The Power of Water
Text: Romans 6:1-11
I grew up in the Tidewater of Virginia. The James River, Chesapeake Bay, and Atlantic Ocean were my childhood neighbors. I swam in them, fished them, clammed them, boated on them. It did not take long before I learned to love but also to respect the awesome power of water. When I entered the College of William and Mary, you could not graduate until you could demonstrate a proficiency in swimming, to show an ability to survive in water. As a young pastor on the coast of Virginia, I spent several terrifying nights helping to house families chased inland by a Hurricane fed by powerful, angry water.
In his poem, “Water,” the poet Philip Larkin muses about the power of water:
If I were called in To construct a religion I should make use of water. Going to church Would entail a fording To dry, different clothes; My liturgy would employ Images of sousing, A furious devout drench, And I should raise in the east A glass of water Where any-angled light Would congregate endlessly.
The poet Mary Oliver muses about the power of water in her poem, “At Blackwater Pond”:
At Blackwater Pond the tossed waters have settled after a night of rain. I dip my cupped hands. I drink a long time. It tastes like stone, leaves, fire. It falls cold into my body, waking the bones. I hear them deep inside me, whispering oh what is that beautiful thing that just happened?
The poet Saul of Tarsus, known best to us as the Apostle Paul, muses about the power of baptismal waters in his letter to the church in Rome:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
When you only visit large bodies of water on occasion, it is tempting to romanticize water, to turn water into a sweet, gentle friend, even a docile playmate. If the church should be clear about anything, it should be clear about the power of water. Water should come with the warnings: “Do Not Underestimate!” and “Do Not Domesticate!”
And yet, too many of us pastors and too many churches disregard the warnings, often here at the font. In the course of my ministry, I have celebrated hundreds of baptisms, mostly of infants, but also youths and adults, but all have been done at a font like this one, with a bowl of tepid water.
Early on in my ministry, at baptism I just sprinkled a few drops of water on the infant’s head for fear that more water might produce more crying, upsetting the family and disturbing the congregation’s peace. No longer. When I baptize today, you are going to get wet, as an infant, a youth, an adult. I have never baptized by immersion in a running river, for instance, holding the person being baptized down under and then jerking them up out of the water for dear life, but I would do so without a second’s hesitation.
The Apostle Paul never provides operating instructions on how or where to baptize. My hunch is that for most of his baptisms, we would probably find Paul knee deep in a rapidly running river. I suspect that he would wince at the tame and serene spectacle of baptism in most churches. He would have no patience with baptism being treated as a sacrament that was all about us or some kind of magical charm. I wish Paul had answered the phone years ago when the person on the other line asked, “Pastor, would you be free to come to our backyard on Saturday and ‘do’ our newest grandchild?” “Do what?” I responded. “Oh, you know what I mean, that sprinkling thing you do.” On second thought, it was probably best that Paul did not field that call.
Were the Apostle Paul wearing this robe and stole and standing at this font, I am not sure that many of us would hand over our child or grandchild to be baptized, much less be baptized ourselves. I suspect Paul would tell us to sit down and pay attention. He would use both hands and pour water all over us so that the water splashed out all around the font and covered the floor. He would say, “Child of God, you are baptized in the name of and into the death of Jesus. Die to the sin into which you were born. And, in God’s good time, you will be raised to new life even as God raised Jesus. When you learn to walk, walk in the newness of life. Child of God, never forget your name. Never forget that you have been made alive to God in Christ Jesus through the power of baptismal water.”
Paul understood the power of water. In the water of baptism, you and I are baptized into Jesus’ death and the sin that clings so tightly is no less deadly, but it no longer has the same lasting hold on us. That lasting hold is reserved for God who forgives us, transforms us, inspires us. In baptism, God gives us a name that is a better form of identity than any driver’s license, social security card, or passport. So, God forgive us whenever we romanticize this water or turn baptism into a quaint, tepid, rite of passage.
At the time of Jesus, it was thought that demons made their dwelling place in seemingly serene water, like the Sea of Galilee. Whenever the water in the sea would stir into a great storm, it was the demons at work. I would argue that those demons are still at work. As a boy, those demons lived in water fountains in my hometown that were labeled: “Whites Only.” Ask a Palestinian today who lives in the occupied territory about the demonic denial of water to their farms while Israeli neighbors in settlements next door lavishly water their lawns and fill their pools.
The power of our baptism is the power to resist whenever water is used as a tool of the demonic. The power of our baptism is the power to resist using water for anything but for the cleansing, renewing, redeeming, and resurrecting power of God.
Baptism, life-changing, life-transforming, life-giving, baptism is messy and unsettling and disturbing. Why? Because through the power of baptismal waters, we never see sin the same way. We never see death the same way. We never lose hope that the One who was able to raise Jesus from the depths of death is able to do the same for all God’s children. How did the poet say it?
We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
I do not know the next time we will baptize at this font. Whenever we do, remember the power of water or as Oliver writes:
I hear them deep inside me, whispering oh what is that beautiful thing that just happened?
Today is a day to remember our baptism and give thanks. Maybe it is a day to consider being baptized, claiming the name God has given you and give thanks. If nothing else, it is most certainly the day to remember the awesome power of water and give thanks.