Over Mighty Waters
by Louise Westfall
We haven’t used the baptism font since last January, when we renewed our baptismal vows, as we do annually. There haven’t been any baptisms, and in fact, the font has been relegated to storage in the little chapel—you haven’t even seen it during online worship. Which is a shame, as the font represents the very heart of who we are and who we are in relationship with God. If you haven’t already, this would be a good time to bring a bowl of water into your worship space.
It is told about Protestant Reformer Martin Luther that when faced with life’s hard struggles and temptations he would place his hand on his head and whisper “remember your baptism.” For Luther, the knowledge of God’s unconditional love and the endless supply of grace poured out upon him served to fortify him to stand against every foe and withstand every difficulty. Could this be an antidote to the seemingly endless days of pandemic, stubborn divisions keeping our nation hostile and fragmented, painful reckoning of long-standing injustice, and worry about our lives and our children’s lives?? Is it enough to counter the horrific actions of armed domestic terrorists this week, storming the US Capitol and halting the certification of electoral votes from a free and fair election? Does our baptism initiate faith with some teeth in it to meet hatred? Is there anything to be found in this pretty bowl of placid water?
Well, let’s take a closer look at these mighty waters and what they do as they flow in and around, over and through us…
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. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good… [Genesis 1:1-4a]
The creation story from Genesis shares an important feature with origin stories from other cultures and religions: The power of a deity to bring light and life from the chaos of the sea. Over mighty waters God speaks a new reality into being and calls it good. Very good. In the beginning of our human story is One who harnesses natural forces—wind and water–for Divine purpose. Baptism testifies to the raw power of Spirit to fight back darkness with light, and fashion a world and a people from the “no” of nothingness.
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of God’s name; worship the Lord in holy splendor. [Psalm 29:1-2]
Yet today as we consider the waters of baptism, represented in this lovely, historic font, I wonder if the sacrament has become so tamed and domesticated that it’s hard to imagine its primordial drama. Listen…
The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. [Psalm 29:3-4]
You hear it long before you can see it. As you hike deep into Grand Canyon, the thunder of the mighty Colorado River reaches your ears, summoning you further down the trail until you reach its roiling, turquoise waters. You are stunned at its power –-both creative and destructive–to carve out this immense canyon. Over millions and millions of years, persistent effort that didn’t quit.
These waters are here too. The drowning pool where we relinquish control (much of it imagined), to the One whose rule disrupts and disturbs and dismantles the relentless ebb and flow of the status quo. About the only people who weren’t shocked at Wednesday’s assault were Black people, so painfully aware of our nation’s legacy of racial injustice. Our very founding documents betrayed the ideal, and the mob’s chants that “you will not replace us,” the construction of a hanging noose, and waving the Confederate flag reflect reactionary fear of reckoning with this tragic past. At least some of the water over which God hovered last week had to be tears that the beloved creation had fallen so far from that identity.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars and flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness and strips the forest bare; and in God’s temple all say, “Glory!” [Psalm 29:5-9]
Remember your baptism. How it was no small thing, but the earth-shattering, life-and-death action of the God of the universe reaching down to raise you up for the work of love in the service of good.
Before the pandemic, handwashing was an important but perfunctory part of daily hygiene. Now we know the might of tap water as it activates and then rinses away the soap with which we cleanse our hands. But this practice–along with social distancing and mask-wearing–significantly reduces the risk of Covid infection, a powerful deterrent to the virus that has wrought so much suffering and death.
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
The font may also look like a handwashing station, a place where you can get clean. But take care to understand the virus from which you seek protection. This is not a vaccination against our human self; as if we were born infected with sin. No, friends. Here we are cleansed from all that distorts and disfigures our humanity, and all that would keep us from being fully alive, reflecting the Divine image buried deep in our DNA. Here we are assured of God’s love no matter what. Over these mighty waters the heavenly voice names us beloved sons and daughters. We share a common identity.
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan River. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” [Mark 1:9-11]
The question that shimmers above the water is “What now?” For Jesus, the water on his brow wasn’t even dry before the Spirit drove him into the wilderness for prayer to gain clarity about his purpose. Baptism births us into a life we can hardly imagine, with people—and a community–we didn’t choose. We didn’t engineer our identity; we receive it. And that gracious gift gives us the courage to come clean about how things are with us. Here we confess the barriers that keep us from God (but never, ever keep God from us).
And here we respond to the persistent voice that calls us to persistence; to the hard and necessary work of love that won’t quit in frustration or disgust or anything else. The divine voice calling to us over these waters is neither small nor still, but cries out in labor to birth new life.
When God’s people amplify it, these cries will overcome voices of hatred and exclusion, violence and death.
That’s the meaning of our baptism: to know at the very depths of our being that we belong to God and respond to the chaos with the power of love. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that. Hard love. Persistent light. Day after day. Night after night. Remember your baptism. How it was no small thing, but the earth-shattering, life-and-death action of the God of the universe reaching down to raise you up for the work of love in the service of good.
The Lord rules over the flood; the Lord rules forever. May the Lord give strength to the people! May the Lord bless the people with peace!
Beloved people of God, let us renew our commitment to God’s kin-dom, and celebrate our life together by renewing the promises made at our baptism.
Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world? Do you? I DO.
Who is your Lord and Savior? JESUS CHRIST.
Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his word and showing his love? Will you, with God’s help? I WILL WITH GOD’S HELP.
Let us pray: Glory to you, O God, whose voice is over mighty waters, full of power and majesty; your word shakes the wilderness and blesses us with peace. Thank you for the gift of baptism, and for the love and grace you pour out upon us. Let these waters flow in us every day that we might live as your faithful people, loving and serving in the power and unity of your Spirit. Amen.
I invite you to touch the water you have brought into your worship space. If you’re alone, touch your forehead and say I am God’s beloved. Thank you. If you’re with others, make sure each person is touched by water and assured that they are God’s beloved. Remember your baptism and be thankful. In the name of the Creator, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.