God’s gonna trouble, the water…
I was never sure what to make of that line in that old spiritual. God troubling the water always seemed to me to conjure up a notion of mistrust about the divine. I didn’t like the idea of God stirring up our lives when it seems like everything is going well. God’s gonna trouble that which is untroubled. But after reading Alison’s notes, of the underground railway and escaping slaves wading in the water towards new life, and tying these troubled waters to the story of the pools of Bethesda, how an angel of God would “stir up” or “trouble” the waters of the pool in order for healing…these words are even more challenging.
God heals in the midst of chaos. God brings about new life from trouble.
Trouble appears in this baptism account from Matthew. The trouble starts before they even get to the water, as John and Jesus meet on the water’s edge, to discuss what was right in the eyes of the community. John had established his ministry in the midst of those troubled waters. His community had formed around him because they saw in him messianic qualities. He preached about the imminence (or closeness) of the kingdom of God. A prominent figure in Christianity, Islam, and other faith groups, John preached about repentance, changing one’s life… (new year, new you)… and embracing this newness as one recreates their life defined by your relationship with God. He’s only mentioned a few times more in the Gospels here on out, as soon he is arrested, for speaking against both the Jewish officials as well as Roman elite.
When things are stirred up in our lives – we don’t tend to enter them in order for healing. We run the other way. Yet John wades deep into those troubled waters, knowing that there is the place of healing. There were many that believed John to be the one who would heal the faith. But John knew differently. He knew one was to come.
But what I don’t understand is how he recognized Jesus. Like I understand there’s more to the story, that the Bible doesn’t capture the whole of Jesus’ life, that outside of the story of the young Jesus in the temple, there’s no adolescent Jesus joining in with the wrong crowd and getting into trouble. There’s not twenty year old Jesus awkwardly feeling his age and wondering if he should be getting married (as all of his friends were). There’s the scriptures connecting them as cousins, but little of their interactions after their births. Here, time has passed as we meet thirty(ish) Jesus coming for baptism.
So what led him to that water?
Was he sitting in the crowd listening to John, moved by his preaching, compelled to dedicate his life to serving God? Did God call him there? Did he have a Superman™ realization where he understood he wasn’t a part of the world as he knew it – he came to save it? There’s so much of this story that we don’t know.
Yet we can still imagine the scene. John, a revered holy man, stands in the water as Jesus emerges from the crowd. Wading into the troubled water, they discuss propriety – what is right – after some commotion, Jesus is lowered in the water just like everyone else who had come before him.
Have you ever witnessed a baptism – a full immersion baptism –it’s a holy intimate act. I don’t want to diminish how we celebrate baptism with infants and with adults here in our denomination, but there’s a part of me that sees the beauty in the fully immersive celebration of God’s grace.
I like to imagine Jesus in John’s arms, being lowered into the waters, floating there and feeling fully immersed and covered and surrounded by the love of God, water caressing every pore of Jesus’ body, then returning to the world, raised out of the water, held by humanity yet blessed by God.
Deep in the troubled waters, and raised out to new life.
Jesus’ baptism is different than our own. Different words were said, it carried different meanings for his community compared to our own. While we celebrate the fulfilments of dreams and possibilities in baptism, we play down the expectations on those baptized. As they sit in my office, I want to encourage new baptized or their parents, to feel comfortable to join us every week…and I struggle with language of expectation and hope, that this is what it means to be baptized, this is what it means to share a journey of faith…but so often it’s like those squirrels…
A town was full of them…houses, businesses, and churches especially…
One day, the Presbyterian church called a meeting to decide what to do about the squirrels. After much prayer and consideration they determined that the squirrels were predestined to be there and they shouldn’t interfere with God’s divine will.
The Methodist group got together and decided that they were not in a position to harm any of God’s creations. So, they humanely trapped the squirrels and set them free a few miles outside of town. Three days later, the squirrels were back.
It was only the Catholics who were able to come up with the best and most effective solution: They baptized the squirrels and registered them as members of the church. Now they see them only on Christmas and Easter.
At baptism, I want both baptizer and baptizee, I want congregation and audience, I want each and every person to hear those words, this is my Child, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased….God speaks to John in the water and the people waiting for baptism on the water’s edge. God declares Jesus beloved, just like we do when we bring infants for baptism. They don’t have to do anything to earn our love, they just do. And I think in the same way, with no stories of Jesus’ ministry prior to this, Jesus merely has to exist and he is loved. God declares this so that all the people may hear, and as we stand at the font, and celebrate the blessing of God as those-to-be-baptized come forward, we declare, that you are God’s child, you are beloved, with you, God is well pleased.
But how long has it been that you’ve heard those words. We have no end to negative voices in our lives. Whether it be the people surrounding us, or just that voice nagging us to drop thirty pounds because it’s the new year, or start saving our money because one never knows what kind of new tax will be dropped on us, those voices never seem to stop. And they drown out the quiet whispers of God…you are my child…you are my beloved…
Even better put, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a Jewish leader from the 17/1800s who said
The day you were born
is the day God decided
that the world could not exist without you.
This world cannot exist without you. You are God’s child. You are beloved.
When a congregation makes promises at baptism – it is to ensure that we speak those words to each other again and again. We may get wrapped up with budgets and deficits and expectation but if we cannot embody unconditional welcome for each other (as modelled in communion) and unconditional love for each other (as manifest in baptism), then we lose both our power and purpose as people of God. Because if we know, if we believe, if we hear God declaring us loved, we can enter into any troubled situation and believe that new life is possible. This is our job as people of faith – for as John in the water knew, and as those on the water’s edge knew, it is communities who live out baptismal promises in support and love for each other.
So, how long has it been…that you have heard:
you are God’s child,
you are beloved,
with you, God is well pleased