At the end of last year I received this book as a gift. It’s called Dark Water Dancing to a Breeze: A Literary Companion to Rivers and Lakes. It’s a collection of short essays and journal entries from some of the leading observers and enjoyers of nature over the last number of centuries. Names I recognized include John James Audubon, Charles Darwin, and Mark Twain. The writings range all the way from a reflection on the overpowering force of a flood, to a humorous inquiry as to how the heavily polluted Ganges in India still serves as the Great Purifier – that was Mark Twain’s piece. The editor opens the book by saying: “Whether we are conscious of it or not, water is omnipresent in our lives. This is literally true, since our bodies are 70 percent water and because, for practical as well as other reasons, most towns and cities and built beside water. With a bit of thought, we can section the course of our lives by the rivers or lakes we’ve lived or traveled on.” (p. 11)
The giver of this book was Caroline Lehman, a thoughtful gift from a thoughtful person. It was given after the completion of catechism, the class youth take which provides a big picture view of the contours of Christian faith in a Mennonite Anabaptist perspective. Not a baptism class, per se, but something of a prerequisite for youth who might consider baptism at some point. Whether the gift meant ‘thank you for this class,’ or ‘thank you that this class is over,’ I’m not sure.
Caroline most likely didn’t have baptism in mind when she gave this book, but with a title like “dark water dancing to a breeze,” it’s hard to resist the connection. Water and breeze – water and wind/breath/Spirit are the two key elements present at Jesus’ baptism when he goes under John’s hand, down into the Jordan river, then comes back up to be greeted with Spirit, in the form of a dove, which, in the words of Matthew’s gospel, was descending and alighting on him. Baptism has always been a matter of water and Spirit, and when one is baptized, one is plunged all the more deeply into the flow of these forces.
In the Hebrew imagination, these are the two forces present at the dawn of time, in the beginning, when the earth was formless and void and dark – there was already a breeze, a Spirit from God, sweeping, brooding, over the waters. In the ancient near east, the waters of the sea represented the forces of chaos. In God’s creating, God subdues the chaos, but just barely. Just enough to form the conditions on a planet by which life can flourish. Through the spoken word, creation comes to be, and it is very good.
In evolutionary terms, after the earth forms from a conglomerate of rock and debri birthed from the supernovae of a dying star, those hydrogen and oxygen atoms which have joined to make water start to find each other, pool together, and form the first oceans. It is out of these waters that the first forms of proteins and single cell life form, life which will eventually help fill the atmosphere with oxygen through the innovation of photosynthesis, life which will eventually find its way out of the ocean onto land, although still needing the ocean, always needing the waters to sustain itself. We are still 70% ocean, it’s just that now the ocean is in us rather than us being in the ocean. Spirit hovers over the waters, and creation unfolds across billions of years. We are all some form of dark water dancing to a breeze.
Most years after we put out the invitation for baptism I pop into the youth Sunday school class to check in to see if there are any questions any of them might be having about baptism. A few years back, one of the youth, I forget who it was, asked a question that stuck with me. The question was: “Why water?” It was a great question, one that, I’m guessing, most adults wouldn’t think to ask. We would tend to go first to the symbolic and more abstract aspects of baptism, but here was a question that dealt with the fundamental physical stuff involved in the act itself. Out of all the options for ritual-making, why does the central ritual of taking on a Christian identity involve…water?
Baptism with water involves this primordial substance that has been the source of life on our planet. It can be seen, tasted, and touched, your body needs it to survive and, in baptism, it is there, poured over you. We are dependent and interdependent creatures. We need water and we need one another. We are quite literally all related to one another and every creature, tree, mushroom, and bacteria that ever was. We trace our lineage back to the same origins, back to those early waters. In the words of the call to worship, we are all a part of the kin-dom of God. One family. This is true whether we are aware of it or not, but in baptism we are invited to become all the more conscious and embracing of this. We are children of the water, children of God. Baptism is a way of saying Yes to this.
In our particular time in history, our relationship to water will have a lot to do with how much future generations will be able to thrive. We have forgotten that we are dependent and interdependent creatures. The waters which feed us are dirty, and drying up. Wendell Berry, for whom I believe the Lehman/Hevener family has a particular fondness, has made a slight revision of the golden rule which provides a good rule for living in these days that we are in. He says: “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you” (Citizenship Papers, 2003). We need people who live by this. Baptism in as acceptance of this rule for life.
We are baptized with water, but it is not only water that we are baptized with. Water represents that biological aspect of life – our participation in the biosphere, our kinship with all creatures, our genetic lineage which has brought us into being. But we are not merely biology, and, as humans, we are not merely our genes and our instincts. Our destiny is not fully determined by these factors. After we are born from our mothers, we are only half born. We are not fully formed. The task is to come into adulthood not simply by means of bodily processes which make us appear adult, but to accept the responsibility of being a fully alive, conscious adult human being. Not just going along with the life we’ve been given, in the culture we’ve grown up in, with the world as it is, but accepting our calling as a moral agent within that culture – this radical gift of freedom that we have been given, to not only be shaped by the world, but to shape the world. To ourselves be, in the words of Jesus to Nicodemus, born again. Born of water and of Spirit.
And so, when we are baptized, we are also baptized with Spirit. In the Spirit, we enter into that dynamism of creaturely freedom. This is, in the words of Genesis, what is means to be created in the image of God. Creatures who themselves create through that same Divine Spirit. The Spirit comes alive through us, and continues its creative task through our lives.
This is a beautiful and lofty idea, but I want to take a slight detour, if it could be called that, before ending with a few more words on the baptism of the Spirit.
Scripture isn’t exactly a detour, but the lectionary reading from Acts about the baptism of Lydia brings up some other important questions about what all it might mean to receive baptism these days.
The story of Lydia’s baptism – the part where she’s actually baptized – is so simple there’s almost nothing to it. The Apostle Paul and his companions are in the city of Philippi, which Luke names as “a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony.” Sabbath comes around and they are looking for a place to preach. They head outside the city gate, by a river, where they supposed people might be gathering to pray. They get to the river, sit down, and speak with some of the women gathered there. One of the women, named Lydia, who was a dealer in purple cloth, as it says “listens eagerly” and, “the Lord opened her heart.” Then, this in verse 15: “When she and her household were baptized, she urged us saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.” In the text, there is a direct leap from an open heart and listening eagerly, to being baptized. And there is an even quicker leap from Lydia being baptized to her whole household being baptized. Followed by a final leap, in that same sentence, to Lydia’s first act of Christian discipleship: hospitality, extending a persuasive invitation to these traveling preachers to come and stay in her home. It all sounds so simple.
As far as we know from the text, Lydia and her household underwent no catechism training, had no back and forth in their minds about whether this was or wasn’t the right time to be baptized. They didn’t even have to tell their faith journey in front of a congregation before being baptized. Open hearts and eager listening leads directly to baptism. Baptism leads directly to Christian hospitality. Simple.
For those of us of European origin, this text has special significance. Prior to this, Paul and his companions had been traveling throughout Asia Minor, spreading the good news of Jesus to whoever would listen, but they keep running into closed doors. In 16:6 it says they were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” Then it says they attempted to go to a couple other cities there, but “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” There’s that Spirit again. Instead, Paul receives a vision in the night to come over the Macedonia, a place these missionaries had not been before. They cross over the Aegean Sea and, for the first time, are in the Europe. Lydia, a business woman, most likely single and wealthy because she has her own household, is the first European convert. For those of us of European origin who claim a Christian identity, Lydia is our orginal foremother. The Jesus movement gains a foothold in Europe, closer than ever to the heart of the Roman Empire, and Europe will never be the same.
But here’s where it starts to get not so simple for us, all these years later. We know that Christianity has a long and complicated history as it came to be experienced on that continent, and this one, where many Europeans immigrated. These have been both troubled and fertile waters.
This is the lineage that produced the Holy Roman Empire with the church wed so closely to the wealth and power structure of the political order that it was at times hard to tell them apart. It’s also the lineage of Francis of Assisi, who gave up a life of privilege and gathered around himself a group of brothers and sisters who preached peace and lived in solidarity with the poor and spiritual communion with creation.
This is the lineage of the 16th century Radical Reformation. Some of those radical reformers took up weapons against their enemies, and claimed that the kingdom of God was going to arrive any day in their lifetime. Others refused the sword and taught that the kingdom of God is present in those who follow Jesus down the difficult road of brotherly and sisterly love.
It’s a lineage whose patriarchy has suppressed the gifts and insights of countless numbers of Spirit-led women. It’s the lineage of Catherine of Sienna, Teresa of Avila, and Julia Ward Howe of New York whose Mother’s Day for Peace proclamation began by saying:
“Arise, then, women of this day! Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!”
This is the lineage claimed by both American slaveholders, and leading abolitionists.
It’s the lineage of the Crusades, the Inquisition. It’s the lineage that produced Michelangelo’s paintings, and the music of Bach.
We could go on.
All this to say that the lineage that we have inherited is not just a biological one, but also a religious one. The biological lineage we can’t deny. The religious lineage is one we have the choice to either identify with, or leave behind. And when we identify with it, accept it as your own, we have to choose which parts of that lineage we want to define and inspire and shape us. And, we accept responsibility for representing that lineage to those who themselves choose which parts of that lineage they think represent that lineage. To say that you are a Christian might mean one thing to you, and an entirely different thing to another person.
So, Caroline, are you sure you want to be baptized?
Knowing that you’ve already answered Yes, which we celebrate today, let’s call to mind that simple beauty of our baptismal identity. There are many parts of it which are not simple, but there is a wondrous simplicity in having an open heart, listening eagerly, walking willingly, even if it is cautiously, toward these waters.
The Spirit is here. She is alive. She is descending with a lightness of being. She knows the way. She guides us, picks us up when we fall. She holds us in community where we learn how to love those downstream. She is full of grace. She will lead us in ways we cannot now know. All she asks is that we have an open heart, and listen, eagerly.