In a prayer of thanksgiving we say at every baptism, we tell the story of life. It is a story with water running through it.
We give you thanks, Eternal God,
for you nourish and sustain all living things
by the gift of water.
In the beginning of time,
your Spirit moved over the watery chaos,
calling forth order and life.
In the time of Noah,
you destroyed evil by the waters of the flood,
giving righteousness a new beginning.
You led Israel out of slavery,
through the waters of the sea,
into the freedom of the promised land.
In the waters of Jordan Jesus was baptized by John
and anointed with your Spirit.
By the baptism of his own death and resurrection,
Christ set us free from sin and death,
and opened the way to eternal life.
We thank you, O God, for the water of baptism.
In it we are buried with Christ in his death;
from it we are raised to share in his resurrection;
through it we are reborn
by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Water is powerful. Water is chaotic, threatening, and destructive; and water nourishes, sustains, and protects life – in the womb, and the sea, and all over the earth.
I hear the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the chilly waters of the river Jordan, and a scene emerges in my mind. Blue sky with puffy, white clouds; a horizon defined by green mountains and hills; a shoreline – you can’t tell if it’s a lake, a river, or the sea, but there’s water, lots of water, deep, dark-blue water with little whitecaps.
In it stand two figures, two men, dark-skinned, bearded, one slightly bald, the other dressed in a white robe, his arms crossed in front of his chest. Both of them look directly at you with a penetrating gaze, the bald one pointing to the one dressed in white as if introducing him to us.
The scene was painted on the baptistery wall of a little church in New Orleans, in the Lower Ninth Ward. The Greater New Jerusalem Baptist Church was built by its pastor, Howard Washington, Jr. over forty years ago. His nine children helped pour the concrete, the entire extended family lent a hand. One of Pastor Washington’s many cousins painted the mural of John and Jesus in the water.
For decades, they worshiped in that church, listened for the word of God, responded to God’s call, baptized new believers by lowering them into the deep, dark-blue water with little whitecaps, safely contained between the walls of the baptistery. They made sure that the last thing you saw before you went under and the first thing when you emerged was Jesus in the water.
Jesus is in the water, and that is why old ways come to an end in it and a new way begins; life as you know it disappears in the deep and you rise to walk in newness of life – in the way of Christ.
When Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Water, Spirit, and a voice. As in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth: darkness covered the face of the deep and a wind from God – the spirit of God – swept over the face of the waters, and God spoke light into being: Let there be light! And there was light. And God saw that the light was good and called it Day.
Genuine newness doesn’t just happen, or isn’t somehow derived from what was before, not in all of creation, nor in this new creation that begins with Jesus. Genuine newness is called forth by God.
Water, Spirit, and the voice of the One who creates, beholds, evaluates, and names. God saw that the light was good. Earth and sea were good. Plants and trees were good. Sun and moon and stars were good. Fish and birds, cattle, creeping things, and wild animals of every kind were good. God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good. God was delighted.
And when Jesus emerged from below the face of the deep, God was delighted. For Jesus, it was the inaugural moment of his ministry, and for the world it was a new beginning, a new day.
Mark doesn’t tell us a Christmas story of Jesus’ birth; there’s no genealogy and very little biographical detail; all he tells us is, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”
Everything is pared down to the essentials: Jesus, the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit, enters the water and is himself baptized – acting in radical solidarity with all human beings, disappearing in the deep, not to be washed, but to drown and rise.
This is how he loves; this is how he is beloved. This is where he comes from and where earth and heaven meet.
Creation is good, very good, but it isn’t complete until human beings know themselves and one another as God’s beloved. The Son is born that we might know one thing: yes, you have a history, you live in a particular time and place, you do things and you fail to do others, you have relationships that give you joy and others that break your heart, you have times when you love your life and times when you wonder if the life you’re living is really yours—all of that shapes you, but it isn’t what defines you in God’s eyes. The Son is born that you might hear one word and know that it is spoken to you: Beloved. That is who you are. That love is what frames your identity as a human being in God’s creation. That relationship is where life begins and finds its fulfillment.
The Son is born that we might know that God’s love for us is neither episodic nor conditional – it is there at the beginning and at the end. In all our beginnings and our ends we are held in the love and delight of God.
On the morning of Monday, August 29, 2005, hurricane Katrina made landfall in southeast Louisiana, causing severe destruction along the Gulf coast from central Florida to Texas. The storm surge overwhelmed the levee system of New Orleans, and 80% of the city were flooded – the Lower Ninth Ward was hit hardest, with some parts of it under 15 feet of water.
At the Greater New Jerusalem Baptist Church the muddy waters rose way above the windows, swallowing pews and pulpit, table, hymnals, piano, everything – including the baptistery.
Pastor Washington didn’t wait until people were allowed back. As soon as the waters had dropped enough for specially equipped all-weel trucks to drive on the soggy ground, he managed to catch a ride on one of them – not to check on his house, but on the church. What he found was a scene of complete devastation; his neighborhood looked like a war zone as far as the eye could see.
There were many who told him to dig through the debris and perhaps save a few little things to help him remember a lifetime of ministry, but to not even think about rebuilding. They didn’t say it to discourage him; they loved him, they were concerned for his wellbeing: there was no insurance to help with the effort, no government grant or Hollywood money. The task was overwhelming.
But he went to work, all by himself, 78 or 79 years old at the time; he started cleaning and gutting the sanctuary and he didn’t stop. He rebuilt the church the way he had built it: little by little, step by step, with faith and determination. Sometime last year he recalled,
When Brother Vance met me and said he would bring groups [of Disciples] to be God’s arms and legs, I knew God was leading the way! I am just stepping aside and not getting in the way. God brought them and God will lead them.
The work was completed and the sanctuary of the Greater New Jerusalem Baptist Church was rededicated on Sunday, August 10, 2008; its congregation is once again a witness to God’s love and faithfulness in a neighborhood where life is slowly returning.
And when the water dropped, inch by inch, revealing a landscape covered in mud, the wall above the baptistery slowly emerged, slowly dried. The colors were dull, the green hills looked like piles of mud, but the mural was there: John pointing to Jesus as if to introduce us, who have come looking for the promise of life after the flood, to him. Up to his hips in the water, Jesus reminds us that it is divine love that holds us, creative, almighty, faithful love.
Last summer, when work in the sanctuary was almost finished, Eleanor, a member of First Christian Church in Meridian, Mississippi, stepped into the baptistery with a six-foot ladder. With her she brought small cans of paint, green and blue and brilliant white, warm, sunny brown and cheerful yellow. And she went to work. Quietly and reverently she repaired and touched up the mural, every brush stroke a prayer and a confession of faith:
When the raging waters of chaos swallow up light and life, all things come to an end – but love remains. Love remains.
Remember who you are, sister in Christ: God’s beloved daughter. Remember whose you are, brother in Christ: God’s beloved son. Though the waters roar and foam, they cannot quench God’s love for you. God calls you by name, and your middle name is not Abandoned, or Forgotten, but Beloved in whom God delights. Remember this.