“The Mysterious Water”
Sunday, January 13, 2008
Matthew 3: 13-17
We are trying to understand today the meaning of Jesus’ baptism. The early Christians found it hard to understand…embarrassing almost.
Unlike Christian baptism which is primarily a sacrament of inclusion, John the Baptist’s baptism was specifically and exclusively a ritual of repentance. You came to be baptized by John as a way of confessing your sins and repenting of them. (See Matthew 3: 6 and 11)
What sins would Jesus have to confess or repent of? Was Jesus implicitly admitting his sinfulness by presenting himself to John for baptism? Such an admission would fly in the face of the teachings of the church.
Matthew, in his telling of the story, wants to make sure we know that John the Baptist tried to stop Jesus from being baptized but Jesus insists. But why does Jesus insist on being baptized? What is the meaning of his baptism?
The biblical scholars W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann tell us that to understand the meaning of Jesus’ baptism you need to know the meaning and significance of the Hebrew phrase rb[ ~ym [pronounced aw-bar' mah'-yim].[i]
rb[ ~ym is translated into English as “to
pass through the waters.” It is a phrase that had a special meaning for the
rb[ ~ym was a reference to Israel’s ancestors passing through the waters of the Red Sea as they escaped slavery in Egypt, but rb[ ~ym was also a reference to passing through the waters of the womb, passing through the waters of the storms of life, passing through the flood waters which threaten to overwhelm us, passing through the waters of our tears, passing through the waters of the chilly Jordan from this life into the next.
rb[ ~ym was a term that referred to birth and death and all of the smaller births and deaths that we experience in life between the two big ones…birth and death and all of the risky, threatening, heady and hard things that we are called upon to do in life. This is what rb[ ~ym , “passing through the waters,” meant.
the cherished verses of Scripture for the people of
rb[ ~y. Passing through the waters.
Albright and Mann say that when Matthew describes Jesus’ baptism and says “he came up from the water,” it is an unmistakable reference to rb[ ~ym. He passed through the waters.
In Matthew Jesus’ baptism isn’t an act of repentance, it is a statement about life.
The first words Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Matthew are the words he says in response to John’s attempts to stop him from being baptized. “Let it be so now, for it is proper in this way for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
John says to Jesus: You don’t have to pass through these waters...the waters of baptism…the waters of life...the waters of death. Not you! You are special.
Jesus answers John: I choose to live all the fullness of the human life. I choose to pass through the waters.
I have a friend, a psychiatrist, who often tells about a conversation he had with his mother when he was very young. It happened at a very early age, even before he had begun school.
A relative had died. After the funeral, my friend asked his mother a question. He asked her: “Will you die, too?”
His mother answered him honestly, “Yes, someday I will die.”
He thought for a while and then he asked her another question, “Will I die?”
His mother, to her credit, again answered him honestly. “Yes, someday a long time from now you too will die.”
He thought about this and then said to his mother, “But that isn’t fair. I didn’t ask to be born.”
His mother answered him quietly, “I didn’t ask to be born either.”
So far as we know, we have no voice in our births. We don’t get a vote. We are thrust into the world ready or not.
And we certainly have no choice about whether or not we will die. No one, so far, has come up with an alternative.
Our births and the fact of our deaths are not something we have a say in. I understand why this would not seem fair to a precocious four or five year old…or perhaps some days to you or me.
Matthew believed that, unlike us, Jesus did have a choice to make. We don’t ask to be born and we have no say in the fact of our deaths. The waters of life are thrust upon us.
Jesus did have a say about the waters of his life. This is Matthew’s theology. It is Matthew who reminds us that Jesus could walk on water. (Matthew 14: 22-43) Jesus didn’t have to pass through the waters of life. He could walk right on top of them.
He didn’t have to go through what the rest of us have to go through…all of the things that demand that we be brave or stoic or tough…all of the things that life demands of us that we have no vote about…all of the things that don’t seem fair.
Jesus didn’t need to pass through these waters, like we do. He could have walked above them.
But Jesus chose to be baptized. He chose to live the fullness of human life. “It is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness,” he says.
The conclusion we usually draw from this is that Jesus was a good guy who chose to live our lives with us, even though he didn’t have to.
But I think the point Matthew is trying to make in his Gospel is more profound. I think he is saying that all those things in life that we would choose to walk above rather than pass through if we had the choice are really the very heart of life…what life is really all about.
All of these waters life thrusts upon us that we would rather avoid and that demand more courage than we think we have…birth, death, falling in love, the painful endings of relationships, new jobs, the painful endings of jobs, disease and surgery and psychotherapy, sin and guilt and repentance, owning our truths, coming out, setting limits, believing, doubting… all these things that it would be easier if we could somehow just walk above them like Jesus could walk on water…these are the very riches of life…this is the good stuff…the real thing. This is what it means to really live. These are the things Jesus chooses in his baptism, when he didn’t have to…when he could have escaped it all…because Jesus knows this is where he will find life and God…righteousness…the right stuff.
A couple of weeks ago I was listening to a podcast of a talk by Fred Buechner, one of my favorite writers. It was entitled “The Stewardship of Pain.” He was talking about why is it important that we be good stewards of our pain…that we pay attention to it without letting it make us bitter.
He said an intriguing thing in his talk. The reason, he says, we do well to pay attention to our pain and to try to learn from it is because it is one of the times we are most alive.
It is not above the waters but passing through them that we find life and God.
In his baptism Jesus chose to pass through the waters of life and declared them good…everything he would face – the rejection, the betrayal, the disappointment, the humiliation, the trials, the hunger, the thirst, the stripes in his side as well as the love, truth, healing and hope – he declared them good. He declared them life.
Now, I don’t want anybody quoting this sermon back to me someday when I am lying in a hospital bed. Didn’t you say, pastor, in a sermon this was good, this was life? I will probably not be in a mood to hear it.
And I promise never to say it to you when you are lying in a hospital bed, or facing a break-up or divorce, or losing your job, or facing the death of a loved one.
But I will say it to you today. The waters we pass through in our lives are the waters of life that fill us with life and meaning and the presence of God.
We affirm this when we celebrate the baptism of babies and children and adults. We say it for ourselves; we say it for our children; we say it for one another. This life we didn’t ask for, this life which isn’t fair, this life over which we have so little say, in baptism we say “yes” to it, just like Jesus did.
I didn’t ask to be born, but “yes, yes, yes.” Yes to the highs. Yes to the lows. Yes to the blessings. Yes to the defeats. Yes, yes, yes.
I didn’t ask to be born, but yes, yes, yes.
[i] W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann, The Anchor Bible: Matthew vol. 26 (Doubleday), 32.