There are times in our life when we just need to feel like we’ve been made new. For me it was when I looked into the faces of orphans in Tijuana, Mexico and felt, at a bodily level, the itchy, dissociating comfort of my middle class upbringing. Another time came after I had ended a marginally supportive relationship and begun to explore new vocational callings, and this thing called ‘seminary’. Looking back I can see these moments aligned with a series of conversions—conversion to the poor, conversion to the life of the Holy Spirit; (and) most recently a conversion (back) to care for creation and the waters of my youth. Our baptismal journey is often a series of conversions, of significant encounters along the way, when something died making an opening for transformation, metanoia, to spark life anew.
Last summer I was going through some old family files when I happened across my baptism certificate from Rolling Bay Presbyterian Church (just across the water). I don’t remember the event myself, I must have been about three or four. But, there it was, proof of my initiation into the community of Christ. Had I known back in college that I had been baptized, I might not have chosen to get dunked while on my first short term mission trip to Tijuana. But my 18 year old self was feeling particularly overwhelmed by a desire for added assurance of grace. And so, I have been baptized into two waters: the Kitsap watershed (Bainbridge Island), and a reservoir somewhere south of San Diego and across the U.S. border (that may or may not still exist).
Have you noticed that it’s difficult to talk about death with others? It isn’t exactly a good lunch room conversation. Pastors and religious clerics learn over time—regardless of what books were read in seminary—how to conduct a “celebration of life” rather than a funeral. With the segregation/ outsourcing of aging and the infirm, it is quite possible to go through life without ever having the experience of sitting with someone as they die. Then those of us who are left behind are encouraged not to mourn because the individual is “in a better place.” Death is such a downer. But there’s a strange paradox at work: it is virtually impossible to ‘get on with life’ unless we go through the deathly experience. Even Jesus wept as he prepared to pray for his friend’s resurrection. Water and Spirit.
Baptism into Jesus Christ is one of the few places where death and birth sit together. Along with the scriptures and tradition, we say that to be baptized into Jesus Christ is to die with him and be raised into new life. In the Book of Common Prayer, the thanksgiving prayer over the waters states: “We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. Therefore in joyful obedience to your Son, we bring into his fellowship those who come to him in faith, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (BCP, Thanksgiving over the water, 306)
Traditions that perform baptism by submersion demonstrate a very potent symbol of death and subsequent resurrection into new life. Water has the potential to drown us, and to spark new life by filling our very cells with essential atoms and molecules necessary for growth. This is among the greatest mysteries of the cosmos.
The baptism of Jesus is a Trinitarian event. It is among the most explicit texts that highlights the three Persons of God, united in word and mission. Here we meet the Spirit of God, descending ‘as a dove’ to alight on Jesus of Nazareth. Here we encounter (through the text) the voice of YHWH, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” [cf. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3.17) “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1.11)] As Liturgical theologian, Gordon Lathrop, describes: at Jesus’ baptism, a hole opens in the heavens revealing God among us—the same God Who created the heavens and the earth, and Who promised Noah never again to flood the earth. Like Jacob’s ladder, there is a moment when earthly and divine realms meet. It is this God who is revealed through the person of Jesus, at the place where John baptized in the Jordan River. The revelation of the triune God is (in part) constituted by the waters of creation (flowing through the Jordan) and the fire of the Spirit. Water and Spirit uniting earth and heavens.
What is this water, and what is it about water that makes it the ultimate symbol for the baptism event? Perhaps the obvious relationship has to do with cleansing. Water is used for washing and we are proclaimed clean from sin after baptism. This connotation has been a potent one since the time of saint Augustine. As he recounts in the first book of the Confessions, he was very nearly baptized as a child only because he became deathly ill. It was delayed, however, because, if he survived, the likelihood of him committing various sins was inevitable (read: adolescent shenanigans). The thinking was that, why make his soul sparkle now when it will no doubt get tarnished soon enough? Indeed, questions of grace and purity haunt our church traditions still. Baptism is intended to be a one time grafting into the living vine, where Eucharist is the regular re-membering of the body of Christ, suggesting perhaps to our detriment that you can only get clean once. Thankfully, it is the Spirit that cleanses.
Water is constitutive of creation and re-creation. According to the Genesis account, waters emerged on the second and third days of creation, when God separated the waters of the sky from those below, and then from the waters below from the dry land. Noah’s flood is a kind of creation 2.0 / God’s second round for creation, where water is the chaos from which Noah, his family, and the pairs of animals must all emerge. For Martin Luther, the flood becomes archetypal for baptism, rather than creation’s first go-around. In this way, baptism is again seen as a purifying, cleansing event for humanity; one that is ongoing throughout our lifetimes.
But what about _this_ water, here in our font, poured out for each one who comes for baptism? Or the water in which I was baptized as a toddler? Does this water matter? How does it matter?
The waters in which we baptize issue from and return to the waters of the Salish Sea, which is home to all five Pacific salmon species, giant octopi, jellyfish, Dungeness crab, seals, sea lions, and our beloved southern resident orcas. This past summer, the world mourned when a calf born to J35 (Tahlequah) died. What captivated so many of us was the display of unabated grief as Tahlequah carried her calf for over two weeks, assisted on occasion by others in the pod. According to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, Tahlequah traversed over 1,000 miles of the Salish Sea in approximately 17 days, keeping her calf near the surface, taking turns with others in the pod, refusing to let it sink. As her mourning persisted it compelled us to follow after her, until we too let our grief surface, carry it around, and just be with it. Day after day Tahlequah raised her dead calf for our eyes to see and our hearts to be moved to conversion.
Before we think that the work of conversion is our own, let us recall the hole in the heavens at Jesus’ baptism. In each of the gospel accounts the Spirit descends, joining Jesus and (in Mark’s account) even propelling him into the wilderness. As John says, baptism of the Spirit is one of fire. If the waters of baptism immerse us into a locale, baptism in the Spirit sends us across a myriad of dividing lines. Bob Ekblad, a professor at the Seattle School and founding pastor of Tierra Nueva (Burlington, WA), describes baptism in terms of border crossings. In a chapter titled, “Living as Wetbacks” he maps out just how when we become immersed in baptismal waters we not only follow in God’s work for the Israelites crossing the waters to freedom; but we are united with any and all whom Jesus considers friends—the marginalized, the undocumented, the outcasts, the lost. His proposal is an inversion from tradition in that, rather than baptism functioning as a sign of being set apart for God, cleansed and purified; instead dying to Christ means joining the damned. “Distinctions…are leveled.” Going into the water makes us border crossers by drawing us into relationship with others we never would have imagined, just as we are drawn into the life of the triune God as children. Furthermore, to live as a child of God is to experience the life of the Spirit in a way that is renewing; to tap into God’s creative power through prayer, worship, community and the sacraments.
Throughout my life, I have repeatedly returned to my baptismal waters, the Salish Sea, with a growing sense that our stories are mingled—more than mingled, that I am drenched in these waters. In remembering my baptism, I remember the waters that were poured over me. I pray for healing for the watershed and all its inhabitants—humans, fowl, and invertebrates alike. I remember and pray for the orca, the salmon, and the communities that depend on fishing, the families who must follow the harvests. Baptism immerses us into communion with an entire watershed community even as it is a symbol of new life.
What if we were to begin speaking of baptism in Spirit and Water as baptism into the resurrection life of Jesus Christ and into our local waters? If we take seriously God’s incarnation breaking into a particular place at a particular time, and the life of the triune God breaking over us in the waters of baptism, then we are participating not only in the great dance of the Trinity, but also in the life of the world around us. We awaken to the deep communion of Spirit and Water—life of the risen Christ, and the ecology of fellow creatures. We are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, and also the tears of Tahlequah.