On Wednesday, I spent a few hours dipping my thumb into a jar of oily palm ash, smearing it onto people’s foreheads in the shape of a cross, and telling them to remember they come from dust and to dust they will return. It’s a weird day, that Ash Wednesday.
A teenager I was explaining to told me: A teenager I was explaining to told me: This sounds depressing and pointless. Who needs another reminder that they’re going to die? And I thought: Those are some good points, young man. It’s a weird day, weird but sometimes moving too.
Along with the ashes and a prayer, I asked people
“What are you seeking in this season?”
And I prayed that God would meet them in that. I heard a lot of interesting answers, people seeking physical health, mental health, peace in their marriage, peace in their household. There were people seeking personal growth, rest, help in school, help in business, peace and justice in Ukraine. Lots for God to meet us in these days.
I spent some time that day asking myself that question.
What am I looking for? What am I seeking these days?
There was a lot.
I wrote them down and went back and counted. There were 14 things on my list. And I was just getting started.
There were little things, like chilling out on my sugar addiction. But there were some big things too, a few big things I’m seeking for important people in my life. And some big things for me. I’m working on a big writing project, but after these past two years, it’s gotten harder for me to focus on writing. I’m trying to find a way forward there. There’s some inner work on my list too, and I summed that stuff up this way:
I need my heart to be more open. I need to be less afraid and more alive.
I need deeper faith, surer hope, bigger love.
When Jesus looked for words to speak about the kind of things I’m looking for – when he spoke about the hope, vitality, love, and power God can bring to people’s lives, Jesus sometimes spoke of living water.
Maybe it’s because we’re mostly made of it. Maybe because one of the only things we need to do to stay alive for a week is drink water. But water is life. And Jesus used the image of water to talk about the ways that God can deepen and restore and reinvigorate our lives.
After nearly two years of constant interruptions, loss, and change, many of us are weary and dry. We could use anything like living water that restores and refreshes.
Many in our community are also searching for deeper faith or are looking for forms and lives of faith that are different from things we’ve been taught or have experienced in the past. It’s as if an old spring we used to drink from has run dry or has proven less safe and refreshing than we thought it was. We are in search of new sources of clean, running water for our souls.
Over the next six weeks from now until Easter, I invite you into a journey together to seek Jesus’ water of life. It’s my prayer that in participating in this Lenten season, you’ll find yourself refreshed, restored, and renewed.
You heard we have a daily guide you can use. I think it’s deep and beautiful. I highly recommend you look over it a bit today. There’s a different theme for each of the six weeks, and each week a very short daily reading and prayer, along with other poetry and artwork you can take in as you like.
Each Sunday, we’ll introduce the theme in our sermon here, and we’ll end the sermon with a very short experience of the week’s prayer.
Our very first week’s theme is the waters of baptism.
Let’s read today’s passage on that.
Mark 1:4-11 (Common English Bible)
4 John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.
5 Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins.
6 John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey.
7 He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals.
8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River.
10 While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him.
11 And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”
Baptism is a very religious and maybe kind of obscure place for us to start. But it’s where the stories of Jesus mostly begin, and for some of us, it’s a moment that happens when we’re a baby or in our early years of faith that we mostly forget about. But it can be an experience and then a memory and an image that helps us receive Jesus’ water of life again and again.
So I’m going to say some words about where baptism is – where it comes from and what it represents, including a good way and a bad way to think about your own or anyone else’s baptism. And if that topic interests you for yourself, maybe for your kids, I’ll tell you what you can do about that.
And then we’ll return to baptism as an image for things God might want to do in us during this season before we end with a little taste of this week’s prayer practice.
Baptism. Baptism is old.
There’s something in us that loves to be covered in water. We spend 40 weeks in a watery womb before we are born, and then we return again and again to be covered in water. For those of us who can swim, there’s nothing like a year’s first plunge into the cool waters of a pond.
Sometimes, I’ve not been able to resist that feeling even in the wintertime. My favorite New Year’s Days have been when I’ve run a 5k or 10k along the coast up near the New Hampshire border, and taken a plunge into the Atlantic right after finishing. It makes me feel so alive.
Even if we can’t swim, though, we crave water. We love our showers or our baths for far more than the cleansing they give us.
Hikes to waterfalls are among the most popular hikes in New England – they’re a kind of pilgrimage to the beauty and power of water.
When living with Uyghur Muslim friends in China, we’d wash our hands and face from a common bowl of water – not really for its sanitary value, that was questionable – but more for the symbol, I think: cleaning hands, cleaning hearts, clearing minds before table fellowship.
For millennia, Hindus have bathed in the Ganges River for its cleansing, purifying powers that tradition believes that it has.
And Jews and Christians, in different ways, have had cleansing with water as part of practices of faith.
The origins of Christan baptism with water are a little mysterious. Best as we can tell, though, being submerged in water was part of a ritual cleansing practice for the Hebrew ancestors of today’s Jews.
After contact with death or activities that were thought to dirty you, people would ritually, ceremonially cleanse with water. Still today, some branches of Judaism maintain versions of this practice – going to a mikvah, a special indoor bathtub, like the little baptismal pool Reservoir has on the side of our sanctuary. You go there for cleansing and renewing the mind, body, and spirit, either during conversion to Judaism or after certain life experiences.
The man in today’s passage named John, who was nicknamed John the Baptist, or John the Baptizer, took this practice and popularized it as part of a first century renewal movement in Judea. For him, being submerged in the waters of the Jordan River, was an expression of openness to God changing your life, as part of God’s renewing breakthrough work in the world.
By being baptized in the Jordan River, you were dramatizing your participation in God’s new work in your life and in the world. Going into the water was a way of saying that if there were parts of your way in the world that weren’t bringing life to you or others, you were going to walk away from those. Cleanse those off. And it was a way of saying that you were open to being submerged in God, so to speak, your whole self given kind of a new life, part of a new movement of God for peace, goodness, and justice in the world.
Jesus took part in this. His baptism launched his public teaching and work we read about still in the gospels. For Jesus, getting baptized by John in the Jordan River was about his own openness to participating in God’s renewing work in the world.
And for Jesus, something special happened at his baptism. As he stood up and walked out of the water, a dove landed on his shoulder – a common bird much like today’s pigeon. And as that dove sat on his shoulder for a few seconds, to Jesus and to others watching, the dove seemed to be the Spirit of God, the special presence of God with Jesus in that moment. And however they felt it, what Jesus and others felt like God was doing and saying as that bird landed was saying to Jesus:
You’re my kid, my favorite. I love you and I’m proud of you. You make me happy just by being you.
It’s what every good parent says to their kid, or needs to say to their kid, again and again. And it happened in a very particular, powerful way for Jesus that day. An experience for Jesus, but like all of Jesus’ experiences, really, an experience he wants for us as well: to know deep in our beings that we are God’s kids, that God loves us and is proud of us, that our very existence makes God happy.
Now followers of Jesus took up versions of this experience and have passed it on, generation after generation after generation. It’s been 2,000 years, so people do this differently. Some people and traditions baptize infants and young children, as an expression of their community’s faith and of God’s love and promise over the child’s life. Some people and traditions baptize older children, youth, and adults after they have made their own personal profession of faith, as an expression of the relationship with God in Christ that they have welcomed for themselves. Many traditions offer both of these kinds of baptism.
Reservoir in the past offered the second kind of baptism, for youth and adults who express personal faith in God, through Jesus. But going forward (as we were talking about just before the pandemic hit) we’re very much open to practicing both kinds of baptism – for youth and adults with their own belief, but also for very young kids as an expression of their community’s faith and God’s love and promise for them.
Baptism always involves water – either a little bit of water sprinkled or poured over the forehead, or someone is immersed into water out in the natural water of the world or in an indoor hottub/mikvah like thing called a baptismal. Regardless of how it’s done, the waters of baptism still represent what they did to Jesus – the presence of God by the Holy Spirit, that God is always with you and in you.
The assurance that God is with you as one that utterly loves you, that brings new life to you, and that gives you belonging in a bigger and wider community of those that love and seek God.
But where this water imagery meets faith meets religion, things get complicated. I mean, let’s go back to the Ganges. Traditional Hindus will bathe there as a mark of cleansing and purity, but it’s also now one of the most polluted, dirtiest rivers in the world. So what’s going on there? It’s complicated.
So is water itself. When I’ve talked about this Water of Life with some of you, I’ve heard all these positive associations about refreshment and all, but also people who associate water with overwhelming terror. That time you almost drowned, that storm that wrecked your house – more on those kinds of experiences next week.
Baptism is complicated too.
In fact, I think there are two ways of making meaning out of baptism, one I think is pretty awful and one that is beautiful and powerful.
The awful way of thinking about baptism is like the gate to a big fence. The fence divides people in two categories.
On the inside of the fence are the Christians, on the outside are the non-Christians. (Our ancestors had more colorful words for the people on the outside, like heathens, infidels, that kind of thing. But we’ll just go with the whole Chrisitan/non-Christian bit). And baptism is the gate you go through to be Christian.
Or maybe you worry about what will happen to you after you die, and you believe in a somewhat more angry or punitive God. Then on the inside of the fence, you have the people going to heaven. And outside the fence, you have the people going to hell. And again, baptism is the gate you go through to be on Team I’m Going to Heaven!
Now, it’s Christians’ fault that these categories exist. In the first few centuries after Jesus’ life, there was increasing standardization of the Christian faith and increasing anxiety about this fear of hell Chrisitans were getting worried about. At some point, people started anxiously baptizing babies, all the babies, not as a sign of God’s promise and love over their lives but out of fear they’d die young and go to hell.
Later, when Christians started terrorizing Jews and Muslims and indigenous peoples, baptism was the gateway toward their conversion into the empire and their freedom from terror, while a lack of baptism could justify their subjugation and threats of hell.
Can I keep it simple today and just say all of this is really bad? It’s the most toxic way of doing religion, as if God really wants insider and outsider clubs, and gives us magic ceremonies to move people in and out of them. That is not healthy.
But there is a healthy, beautiful way to practice baptism and think about baptism.
The healthy way of thinking about baptism isn’t about fences and gates, it’s about wells. Baptism – a rite, a symbol of water after all – is like an old and deep well where God gives us water. Water to drink, water for washing, water to cook with.
Baptism isn’t keeping anyone in or out of God’s love or kindness or forgiveness or anything else. And baptism isn’t a magical thing we do to access God’s presence or rewards for us. Baptism really isn’t about what we do at all. It’s about participating in what God is and does for us.
Like a well, we go there because the water is deep and clean and good. It’s about the water, not the bucket.
Baptism isn’t about what we do. It’s about participating in what God is and does for us. It’s about welcoming Jesus’s water of life.
Baptism is an opportunity to represent the Spirit of God with us. It’s an opportunity to know that God is with you as one that utterly loves you, that brings new life to you, and that gives you belonging in a bigger and wider community of those that love and seek God.
So wrapping up the baptism bit – if you have never been baptized, but you’d like to explore that during this spring, send me a note please – email@example.com – and we’ll set up space for you to ask your questions and decide if this is something you want to do or not. I’ll follow up with the details after I hear about interest.
And if you have kids – babies, tiny kids or maybe older kids like preteens and teens, and you’re interested in what’s the difference between child dedication and baptism and what’s right for your kids when, our kids and youth team will be following up with an information session and more in the weeks to come.
But let’s close now with baptism as an image, a metaphor for starting to participate in this lent, and receive Jesus’ renewing, revitalizing, restorative waters of life.
This week, in our guide, each day, we’ll read a short bit of the Bible and a few reflections on different aspects of Jesus’ water of life for us that are associated with baptism imagery. All while viewing watercolor and art and poetry associated with the theme of water of life. Matt’s even composing ambient music for us inspired by water. We’ll hear part of one of these pieces in the background during our closing prayer in a minute. You can use these yourself while you pray if you want – they’re showing up on our YouTube channel.
And each day, we crystallize the content down to a single word or phrase we invite you to sit with in silence for a few minutes. This practice is called centering prayer. You can read more about it in the guide, but it’s a way to center our mind, our spirit on a bit of good news truth from God.
The words and phrases are:
-Spirit with me
-Alive with Jesus
-I belong in the Body of Christ
I told you that I enter this year’s Lent needing a lot from God – needing some things in my life to be made new. That’s what that tired phrase “born again” means to me – another chance at new life. And I need to know I’m not alone, that God travels with me and in me in all my life. And like many of you, I want a fuller life back. I want to feel and be fully alive again.
Iranaeus, one of the earliest Jesus-following writers, once wrote The glory of God is a human fully alive.
God shines and lights up in the world when God makes us fully alive.
Baptism tells me God doesn’t want to just add a little bit of this good stuff onto our tired, tattered lives.
No, God wants to submerge us in waters of life. To have this revitalizing good news surround us and fill us and reanimate us.
God wants to pour all this over us.
Jesus says to us today, come back to the well. I have living water for you here.