Last Sunday on the Feast of the Holy Name, my colleague Marlene preached about the importance of letting go of names that no longer suit us. So in the three months since I’ve moved here from the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve been practicing a new way of naming myself: Oregonian. I’m actually the fourth generation of my family to be born in California, so I’m pretty sure my great grandmother would be rolling over in her grave to hear me say that. But since I’m embracing this new identity, I’m also committed to learning about my new state. My husband and I have been watching the Ken Burns documentary about the Lewis and Clark expedition, and last weekend we hiked out the South Jetty at Fort Stevens to see where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. Waters crashing into water. I practically fell to my knees at the fearsome beauty and power of the confluence.
It immediately brought to mind a passage of scripture that I deeply love, from Habbakuk: “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” Habbakuk is a minor prophet of the Old Testament who is known both for his sassy backtalk to God and his poetic manner of expression. So while I’ve always loved his image of waters covering the sea, I assumed it was a rhetorical flourish. Until I saw the mouth of the Columbia River. Glorious. The glory of the Lord. Waters covering the sea—which they actually do, because fresh water is lighter than ocean—like the glory of the Lord.
I think it’s safe to assume that Habbakuk never called himself an Oregonian, so we can’t know exactly what he had in mind when he used the image of water covering the sea, except to say that he was surely speaking of a hyperabundance of water. Which is in this context a metaphor for the glorious hyperabundance of God, the backdrop to everything being revealed through the scriptures we hear in Epiphany season. “I am the Lord… who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it… my glory I give to no other,” as Isaiah heard it.
And this morning we find Jesus standing at the edge of the waters of his own river baptism, which rends the very heavens as the evangelist reports it. Uniquely to Matthew’s Gospel, we also find Jesus negotiating with his cousin John about whether he actually needs to be baptized. Commentators over the ages have belabored the meaning of Jesus’ insistence that he enter into a ritual that John understood as an enactment of repentance. The best theological answer, as far as I’m concerned, is that Jesus’ baptism was an immersion in the human condition, which God affirmed and blessed as beloved.
And there is no element that better represents—in fact is integral to—the human condition than water. Science and theology equally bear witness to it. Our sacred stories begin with the Spirit of God sweeping over the face of the waters, and the Book of Revelation ends with a description of river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God. In between, water fairly leaps off the pages of our Bible, cleansing, healing, and slaking the thirst of a desert people. These stories would have been well known to Jesus and John, but so would the intimate relationship of human embodiment and water. Recall that their very first meeting, when John leapt in his mother’s womb at the presence of a pregnant Mary, occurred when both of them were immersed in amniotic waters.
From conception, our individual and communal survival is mediated through water. And seventy percent of the earth is covered by water; we know all this. But the sheer volume of the water we live amidst does not make it invulnerable. The water protectors blocking the greasy expansion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatens the integrity of the Missouri River, are attempting to prevent what the 100,000 residents of Flint Michigan already know to be true. We are fully capable of contaminating the water that we need for life, and of destroying the sanctity of that which the Spirit of God swept over and called good.
Water is necessary, it is vulnerable, and it is also dangerous. Our scriptures remind us of that in stories of the flood and Jonah and the Red Sea crossing. And getting through rough water may be only the beginning of a risky journey, which Matthew’s narrative makes plain when Jesus goes directly from the Jordan into the desert of his temptation. But sometimes the only way through the risk is by means of immersion.
We learn so much from water: from hearing stories about it, from being around it, from being in it, from being made of it. I sometimes wonder if one of the reasons Jesus needed to enter the water of baptism was simply to comprehend the 60% of his embodied self that was water. We have to assume that he was just as attracted to water, and just as subject to the rules of fluid dynamics, as any of the rest of us.
One principle of which being that water seeks its own level. We see the fruits of this in the dramatic reshaping of landscape that can occur when water interacts with geology. Consider the Grand Canyon, or—closer to my new home state—the Columbia Gorge. In similar manner, baptism reveals the powerful sacramental interaction of water and words. So when in baptism we renounce that which corrupts and destroys God’s good creation, and we affirm our commitment to conform ourselves to Jesus Christ, we might say that baptism is our call to level up. To become like God, whose glory is manifested through water; in birth and in baptism, from creation to revelation.
Martin Luther once said baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that takes our entire lives to fulfill. And if we’re honest with each other—which I like to think we are at Trinity—we have to confess that it’s sometimes a messy fulfillment. If we’re really doing the work of renouncing things that our culture affirms, and affirming things that our culture denies, living into our baptismal identities will be no less dramatic than the wildness of the waves generated where the Columbia River meets the ocean. We will run into conflict. Maybe not for all of us on the scale of those who have been protesting at Standing Rock, but certainly on the scale of defending the rights of the marginalized and, indeed, of the earth itself.
Which is why we gather on days like today to remember our own baptisms. We need to remind each other, and be reminded that—while baptismal life is our deepest human truth—it is also hard. And that we are not alone when we accept the risk and the reward. And that Jesus has done it before us. And that we ourselves—birthed in water, baptized in water—are sufficient to cover the world in a sea of goodness. With God’s help, of course. Because every time we again say “I will” to our baptismal identity, the glory of the Lord is revealed anew.