Standing on the shoreline looking out over the vast expanse of ocean. Spending a lazy summer afternoon tubing down a river. Hiking through the mountains and coming across an unexpected waterfall. Hearing the crunch of snow under your boots on a frosty winter morning.
Our strong connection to water cannot be denied. Perhaps it’s because our bodies are around 60% water by weight. Perhaps it’s because we spent nine months swimming away in our mother’s womb before we were born. Whatever the case may be, water plays an important role in our lives. We literally could not live without it.
With this in mind, today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. As we remember his baptism, it also gives us an opportunity to think about ours.
There is a lot that can be said about baptism. Lutherans heap lots of fancy language on it, saying that Baptism is a sacrament and a means of grace. We are “marked with the cross of Christ” and “sealed by the Holy Spirit.” They say in baptism, “God liberates us from sin and death by joining us to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And “Born children of a fallen humanity, in the baptismal waters we become God’s reborn children and inherit eternal life.”
All of this is fine and good…but it’s sort of a buzzkill. It takes the wonder and mystery
out of the rite of baptism. It disconnects us from what our hearts tell us every time we encounter a magnificent display of water in the natural world.
So, today, we are going to reconnect baptism with its elemental origins. We are going to “wade in the water,” both literally and metaphorically, and see what it can tell us about what baptism means to us. I’d like to tell you two personal stories of profound connections with water that happened to me during my trip to Israel. It is my hope that in the telling of my stories you will be inspired to think of your own waters stories and what they tell you about your baptism.
The first story happened in January on the shores of Lake Galilee. It was our first day in Jerusalem. We had already visited Bethsaida and Capernaum, and had received communion on the Mount of Beatitudes. If that wasn’t amazing enough, we ended the day at the place I’d been longing to see ever since Gary & I knew we were going on this trip: Lake Galilee. First we took a boat ride around the Lake. Then we had a wonderful lunch of St. Peter’s fish, which is the same kind of fish Jesus and his disciples would have eaten. Finally, we ended the day at a site called Tabga, which is the traditional site where Jesus cooked a meal of fish for his disciples after the resurrection.
As I stood on the shoreline I felt so connected to all the stories and history I’ve studied and preached about all these years. It was a holy moment that brought me to tears. But it was also a moment when I knew I was not content to stand on the shoreline. I took off my shoes and socks. I rolled up my pants as high as they could go and waded into the waters of Lake Galilee. It was cold, but warmer than I expected. The feeling that welled up in my heart was one of profound gratitude. I had finally arrived at the place I had longed to see ever since I graduated from seminary: Lake Galilee. I had sailed it’s waters, ate it’s fish, and walked along its shore. In that moment, time had disappeared and I could almost smell the aroma of cooked fish on a charcoal fire. As I waded out of the water, I chose two stones to take with me as a memory of this holy moment. Every time I hold them in my hands, they connect me back to that indescribable experience on the shores of Lake Galilee.
As I think about what this “water story” tells me about my baptism, it reminds me that we are all connected to something far greater than ourselves. Baptism connects us to Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Peter and Thomas in ways we cannot fully comprehend. It ties us into the larger story of the swirling waters of creation, a people saved from a cataclysmic flood, a sea that was miraculously parted, a stream that appeared in the desert, and a river where people went to be baptized. It welcomes us into the big, crazy, dysfunctional family we call the Body of Christ. I wouldn’t have it any other way! We can attach all the fancy theological language to this experience our little brains can think of. But, simply stated, baptism tells us WE BELONG to something far greater than ourselves. In a world where we often feel small, insignificant and ignored, the gift of belonging should not be underestimated.
My second water story happened later during my trip to Israel. The weather had been challenging at times. It was much colder than any of us ever anticipated. In fact, we had snow in Bethlehem which tells me all those Christmas carols where we sing about bleak midwinters and cold winter nights, have some validity! Not surprisingly about half of our group caught a nasty virus, where we experienced a seemingly endless cycle of fever and chills, fever and chills.
Because of this, some elected to stay in the hotel while the rest of the group went on an exploration of the area around the Dead Sea. I didn’t care how sick I felt in that moment. So I grabbed a few bottles of water, put them in my day pack and dragged myself onto the bus. We first visited the amazingly rugged and beautiful hills around St George’s monastery. Then we traveled on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and arrived at Qumran which is within sight of the Dead Sea. It was an amazing sight but I felt my strength failing rapidly.
Our next stop was a wadi called En Gedi, which is a nature preserve that is an oasis in the midst of the dry desert. Our group was going on a hike but I was feeling weak and light-headed so I knew that was not a possibility for me. Instead, I chose a spot along the trail where a small, crystal-clear stream flowed and became a waterfall. The sun was warm and it felt SO good after the surprising snowstorm in Bethlehem.
As I sat there, an amazing thing happened. No one walked by me for 20 minutes! I had the whole place to myself. I used the time for meditation, prayer and reflection. I thought about the countless pilgrims who had visited this very spot as a respite from the harsh heat of the desert. This stream is one that never runs dry but continues to flow even in the hottest of summers.
Not surprisingly, a few Bible verses came to mind. I thought about the woman at the well to whom Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Then the opening of Psalm 23 emerged: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restore my soul.” It was a holy moment I will treasure forever. Not surprisingly, I also took a stone from this stream as a memory of the experience.
As I think about what this “water story” tells me about my baptism, it reminds me that Jesus is the water that never runs dry. I know sometimes we don’t believe it, but it’s true nonetheless. Through baptism we are deeply and profoundly connected to this source of living water. Jesus is there to refresh our souls when life gets too hot and dusty. When we feel faint and are weary, he is always, always there to renew and restore us. He is our wadi, our desert oasis, our fountain overflowing with love, grace, mercy and forgiveness.
In baptism, we have access to this source of living water 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. As we venture out into the world, we walk wet because this living water goes with us. The words of Romans 8 remind us there is NOTHING that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. I can think of no better news than this!
Friends in Christ, baptism is an amazing and wonderful gift given to us by God. In a few moments we will have the opportunity to remember and celebrate that gift though the rite of Affirmation of Baptism. As we make our way to the font that is located in the gathering space of our church, let’s take the time to recall our own water stories and ask what they teach us about the nature of baptism.
I also invite us to dip our hand into the font, swirl it around a little. and feel that cool, refreshing water flow through our fingers. Then, if we like, take that water and place it on our forehead in the sign of the cross as a symbol of who we are, as well as whose we are.
Baptism is a wonderful gift given to us by God. Through this gift we are reminded that we belong to something far great than ourselves. It connects us to the saints of every time and every place and the big, big story of God’s people that has been told since the beginning of creation. It also connects us to Christ, our source of living water that never runs dry. AMEN
Copyright ©2018 David Eck