The Witness of Water

The following was given as a sermon for Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary Chapel service for the reaffirmation of our baptismal vows; 6 January 2021.

Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11.

Greetings from the Cedar River Watershed that flows from the Western slope of the Cascade mountain range, home to the Duwamish and other Lushootseed speaking peoples. I want to begin with gratitude: thank you for being here, for taking a moment to step away from the news. It may seem incongruous with the current realities of the world, but my hope is that this time will give you some space to breathe, even, to feel renewed. Thanks also to the Chapel staff for inviting and trusting me to share a message with the Garrett community. And I give thanks for the Spirit of the Living God who holds us together in this moment wherever we are, and who will be faithful to joyfully gather us once again.

Today we take an opportunity to remember our baptism and to reaffirm our baptismal vows. May we be reminded of what it means to “walk wet” through this life, following in the way of Jesus Christ who began his ministry immersed in the river Jordan and flung out into the wilderness.

The Jordan River has been witness to a great many crossings and events during its long history—too many to fully recount here. It felt the churning of silt and upturned cobbles as two companies of Jacob’s household passed through, and it has seen Jacob himself wrestle the Lord throughout the night. It listened to Moses count the peoples in the plains of Moab, and heard his voice speak out over the desert. And then there is Joshua. Much anticipation and restlessness had grown as the people waited for the right time. The river let spies trip through its currents before that day. But it cannot forget when the whole host of Israelites crossed over.

On that day, the soles of the feet of the holy men entered the river Jordan, and suddenly the headwaters were cut off. The river had never felt such height before as it stood upon itself in a single heap. From there, it could watch as the people passed on dry ground. As it surveyed the land, the Jordan could see that twelve stones were taken from its middle, where the priests stood, away a little distance (with the tribes of Israel). Then that man, Joshua, brought twelve other stones into the middle, and placed them just so.

The Jordan River noticed that the priests with their load remained in the middle of the river bed during the entire crossing and as Joshua replaced the twelve stones. Finally, they made their way out and the river felt itself released. It rushed over the terrain checking for the familiar eddies, culverts, gravel patches, and etched soil banks. All was as it should be, except for the stones: twelve missing, twelve new set down by the hand of Joshua, man of God. Flowing once again as a single fluvial ribbon, the Jordan came to know the story of the tribes, the story of the God of Israel.

The Jordan became more familiar with the Israelites as their tribes settled into the region. It felt the exhaustion of Gideon and his company of soldiers and gave what it could to slack their thirst. Cattle, sheep, and other livestock were the river’s most frequent companions. It sensed changes in the land as factions warred and kings came to power.

Perhaps most remarkable, though, were the holy men of Israel—priests and prophets. When they passed, the river would slow its current around the twelve stones and remember. One day, the river could sense someone approaching—this time, it was Elijah. The prophet struck the river with his mantle, course hairs from the fabric sloughing off to ride a wave then catch on some reeds nearby—and suddenly the river felt itself give way and part. Paused, it held a close view as two men walked to the other side, the soles of their feet padding across with a strange impatience. The river flowed again and watched in wonder as a mass of flame drew near, catching up one of the men before ascending out of sight. Just one holy man returned. Elisha, too, struck the water so that the river had to let him pass, almost more out of pity, catching his salty tears of grief.

Not long after that, the river Jordan learned that a man—not an Israelite, but someone else—would come and wash himself. His name was Naaman. As soon as he set foot in the water, the Jordan swirled around the ailing epidermis. It sensed that this was no ordinary cleansing, but that something more needed to occur. At the man’s seventh immersion in the water, the river clutched at the leprous cells and sent them tumbling downstream. The Aramean emerged wholly restored and cleansed. That was a moment of deep joy for the river Jordan. It hadn’t acted alone.

Some time passed.

Eventually, another holy man arrived at the banks of the river. John the Baptizer came along in his bristling garment, guiding others to step in the waters and let their sins be washed away. The holy man reminded him of another human with his coarse-haired garment and brusque gestures. More and more people came to the riverbanks, tramping down the soil and churning the sandy river bottom, disrupting the vegetation growth. But, what joy for the river to be visited in this way. The soles of the holy man’s feet sparked anticipation. The Jordan remembered the history of the people of Israel as it continued to course over, around, and string its way through the twelve stones.

And then, that day, everything shifted. On that day, the leathery calloused soles of the feet of the holy man, John, were joined by another. Jesus the man-god entered the water. The Jordan lingered over his arms and legs, clung to his garment, and swirled through his hair. The water cleaved desperately to his skin, desiring never to go. Echoes of the moment of creation vibrated through the current as the God-man emerged, and those echoes grew in volume as a thundering voice rippled across the water’s surface. Space and time suspended yet the water flowed. The river looked up to see the heavens open and a flicker, a floating lightness, came to rest upon Jesus.

Then, suddenly, he was gone. The river reached for another stone to remember in that place where the whole of the created order seemed to begin anew.

Mark’s gospel gives us no time to transition from the water to the wilderness. With characteristic impatience, the Spirit intervenes to immediately expel Jesus into the wilds. First he is tempted by the evil one, then he is tended by wild beasts and angels. It’s as though the two—water and wilderness—cannot be decoupled. Furthermore, the author of Mark is the only one to include mention of “wild beasts” as companions to Jesus in the wilderness. (I find it interesting that) Creation plays a role at Jesus’ baptism and testing that we don’t see in the other gospel accounts.

Ched Myers, in his commentary, Binding the Strong Man, (and in subsequent works) notes that in the Greek text there is a striking prepositional change. Mark chapter one verse five says that “people … were going out to [John] and were baptized by him in the river Jordan.” The preposition there being [en] Jesus, however, was baptized into the Jordan, [eis] followed by the Spirit descending onto him [eis], before thrusting him into the wilderness [eis]. Citing an unpublished seminary paper (seminarians, take heart, your efforts are not in vain!) Myers suggests that the grammatical shift suggests a more complete submersion—perhaps even submission—not only to the prophetic mission heralded by John with/including incisive political implications; but also to the created order itself. He notes that, “While theologians usually understand Jesus’ baptism as divine empowerment ‘from above,’ we could just as well argue he was being en-spirited from ‘below’ through a deep submersion into his beloved homeland, grounding him in the storied Jordan watershed of his ancestors, through which the God of Israel was still speaking. The Jordan River was the backbone to the narrative of early Israel.”*

Now, given the stylistic nature of Mark’s gospel, this slight prepositional shift could be accidental. . . But what if it isn’t? What if the text is an opening to an even more subversive social-political-ecological imaginary? One that begins as a watershed moment: the river Jordan standing witness to the trinitarian event that is Jesus’ baptism. I invite you today to remember your baptism—whether you have conscious memory of it or not—from the perspective of spirit and water. What stories do your own baptismal waters carry?

I was first baptized in a church sanctuary, on an island, sourced by ground water filtered through layers of granite here in the South Salish Sea. Not remembering the first go-around, I was baptized again on a mission trip, a zealous 18-year old in a Tijuana reservoir that may or may not still exist. I might never get back to those waters, but I am eternally grateful to have returned to the region of my first baptism. These waters carry histories of flourishing and of devastation. Coast Salish peoples, like the Duwamish and Suquamish nearby, to the Chinook and Klamath to the south, and the Spokane and Umatilla to the east, have stories of crossing rivers on the backs of salmon. Today the diminished fish runs can barely keep the orca pods alive and growing. These waters are fed by cold, oxygenated rivers that tumble down into the sea and, in return, they send anadromous salmon and trout back upstream to give vital nutrients to the inland ecosystems. Today many of the waters have slowed and warmed, spreading foreign chemical compounds that feed only orange rose-shaped algal blooms offshore. My own baptismal waters carry the story of orca J35 Tahlequah who held up her dead calf for over two weeks, traversing 2,000 miles before finally letting the sea embrace her first born. Today many of us follow news of the pod, rejoicing when she gave birth last summer, praying for the health of her young orca and its two cousins also born to J-pod. What stories do your own baptismal waters carry?

Today we have an opportunity to reaffirm our baptismal vows, and as we do so, to learn the name of our watershed if we do not already know it. I encourage you to consider this an invitation to enter into your watershed—be it where you live now, or the familiar waters in which you were baptized. Let the Spirit guide you to the waters, give you ears to hear the stories, and eyes to see all the life therein. Amen.

*Quote from Ched Myers, “A Call to Watershed Discipleship” in Anglican Theological Review (100:1, 2018) p. 75

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