After Epiphany: Baptismal Waters as Boundary Waters
David R. Weiss – January 14, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #7 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com
I have too much on my mind this week. Where to start? Maybe with baptism, since we recall Jesus’ baptism on the second Sunday of Epiphany. The water in the River Jordan in which Jesus was immersed is (more or less) the same water that fills the baptismal fonts in our churches today. Earth’s water, formed almost contemporaneously with the planet itself and circulating non-stop through cycles of ice-water-vapor and salty-fresh ever since, is a pretty fixed amount. Who’s to say where the water molecules that covered Jesus that day have been since then?
Water is one. The water in our baptismal fonts is one tiny part of that same grand seamless cycle that nourishes, sustains, renews, and sanctifies creation across the globe (and across many different religious traditions). In our tradition, baptismal waters are boundary waters. Even for Jesus (whose baptism is perhaps not quite identical to ours), when he came up out of the waters, everything changed. The story goes that a Voice from heaven affirms Jesus as chosen by God. It’s likely that the inner journey that prepared Jesus for his ministry commenced long before that day at the Jordan, nonetheless on the far side of those waters and that Voice lay … everything else.
While we won’t read the passage about it until the first week of Lent, the gospels tell us that immediately after his baptism Jesus went out into the wilderness to be tempted. And from there he began his public ministry. So baptism truly is the doorway into everything. If you think about the common wisdom, “look before you leap,” that day, as Jesus approached John standing in the River Jordan, that was Jesus’ look. And baptism was his leap.
For us, too, baptismal waters are boundary waters. Not at all (if you ask me) that before we’re baptized we’re unsaved. Rather, baptism marks the moment when the truth of who we have always been—beloved child of God—is publicly affirmed by the community gathered around us and on our behalf. Something does change with baptism: the reference point of our whole lives. From here on out, whether as infant (with the help of family and sponsors), youth, or adult, we join the community of those who are “walking wet”: who now encounter the whole of creation bathed in grace. Sadly, for most of us these boundary waters “evaporate” almost immediately beneath the drying winds of our dominant culture (winds often felt even within the Christian tradition). We learn to meet the world under the tutelage of forces far more pervasive than our faith. That’s simply honest. It’s also tragic. And if it doesn’t change, we’re lost. Nonetheless the headwaters of our faith areboundary waters and deep within our tradition there remain bubbling springs of radical grace capable of re-wetting the whole of our lives.
Water is one. (Part Two.) It’s one thing—perhaps evocative, alluring, and inspiring—to acknowledge the kinship between the water in our fonts and the River Jordan that Jesus stepped into. And that affinity is both hydrologically and theologically real. But move in another (equally real!) direction and the kinship is more sobering. For at least the past decade the Jordan River itself has been so polluted that tourist-pilgrims are actually warned against getting baptized in its now dangerously fouled waters. And the Jordan’s fate is echoed in rivers, lakes, wetlands, and seas around the globe; in acidifying oceans and melting glaciers as well. Water is one and it bears witness against us for having thought ourselves—our dys-connected* desires and interests—as having more value than the rest of creation in which (no less than in Christ! Cf. Acts 17:28) we live and move and have our being.
*By “dys-connected” I mean to convey that we cannotin truth be disconnected from the rest of creation. We areconnected: either well-connected or dys-connected. We may have been existentially dys-connected at least since the rise of patriarchy, but since the scientific and industrial revolutions we’ve been dys-connected … with a devastating vengeance.
From this perspective the water we christen as holy in our fonts cries out to God like Abel’s blood, while we stammer in reply, “Are we the water’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9-10) Our Native American siblings know that YES, we are. Perhaps when we dip our fingers in the font to trace a wet cross on our foreheads or cup our hand to catch water to splash on the head of an infant, we’d do well to imagine this holy water reminding us, “whatsoever you do to the least of the water on the planet you do also to me.” Really, how do we dare invoke God’s presence in our baptismal water while we quite literally damn it in countless toxic ways at other places where it is only momentarily outside the sanctuary of our fonts?!
That last haunting question is why the hairs on the back of my neck bristle in alarm when I hear Governor Tim Walz offer tacit support to copper mining initiatives in northern Minnesota or suggest there’s more science yet to review around the Line 3 pipeline that would bring more of the worst type of fossil fuel through fragile wetlands to market in a world where the only life-giving direction for energy production is anything-but-fossil-fuel. Should either mining project or the pipeline run awry they’ll irreparably harm the already beleaguered waters of Minnesota. And both the mines and the pipeline echo the assumption that the only healthy economy with an extractive relationship to the earth. I say if we can protect Minnesota’s water as though it were (it is!) the water with which we baptize our children, we will insist on better options for a thriving future in our state.
Water is one. (Part Three.) One final thought, since seeing baptismal waters asboundary waters signifies transition. The Transition Movement intentionally focuses on positive tangible steps; it wants to invest energy in being “for” rather than “against.” It says life guided by Transition is more meaningful and rewarding than life as we’ve known it. I say, YES: this is gospel truth. But there is a quieter theme in Transition as well, and with the governor’s decisions likely to be a lightning rod for environmentalist hopes in the months ahead, I’m going to say it a bit louder than Transition usually does. Transition recognizes that the likelihood of political will—whether by leaders or by voters—coalescing in time to stem climate disaster … is not high. It is, in fact, more likely that even well-meaning governors committed to “progressive values” will find their political choices twisted by industry forces until they make peace with policy decisions that promulgate war on the narrowing path to a livable future.
Thus, part of Transition’s emphasis on localizing energy, resources, and skills within smaller communities is in line with the recognition that we are presently maintaining course on a path that threatens to collapse every centralized system on which we depend. Holding a quiet skepticism about the capacity of our politics to turn back from that calamity, Transition principles offer a way to move forward even if/when industry and politicians betray us. That isn’t defeatism. It is the hard wisdom that the only force that may persuade the governor (or any political leader) to do the right thing is that held by people who empower themselves and their communities to survive even if betrayed, whose political pressure is not hope pinned on the actions of someone else, but the force of truth already being birthed in our midst.
Baptism, boundary water, Transition: they change everything. Nothing less will be enough.
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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!