It is curious and a little unnerving to be talking about water at a time like this. California is on the verge of drying up and blowing away, the docks on Lake Mendocino stand far, far away from the edge of the water, less than 40% of its usual capacity being left in the lake. That’s 73,000 acre-feet less water than the lake will hold, or 23,787,123,000 gallons of water that we know ought be there, but isn’t.
If you wanted to baptize in Lake Mendocino, and why not? You’d have to trek from the parking lot about a hundred yards to reach the edge and then you are in the shallower part of the lake, so you’d have to go a bit farther to get it deep enough to dunk somebody.
Lutherans could manage a lot earlier than that, give us a sea shell and we’ll dip up enough to get the job done so in the coming dry months, we’ll be fine.
We’ll be fine because we’re not obsessed with the symbols, the signs, the outward appearances. The font does not need to be big enough to accommodate the whole person, the whole meal at the holy supper is available in either wine or bread or even nothing at all, after all, Augustine said, in order to keep us from being distracted by the temporal things, “Why prepare you teeth and belly? Simply believe and you have eaten.”
Not that I’d be averse to baptizing in a lake or in a river or, heck, anywhere you’d like. I like the symbolism of large bodies of water just as I prefer having more bread out for the Eucharist than we are likely to need. It is a clear sign, a symbol of the overwhelming generosity and provision of God.
There is an overabundance of grace; all we need do is accept it. That’s why, given my druthers, I’d take a river over a lake, there is a current and the tiny feeling in the back of your mind that you could get swept away in God’s grace if you’re not careful.
I rather like that. I rather like the notion of there being so much grace that we may well be overwhelmed, swept away, buried under and avalanche of it. Because it is not snow, or a mudslide, think of it as an avalanche of clouds that smell like candy-canes and work like really good bourbon with no bad breath or hangovers . . .
You see how you can get lost in particulars? It just sounds ridiculous.
But overwhelming is the point.
We are a people who know what we know and ignore the rest, always have been. Stiff-necked the bible calls us, and we have earned that reputation through years of effort and nothing can surprise us and nothing can shock us and we will not be overwhelmed.
The simple interpretation is that Jesus meant for us all to be baptized in rivers, perhaps even in the River Jordan itself because that’s where He was baptized and when you are looking for details, those are the details and it is so very easy to glom onto them and make them of first importance.
Like the cautionary tale they told at Seminary about the family whose pastor, forgetting the name of the child to be baptized having not written it down on the bulletin, baptized the child in a different name and so his parents changed the child’s name rather than a) correcting their pastor or b) trusting that God would have it figured out, after all, the name was correct on the certificate, so what’s the worry?
For the record, please embarrass me in the future should this kind of thing happen. I am here as a servant of the will of God and of this community. I should accept the responsibility and embarrassment rather than you and I am happy to do so. Plus I am great at confessing.
I think it is the tendency to constantly narrow and refine our focus that leads us down this path. As a society we have grabbed onto each and every advance and turned it, seemingly, into a method for making our world a little smaller, all the while telling ourselves that we are making it larger.
I read the story in the Seattle Times about 20 years ago that Bill Gates had screens in his home that could either be set to change his environment in such a way as to allow him to think that he was actually in Tuscany, since the screens would all be showing the view from a villa in Tuscany. He could set it for a couple of dozen places throughout the world, virtually living in any of them at a whim.
He could also pretend that he owned some of the world’s great art because he had high-resolution facsimiles of them programmed into his computer and could “hang” them on the walls of his home on the same screens. Of course, they would all be the same size, something that is seldom true in the world of art, but who cares, now I can go to the Louvre without ever leaving the couch! Or Tuscany! Or Moscow!
Big screen TV’s are little different. We pump our homes full of entertainments that we used to enjoy in the company of other people and so we have less and less need of other people, or of going outside, or of communicating at all with the world around us.
We are narrowing our focus, losing our periphery, even our vision of the periphery is fading as we grow more and more tunnel-visioned less and less of the world makes an impact on us and the things that we do and care about, even they are reduced to a series of symbols and signs, the details that are important because we no longer have the vision to encompass the whole.
We bite down and swallow hard the message that says, every man for himself, and ladies I do mean that we bite down and swallow hard that message for no matter how hard we try we cannot seem to broaden our perspective enough to allow there to be room for you and even for our daughters and as the father of a daughter that frightens me because Caitlyn is not a detail, not a note on my resume.
My vision of her is much broader than that.
The Jordan is not the point of the baptism it is the location of the baptism a detail that if we focus too tightly upon it we will lose our vision of the rest of the scene, focusing too tightly on Jesus, after all he’s the important detail in all of these scenes isn’t he? Ask any Sunday school student or any child at children’s church, the answer is usually Jesus.
But zooming in on the Christ we miss the Butcher, the Baker the candlestick maker, the green grocer and the dentist and the soldier and the homeless wretch. When our minds focus so tightly on the details, we lose sight of the bigger picture.
Pretending is not being. Bill Gates can get the resolution so high as to make the screen he has in his living room represent every pore, every brushstroke of the Mona Lisa be it is not in his living room. The details are not what make the picture, the exact copy is just that, a copy and the perfectly detailed video of waving palms and white sandy beaches does not make your house in Washington State suddenly transport you to Tahiti. There is no truth in details, only facts, no humanity, no hope, and no salvation.
Pretending that if we fully immerse someone in a tub of water specially designed for that purpose we are “getting it right” or if we trek up the hill and baptize in the lake, or travel to Philo and baptize in the Navarro River, there is a great spot for it, trust me, we are not “observing the details” or making sure of anything other than the undeniable fact that we are missing the point, missing the forest for the trees and many other metaphors as well.
The river Jordan is not the point of the Baptism of Christ; it is merely the location, a detail we can frankly gloss over.
The Butcher and the baker, the cabbie and the homeless wretch, the plant manager and the financial planner and the teacher, the union organizer and the politician, the guy driving the delivery van and the guy breaking into the house on the hill and the mother crying in frustration that her baby will not go to sleep and the father crying in frustration that he feels trapped in his job because it pays the bills but he wants to be a writer and the pastor who loves giving himself away for the sake of his congregation and the congregation who strives mightily to live out the calling of their own baptisms – They are the point, you are the point.
Nobody in that crowd except John recognized who Jesus was. He was anonymous and serene; quietly coming out with the crowd to see what John was up to, what was going on. The Jordan wasn’t the point for Jesus either, it was just a detail. John wasn’t really the point either, not for Jesus, he too was a detail.
Jesus comes on the scene and sees a people wanting to be reconciled to God. They are coming to John, not to be forgiven, not to be blessed, not to have themselves washed clean of their sins, but merely to say, out loud, “I am sorry.” and to have the details fade away, swirling away in the waters of the Jordan river like the dirt kicked up from the riverbed around their feet as they walked forward.
John’s baptism was of repentance, or confession, of release and only John saw and knew who Jesus was and why he had come. Only John put two and two together, maybe even before Jesus did.
This was the time, and this was the place, not because of what time it was and not because of what place it was and not because John was there to fulfill the prophesies with Jesus and not because of what time of day it was or any of those details.
This was the time and this was the place because the people came seeking salvation, seeking release from the details.
And Jesus, who needed no repentance, who carried no burdens and could see the big picture walked into the water and cast his lot with the butcher, the baker and the rest of us, entering the swirling water of our need, turning the water of the River Jordan into the flowing grace of God, able to wash away the sins of the world.
Jesus repented for your sins and for mine, not scolding from above but healing and saving from among.
The point of the story is grace, flowing freely and abundantly from God and Jesus draws us into the current so that we may be clean like He is, sharing His righteousness when we had none of our own and knew that we were in need.
The point of the story is that God sends grace through this simple act, through this loving gesture. Water touching frail flesh in whatever fashion we manage to do it and binding us into the body of Christ, into His salvation, His death and His rebirth.
When we get lost in the details, when we substitute our vision for that of Christ, we turn the water cloudy and turgid again, we make the sacrament into something that we do, we lose sight of Christ’s act of grace and love.
Our part in this story is as the recipient of the gift, the story is about our baptism given new meaning by Christ’s. Instead of seeking after salvation, seeking freedom from an avalanche of details, instead of simply confessing our sins so that we might feel free we find ourselves no longer simply repenting, but being forgiven; not just seeking, finding. In the river Jordan, all of our need meets all of God’s grace and we are made free.