Charles Qualls: Water That Renews Us

I moved to campus over thirty years ago to begin my seminary studies. Unlike when I had left for college, terrified, a few years before, as I headed off for my theological education I had hardly felt as certain about anything in my life.

I knew what I felt called of God to do. My life was already mapped out, in my head at least, and in those days, I could see clear across a career to the finish line of retirement. All I had to do was get through the rest of school and then go take the church and publishing worlds by storm.

My worldly belongings were packed into a subcompact car, and I drove through parts of three states to get there. I settled in and read up on all my Welcome Packet materials. Headed into Orientation within the next couple of days. Made new friends and, didn’t know it yet, but I also met the woman I would one day marry.

Then, the classes started.

Seminary as a concept was all brightness and excitement. I mean, how hard could this be? Then, the professors showed up. Each professor’s assistant had a syllabus they distributed. The tests and papers began. Especially, the reading assignments were not what I had been expecting.

Bit by bit, my gaze into the future shortened and my certainty eroded. I was up against a legitimate academic challenge, and from the get-go I was moved to ask new questions. To see things in ways I never had before. My own theology and beliefs were pushed up against, and my sense of calling softened into something I’d like to think God had a much better chance of actually shaping.

I look back now at where I’ve been so far. Life has not turned out to resemble very much at all of what I had planned. If you can recall a time when you felt certain about something in the beginning, only to feel a bit less certain later on, then you’re in the right frame of mind to hear today’s scripture.

John the Baptist, in Matthew’s gospel here, knew Jesus. Until he didn’t. But in this minute, John was certain. We should learn from his clarity, because it didn’t last long. John’s life probably didn’t go much as it appeared it might when he was introducing Jesus to others.

We can’t forget that later, over in Luke 7, this same John will dispatch some of his disciples after his own arrest to speak on his behalf with our Lord. Then, he will be less certain about Jesus. He will send them to ask if Jesus truly is the promised Messiah - the anointed one. Or, if perhaps they should be waiting upon another to come instead.

Having acknowledged that little backpedal, then what is here for us? Well, I said that John would be less certain later. I didn’t say he would turn out to have been wrong. In this perspective on Jesus that we get early in Matthew’s gospel, John’s statements about the Christ are enlightening. They are clarifying for us.

Now in the first of the year, as Epiphany is upon us, Jesus is revealed in this encounter that we read about. Let’s go back to those first days at seminary I mentioned earlier. As I settled into the dormitory, I encountered someone I had once done summer youth camps with. He and I had little in common really - different personalities and different interests. But he wished me well as I started school. He was nearing his own graduation, so he knew more than I did of what this was all about.

He said to me, “As you study, pay attention to all the images of fire, wind, and water. They will be where God is.” Then, he smiled. I walked away shaking my head and thinking how strange he was. How unrelatably artsy he seemed; downright ethereal even. Turns out, he was brilliant. His counsel was spot-on.

Water is one of the most prolific and meaningful of all the symbols we find in the Bible. When we find water, in the Old Testament or New, we’d better pay attention. Just like when we stumble across mentions of fire or wind.

Karyn Wiseman, in her writing on today’s text, reminds us that water is one of the most powerful elements on the planet. The flow of water over ground for an extended time can flatten the terrain. Water can create a canyon, leave a level plain, or become a sustaining resource that flows and creates life. Our own bodies are estimated to be around sixty percent water. Our good health is sustained only as we take in enough of this essential resource. The earth is seemingly covered with water. Yet even with today’s advancements, parts of the world suffer from a lack of clean, potable water.

Water in this story comes front-and-center as the setting for Baptism. By the time Matthew portrays Jesus and John meeting up at the River Jordan, water indeed will not be new to us in the Bible. Our memories from the Creation stories will include water just under the firmament, but largely covering the earth. Water will destroy life. Water will give life. It may be navigated by humans, but in the Bible, it will only be controlled and moved by God.

Writer Warren Carter raises a worthy issue: If this story of water in the New Testament is about Baptism, then we’ll need to plumb it for all we can about the significance of the act in general. Baptism has signaled for centuries an intent to arise and walk in newness of life. Baptism has served as a symbol of our oaths to be faithful to God. It has linked us, in all its various forms, with Christians the world over.

We share in Baptism as a rich reminder, to us and to others who may witness it, of how much our faith means to us. But if this story is about Jesus’ baptism in particular, that is yet another matter perhaps of even more significance. Why would Jesus feel the need to get baptized? If, as tradition holds, he lived without sin, then the conventional symbolism feels a bit limited where he is concerned. Maybe there is something more.

Water did so many important things then, as now. It cleansed, as we certainly recognize this symbolic act when we are baptized. Yes, one of the most powerful dimensions of this act by Jesus is that he joined in solidarity with humanity when he encouraged John to accept him into the waters.

John’s hesitation in our story today should signal us to pay attention. John was willing to baptize so many, day after day. He beckoned people like you and me to come and to be cleansed in the river. Now, though, he felt unworthy to baptize Jesus. John felt a certainty that Jesus should be baptizing him instead. So, maybe Jesus’ baptism is to be understood in most all the conventional ways we would understand our own.

But perhaps even more so, Jesus’ baptism marked his entry into a new chapter of his own life and ministry. This season of Epiphany, as we learn and discover more about the Lord of our living, perhaps this moment in Matthew tells us something important. God will give verbal testimony soon that Jesus is not only a son, but an agent of what God is doing in the world. Jesus is being commissioned here in some ways. To John’s protests of not being worthy, Jesus responds by insisting not only that John indeed baptize him, but he also wants to do so ‘now.’ But why so?

Matthew’s gospel pushes to the fore Jesus’ urgency to begin now a new chapter where he will ‘fulfill’ God’s will. Jesus is committing to live into what God has in store in the days and years ahead. God has covenanted through Christ to fulfill the restoration, redemption, and salvation of humanity. Jesus will be the way that God does this. This story says, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

There it is: Righteousness. When we get down to it, this word righteousness means to live in accord or in good faith with God’s will. Jesus’ baptism functions, then, more as an anointing, only in a New Testament sort of way. Rather than with oil, and rather than by a priest upon the head of a future king, John uses water now to anoint Jesus. Jesus is entering into the calling of God upon his commissioned life. He will do the work of God on earth among us.

God affirms this by speaking in that beautiful, still, small voice that the ancient rabbinical called “Bath Kol.” A divine revelation, the voice of God that is like the cooing of a dove. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

You and I live in a period of terrible cultural and political division. Old friend sheds old friend in favor of a current and comfortable opinion. Family member repels family member, choosing instead to be what they think for the moment is “right” about something.

In my own family, I have known relatives who began to back off lately on visiting others in the family. They simply don’t want to walk into a contentious cultural or political discussion that they feel will inevitably be awaiting them. Today’s world needs us to be at our very best. Not wearing each other down. Not hurting one another. Not divided up about temporary things.

What a price we pay for our distractions, biases, and opinions. When we compare that to the work that Jesus was embarking on, don’t those things seem small? When we compare the precious gift of love and relationships, do our differences really seem worth breaking something we might never manage to put back together?

John’s hesitation seems right, if indeed he did understand who and what Jesus was. Later, he might doubt himself. But it seems he had it all right in his certainty about Jesus. Because of that, he was afraid to join our Lord and enter into the water. He felt unworthy to wade in for that moment.

This water wouldn’t destroy. This was water that didn’t level and did not threaten, but instead, water that still gives us newness of life. Baptism that signals to all that Jesus was, and is, at work building a new day.

At some point, learning more about this moment in Jesus’ life might send us back to our own baptisms. We might consider that we weren’t just cleansed in some symbolic way. We weren’t just welcomed into the membership of our local churches. Instead, if we were faithful and willing back then, we were also anointed - with Christ - into a lifetime where God calls us alongside Jesus to bring about righteousness and justice here and now.