Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Thought on Baptism (Water)

From Rachel Held Evans: Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding Church is arranged around seven sacraments—baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing the sick, and marriage—and I begin each section with a short reflection on an element associated with each sacrament. Those chapters are entitled “Water,” “Ash,” “Hands,” “Bread,” “Breath,” “Oil,” and “Crowns.” 
Today I am pleased to enclose “Water,” which appears at the beginning of the Baptism section.
. . . by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. 
—2 Peter 3:5
In the beginning, the Spirit of God hovered over water. 
The water was dark and deep and everywhere, the ancients say, an endless primordial sea.  
Then God separated the water, pushing some of it below to make oceans, rivers, dew drops, and springs, and vaulting the rest of the torrents above to be locked behind a glassy firmament, complete with doors that opened for the moon and windows to let out the rain. In ancient Near Eastern cosmology, all of life hung suspended between these waters, vulnerable as a fetus in the womb. With one sigh of the Spirit, the waters could come crashing in and around the earth, drowning its inhabitants in a moment. The story of Noah’s flood begins when “the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened” (Genesis 7:11). The God who had separated the waters in the beginning wanted to start over, so God washed the world away. 
For people whose survival depended on the inscrutable moods of the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile, water represented both life and death. Oceans teemed with monsters, unruly spirits, and giant fish that could swallow a man whole. Rivers brimmed with fickle possibility—of yielding crops, of boosting trade, of drying up. Into this world, God spoke the language of water, turning the rivers of enemies into blood, calling forth springs from desert rocks, playing matchmaker around wells, and promising a future in which justice would roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. And the people spoke back, seeking purity of mind and body through ritualistic bathing after birth, death, sex, menstruation, sacrifices, conflicts, and transgressions. “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean,” the poet-king David wrote, “wash me, and I will be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7).
It is naïve to think all of these ancient visions must be literal to be true. We know, as our ancestors did, both the danger and necessity of water. Water knits us together in our mothers’ wombs, our ghostlike tissue inhaling and exhaling the embryonic fluid that grows our lungs and bones and brains. Water courses through our bodies and makes our planet blue. It is water that lifts cars like leaves when a tsunami rages to shore, water that in a moment can swallow a ship and in eons carve a canyon, water we trawl for like chimps for bugs with billion-dollar equipment scavenging Mars, water we drop on the bald heads of babies to name them children of God, water we torture with and cry with, water that carries the invisible diseases that will kill four thousand children today, water that if warmed just a few degrees more will come crashing in and around the earth and wash us all away. 
But just as water carried Moses to his destiny down the Nile, so water carried another baby from a woman’s body into an expectant world. Wrapped now in flesh, the God who once hovered over the waters was plunged beneath them at the hands of a wild-eyed wilderness preacher. When God emerged, he spoke of living water that forever satisfies and of being born again. He went fishing and washed his friends’ feet. He touched the ceremonially unclean. He spit in the dirt, cast demons into the ocean, and strolled across an angry sea. He got thirsty and he wept. 
After the government washed its hands of him, God hung on a cross where blood and water spewed from his side. Like Jonah, he got swallowed up for three days. 
Then God beat death. God rose from the depths and breathed air once again. When he found his friends on the shoreline, he told them not to be afraid but to go out and baptize the whole world.  
The Spirit that once hovered over the waters had inhabited them. Now every drop is holy. 
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