Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
The camel hair-wearing, locust and honey-eating prophet John the Baptist is depicted as eccentric, strong willed, and brazenly antagonistic against the powers and principalities of his time. Recall, just before today’s gospel reading John looks out over the crowd who had come to be baptized by him and calls them a “brood of vipers.” So it seems a little out of character to hear him diminish the importance of what he is doing when he says, “I baptize you with water, but one more powerful than I is coming…” It sounds like he thinks baptizing with water isn’t that important or meaningful in light of the coming Christ. It sounds like he thinks the coming Christ will not concern himself with water but instead will bear something much more inspiring and intimidating – fire.
With the privilege of hindsight, we know that John’s concept of the Messiah didn’t quite measure up to real life. After all, there’s only one account in the four gospels of Jesus talking about fire. But there are many more instances of Jesus’ ministry taking place in, through, and around water. For example,
Jesus turns water into wine
Jesus walks on water
Jesus calms the seas
Jesus washes the disciples’ feet
Jesus asks a Samaritan woman for a drink of water from a well
Jesus teaches about the importance of divine “living water”
and Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (John 3:5)
John shouldn’t have sold himself short; turns out water is the perfect medium for the Holy Spirit to manifest God’s miraculous and redeeming presence. It also turns out that water is a great metaphor for God. On this day in which we celebrate Jesus’ baptism as well as our own baptism, it seems like the perfect time to talk about little about just how aqueous God can be.
[Earth ball or globe]
At its most fundamental level, water enables life. Without water, we wouldn’t be here; there would be no life whatsoever. The billions of dollars spent on space exploration each year is essentially a search for water in outer space. Where there’s water, there’s life. What better image of God than of the very substance that makes life possible. In our baptism we were touched by the source of life itself.
[Water poured into baptismal font]
While every element can exist as a liquid, water is the only liquid that “performs an active, diverse, and flexible role” within molecular systems.*
Water is the source of life because it is inherently active, diverse, and flexible. So too, God is, by nature, active, diverse, and flexible. We would want no part of a God whose nature is inactive, monotonous, and rigid. In our baptism we were invited into a relationship with a God who participates in life, exists beyond our comprehension, and can work in mysterious ways. So too, our everyday lived-out faith demands that we would be active in the world, that we would thrive within diverse systems, and that we would trust in truths we cannot comprehend.
Those qualities in water make it an effective solvent, meaning that water is the most effective liquid with regard to dissolving nutrients from one thing and transport them to another. In our baptism, water served to transport the divine nutrients of God’s love and God’s presence into our human nature. Similarly, we remember that our baptism is something that should always be outwardly expressed. Just as water and the Word transported God’s love to us in baptism, our purpose as disciples is to share God’s love with others.
It’s also true that there is as much water on earth today as there was when the earth was formed. The next cup of water you drink could very well be the exact same water that dinosaurs drank millions of years ago. Or, if you prefer to think of it this way, the water that sealed your baptism could be the same water that Jesus waded into in his baptism. This fact reminds us that God is enduring; God’s presence unites us with all that has come before us and all that will come after us. The baptismal waters are not a passing fad; rather, the baptismal water that bears of the promise of God’s love has been around from the beginning of time.
[Lake Michigan stone]
We are also aware of water’s power to impact the environment. From the smooth edges of pebbles to the mile-deep carving of the Grand Canyon, water is an unparalleled force that leaves an enduring visible legacy. A persistent drop of water can eventually dissolve a hole through a rock. A rushing river can carve out an earthen trench a mile deep. What better reminder of God’s power in our lives than to take the time to look back and see the paths that God has carved out for us. In our baptism God powerfully and eternally clears away sin, death, and all that would otherwise separate us from God. Our everyday lived-out faith has the same powerful force behind it; for “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).
Water also forces things to expand, which can make things unpredictable. Something that has been filled with water to the point of expansion is just begging to release that water. When we remember our baptism we not only recall the fact that water was placed on us, but more importantly we are called to remember that divine water wells us within us and stretches us beyond our comfort zones. Yes, this water balloon will not last as long as its sibling from the package that remains completely dry. The dry one will last longer, but what is the point of a balloon if it is never inflated with anything?
Self-preservation can seem like the foundational force of human nature, but that’s no way to live. Look at this picture of dried cod from a Norwegian museum. That fish is hundreds of years old. It is perfectly preserved and completely dry and lasts much longer than hydrated fish; but who wants to be a dried cod Christian? Who wants to play it safe and have all the divine water drained from their soul just in the name of self-preservation? Our everyday lived-out faith is by nature a drippy faith that makes life possible, stretches us beyond our self-imposed limits, makes us grow, and compels us to share our faith with others.
[Martin Luther toy]
Martin Luther reminds us of the importance of remembering our baptism each day. This means each day as we give thanks for the role that water plays in our physical life we should let water remind us of the qualities of God that inform a healthy physical and spiritual life.
The next time it rains, remember you are baptized by the God who makes life possible.
The next time you add water to a recipe in order to blend different ingredients into something new, remember that God is active, diverse, and flexible.
The next time you take a drink of water that has been around from the beginning of creation, remember that God is eternal.
The next time you see a stream, river, valley, or smooth stone, remember God’s power and ability to shape new things.
The next time you see something filled with water, remember God designed us to expand, push our limits, and live adventurous lives full of risk.
People of God, remember your baptism and, in so doing, may you positively drip with God’s grace, peace, and love.