Is Baptism Dangerous Enough?

Humanity needs and fears water. We are deeply entangled in this relationship. This weekend, we are particularly entangled relationship, in a spectacular frozen way. As a Coloradan, I know I can be a bit of a snob when it comes to a few things, beer is one of them. Snow is another. You see, in Colorado, snow has a purpose, a reason for existing, a “telos” as Aristotle would say. Snow reaches its raison d’être in my home state. Here in St. Louis, not so much. It’s just a mess. But it does mean we have plenty of room in our pew at church.

Ask any of our kids in chemistry class, Snow is water. In the lands of the Bible, you don’t get much snow. Water still shapes human life.

Today Jesus wades into the muddy Jordan. John, who leapt in his mother’s womb when Mary the Mother of Jesus visited, that same John baptizes his cousin. In just a handful of Sundays, through just a couple of chapters we’ve spanned 30 years. John and Jesus are both adults. They meet at the Jordan. The river is significant.

I don’t meant to spoil the old spiritual for you, but most of the time, the river Jordan is neither deep nor wide. Today especially, thirsty irrigation in both Israel/Palestine and the country of Jordan drains the eponymous river to what we’d count just a small stream in Missouri. Back in the time of Jesus, before the irrigation, the river was no Mississippi.

The Jordan runs through a deep valley. There are almost no ruins just along its banks. You have to go pretty far from from the water’s to find the ancient buildings. Why would people in the desert choose to build so far from their water source? You see, the Jordan was prone to unpredictable floods.

The desert is often known for water’s scarcity. But too much water can also be a problem. Desert geography is shaped by water. Think of the beautifully carved slot canyons in Utah. They are shaped by water.

When sudden rainstorms hit dry crusty ground, water runs, and runs, and runs. The streams that empty into the Jordan drain a vast desert. Rain miles away could suddenly fill the wadis of a tributary. Minutes, hours, even days later, the Jordan would suddenly jump its banks. A rush of water would push through the valley toward the dead sea, a wave carrying debris, the carcasses of dead animals, and downed trees. All rushing down in an instant.

The Jordan was not a safe river. On a hot summer day, it could seem shallow, but the villagers knew to keep their houses far from the water.

Jesus and John wade in. There was real danger here.

For too long the church has missed the danger built into our stories of baptism. For centuries in the American church Baptism happened at home. The priest would visit the family of a new child with a beautiful silver bowl. Babies were baptized in the living room, with family and friends gathered round. It was all very safe.

One could argue the Christian faith was similarly domesticated. Christianity has been an expectation. Many folks in this congregation can remember when people didn’t ask “if” you went to church. They asked “where.” Christian faith was assumed in this country.

While some might wish for those days, days when Sunday school classrooms were packed, pews up and down Delmar and Kingshighway were full, I would ask, were we better off? Did we know what our Baptism really meant? What our faith meant? When baptism was a safe practice, were we really preparing people of faith?

For John and Jesus, baptism was risky. Just standing in the floodplain of the Jordan would have been risky. You never know when the wave is coming. Water is unpredictable.

The setting helped tell the story these two knew about the faith they were shaping. John says as much in terrifying prose: “he will gather the wheat and burn the chaff.” Religion is meant to be risky. Religion will put you at odds with the world as it is. Your faith can get you into trouble. Getting baptized should be a little scary.

We say, following St. Paul, that we are baptized into the death of Christ. We rise to new life with Christ. Baptism marks us as dead and risen. This washing prepares us to face the real and present dangers of life.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of baptizing one of our adult members at the Easter Vigil. Together we decided that our beautiful and historic font wouldn’t be enough to get the job done. Baptizing an adult in a glorified bird bath always looks awkward. Our historic font was built with babies in mind. So we looked to the example of more ancient places of baptism.

In the early church baptismal fonts were huge, large enough to stand in. While some people were probably “dunked” in the water, like our Baptist brethren choose to do, most stood in a tub while water was poured over them. At the Easter vigil, this is the practice we chose. Taking the bowl full of consecrated water in my hands, I lifted it up over the baptizand’s head pouring gallons of water over her as I said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Using this much water took some planning. We bought a kiddy pool and prepared stacks towels. She had a change of dry clothes at the ready. It was awkward, and scary, and also beautiful and real.

While I still love baptizing babies, I’m ready to baptize more adults. And the need will grow. Fewer and fewer parents have chosen to have their children baptized. There is something deeply true, deeply scary, deeply intimate about baptism.

There was real danger in ancient times around water. Water was a source of terror. Too much water, high water, spelled disaster. And the fear of the city cisterns running dry also regularly kept the people of the Bible awake at night. Too little water is always a danger in the desert.

Today as well, water is becoming a problem. We may have poured concrete to dam up our rivers, to divert the flow, to irrigate crops, but water is becoming less and less predictable. Climate change means that we are more like our ancestors, more subject to the winds and the rains.

Last year, in Missouri, the first 10 months of the year were marked by drought. Our farmers and ranchers worried at the lack of water. The growing seasons yielded less. Then, all at once, in November and December, our water caught up. Snow and rain came in over-abundance when the harvest had already be gathered in. Scientists forecast that, as the planet warms, more of our land will be like the desert. The water will be less predictable. Too little and too much will become more regular problems.

If the scientists are right, we have already initiated changes to our climate which are irreversible. The question ahead is not if we will be able to turn back the clock, to some earlier, greener, way of life. Going back is a fantasy. The question is whether we have enough hope, enough faith, to live differently than our ancestors, to live with the knowledge that we are dependent on water and terrified by water. The question is whether we will invest in new ways of using resources, growing food, and whether we will find ways to ensure all have access to water as a human right, and that communities are safe from water’s destructive power.

Water is also sacred. That is true in just about every religion I have studied. Water prepares us, cleanses us, challenges us.

When Jesus makes his way up from the Jordan, the voice of God comes down, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God will meet us on the other side of life’s rivers.

But listen as well to the prophet Isaiah. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” God will greet us on the other side, but God also meets us in the midst of the waters. God is there with us, even when we find ourselves up to our necks. God is there. Our God is a God who knows the chaos of the waters. Our faith is not simply for pretty parlors and stained glass rooms. We believe in a God who walks with us through the most turbulent of life’s times.

Whether we are facing a weekend snow storm, a generational challenge like climate change, or the day to day stuff of life, will we have courage? Will we wade in? We are a baptized people. We have sacramentally faced life and death. We’ve been prepared for the worst, because in the depths of life God meet us, calls us beloved, reminds us we are beloved sons, daughters, children. With you, God is well pleased.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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