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. Amen.
We say this prayer every time we have a baptism. Those who wish to live as followers of Jesus and members of his church come to the baptistery and before we lower them into the water, we give thanks to God – thanks for the good news of life’s creation and redemption, and for the water that flows through it all like a river extending from the beginning of time to the city of God.
Water nourishes, sustains, and protects life – in the sea, in the womb, and all over the earth. But water also drowns, overwhelms, and destroys life. We don’t think much about water when we turn on the tap and expect the goodness to flow, fresh and clean, warm or cold; but when the Cumberland rises after heavy rains and claims new banks far above Second Avenue, words like awesome and devastating quickly come to mind. Water runs through all our stories like a river from the beginning of time, and today we celebrate that Jesus stepped into that river.
In Mark, there is no Christmas story at the beginning; only a long-awaited messenger who appears in the wilderness. John called people out into the wilderness to repent and be baptized in the Jordan to be prepared for the coming of the stronger One, the One who would come and baptize them in the Holy Spirit. And they came, from Jerusalem and the entire Judean countryside; they headed down to the banks of the Jordan to listen to John’s preaching and be baptized by him. One by one they stepped into the water. They could smell wild honey on his breath, they could see the light of his eyes under the dark brows as they said what needed to be said. Then they let his strong, sun-burned arms plunge them beneath the surface, into the silent depth. Long ago, their ancestors had entered the promised land crossing this river between the wilderness and the land of milk and honey. Like them, the men and women who came to John wanted to begin again, they wanted to live as God’s covenant people on God’s land as though they had just crossed over into it. They prayed that the river would wash away their transgressions and their guilt and the shadows of all they couldn’t undo; they prayed they would emerge from the chilly depth with their lives scrubbed clean as new, prepared to face the coming One, the holy One who would set all things right.
Jesus came like the rest of them had come, walking on dusty roads, waiting in line in the heat of the day, and finally stepping into the water, like the rest of them. Jesus began his ministry where sinners gathered, ordinary men and women with the desire to begin anew. So many were gathered at the river, you couldn’t have picked him out from the many faces, and the way Mark tells the story, neither could John. Standing in the water, he didn’t realize that his arms were holding the one whose coming he had been announcing. He plunged him beneath the surface like the rest of them, into the cold silence, down into the darkness at the bottom.
As 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 from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The beginning of the good news of Jesus is like the beginning of creation: Water, Spirit, and the voice of the One who creates, beholds, and names.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth darkness covered the face of the deep and a wind from God swept over the face of the waters, and God said: Let there be light! And there was light. And God saw that the light was good and called it Day.
Water, Spirit, and the voice of the One who creates, beholds, and names. 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. It was a new beginning for the world, a new day.
Twice in the gospel of Mark, the divine voice from heaven speaks, here and at the transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8); here only Jesus hears the words of delight, at the transfiguration, three of his disciples hear the divine voice. Twice in the gospel of Mark, a veil is torn, here where Jesus sees the heavens torn apart, and at his death when the curtain of the temple is torn and when the voice affirming that he is the Son of God is the human voice of a Roman soldier (Mark 15:38). What is merely opened can be closed again, but what has been torn remains open: in the life and death of Jesus the veiled mystery of God has been made manifest. God does not remain hidden in the heights of heaven, but descends to earth, to the depths of earthly human experience, in this man’s life, Jesus of Nazareth. The tearing of the heavens only Jesus sees and he alone hears the voice of affirmation, but the tearing of the temple curtain that eliminates the separation between the Holy of Holies and the world, the second tearing at the time of Jesus’ death is for all to see and the soldier’s human witness is for all to hear. In this man’s life God has come to us. Jesus Christ is the one who baptizes us with the Holy Spirit; the one who stepped into the river and let himself be baptized with us, acting in loving solidarity with all human beings, disappearing in the deep, not to be washed, but to drown and rise.
“You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” is what Jesus hears in the river.
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him,” the disciples hear on the mountain.
“Truly this man was God’s Son,” is what all can hear, it is the testimony of men and women who recognize the Holy One in this man’s life, Jesus of Nazareth.
He made us all his own, the moment he stepped into the river. Because of him, we emerge from the water assured of our identity as God’s beloved sons and daughters, assured of our kinship with God and with each other and with all those on the river banks hoping for a new beginning, a new life. Baptized into Christ, his life becomes ours, his story our story, his way our way. No matter who you thought you were before you were immersed in the life and death of Jesus, you are God’s own, God’s beloved, God’s child.
Many of you know Janet Wolf; she used to serve as the pastor of Hobson UMC over in East Nashville. Now she works for the Children’s Defense Fund, but our paths still cross now and then over at Riverbend prison, where the good news of Jesus has continued to draw us both. Janet tells the story of a woman named Fayette who one day found her way to the Hobson church. Fayette lived and struggled with mental illness and she was homeless. At Hobson, she joined the new member class, and of all the good things she learned the best was about being baptized. Again and again she would ask, “And when I’m baptized, I am…?” And the class learned to respond, “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” “Oh, yes!” she would say, and then the class could go back to their discussion.
On the day of her baptism, Fayette went under, came up spluttering, and cried, “And now I am…?” And all sang, “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” “Oh, yes!” she shouted while dancing all around the fellowship hall. Two months later, Janet received a phone call. Fayette had been beaten and raped and was at the hospital. Janet wrote,
I could see her from a distance, pacing back and forth. When I got to the door, I heard, “I am beloved...” She turned, saw me, and said, “I am beloved, precious child of God, and...” Catching sight of herself in the mirror—hair sticking up, blood and tears streaking her face, dress torn, dirty, and rebuttoned askew, she started again, “I am beloved, precious child of God, and…” She looked in the mirror again and declared, “…and God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away!”
Fayette had been pushed to the bottom of life’s river who knows how many times; the waters raged and the waves thundered over her violently, but she clung fiercely to her identity as a precious child of God. She refused to let anyone but Jesus tell her who she was. It’s how Fayette spells salvation: Don’t let anyone but Jesus tell you who you are.
 Janet told the story in Disciplines 1999 (The Upper Room). I stumbled upon it in Jan Richardson’s blog, The Painted Prayerbook http://paintedprayerbook.com/2010/01/03/epiphany-1-baptized-and-beloved/