Monday, January 09, 2006

breaking water

The beginning of Mark's gospel tells the story of the baptism of Jesus, in the Jordan. It is one of the formative experiences of the Christian faith, stretching backward toward the creation, and the spirit moving over the face of the waters, and forward toward your baptism and mine.

The following image has been helpful to me in thinking about the meaning of baptism. Imagine a stone being thrown into the waters of a smooth pond. The stone breaks the surface of the water, and then begins to create a ripple effect, as the circles begin to expand outward.

The baptism of Jesus had this effect. As he stands in the waters, he stands with us and for us. As John offered baptism for the forgiveness of sin, the One who knew no sin takes our sin upon himself. He is not only God with us (Emmanuel) but God for us. This act, on our behalf, has a ripple effect in that it offers the possibility of our cleansing, our salvation, our rebirth.

As the water is broken by the stone upon its surface, something new, something important, something amazing is possible. There is, of course, another meaning associated with breaking water, and here I borrow the image from what is, for me, the best book I have ever read on youth ministry, The Godbearing Life, by Kenda Dean and Ron Foster.

Dean and Foster reflect on the meaning of birth in relation to four actions. Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about birth in the third chapter of John--you must be born again, you must be born from above, and Nicodemus misunderstood---he could not get beyond the literal. Jesus was speaking of both the physical and the spiritual, going back and forth, and as I talk I hope you will hear it in both ways.

When there is going to be a birth, the first action is to pack your bags. We get everything together for the trip to the hospital. We prepare. We figure out what we are going to need, what is essential. We pack our bags.

I remember the months leading up to the birth of our first daughter. We went to the Lamaze classes. We practiced breathing, although I think we had been doing it for a long time! We learned to squeeze a tennis ball. We talked about what would happen when the time came; I imagined driving into the hospital when the time would be at hand---we lived about thirty minutes away, and I thought about what we would need to prepare ahead of time.

For the Christian, preparation for new birth also includes an attention to what is needed, what is essential. Really it is pretty simple: at times we
will need to have our eyes closed, we will need to pray; at other times we will need to be nearsighted, paying attention to the scripture; and at other times
we will need to be farsighted, looking out at the world. Preparation for new birth has everything to do with prayer, reading the Bible and understanding the world in which we live. John the Baptist quoting the prophet Isaiah said, prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

Something important is about to happen. God will help us to discern the timing, if we listen in prayer. God will help us to discern the meaning, if we read the scriptures. God will help us to know our best action, if we understand the world in which we live. It was Karl Barth who said that a Christian goes through the world with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Sadly, in our world fewer people read the Bible and fewer people read the newspaper, but the point was clear: we prepare ourselves.

Second, after we have packed our bags, we name the pain. It gets more pronounced. Perhaps there have been nagging pains for months, or nausea, or discomfort, but now it is pain, unbearable pain. Something is happening.

This is true in the spiritual life as well. We go through this life and the pain becomes real, unavoidable. We can't pretend that everything is normal. Maybe it is the pain of guilt, or the question of meaning, or the reality of disappointment, or a sense of despair, or the absurdity of boredom, or the presence of fear, or the heaviness of fatigue. It hovers over us, like a cloud blocking the rays of the sun. It lives within us, like a knot in the pit of the stomach.

A couple of years ago I am in the doctor's office. I have a kidney stone. I had had one of these seven years ago, so I knew what was going on. Someone with a coat on comes into the room and asks, on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being okay, 10 being terrible, how is the pain? I don't know. Is 1 like walking along a beach, drinking something really cold, and is 10 like having the skin peeled off of my head? The pain is just there.

For many people, the process of new birth, the decision to change, the acceptance of salvation does not come until there has been some preparation and also a deep experience of pain. Then it is a crisis. That is when we act.

Why did the people go out to see John the Baptist, to be baptized? Because of the pain that resided within them. I grew up in Georgia, and one of our contributions to the world has been the collected short-stories of Flannery O’Connor. She was a woman of fierce artistic vision and deep Christian faith. She died of lupus as a young adult. In her short story, “The River”, she paints a picture a preacher standing about ten feet out into a stream, with water up to his knees. He calls out to the people:

“Maybe I know why you come,”, he said in the twangy voice, “maybe I don’t”.

Then he says,

“If you ain’t come for Jesus, you ain’t come for me. If you just come to see can you leave your pain in the river”, he said, “I never told nobody that”. He stopped and looked down at his knees.

He speaks of a river of life, composed of Jesus’ blood, a river in which a person can empty the pain of life, a river that flows toward the kingdom of Christ.

When we come to the waters of baptism we stand in the river of pain, in the river of life. The river of pain reminds us of the necessity of new birth, of which Jesus spoke to Nicodemus. The river of pain is the coming alongside those who are in crisis, in grief, in trouble, in confusion. Pastors, lay caregivers, Stephen Ministers know what it is like to stand in this river of pain. And of course, this river of pain becomes a river of life: the breaking of water leads to new life, the giving of spiritual friendship and support creates an environment of new possibilities, as we stand in the healing stream.

The church, at its best, can be a place where people bring their pain.

Third, after we have packed our bags and after we have named the pain, we watch for the water to break. It is a natural process, although there are times when someone does it for us. For some it is very dramatic, for others not. But when the water breaks, there is no turning back. The new life is coming, ready or not.

When the surface of the water breaks, the ripple effects begin, the new life emerges. We are stretched. That is not a bad way to think about faith. My Christian life is not just about me. It is about me and my child, and our relationship, and his faith or her faith. My Christian life is not just about me and my child, it is about the other children in our church, and our relationship and their faith.

My Christian life is not just about my and my child and the children of our church, but it is about all the children of the world, do you remember that phrase from the song, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world”, my Christian life is about them too because the water has broken and the ripples are going outward.

Next Sunday morning, God willing, I will be preaching at the Methodist Church in Cap Haitien in northern Haiti. The ripple effects that began in the hearts of Providence people years ago has crossed those waters and touched the lives of those children. Someone had to pack their bags and get ready. Someone had to name the pain. And then someone had to trust that the water would break.

Fourth, we prepare for the catch. When we are born, we leave the womb and we enter into the world, yes, but actually into a family. We look around: who are these strange people? I have his eyes. I have her nose. That old fellow over there, he is bald and so am I. We are born into a family.

It is similar in baptism. We are baptized into the church. We are not baptized into a denomination, but we are baptized into the whole church, we are incorporated into the body, we are grafted into the family tree. That is where the life is, that is where the support is, that is where the grace is.

This morning you will be invited to come forward and to be reminded that you are baptized. Perhaps your faith was born because someone prepared the way---a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, a neighbor, a preacher. Perhaps your faith was born when the pain became too real, too unavoidable, too crippling, and you had to leave it somewhere, in the river of life where Jesus stands, and where he promised to take it all away, if we would leave it there. Some of you will understand what this means.

And then maybe the water broke. Maybe your faith experience was dramatic. Maybe it was more like quiet assurance. But the water broke, and something new was born. You became a new creation. And then someone was there to catch you, to claim you, to hold you, to name you, to say, “you are a part of this family, you belong here”.

That is what it means to be baptized. That is what it means to be a Christian. Come to the waters, receive the grace of God, and hear the Voice saying, about you, too,

You are my child, my beloved, on you my favor rests”.


Sources: Flannery O' Connor, "The River", and especially the superb book by Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster, The Godbearing Life.


Post a Comment

<< Home