I am watching the late day sun glint and gleam on the little lake outside of my window. It is breezy so the water is moving quickly. The ducks and coots bob along and decide to sit on the shore for a while. The lake is full of life, the water itself sustains the life. There is something holy about water–holy and essential for life.
I think of the sea wall and the muddy Atlantic ocean in Guyana, South America,known as the land of many waters, where we accompanied Sister Jacinta and the Guyanese social workers in their work with homeless people. The homeless and mentally ill bathed in the sea and sat and watched it day and night with hope for a better life. We may have been the only non-Guyanese to swim there. It joined us forever with the people.
I think about visiting the interior of Guyana, South America with Sister Jacinta, a Guyanese East Indian Carmelite nun who was so in tune with nature and with the poor. We went to the interior on two very different occasions. First, traveling on the Essequibo, a major river by small boat, then going by van over land,we went to the interior to visit the indigenous people, Amerindians, during a time of El Nino drought. We were heart broken to see evidence of brush fires and families walking miles with small plastic containers to find the water that remained of their dried up lake. Some were already sick and dying of thirst. Sister said that it was both drought and greed that brought about this condition. There was water available in Georgetown but it had not been transported there. We told Sister that we would max out our credit cards, as we had little cash, to get the water delivered. She and the Village Captain tried hard to make this happen, but were told it could not happen,even with outside payment, the water would be delivered when it was delivered. The Amerindian people were low priority. And people waited and the vulnerable died. Sister later said that they got it a few days later so our caring did help. But we agreed that it was major social sin committed in the name of politics to be neglectful of the basic needs of people for water.
Another time Sister took us by a very small plane to the Brazilian border deep in the tropical jungle where the magnificent wonder of the Kaiteur Falls stunned and amazed us. It was not even at its mightiest, as it was not the rainy season but the immense Falls still thundered. We thought of Psalm 29: “the God of Glory thunders”. We laid on our bellies and felt the power of the water cascading. A brilliant rainbow arched over it and us. We thought of God’s covenant with people that water would not again destroy the earth. We longed to feel the water on our dry skins. We got back in the small plane, disembarked and walked until we saw the smaller twin Orinduik Falls splashing in the sun. Still magnificent, there were ways that four women could climb down and enter. As the water renewed and refreshed us at the same moment Sister and I said “Baptism” and began to throw water on each other. Rahannah,our Muslim friend, joined in as well until we were all drenched and refreshed. I am not sure what it meant to Rahannah but as we became one with the Falls and in our friendship, our one God was most surely with us.
I think about the River Jordan that I stepped into when I was in Israel in the 1970′s. There was a fence with a small sign “River Jordan Where Jesus was Baptized”, and a small body of water the size of some of the drainage ditches and small lakes here in Florida. The dark brown water moved lazily downstream. I imagined that in Jesus time this river was fuller and more vital. But the remarkable thing was that it was still flowing. I felt united with Christ as I stepped knee deep into the water.
I remembered my own baptism. I was eleven and as those of you who read my book The House On Sunny Street know, life was a bit hectic in my family and although I was attending church on my own and loved Jesus since I was eight I had not been baptized. I would be baptized now because finally my Aunt and Uncle agreed to have my baby cousin Jackie baptized and my mother would be the Godmother. And I would be baptized now because I asked my Pastor to baptize both of us. He was delighted and smiling as I was initiated into the Christian faith and “made new” again. Jackie who was “new” to this world has been a holy and loving person her whole life. Now I am reminded of a poem by Ezra Pound where the Chinese Emperor wrote a prayer on on his tub: “make things new again”. The renewing power of water is great for Christians and non Christians alike.
Each time that I baptize a child, a baby or an adult I am profoundly humbled and moved. Of the eighteen baptisms I have done in the past five years all but three have been of people who were old enough to understand what was happening and to actively request baptism. Sometimes for the adults tears flowed as they experienced the cleansing newness after lives of great struggles and trials. As the congregation and I joined together to welcome our new members, the love in the room was palpable. The children respond with joy and some of the most happy smiles ever seen on their faces. It is a deeply spiritual experience for all and especially for this priest and pastor– every single time.
Recently a man who is a pillar in our church asked me to baptize him. He has actually stood up for some of those that I baptized. He is one of the adults who will be joining our young people in Confirmation this Spring. But now he was uneasy.He had already been baptized when some young people from an evangelical local church reached out to him about eight years ago when he was homeless. His faith was rekindled by their caring and that was good. But his baptism disappointed him. He told me the story. He was taken to the Pastor’s back yard swimming pool and the pastor stood nearby as one of the young men dipped him in and said the right words: “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”. It was not in the church and no congregation welcomed him. There was no oil and there was no light. He did not know why the Pastor asked the young man to do it, instead of himself. Maybe he was learning, he thought. They said that they were happy that he was cleansed from sins. He was too and he saw it that way. He loved Jesus and knew that he would follow Christ before and after the baptism, but he confided in me that though the words were said,he didn’t feel baptized as our people are baptized. He knew now that the welcome to the body of Christ, the church, the company of those who would work for love and justice together was missing. I was torn in my response. At first I thought that “baptism is baptism” and this dear man is full of Christ already. I felt a little like John the baptist, “You should be baptizing me, your faith is so great!”. But I have pondered this and talked about it with my Co-pastor Judy Beaumont and Bishop, Bridget Mary. He and I were both to pray and think about this. I am clearer now. He wants another level of “newness”, one that includes being loved, welcomed and included, the level that a baptism done in the heart of a congregation who knows and loves him gives. If he still wants to be baptized I will be very happy to baptize him.
For the Jewish disciples of John the Baptist, baptism meant changing one’s very heart, turning one’s life around, rethinking what one was doing, and following God’s commandments with actions and not only words. John’s was a very strong radical and prophetic movement involving change toward love and justice, toward God’s law. The women priest movement of which we are a part, is a movement like that of John the Baptist. We are stepping into the water in prophetic obedience which is also disobedience within the Church, we step in on faith, to enact God’s call and let the church and the world know-God calls whom God wants to call to serve God’s people and enact justice. Marina Teresa Sanchez Mejia of Cali, Colombia, South America will be ordained a priest next Saturday, 1/18 here in Sarasota, Florida. She serves the indigenous Afro-Colombian people who live near the Cauco River in Cali. She stands with them as they fight to retain their riverfront lands.
Today we are challenged to follow Jesus into baptism by water and by the Spirit. Jesus did not have to be baptized by John, the radical on the fringe asking for repentance, for turning lives around from self to God’s ways. Why did he choose to do this? When Jesus entered that little river, he allied himself completely in solidarity with those who felt most broken, that they disappointed God the most, who needed to be washed clean, forgiven, and to begin again. And, with those that the religious establishment judged as unworthy and as sinners. He was redefining baptism itself, beyond individual sin it had to do with the sins of the so called righteous who nonetheless forgot what God had asked of them, to bring true justice to the nations (Is. 42: 4) In the preceding chapter (Isaiah 41: 17) the prophet illustrates injustice and promises God’s help: “the poor and the needy search for water but there is none…but I, the Lord will answer them. I, the God of Israel will not forsake them…”) In Baptism we are called to serve God’s “smallest” and neediest people. We are called as Jesus was called to live love, to live the acceptance of all people who do what is right before God, to live inclusion as Paul said in Acts 10: 34-38. Like Israel and like Jesus, we are called to bring good news to the poor and captives. When we follow Jesus in accepting this call we too are pleasing to our loving God.
When Jesus stepped into that water to be baptized he did it in solidarity with all humankind, especially the poor,the broken and the and outcast. He also joined with John in rebuke of the religious establishment ,we remember that John called them a bunch of snakes and told them not to say they have changed their hearts, but to show the fruits that prove their hearts have changed to embrace God’s law of justice and love. This was a fulfillment of Messianic prophecy but was also a call to do likewise. In God’s approval of Jesus ,Jesus was named “Beloved”; claimed, “My beloved”;and deeply loved.
Let us step in the water with Jesus. Let us act to proclaim good news to the poor and broken and bad news to the establishment when it does not reflect God’s profound love for all people. Then we too will hear:”on you My favor rests” and we will be guided by the Spirit and given strength to build the kin-dom of God. Are we ready for this baptism?
Pastor Judy Lee, ARCW