Water is so common. It seems such a strange thing to use for such a holy act as baptism.
It’s not special in any way. It’s just water. One of the most common substances on earth. The water we use for baptism comes out of the tap just like the water you used to brush your teeth this morning.
Jesus’s baptism took place in “just water.” More specifically, it took place in the Jordan River, but despite what you may have heard, the Jordan River is not a great river. It’s not the Nile, or the Tigris, or the Euphrates.
It’s just The Jordan.
The Jordan River would be comparable to the L.A. River, at least before the L.A. River was lined with concrete. Much of the year, there isn’t even very much water in it, although occasional storms and floods could send it raging, briefly.
It’s just water. It’s just the Jordan River.
And yet, as common as it is, water is important. Water is life. Protesters in North Dakota have reminded us of this by camping out this winter in bitter cold, hoping to block the construction of pipelines that could potentially destroy the water they depend on. Pipelines rupture, break, and spill, and the oil that leaks out contaminates whatever it comes into contact with.
The water protectors know this. They also know that, to live, water is far more important than oil.
Water is sacred.
Native American storyteller Ray Buckley once described a day in which things did not go well for him, a day which left him feeling discouraged. He knew he had to reset his mood and his energy before moving on to his next task, so he took a shower (even though he was already clean), to remind himself of new beginnings.
I’ve done the same thing myself a time or two, when I needed a new beginning, a new start to my day.
Patrick Reyes, whose book I’m just now reading, described a time when he was a twelve year-old child, and he stood up to his mother’s boyfriend who beat and picked on Patrick and his younger brothers. The time Patrick stood up to him, the boyfriend beat Patrick so hard he passed out. When he woke up, he was sore and covered with bruises.
With no one around to comfort him, Patrick took a shower, and let the warm water soothe his twelve year-old body that had been beaten and bruised. It helped. It didn’t solve the problem, but it did provide some emotional healing that allowed him to face another day.
So water, as simple and common as it is, can be incredibly powerful.
Just like the Jordan River. This muddy stream was full of symbolism and history. Many generations before Jesus and John, it was where the Israelites crossed over into the Promised Land, a symbolic, meaningful moment that symbolized a new beginning and a new nation.
It was at flood stage then. Of course it was at flood stage then, right? If you were telling the story, wouldn’t you have the river at flood stage, impossible to cross, so that God’s power could be displayed when the water stopped so that the people could cross it? You wouldn’t tell such a story with the river at drought stage, trickling its way downstream, no higher than your shins! That’s not very exciting!
The baptisms that John performed at the Jordan River drew heavily on the symbolism of the Hebrews crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land. Crossing through the water symbolized that they - as a nation - were being born anew, that the old was being left behind, and something new was about to begin.
Look deeply into the waters of baptism, and you can see this. You can see the Hebrews crossing into the Promised Land, and starting something new.
But that’s not all you can see.
Look harder, and you will see the Hebrews crossing the Red Sea, long before they ever arrived at the Jordan.
Look harder, and you will see the story of Noah and the Ark, when waters cleansed the earth of evil, and humanity was reborn, allowed to start over.
Look harder, and you can also see Creation itself, when the earth was nothing but a formless void, with the Spirit hovering over the waters.
It’s all there, in the waters of baptism. And it all symbolizes a new life, a new beginning.
In Matthew’s gospel, John objects to Jesus’s request to be baptized. In Matthew, John says: “I need to be baptized by you! Yet you come to me?”
Matthew wrote this little dialogue into his baptism story because some people didn’t understand why Jesus needed to be baptized, if he was without sin. Isn’t that what baptism is for, to cleanse one of their sins? So if Jesus didn’t have any sin, why did he need to get baptized?
Jesus answered that he must be baptized to “fulfill all righteousness.”
What does this mean?
Remember from Advent, righteousness is one of the three Hebrew words that are synonyms, the words that describe life in the kingdom of God: mishpat, tzedek, and shalom - justice, righteousness, and peace.
They refer to a world where everything is as it should be, where everything is right, where peace and justice prevail, where no one needs fear another person because every person has respect for everyone else’s humanity.
Jesus needs to be baptized to “fulfill all righteousness.” So the “righteousness” Jesus is to fulfill isn’t just a matter of personal piety or personal sin. It’s about the sin and brokenness of the world which Jesus came to make whole. It’s about making the world right again.
In his baptism, Jesus demonstrates that he stands with John and what John stands for; and what John stands for is a revolution that seeks to overturn a world of oppression & injustice, a revolution that seeks to overturn the world as it has been created by the leaders & authorities in the church and in the empire.
Baptism is a revolutionary act, an act that symbolizes the creation of a new kingdom, just as the Hebrews were about to create a new kingdom when they crossed the Jordan River many generations before. For Jesus, it is very clearly a political, revolutionary act.
Jesus, like John, is set on creating a revolutionary movement for social justice. This is a movement that does not pledge allegiance to Caesar; rather, it pledges its allegiance only to God. It is a movement intent on overturning the oppressive ways of the empire. It is a movement whose members declare that they will no longer collaborate with oppression, with injustice, with policies that benefit the few at the expense of the many.
So baptism clearly is not just about personal piety or personal sin. It’s about identifying yourself as one who stands on God’s side, the side of freedom, the side of justice, the side of righteousness and peace.
Brad Braxton, writing online at the African-American Lectionary, says this about his own baptism: “Those baptismal waters marked me as a person standing on God’s side. Standing with God … means standing against forces that deny God’s justice and peace. My baptism, while an intensely personal moment, possesses profound political implications. It declares on whose side I am standing.”
So baptism, because it is a political act, can be a dangerous act. Keep in mind that neither John nor Jesus lived to old age. They were both killed by the state (with collaboration by corrupt religious leaders).
Jesus would never have been crucified if baptism was only about confessing one’s personal sin and promising to live a moral life. Governments don’t execute people for promising to be good! Governments execute people for challenging the social order. Jesus was executed by crucifixion because what he taught and what he stood for was subversive.
And Jesus calls upon us to be subversive as well, to “take up our cross and follow” him.
So look again at the waters of baptism. Look closely, and see that those waters are calling you to take a stand, to speak out, to not sit quietly in the face of injustice.
Those who take seriously their own baptism will speak out when the rights of others are being denied, even if their own rights are still intact.
Those who take baptism seriously will speak out when voting rights are denied.
Those who take baptism seriously will speak out when the criminal justice system unfairly targets people because of their race.
Those who take baptism seriously will speak out when immigrants are threatened with deportation.
Those who take baptism seriously will speak out when Muslims and other minority religious groups are intimidated and victimized.
Those who take baptism seriously will speak out when others condemn or ridicule people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Those who take baptism seriously will speak out when rich legislators try to take away health care from millions of poor citizens.
To be baptized in Christ means to stand on the side of justice, the side of what’s right, the side of equality, the side of everything that leads to peace for all of God’s people.
To be baptized in Christ means to work actively so that wholeness can come to all of God’s people in this broken, fragmented world.