"I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky." These lovely works by poet John Masefield talk about the sailor's almost irresistible draw to the water.
It’s been said that since our bodies may be up to 75 percent water, we are automatically drawn to water. We know certainly that the body cannot exist without water – picture the old cowboy movies where the pioneers in covered wagons are overcome with heat and exhaustion in the desert, no oasis in sight, a burning sun scorching the sand. Whitened bones of humans and animals, wagons with rotted canvas coverings flapping in the wind are soon all that’s left. No flowing streams, no rain, no hope for those caught unprepared in the desert. It’s as if heat and drought themselves yearn for water and so pull the water of life out of living things until bones collapse and blanch on the desert floor.
“I must go down to the sea again.”
Our hearts ache for the touch of water on our dry skin when we consider the desert. But then we imagine other movies, “The Perfect Storm” or “Moby Dick.” We remember the desperation and horror of those caught in real-life tsunamis. Plenty of water there. More than plenty – too much. Instead of being life-giving, the water brings death. The sea, the blue-green and tranquil sea that painters love to capture on a beautiful summer’s day, becomes an enormous force, bigger than life, dangerous, frightening. It becomes black with fury, tossing ships like toys, overwhelming miles of landscape and claiming to its black depths lives, villages, and a future’s hope.
Water – life and death, hope and despair. In a way, we have absolutely no control over water; some pray for rain, others pray for the rain to stop. Water, like the air we breathe, is completely essential, and yet it brings death as well as life. Perhaps it’s those properties of water that make it such a perfect symbol of the grace of baptism.
Water is one of the most evident features in scripture. From the graceful beginning words of Genesis where the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, through the story of Noah and the covenant between God and God’s people, to the Red Sea, and then to today’s anointing of Jesus’ ministry through his own baptism, water has woven the story of God’s life and ours together.
Baptismal water flows over us today. In our passage from Isaiah, we’re reminded that even as we pass through raging waters, God is with us. Overflowing rivers will not drown God’s people. And why? Because the word of the Lord through Isaiah says, “Fear not: for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, and you are mine.” Of course water here is an image. Earthly water and fire – another image in today’s passage – can do us bodily harm, but when we dig deeper and hear what God is saying, we realize that God is reminding us that no earthly thing can keep us from the love and comfort of God. Even if natural water or fire overwhelms our bodies, God’s spirit is with us. God’s love comforts and heals.
In the gospel, water is used both figuratively and literally. John the Baptist offers the people of that time a baptism of repentance. The Jews are drawn to the waters of the Jordan to be cleansed of their unfaithfulness to God’s law. They are drawn by John’s words. Many may be drawn by the simplicity of his message. This is how you can live lives faithful to God’s law: tax collectors, don’t cheat; soldiers, don’t threaten or extort; all of you, share what you have with the poor. John offered them a chance to be renewed. And this was a very good thing. The Jordan’s water cleansed both body and soul.
It seems sensible that some would mistake John for the Messiah, but John introduces Jesus by using the two images we heard in Isaiah: water and fire. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” This is a new baptism. This new baptism will do more than forgive sins, it will create the community of God. This community would be guided by the Holy Spirit. This baptism announced that the kingdom of God was at hand. As the heavens opened at Jesus’ baptism, the voice of God anointed the mission and ministry Jesus would live out among God’s people. God has pitched a tent among the people.
This isn’t just an historical telling of the start of Jesus’ ministry. This message is for us, too. But you might say, we know this story. We know it’s important to be baptized. We even baptize babies, not only adults, as they did in the early church.
But do we really know? Do we really take our baptisms seriously today? We certainly still take water seriously, its ability to effect both life and death, but if we really took our baptism seriously, wouldn’t our world and our church look different? Think about those promises we all made at our baptism. We promised to keep alive the apostles’ teachings and the prayers. We promised, as those people did at the Jordan, to acknowledge our sins, repent, and return to the Lord. We promised to see Christ in each other and to respect the dignity of every human being. We promised to work for justice and peace. We didn’t promise just to think all these things would be nice. We promised to DO something about them – to WORK for them. Are we? From the look of the world and the church, we must not be doing too good a job.
This is why we have a lectionary cycle. This is why the church asks us to consider the story of our salvation, and everything that entails, over three years’ of readings. It helps us to look at all God has done for us. It helps us to remember that no matter what, God cares deeply for us and promises to be our strength. Hearing again and again the story of John and Jesus at the Jordan should cement in our minds that we must keep the mission and ministry of Jesus alive. We are asked to pray. We are asked to keep Jesus’ teaching alive by sharing in the liturgy, preaching God’s word, and then taking what we have learned out to others.
"I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;"
Our call to keep alive the good news of the gospel and to spread the love and compassion of God cannot be denied.