Sunday, January 13, 2008

Life-Giving Water

First Sunday After the Epiphany – Year A
The Baptism of Our Lord

Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 89:20-29; Acts 10:34-38; Matthew 3:13-17
Sunday, January 13, 2008 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

In the early to mid 1970s, Albert Hammond wrote and sang a popular song in which the refrain began “It seems it never rains in Southern California.” Perhaps some of you remember it. After last year’s record low annual rainfall of just under three and a half inches here in Los Angeles, far short of the average of 15 inches per year, and only one inch more than Death Valley, the sentiment that “it never rains in Southern California” seemed a near reality. Of course, as we have seen this season, it does rain in Southern California, and so far this season, the level of rainfall is above normal. But, when it rains, we can’t help but complain about the lousy weather, to which someone will invariably say “but we need the rain.” In this simple statement is the acknowledgment that we do indeed need water to sustain our lives and our lifestyles.

While we might be reluctant to admit it, our need for water is far more basic and fundamental to our lives than watering our perfectly manicured lawns and golf courses and filling our swimming pools. And the reality is that the rainfall we get, even in an average or above average year, is not sufficient to meet our needs. This was driven home to me this past week. There was a story on NPR about a threat to the California Delta. Water from the Delta, which is primarily fed by snow melts from the Sierras, provides water to the majority of California, including 21 million people in Southern California, as well as providing water for over half of the state’s agriculture. The Delta is the single most important source of water for each and every one of us. This water is pumped out of the Delta by a series of intake pumps in the mouth of Delta, not far from San Francisco Bay. With the increase in the sea level resulting from the melting of polar ice caps and glaciers, the salt water from the San Francisco Bay is slowly encroaching into the fresh water environment in the mouth of the Delta. In time, salt water will extend to and beyond the area of the water pumps. They will no longer be able to pump fresh water to our taps, but rather, salt water. Without extensive, not to mention, expensive, engineering work, our source of fresh water will all but be shut off.

Until I heard this story, I did not realize the extent to which we rely on the Delta for our water supply. But we do in a desert. We have no significant sources of water of our own. We are dependent on other sources for water – for the water that is vital to our lives. Forget about water for our lawns and our swimming pools. We’re talking about the water that we need just to stay alive.

We all know that, biologically, we cannot live without water. After air, water is the most important substance needed to sustain life. The average human being can survive for a number of weeks without food. But we can only survive for three or four days max without water. Water is absolutely essential to our life and to our well-being.

It’s no wonder, then, that water and the symbolism of water plays such an important role in our religion. Christianity uses water in four very different, yet very powerful ways. Water is life-giving, symbolizing and recalling birth. Related to this, water is used to typify renewal. Water is used for cleansing. And while water recalls birth and new life, it can, at the same time, evoke death. While not always representing all four of these conditions or purposes at the same time, water is continually used throughout the story of our faith for one or more of these purposes. Scripture is filled with images of water and the importance that water plays in the lives of God’s creation.

Water plays an important role in the very act of creation. In the opening sentence of Genesis, we read, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:1-2). On the second day of creation, God created the sky, referred to as a “dome” to separate the waters above from the waters below. And then on the third day, God separated the waters, allowing the formation of dry land, the foundation upon which all the rest of the creation would take place. In this way, all creation, all life, was brought forth from water – the watery chaos that existed before creation, and the waters that initially covered Earth. Life-giving water. Water giving life.

But it was not long before creation became corrupted at the hands of humanity. “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth” (Gen 6:11-13). So God commanded Noah to build an ark, and when that was completed and stocked with supplies and animals of all kinds, God caused a flood to cover the Earth. God destroyed all of creation, with the exception of the inhabitants of the ark, using water. Water bringing death and destruction. Water cleansing creation of corruption and violence.

But this same water that brought death and destruction, that brought cleansing to the world, also brought renewal and new life. For after the water receded and the ark came to rest on dry land, there was a fresh, clean palette from which to start again. A new beginning for humanity and all creation. Water bringing renewal. Water bringing new life.

Elsewhere in the Bible, water plays this all important role, causing life and death, destruction and renewal. Mediating the tension between life and death, destruction and renewal.

Hagar in the desert, being cast out from Abraham’s household by Sarah. The slave woman, and her bastard child Ishmael, left to wander the desert with only a loaf of bread and a skin of water. When those meager provisions ran out, they would surely die in such an inhospitable landscape. Just when this seemed to be their fate, an angel from God appeared to Hagar, who consoled her, offering a prophecy as to the fate of her son, who would become a great prophet, and revealed to her a well filled with life-giving water, a well filled with life-saving water. Water giving renewal in the face of hopelessness and certain death. Water giving new life to a mother and her child, and ultimately to a whole people.

Moses and the Israelites, fleeing the oppression of their Egyptian masters, crossing the Red Sea to escape their pursuers. The waters of the Sea are parted, allowing Israel to pass through on dry land. But as the pursuing Egyptians close the distance, the waters return, drowning Pharaoh’s soldiers. The children of Israel, escaping through the water, to a new life. Escaping through the same waters that would destroy the pursuing soldiers. Water bringing death. Water bringing liberation. Water opening the way to new life.

Wandering in the desert, searching for the Promised Land, Moses and the children of Israel succumbing to the harsh, inhospitable landscape, hungering for food, thirsting for water. The people, crying out to Moses for relief. Moses, crying out to God on behalf of his charges. God directs Moses to take his staff and strike the rock at Horeb, from which gushes forth steams of water, satisfying the thirst of the children of Israel. Water preventing certain death. Water giving new life.

Naaman, commander of the Aramean army, afflicted with leprosy, seeking healing from the prophet Elisha. At Elisha’s command, Naaman immerses himself seven times in the Jordan River, and when he emerges, his flesh is “restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean” (2 Kings 5:14). Naaman is healed. He is cleansed and renewed by the waters of the Jordan. Water making clean. Water bringing renewal.

These stories all reveal the immense power of water. The use of water for creation. The use of water to give life. The use of water to bring death and destruction. The use of water to bring about renewal and to give new life. And the use of water to cleanse. These stories show the physical power of water, the power of water to affect and change the physical. But as we see in the Gospels, and as we come to experience for ourselves, water not only has the power to affect and change the physical, it also has the power to affect and change the spiritual.

“John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matt. 3:1-2). Upon hearing this message, “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matt. 3:5-6). This was a different use of water. This was not a washing in water to cleanse the body, but rather a washing in water to wash away one’s sins, a washing in water to cleanse the spirit in preparation for the coming of the kingdom of heaven. John had added a new dimension to the cleansing power of water, to the live-giving power of water.

But then Jesus comes onto the scene and turns the whole baptism thing upside down and inside out. Jesus, the Son of God, the one who is without sin, comes seeking baptism, seeks to be washed in the waters of the Jordan in a ritual bath intended to remove sin. He seeks to be partake of a ritual that is meant to wash away the very thing that he does not even posses. For while he is fully human, just as we are, there is one human quality he does not have – sinfulness. Why does Jesus need to be baptized? How can Jesus be baptized? How can Jesus be cleansed of what he does not have?

He didn’t need to be baptized – at least not for himself. But he did need to be baptized for us. He needed to be baptized to change the very nature of that ritual bath, to add a significance that the ritual had not, and up to that moment, could not have, carried. In that moment, as he went down into the water and immerged again, all of salvation history was compressed for a brief instant. In that moment, the act of Jesus’ baptism converged with those of his death and resurrection. The moment of going down into the water converged with the moment of his death on the cross on Good Friday. The moment of his immerging from the water converged with the moment of his resurrection on Easter. In that moment, Jesus fulfilled his purpose as the representative for us all, as the representative of the new humanity that would be achieved through the salvation he afforded in his death and resurrection. In that moment, he infused the ritual of baptism with a whole new, revolutionary meaning that would forever change the lives of those who would thereafter partake in that ritual bath, and in the process, would change the world.

We know that water is important to us in so many ways. We rely on it to satisfy our thirst, to provide the vital liquid needed to maintain our fragile physical bodies. We rely on it for growing the food that we need to nourish our bodies. We rely on it to keep our bodies clean. Water is necessary to maintain our physical lives. But through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through the infusing of the significance of those events into the ritual of baptism, water is given an all important purpose that transcends its physical characteristics – it is given qualities that extend far beyond the physical capabilities inherent in two hydrogen molecules bound to one oxygen molecule. It is given a spiritual power beyond imagination. And this makes the waters of baptism a far more important source than even the California Delta. And unlike the waters from the California Delta, the waters of baptism are a source of life-giving water we are not in danger of losing. All we have to do is ask.

In the physical act of going into the water, or of having the water poured upon us, we are the recipients of a spiritual grace. As we are immersed in the waters of baptism, we experience the water in many ways. We experience water cleansing our sins and renewing our souls. We experience water destroying our old way of life, sharing in Christ’s death. We experience water giving birth to our new life in Christ, sharing in his resurrection. We experience release from the bondage of sin. We experience birth by the Holy Spirit to eternal life. And, as we emerge from that ritual bath, we too hear the words of God spoken to Jesus at his baptism; words now spoken to us. We hear God saying to each and every one of us, “This is my Child, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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