Reflections: The Life-Giving Waters of Baptism

Matthew 3:1-6, 13-17

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’”[a]

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. 16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

For the next several weeks we will be working with the theme “Walking Wet” — a summer series on water in the Bible. Last week we started with Genesis and the creation stories about God bringing order to the chaos. God’s Spirit was hovering over the chaos and the Spirit brought order to it. God defined water as in the heavens and on the earth. In bringing order to the cosmos and especially to earth, God demonstrated his love for all of creation and called it “Good, Very Good.” The theme of water is extended to today’s Reflection about baptism — the “Life-Giving Waters of Baptism.”

In Matthew’s Gospel, we see Jesus coming from Galilee to be baptized by John in the Jordan River.  John is reluctant and says that Jesus has got this backwards; Jesus should be baptizing John, not the other way around.  Jesus’ response to John holds an important clue about the motivation and importance of our own baptisms.  Jesus did not need to be baptized for the forgiveness of sin, since he was without sin.  Instead, he tells John, “it is proper for us [to do this] in order to fulfill all righteousness.”  In this instance, “fulfill” means to “do” or to “perform” and righteousness means “doing the revealed will of God.”  Thus, Jesus undergoes baptism as an act of obedience to the will of God.

Following his baptism, the heavens open, the Spirit of God appears, and a voice from heaven speaks which is reminiscent of Genesis 1 from last week, in which there is water, Spirit, and a voice, at the time of creation.  Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of the new creation that Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians: “everything old has passed away; see; everything has become new” (5:17).

What is baptism, anyway?  Most of us probably don’t know much more about it. We have seen babies baptized and we have seen adults baptized at the font of the church. Many of us have had our children and grandchildren baptized at Pleasant Grove UMC. Our list of members included baptismal dates. Baptism is an integral part of our Christian community here. Recently I uncovered a new insight into baptism as a welcome!  I think that’s a great description. In baptism we are welcomed into the Christian life, and into Christian community.

When I was a little child, my parents and I lived with my mother’s parents on Milford Avenue in Howard Park in Baltimore. It was WWII and all the fears and concerns, and terrible news was the order of the day. It was a difficult time for adults as the war raged on two fronts. But as a small child I was isolated from all of it. My grandmother showed me how to make soap – strong soap and cut it into bars. My grandmother fixed “milk toast” and coca to warm me on cold days. Cherry pie was her specialty with homemade ice-cream from a hand cranked process. It was my grandmother’s joyous acceptance of me when I showed her the engagement ring that I was about to give to Ann one evening so many years ago. I always was welcomed by my grandmother.

Isn’t the welcome of baptism something like my grandmother’s welcome? Here you are!  Welcome to the church!  Welcome to a community in which you may grow and be nurtured!  Come and live into the time and space God makes for you! Come and see! Welcome to that for which you thirst – whether you know it or not. Welcome into the presence of the God who loves you!

Baptism is something we call a sacrament.  Sacraments – and in the United Methodist Church, the sacraments we celebrate are baptism and communion, the Lord’s Supper – are those rituals which we particularly acknowledge to be signs of God’s grace, of God’s gift of love in our lives.   Sacraments are gifts of God to us in response to our thirst for an experience of the holy, our thirst for moments in which we know that God is present to us in the community of faith. The water of baptism is a sign, a symbol, of God’s love for us.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, tells us that God gives us concrete, tangible signs and symbols of God’s love for us because we need them.  We are bodily creatures, not creatures of air, or of intangible spirit – we are solid creatures of a solid earthly world – and we require solid material symbols by which to understand who we are and what we are about.

Water throughout the Bible, is such a symbol — of God’s deep love all of creation, and for us; of God’s covenant: God’s promise, to care for us, to protect us, and to make it possible for us to flourish; and of God’s Spirit, who encourages and enliven us.

Last week, we pondered the waters of creation – the waters of the deep, the waters of chaos, out of which God created – everything.  Through those roiling, turbulent waters, God gave birth to the entire world. When Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River, the Spirit of God alights upon him and the voice of God identifies him: “This is my Son, the beloved.”

What a welcome! And what a welcome available to all of us through baptism.  This welcome goes well beyond lemonade on the terrace, and even beyond nurture and promise in the desert.  This welcome to Jesus splashes over all of us, and tells us that we, too, are people in whom God’s Spirit dwells, and that we, too, are beloved.

Water in Biblical interactions is not merely about refreshment, or even hospitality.  Water is about identity.[1]

Welcome to a love that precedes you, a love that surrounds you, a love that is not dependent upon you or on your gifts or achievements — a love that flows from God’s spirit just as the water flows from the Jordan or from the baptismal font. Welcome to a love that will always have time for you. Welcome to a love that desires you to flourish – as you are, who you are, in your deepest self. Welcome to a love which propels you into the world to share, with generosity and hope, this love, in whatever way you are called to do so by those gifts unique to you.

Welcome to a deep love in which you are claimed by God – whether you know it or not, before can know it, when you are convinced that it has nothing to do with you, when you have turned away from it  – in all the circumstances of your life, the love which pours into your life from your baptism surrounds and supports you, and draws you into relationship with God and with the people of God.  With all people, because all people are the people of God.

Closing Prayer:

Loving God, we thank you that in the beginning you brought forth beauty and wonder out of the waters of chaos.  You used your power over water to divide the Red Sea to save your people.  You gave them water in the wilderness. You give us living water through our baptism into the body of Christ.  We thank you that in the waters of baptism we die with Christ and are raised with him into new life.  Help us to fulfill our baptismal vows to love and serve you.  In Jesus’ name, we pray.  Amen.


[1] Paraphrased from Life-Giving Waters (sermon)