Last Sunday I introduced our spring sermon series, “Come to the Waters,” which will focus on water stories in the gospels. We began at the end, in a sense, with a story from the final chapter of the gospel of John. We did this because it was a resurrection story, and we were just a couple of weeks into the Easter season.
Still, it’s important to put the other water episodes in context, and in all four gospels Jesus’ ministry begins with the story of his baptism by John. Matthew’s gospel offers us more detail than the others, including that dialogue you just heard between John and Jesus: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14)
You see, John’s been out in the wilderness for some time by this point, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He’s gathered quite a following, but at the same time he hasn’t been afraid to call out folks like the Pharisees and Sadducees for their sinfulness and hypocrisy. (“You brood of vipers,” says our pew Bible a few verses prior to today’s reading; though those of us who’ve enjoyed seeing the Cotton Patch Gospel version performed at Taproot Theater recently will remember the line as “you sons of snakes!”)
At any rate, John’s out there doing his thing – his thing being preparing people for the coming of the Messiah, God’s chosen one, when all of a sudden the Messiah himself, Jesus, enters the scene. And not only does he appear, but he asks to be baptized. He, the Messiah, God’s own Son, asks to be baptized by John. “It’s safe to say that John was as surprised as we are, or at least as we should be if we read this passage without knowing what’s coming.”
Biblical scholars are divided in their understandings of Jesus’ intention in asking John to baptize him. After all, here was one without sin, asking to participate in a symbolic act that was at that time, in Judaism, all about ritual cleansing, and repentance from sin. At the very least, I believe it was important to Jesus to demonstrate his solidarity with sinners. The point of God becoming human, after all, was to reach out to us, to meet us where we are. Becoming one of us, not only to model for us what a holy, righteous life can look like, but then also through his death and resurrection to offer us salvation, and an abundant, eternal life.
Jesus’ baptism also functions as a sort of inauguration for his future ministry, for as he comes up from the water, the Spirit of God descends like a dove and a voice from heaven says, “this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” That one you’ve been waiting for? This is him. He’s here.
The story of Jesus’ baptism by water in the Jordan River calls to mind other important biblical stories, too. For instance the story of creation, back in Genesis 1, where there is also water, Spirit, and a heavenly voice. Father, Son, and Spirit were present together at the very beginning, just as they are here at Jesus’ baptism. And then within Matthew’s own gospel, if we fast forward to the end, we’ll find Jesus commissioning the apostles, following his resurrection, with these words: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” It’s there that the gift of baptism is given to the church along with a wonderful divine promise: “remember: I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
Granted, in the centuries since, we in the Church have found all kinds of ways to complicate baptism – to take a sign of God’s grace, and make it about what separates us, rather than what unites us as Christians. Even in this one congregation, on any given Sunday we’re blessed to have in our midst former Catholics and former Baptists, and those of you from several other church backgrounds too, representing a wide range of teachings on the sacrament of baptism. Our Catholic friends are baptized as infants, for instance, while Baptists are firm believers in “believers’ baptism,” that is, waiting for baptism until you are old enough to make a clear decision to follow Christ. And then there are the mechanics of what we actually do with the water itself, in baptism, in our various traditions. Are you most familiar with a splash of water on the forehead, from the font, as we generally do here? Or do you feel we really ought to be going for full immersion, in a church baptistry (which is a special type of an indoor pool) or even in an outdoor setting, like a lake or river? Whatever your leanings in this regard, I assure you, you’re not alone. The Church as a whole celebrates the sacrament of baptism in a myriad of ways.
With a variety of church traditions represented in my own family too, I’ve really appreciated the Presbyterian Church’s teaching on baptism, which emphasizes the importance of recognizing the baptisms of other Christian traditions. Our Directory for Worship – part of our denomination’s constitution – says it this way: “The body of Christ is one, and Baptism is the bond of unity in Christ.” (W-2.3005) Therefore we “recognize all Baptisms with water in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit administered by other Christian churches.” (W-2.3010) In other words, it matters not whether you were sprinkled, dipped, or dunked, or whether that happened in a Catholic or Lutheran church as an infant, or down by the riverside as a Baptist teenager or adult. Your baptism “counts” in our eyes, in the Presbyterian Church. As our reading from Ephesians reminded us this morning, we have “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 3:5-6) Baptism is a sign of our unity in Christ. It is a sign of belonging to God and of belonging to God’s people in the Church.
For just as God’s Holy Spirit expressed great pleasure and love at Jesus’ baptism – “this is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17) - so too God is delighted to welcome each one of us into God’s family. This is why at every baptism at this church we include that beautiful reminder: “See what love the Father has for us, that we should be called children of God, and so we are!” (1 John 3:1)
And so, as Jesus came up from the water, so do we. And just as Jesus had plenty to do, once he came up from that water, so do we. Baptism represented the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and ideally it functions this way for each of us too.
Baptism doesn’t signify that we’ve got it all together, that we’ve arrived, so much as it signifies we have begun a journey with God that will last our whole lives long. Nothing we could possibly do will ever cause us to be un-baptized, for nothing we could ever do could possibly keep God from loving us as his children. They say that at the lowest points of his life, in his darkest hours, Martin Luther would repeat to himself over and over again: “I am baptized. I am baptized.” It was for him a firm footing, a place of grounding and comfort in a turbulent world. The fact of his baptism reminded Luther that he was God’s beloved child, claimed and sealed as God’s own, and promised God’s presence with him “always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) Nothing could take that away from him, just as nothing can take it away from any one of us.
Still, it’s important that we try to live as those who have been claimed in Christ, and belong to God. That same text from Ephesians that we read this morning began this way: “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” (Ephesians 4:1) The waters of baptism don’t clean us so well that we’re done once and for all. This is why we regularly confess our sins in our weekly worship services, and remind ourselves that God’s mercies are new every morning. Every new day presents new opportunities to lead a life worthy of the calling to which we’ve been called, in our baptisms.
Baptism has been called a visible sign of an invisible reality – the gift of God’s grace which is offered freely, no strings attached, to every one of us. So if you haven’t ever been baptized, or perhaps your child has not, I hope you’ll feel welcome to talk to me about it sometime. It’s a sacrament designed not to keep anyone out, but precisely to invite us all in to God’s family. What we’re doing in baptism is laying hold of God’s grace that is already there for us. It’s ours for the asking. In baptism we simply say yes, I want that gift for myself, or for my child. So you are always welcome to come to the baptismal waters. We’d love to celebrate this important sign with you.
It’s such a simple thing, in a way. Whether it involves a bowl of water and a small splash on the forehead, or a full-on dip underwater. Such a simple thing. But this simple act is also one of the biggest things we do, as a church. For hiding just below the surface of that baptismal water, whatever form it takes, is a mighty fountain of significance. And to borrow a phrase from a Vacation Bible School song I learned as a child, it’s a fountain flowing both deep and wide.
As wide as the universal church across time zones and generations. As deep as we allow it to be, as we seek to live with integrity into our baptized lives.
Once marked as a child of God in baptism, we are invited to remember always that we are God’s own. In every moment and every situation life sends our way, we can recall we have been baptized, and claimed as God’s beloved. And who among us doesn’t need those reminders from time to time? To help us keep our bearings, when times are hard. To remind us who and whose we are, when temptation strikes. To motivate us toward greater generosity when it would be all too easy to be selfish. To bring us comfort, when we are faced with tragedy.
In baptism we are marked as Christ’s own forever, and promised God’s sure and steady presence with us always.
So come to the waters, giving thanks for the gift of God’s grace in baptism. And let’s embrace the challenge of living lives worthy of the calling to which we’ve been called. Amen.
 N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, part 1, p. 20
 Come to the Waters, Horizons Bible study 2015-2016, p. 18.