Texts: Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
The person we know as John the Baptist had a vocation, it was to “prepare the way of the Lord.” So John did two things: First, he preached repentance. Luke tells us that John encouraged everyone with two coats to give one away and everyone with more food than they needed to share it. Second, John baptized. Baptism is a ritual of cleansing and renewal. Rituals are important. During graduation, you walk across a stage or shift the tassel on your cap from one side to the other. If you’ve taken marriage vows, you probably exchanged rings. None of these rituals are necessary, but yet they are.
One of the people John baptized was his relative (maybe a cousin) named Jesus. Our reading last week (John 1) reminded us that early Christians believed this Jesus was the ‘Word’ in incarnate. Or we can say, they believed that Jesus was Divine Wisdom in the flesh. Jesus was and is God’s ‘Yes’ to creaturely life.
The passage before us today, the account of Jesus’ baptism, points us toward another area where the concerns of the Bible overlap with the concerns of ecology. Whenever we read the Bible (any complex text really) we read it from within our setting, with our own concerns in mind. This setting, and these concerns, affect the themes and nuances to which we pay attention.
Today I want us to read this passage with an important concern from our own context in mind, water. Water is an important biblical theme. It is also a crucial ecological topic.
Let’s begin with the practice of baptism. Historically the church followed John’s example and baptized people in streams. They sought out “living” or clean, moving water for baptisms. They had a built-in ecological attentiveness, one that we have lost in our turn toward practicing his ritual in-doors with water from the tap.
In the early part of the third century the African theologian Tertullian saw such a deep link between water and the Christian faith, that he called followers of Jesus fish. He wrote, the “vipers and asps and basilisks” live in “arid and waterless places. But we, little fishes . . . are born in water [and we have no] safety in any other way than by permanently abiding in water.” Tertullian goes on to say that those who want to mislead and kill the “little fishes” are those who take them away from water. He uses some wordplay making a connection between a way the early church referred to Jesus and the Greek word for fish, ichthys (ἸΧΘΥΣ). To be a follower of Jesus, Tertullian implied, is to be water-loving and water-conscious.
If Tertullian were preaching today, he might point out that John the Baptist called the crowd a “brood of vipers.” They were not yet fish.
We’ll explore the theme of water in the Bible in just a moment, but first let’s think about the significance of water in our own context. Why would we want to see what the Bible has to say on this subject?
Well, for one thing, Tertullian was right about the importance of water. Why are space probes looking for water on Mars? Because here on earth, just about everywhere we find water we find living creatures. There are living things deep in the ocean’s depths that exist without light, but life as we know it requires water. It is essential.
There is a lot of water on earth, but more than 97% of it is saltwater. We need something else. However, most of that small percentage of water on this blue planet that is not salty is locked away in ice caps and glaciers. Good, clean freshwater is scarcer than we think.
What makes our situation particularly challenging, if we’re just thinking about the human need for water, is that the accessible freshwater that does exist is not equitably distributed across the earth. Almost 20% of the world’s surface freshwater is in the Great Lakes. Canada has 20X more freshwater per-person than does China.
A lot has been done in recent decades to protect our freshwater resources. Here in North America the quality of many rivers and lakes is improving. Yet there are still millions of people around the world who lack a safe water supply (some are in Canada’s indigenous communities).
The Jordan River, where John did his baptizing, doesn’t flow like it once did. Much of its water is now diverted for agriculture. Sewage and agricultural runoff have fouled it. There might be no more astounding indication of water usage than the deterioration of the Aral Sea in central Asia. Over the last 60 years mismanagement has reduced it to a fraction of its former size.
In some parts of the world groundwater aquifers are being drown down at an unsustainable rate. Elsewhere, wetlands, which are the earth’s natural purifying sponges, are still being drained. (The silly phrase, “Drain the swamp” is not just simplistic politics, it’s also bad ecology.)
You probably know much of this already, but I’m quite confident that if we planned on conducting a baptism in one of our local rivers, we would think about this even more. Immersing yourself in water will make you curious about its purity. Last summer there was much discussion in our city about which rivers, or parts of rivers, are clean enough to swim in. Not all of them are.
But there is another aspect to water that we should not forget. Water is essential, yes. It gives life. But water is also a force of destruction. Think about floods, like the ones we had here just a few years ago or those B.C. last fall or in Germany last July. As our planet warms, the atmosphere holds more moisture and flooding becomes more common. Yes, water is a source of life, but it is also a threat. It is a deep, untameable power.
Water is essential and water is threatening. It is in light of this experience that we read the Bible. And so the image of Jesus being immersed in water takes on new meaning. Where John baptizing Jesus today, he might have a tough time finding enough clean water to get the job done or maybe he would have had to wait for floodwaters to subside. Jesus’ connection to water is a connection to us. It too is an expression of God’s radical solidarity with creatures.
The story of Jesus’ baptism is part of an interesting biblical theology of water. Think of the beginning. In the Bible’s very first sentence water is mentioned twice.
“The earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”
Later in that same chapter (v. 20) it is the water that is populated with animals before the land.
Now scroll the whole way through the Bible to Revelation 21 verse 1, and read this:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”
We hardly ever notice that phrase: “the sea was no more.” The biblical story of water is the story of God’s interaction with the created world. Creation begins with God bringing order to the churning waters of the deep. For many of the Bible’s original audiences, the unpredictable churning of the ocean, the violence of large-scale floods was an icon evil.
Think about it, how many biblical characters were great seafaring adventurers? You might think of Jonah—but remember how that went. You might think of Paul, but that occurs after an important development in the biblical story. Neither Paul nor Jonah were purported to have gone beyond the Pillars of Hercules. That is, neither entered the ocean proper.
Think of another great water event in the Bible: Noah’s flood. In Genesis 7 the destruction comes when “the fountains of the great deep burst forth.” Famously, Amos called for justice to “roll down like waters.” That is, an unstoppable agent of change, a threat to the status quo.
There is all this and then in God’s closing act of redemption (the end of Revelation) the churning sea is eliminated. Only a peaceful river (chapter 22) is left to allow the renewed creation to flourish. Creation is no longer threatened by churning sea or destructive flood.
In the middle of this larger story we have Jesus. Jesus expresses solidarity with creatures in asking John to baptize him. Later, in Luke 7, some of John the Baptist’s disciples come to Jesus with a question. They ask Jesus “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus had just healed many people who were sick, so he tells the disciples of John the Baptist simply report what they had seen.
In the next chapter, though, Jesus gets into a boat and sets out with his students across the lake. A terrifying gale kicks up and almost swamps the boat. The students beg Jesus, who was sleeping, to do something. We read, “He woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm.” Luke, the writer, is looping a stich back to Genesis 1. The presence of the Spirit is strong with Jesus.
Some of us need a little of this today, don’t we? A sense of calm in our hearts amidst the chaos. By connecting Jesus to water, Luke is telling us about his connection to the deep powers of creation.
One more example. I won’t quote the passage, but do you remember Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well? Do you remember what Jesus offered? He offered, “living water.” Then, in the same gospel account, after Jesus dies, his body is stabbed by a soldier, and what comes out? Not just blood, but also water.
We could go on. There are many other biblical stories where the key point is made through water, but I worry that I’ve tested your patience already.
Let me conclude with two simple thoughts about water in the Bible:
First, the biblical writers refer to water to show God’s care and power. God saves from threatening water—sometimes. God makes allowances for fierce waters to bring justice—sometimes. We can’t help but wonder where the floods associated with climate change fit in here. But God also provides essential, life-giving water. At the center of this is the person of Jesus. Jesus dramatizes this. Not out of line with what God does elsewhere, but in a way that is more connected to us.
It would not be an overstatement to say that water tells the story of God’s love and reconciling work.
Second, the recurring theme of water in the Bible serves as a reminder of its central, indispensable role in the ecosystems upon which our wellbeing depends—upon which the wellbeing of those we love depends—upon which the wellbeing of all future members of our community will depend. Just as water was central to the lives of every biblical character, so it is central to each of our lives—even if we have the luxury of not thinking much about it.
It would not be an overstatement to say that, if we are going to participate in God’s reconciling work with all creation, we will have to pay attention to water.
Water is an icon of salvation. Water is the wellbeing of all God’s beloved creatures.