“I am haunted by waters.” These are the last words of Norman Maclean’s novella A River Runs Through It. Waters haunt all of us who profess the Christian faith. The human imagination is consumed with images of water, and rightly so. Our bodies are made up of water. If we fail to drink, or if we are prevented from drinking, we will expire.
Several years ago I was invited to preach on this gospel passage from Matthew at the National Cathedral on the Sunday designated to honor the state of Hawaii. I struggled with the subject of Jesus’ baptism, partly because baptism is not an easy concept to explain, and this story seemed strange indeed.
Have you not known? Have you not heard? asks Isaiah. Those with ears to hear, let them hear, says Jesus. Day to day pours forth speech, says the psalmist, but God’s speech is pitched in such a register that many cannot distinguish it from silence.
Inevitably, in the course of a pastoral career, one encounters that person—the spouse of an active member, or an avid golfer—who claims not to need to attend weekly services because “I can worship God in nature.” Possible comebacks range from mild to sarcastic, but they rarely make any impression. A better question is whether the assertion is correct.
Names are sacred words by which we are individualized. Jesus, in baptism, received a new name. So do his followers. Baptism also sets each of us apart as a particular kind of person—one owned by God. Those who have been baptized are called to live out the meaning of this remarkable reality.
From the first instant of creation, water has played midwife to God’s creation story. After the flood, God set a rainbow in the clouds. God saw your people as slaves in Egypt, and led them to freedom through the sea. God brought their children through the Jordan to a promised land. And in the fullness of time, God sent Jesus, nurtured in the water of a womb.
I have a friend who creatively blends his ethnic and religious heritage. He is a black man with an Afrocentric consciousness and also a committed Christian. His Afrocentric commitment does not nullify his belief in Jesus, while his Christian commitment does not abolish his ethnic awareness and pride.