into and even to be temporarily overcome by it—just like us. And so it is to Jesus and to us that God says, “You are my child, whom I dearly love! You who are playing in the shallows! You who are swimming in the depths! You who think you are swimming independently but are wearing water wings! You who are barely keeping your head above water! To you God says, “You are my child, whom I dearly love!” And to you Christ says, “I’m right here with you!” And if Christ is right here with you in the water, and Christ is right here with me in the water, then look around the water because it’s not just us. We are all in the water of humanity, no matter what side of a wall we live on.

I have here some cups that contain our water from many places. For newcomers: each summer we invite people to collect water from their summer travels, and to bring it back on Homecoming Sunday to be blessed. This is the water we use for baptisms—water from all over the world, from family camps we visit every year and from places we will never see again. It unites us with one another, and with the people of every land.

In just a minute I am going to pass a few cups or bowls of this water. I will start them in several places, and as I do, I will say to you, “You are God’s beloved child.” When you get the cup, you are invited to dip your finger into the water. You may take that drop of water and put it to your head, to remind yourself of your baptism.    Or you may put it to your heart, to help you believe in God’s love. You may put it to your eyes and ears, to help you see and hear, or to your pulse points, so that it flows through your veins. It is your choice, depending on what you need. Take your time. There is no need to rush. When you are finished, you can pass the bowl to the next person and say to them, “You are God’s beloved child.”  This way you will both hear it and say it.  (Repeat instructions if necessary.)

I hope you heard the words, but in case the person before you didn’t say them, listen now: You are God’s beloved child! Hear also these words from the hymn we sang earlier:

Living water, never ending, quench the thirst and flood the soul.

Wellspring, Source of life eternal, drench our dryness, make us whole.

May you be drenched in the living water of grace.

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