Let us think today, on this feast of the Baptism of Jesus, about water.
Water is life-giving. I am sitting here looking out at the bare winter trees south of this house. The sky is overcast. I know that the sun is up there behind these clouds, and I think of Reinhold Link.
Reinhold was a diocesan priest who joined us friars. He was a “naturalist”—the story was that he was the state naturalist for Illinois and helped to lay out the state parks back in the 1920s and 30s. I have a snapshot of him with a sparrow sitting on his finger. Somewhere I heard him quoted: “Autumn—the season of mists and fertility.” Whenever the day is gloomy I think of him and of those words.
“The season of mists and fertility.” Water means life.
But water can also be deadly. Water is powerful. I think of Psalm 29:
The voice of the LORD is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the LORD, over the mighty waters.
The voice of the LORD is power;
the voice of the LORD is splendor.
Victory Heights, the Province’s summer camp in northern Wisconsin, gave me a chance to work with boats first hand. When you tie a boat to the dock, you had better have a strong chain and a solid ring in the wood of the dock. The waves can pick a heavy boat up and jerk it around, back and forth, 24/7. And of course water can kill.
Head under water.
I don’t think I ever had my head under water until I tried to take swimming lessons at the Decatur YMCA when I was in sixth grade. The experience was traumatic for me. They told us to jump off the edge of the pool into about four feet of water. I did that, went under, and I must have tried to breathe under water, because when I came up I was so upset that I got out of the pool and left. I felt totally disgraced—I can still feel myself walking alone away from the other swimmers back to the dressing room. It didn’t help that they wouldn’t let us wear swimming trunks.
I suspect that John the Baptist’s ritual involved pushing the penitent’s head under water, and possibly even holding it there for a period of time. Now remember that Palestine was a pretty dry land—there would not have been a lot of swimming pools around. Most of John’s penitents had probably never experienced having their heads under water. So the experience would have been traumatic enough to dramatize the repentance that John was calling for. It really could have been a near-death experience.
When Paul wrote about baptism meaning that we die with Christ, he may have been thinking about that kind of head-under-water experience.
And then there was getting in line with all the other sinners.
In 1968 I was in grad school. I became convinced that the Vietnam war was unjustified. I kept thinking of Ezekiel’s warning to the watchman: If you are the watchman and see danger coming and you don’t warn the people, you will be guilty of the death of the people.
I sent my draft registration card to Lyndon Johnson and shortly thereafter I got a letter from the Decatur Illinois Selective Service office classifying me as 1-A delinquent and ordering me to report for a physical.
The physical was a little like my swimming pool experience, and once again it involved nakedness. All the recruits were lined up, naked. I got put with a couple of doctors, and we were allowed to keep our shorts on. My feeling was “What am I doing here?”
Did Jesus feel that way when he got in line with the sinners: “What am I doing here?” Did Jesus see himself as sinless? Surely he wasn’t faking sinfulness. He must have thought he could use some repentance.
So Jesus gets to the head of the line and gets dunked just like all the other penitents. When you come up out of water, you cannot feel dignified. Water is streaming down over your face, along with your hair. You have not only had a near-death experience, but you feel disgraced. And it is at that precise moment, the moment of maximum disgrace and discomfort, that the heavens open and the voice says “This is my beloved Son.”
What does that say about God? What does that say about Jesus?
That says that God is getting down here in the mud with us, the mud that can kill and that is also necessary for life. God is mixing with the molecules of water and plants and animals and humans. God is involved with us, wants to be with us in the worst moments of our lives. And of course that involvement went much farther. This time it involved water. The next time it involved blood. Maybe that is what the letter of John was referring to when he said “there are three things, the Spirit, the water, and the blood.”
What more can we say? What did Jesus feel walking away from the baptism? Did he feel anything? Was the voice from heaven a literary creation of the Gospel writer?
Even if it was, I think the deeper truth remains. The Creator of all the living world around us, and the creator of the human world around us, is with us, even in the worst moments of our lives.