How many here have heard of this thing called the Polar Plunge? It's this bizarre sport of sorts, that crazy people do in the dead of winter. In communities all around the country, people gather and jump into freezing cold water to raise money and awareness for certain causes. It was once believed that taking such chilly dips was good for your health; that the cold water would boost stamina, vitality and immunity.
Not all doctors agree. Some suggest that the sudden drop in temperature can be dangerous for people with underlying health issues, and for people like myself who have just recently moved from balmy Southern California. My father, who is a doctor, has taken the polar plunge every year since he was a kid growing up in New York. While I think he is crazy I can see how such a action might feel exhilarating; If not a brisk reminder of what it means to be alive.
Today, Christian churches around the world celebrate Baptism Sunday. It is a time to gather and remember that through the baptismal waters we become alive in Christ. With this living water we jump from the old and into the new. Yet I wonder if we still feel spiritually exhilarated, or has our sacred ritual become so ceremonial that we have forgotten what it really means to give up our old life in order to be made anew in Christ Jesus? As Congregationalist we believe the water is a visible sign of a spiritual action, which is why this church pours or sprinkles water on the forehead of the one who wishes to be baptized.
I remember having a discussion in seminary with a friend whose Baptist tradition believed...total immersion in water was the only way one could be truly baptized. No other kind would suffice. Being who I am, I couldn’t help but question his methods. I asked, “So if you walked a person into a stream up to his ankles and splashed him with water would that be sufficient?”
He said, “Nope. Not baptism.”
I asked, “Well what if you got them wet up past their knees?”
“Still not good enough,” he assured me.
“What about if they waded in to their chest?
Holding back his frustration as best as he could he replied, “What part of total immersion do you not understand?”
Ignoring this I continued to ask, “Neck?” ...”Nope!”
“Well what if he walked all the way in but the water only came up to his eyeballs? Wouldn't that count?”
“No!” he demanded, “the water has to be over the head.”
I smile at him and said, “So you and I agree that water being administered on the head is sufficient enough to consider one baptized.”
I am not surprised that we celebrate Jesus’ baptism at the start of the New Year. It is, after all, an evocative time to talk about new beginnings. Like my father jumping into the cold water, we too are called to take a plunge of sorts, to live a new life in the living water of Christ. Baptism, you see, is the genesis of Christian life. Like the very water itself, it is a necessity to remain spiritually alive. Water is the essential element of all life, physical and spiritual. It all begins with water.
Both readings today in Genesis and Mark begin with a story of water. And in both books this water is tied to a story of redemption. In each one we see how God rescues humanity from the currents of life that pin us down and drown us. In essence, our baptism assures us that we are not too small for God to notice; that in fact...we still matter. It all begins with water. It was over water that the Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. It was through water the children of Israel were led out of bondage and into the promise land.
And it was in water that Jesus received the baptism of John, and was anointed by the Holy Spirit to lead us through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of our sin into the promise of everlasting life. In the Gospel of John, Jesus offers us “the living water.” He says, “Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life." Again, it all begins with water.
Though our baptism, we promise to follow the ways of Jesus Christ, the very one God declared, “This is my beloved Son.” Through our baptism we are promised that we too become beloved children of God. You and I, and the mess that we have created in our lives, find redemption and renewal in the living waters of Christ. Our spiritual thirst is quenched. In him we are washed clean. And sealed with God’s Spirit into the Body of Christ’s church.
This is the same Spirit that hovered over the waters in Genesis; the same Spirit that hovered over the waters of the Jordan River; It is the same unchanging, all-caring Spirit of God that hovers around us today. Our baptismal water is a refreshing reminder that we are alive in God’s Spirit, now and forever. It all begins with water.
But let us not forget that water can be very dangerous. Outside the church, a gentle rain has frozen into slippery ice that wreaks all sorts of havoc. While a gentle babbling brook can be soothing and calming under certain circumstances it can become a grave threat to the environment. The mountain snows that melt in spring, overflow riverbanks and flood communities hundreds of miles away. In California too much water ruins crops and vineyards while the lack of water has destroyed entire farmlands. Even a simple roof leak can produce deadly mold inside the walls of your home.
As a young surfer I learned quickly how dangerous water can be. Make the slightest mistake and you might find yourself under the shear weight of a wave; pinned to the rocky ocean floor below...as the undertow grabs you and drags you out to sea. Every time I paddled out, I did so with the respect of the ocean, that untamed body of water, which seemed to have a mind of its own. What I learned is that water plays by a different set of rules. But so does God.
Notice in both readings God doesn’t just come down to hang out with us, like with Adam and Eve, or with Abraham. Instead God cuts through the darkness and rips through the heavens to pull us to safety. God hears our cries, and dives into the deep waters to rescue us; to make wrongs right again; to lift up the poor, free the captives, empower the oppressed, and heal all who suffer. And when Jesus emerges out from beneath the Jordan, God’s voice fills the universe. Like the Genesis story, God sees that this new creation is good and declares, “This is my beloved Son. In whom I am well pleased.” God disrupts the old to usher in the new. But in order to receive a new life, the old must die first.
Our baptism is as dangerous as the water used to seal it. That sounds crazy, doesn't it? That baptism is risky and dangerous. This is something we often overlook when we move our fingers from the font to one’s forehead. Have we neglected to comprehend the uncomfortable implications of inviting God’s Spirit to rip us open and invade our lives? To be baptized in the living water of Jesus, is dangerous because it ties us also to Jesus' ministry.
In the latest issue of Christian Century, Diane Roth reminds us of this, “In the wilderness river Jesus is given not just an identity but a mission, and that his mission is not just comforting, but dangerous. This mission drives Jesus back to the wilderness to wrestle with the devil, and it leads him to places of suffering, chaos and despair.” It all begins with water.
Like my father jumping into the icy waters on New Years Day, we, the people of Christ, are called to fearlessly leap into God’s justice, passion and mercy. We are called to see the face of Christ in the other; to open our arms, to embody and proclaim God’s love to the World.
We, the church, are called to swim against the social norms and currents of life, to wonder the wilderness, and to cut and carve new pathways back to God. This is dangerous business. Perhaps that is why American author, Annie Dillard suggests we should not only wear crash helmets and life preservers to our baptisms, but also issue warnings on our baptismal certificates stating: “This is a passport to places you never thought you would go, to be an emissary of the living God in the desert and the wilderness, to plant seeds of hope and healing and life.”
Yet it is with this passport we meet God, and experience God's peace. With this passport, we do not travel alone but move throughout eternity as members of God's redeemed family. At our baptism God rips through the heavens to bring us safely home. For we are God's beloved children in whom God is well pleased.
What that tells me is that you and I still matter to God. But does God matter to us?
Will we give up our old life? Or risk our new life in Christ to jump into the raging waters that God has called to? It’s risky. It’s dangerous. But it is also exhilarating. And more importantly...life giving...Because we bear God's name...having been sealed with the living water of everlasting life.