By Water and the Spirit
Based on Isaiah 43:1-7, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:21-22
One winter, in my early 20’s, college friends and I decided to road trip from Minneapolis to Daytona Beach, Florida, for Spring Break. Four young men in a 1970’s Pontiac, making the 3000+ mile, round trip drive to see if we could tan our winter white skin and actually feel warm in late February. It was the first time that I had encountered the ocean and a beach that stretched for miles (you could even drive on it!). I sat for hours at night just listening to the waves interact with the shore. There was something more profound than just the sound of the waves – something spiritual. Smaller bodies of water in Minnesota would not have the same hold on me after that trip.
Why do collections of water (lakes, rivers, oceans) have such allure to many people? It may be because all humans are made up primarily of water. Newborns are more than 80% water by weight, and even adults are more than 60% water by weight. To maintain our health, we are supposed to take in between 12 and 15 cups of water a day (3+ liters). Water helps our bodies function by eliminating waste, serving as lubrication and helping nutrients move around the body efficiently. If we go without water for as little as 3 to 5 days, we will die.
It may also be that water collections are mysterious, often dangerous and hold creatures unlike ourselves. From the opening verses of the Bible, the waters play an important role with God dividing the waters of heaven and waters that would be made into Seas – “…and (on the fifth day) God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that crawls, which the water had swarmed forth of each kind,…” Often in the Bible the waters are referred to as a barrier to get to the next place (think of the Red Sea, the Jordan River, Jonah running from God’s call, Paul’s shipwreck). The Bible also tells us of the special relationship between God and God’s people through the living water of baptism in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is clear from all this that we truly cannot live our lives without water in its physical and spiritual forms.
Our scriptures paint a portrait of how important water, and the Holy Spirit are to living our lives integrated into life with God. The prophecy of Isaiah to the exiles from Jerusalem reminds them that they were formed by God, God is always present with them and that they will one day return home by passing through the waters. Peter and John are sent to complete the baptisms of some new believers who had been baptized in the name of Jesus, but not in the fullness of the Trinity. Jesus gets baptized by John in the waters of the Jordan River, and as he’s praying – before any ministry is begun, the Holy Spirit descends, and God calls him “Beloved Son”. Before we go farther, let us go to God in prayer that by water and the Spirit we also become God’s beloved children…
Second Isaiah begins with words of comfort and promises of continued relationship of the Babylonian exiles to God. Though they have sinned against God and have received the consequence that was foretold, the exiles are not abandoned by God while they serve their time in Babylon. The prophecy is that God still claims them and that they belong to the LORD. God comforts the people saying, “…When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…” No matter what happens in their time away from Jerusalem, God’s Spirit will protect and keep them.
The reading from Acts shows the necessary interaction of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the newly baptized. Like with John the Baptizer, who baptized in water for repentance of sins, baptism in the name of Jesus alone does not confer total connection. Jesus said clearly that we were to baptize people in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We hear today how Peter and John went down to Samaria and laid hands on the newly baptized and prayed for the Holy Spirit to come upon them – and then it did. Both water and the Spirit are required to be baptized into the Body of Christ.
Jesus arrives at the Jordan to be baptized by his cousin John. He knows that it is time to begin his ministry to the people of God, so he asks John to purify him through baptism. Once this act is finished and as Jesus is praying, the heavens are opened, and the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus. The voice of God rings out from the waters of heaven, “…You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased….” This is done to cement in Jesus the understanding of to whom he belongs and how much he is cherished, so that he can go out in the power of the Holy Spirit to do God’s work in the world.
Like both Jesus and the believers in ancient Samaria, our Baptismal Covenant (turn to pages 34-37 in your hymnal) contains both the applying of water (sprinkling or submersing) and the laying on of hands to invite the Holy Spirit. Once both of these acts have been accomplished, the believer is considered “born again” through water and the Spirit so that they might go on to live their lives as a faithful disciple of Jesus the Christ. Prior to the act, however, there is a profession of faith and a number of questions that need to be asked and answered. These questions and answers create a covenant whereby the person seeking baptism and the gathered congregation are reminded of their baptismal vows to live differently in the world.
Ismael Ruiz-Millan speaks to us about this act of living out our baptismal covenant. He writes, “…Remembering our baptism should be a regular practice for the church of Christ today. Living out our baptismal vows every day should be an expectation for every Christian. Often, our baptismal covenant becomes an accomplishment – an ending point. Luke reminds us that when Jesus was claimed by the Holy Spirit as the beloved son, it was the beginning of Jesus’ path toward the cross.
Living out our baptismal covenant on a daily basis should lead us along (to) the same path. Living our baptismal vows today might lead us to uncomfortable places, to let go of relationships, to establish new friendships with people we would never expect, to unlearn and redeem oppressive theological and political convictions, and to resist and seek transformation of the current systems that perpetuate oppression and dehumanization.
Jesus’ baptism is the reminder that our baptism is just the beginning, our joining in God’s plan for all humanity to experience liberation. More than ever, the body of Christ on earth needs to rise, resist, and reclaim this world as God’s world. As we intentionally seek to live out our baptismal covenant daily this new year, may we also remember that the Spirit that claimed Jesus as the beloved son is the same Spirit that claims us today as the beloved children of God.”
By water and the Holy Spirit are we named and claimed by God. Through our baptisms we are delivered from being no people to being God’s beloved children. Once baptized, we can never be removed from the roll call of the Body of Christ. No matter what we do, where we go, whether we choose to live as a disciple or not, whether we even choose to forget that we once believed in God Almighty – God still remembers us and calls us by name and is with us throughout our lives. Just look at the way that God accompanied Israel through all the ups and downs of their relationship. Through the apostasy that led directly to the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah and the two exile journeys of the leadership to Babylon. God stayed with the people until they regained their senses and came back to God – and then back to Jerusalem.
It is the same with us. God accompanies us through all of our wanderings. The times where we are close to God and the times where God seems absent from our lives and our world. We can run to a far country, become distracted with worldly idol worship, turn away from God’s call on our lives, persecute the followers of God like Saul, no matter what we do – God is still with us. The Sacrament of Baptism is a covenant promise by God to us that we will never be alone and forgotten. A covenant promise that by being born through water and the power of the Holy Spirit, we may grow to live every day as faithful disciples of Jesus the Christ, both as individuals and as the greater family of God. Thanks be to God, amen!