More often than I like to admit, I have found myself standing before a congregation, holding an infant dressed in her baptismal gown. I am accompanied by an elder I have commandeered for my doctrinal discretion. The mother and father, whose names I can barely recall, awkwardly stand beside me, glancing out at faces that seem vaguely familiar. Behind them are two beaming grandparents, delighted that an age old tradition is being continued as the “salvation” of their granddaughter nears completion. Cradling the child in one arm, I speak softly to her, “Little one, once there was a child as fragile as you who came into this world. As he grew it was evident that there was something marvelously different about him. He told wonderful stories about God. With the touch of his hand the sick were healed. Everything that he did seemed to be done for someone else. But those that followed him turned away. He was handed over to folks who were jealous of his fame, frightened by power, and intimidated by his humility. They killed him. But his life did not end. God reached into the darkness of death itself and resurrected this man we call Jesus. Through this act, Christ resides with us today. In life and death we are his. Little child, I know you did not understand a word I have said to you, but this day your parents, and all these folks witnessing your baptism have taken a solemn vow to tell you this story over and over again until you claim it as your own.”
Then I take the water, that cleansing symbol of God’s amazing grace and allow it to drip down the forehead of the child. It evokes a cry, much to the dismay of the mother. Some where deep in my soul I am praying that the parents are aroused by their child’s discomfort. But I know better, I always know better. After the service a dear friend* sincerely approaches me and says, “How can I be spiritually responsible for a child I have never met and in all probability will never meet again.” This truly is the conundrum of Baptism. Sometimes we perform the sacrament hoping it will convert the parents.
Before I go any further let me state that I am a great believer in infant baptism. It is a powerful moment, celebrating both our death and resurrection to sin and our faith as a covenant community. In the life of the early church infant baptism became what circumcision had been in Judaism, the sign of inclusion in the covenant community. Because we believe, we promise to teach the child the truths and duties of the Christian faith. We Promise, by prayer and example to bring the child up in the life and worship of the Church. The waters of baptism are not some magical potion to insure the salvation of the child. The waters signify a continuation of a covenant relationship which must be nurtured by those who bring the child to be baptized. It is a holy promise birthed from a holy beginning told in each of the gospel writings.
Using Luke as our source, all we know about the baptism of Jesus is he got in line with all the other people. Who were these folks? Why were they there? Bob Brearley writes, “Jesus got in line with folks who had been broken by the wear and tear of this selfish world and had all but given up on themselves and God.”
James Weldon Johnson speaks a bit more poetically.
hearts beneath their knees,
to that lonesome valley.
like empty pitchers
to a fountain full.”
What a haunting image, “they came with their hearts beneath their knees.” You would think living here amidst the beauty of God’s creation, our hearts never quite sink so low. We all know better than that. No matter how many times we look to hills, no matter how often Crawford Mountain turns gold each morning, no matter how many sunrises or sunsets burn themselves into our collective memories, our hearts are still capable of setting lower. Sometimes life just wears us down. Sometimes the routine of life is less than satisfying. Sometimes a disruption in life breaks our time honored routines leaving us bewildered and weary as our heart sinks beneath our knees.
It shouldn’t surprise us that people flocked to John the Baptist. Folks who are lost are always looking for the next moment of deliverance. What should surprise us, or amaze us, or at the very least liberate us, is that Jesus got in line with those folks. This is the beginning of any theological premise concerning baptism. Jesus gets in our line. Jesus stands in the midst of our disillusionment, in the midst of our sorrow, in the midst of our desperateness and silently heads toward the water. And we, “like empty pitchers to a fountain full”, follow.
When the folks arrived at the water, they were full of questions. “Who is the Messiah?” “Who will save us?” “Who will lead us?” Then Jesus, surrounded by the sins of the world yet void of any self-inflicted corruption, waded into the water and the answer to their question was revealed even before God affirmed their suspicions. This was the chosen one, the beloved.
How on earth did they know? I have a theory. As many of you have come to understand, unless I am properly caffeinated, I am not the most talkative guy in the room. Sometimes during our after worship social time, much to the chagrin of Nancy Neville, instead of working the crowd, I manage to find a corner where I hide, nibble on a cracker, and observe the wonderful chemistry flowing between you. When I am standing in a line, be it the bank or MacDonald’s I am perfectly happy to be in the midst of strangers. Not everyone is like that. Silence makes some folks very nervous. Ever notice how perfect strangers will reveal their life story despite all our attempts to disengage from the conversation? I have been waiting at Ashley’s to pay for my diet coke and folks I never met share how their day is going. I will join on a perfect stranger on the golf course and by the fourth hole I know more than I want to know about their family. Most people view communication as a good thing.
So imagine what it must have been like to be Jesus. He is standing in line, a line filled with frightened and confused people, and he is there because of their fears. They begin to talk, and he was willing to listen. Here was Jesus, in a line full of sinners, headed for the waters of redemption, and they assumed he was one of them. The closer he got to the water the more he understood why God had sent him, not just to this river but to the world in general. So he entered the water. Jesus literally washed himself in the sins of the world and then the heavens opened up, and miraculously all those empty pitchers were filled.
Now they really did have something to talk about. They had something to share with anyone who has ears to listen. God is with us, in our best moments. God is with us, in our worst moments. God is with us, in every moment in between. Jesus takes our empty, broken, confused souls down to the river and hops in with us. The water that flows down the head of an infant at baptism is that child’s welcome into a community of sinners who celebrate their epiphanies’ by sharing the story of the One who is still willing to stand in line with them.
When we welcome a new member into the Church we begin with our baptismal covenant. We tell them our story more than once. We believe in God; Creator, Son, Holy Spirit. We feast at God’s table and grow strong on God’s word. We never give up on each other but always, in what we say and do, proclaim the good news that God has come among us in the flesh. Then we invite the new member to step into the river with Jesus. We invite those empty pitchers to be filled with the grace of God. But it doesn’t end there. We tell and retell this story of grace until they themselves are telling it from memory. So my question becomes, if the parents don’t know the story, who will tell it to their children? If the parents don’t bring the children here to be among the story tellers, how will they hear the story?
I believe God’s covenant with us is not based on our actions. This belief is founded in my understanding of the significance of the death and resurrection of Christ. But God does expect each of us to be tellers of God’s story. We are not called to be dispensers of magic potions. We are called to be messengers of grace. May we all try harder to meet God’s expectations when together, we meet at the river. Amen.