Category Archives: Baptism

Four Sermons on Baptism: 2. Keep to the Trail of Water


–Photo: National Park Service

Exodus 15:22-27; John 2:1-11

Baptism of Aiden D.

Have you heard about extremophiles? I don’t mean people who hang-glide over belching volcanoes or snowboard down Mt.Everest blindfolded. Those risk-taking, rock-climbing, canyon-jumping, rapids-rushing, bull-running, totally insane folks can’t hold a candle to the critters I’m talking about.

Extremophiles, I read in yesterday’s Boston Globe, are microorganisms that thrive in the most unforgiving conditions imaginable. Some of these remarkable beings live miles below the earth’s surface. Others survive in temperatures reaching 250 degrees. Some breathe iron, some consume hydrogen, some eat rocks. The ones that live under the ocean floor have respiration rates 100,000times slower than organisms nearer the surface. As Beth Daley, the science reporter, put it, they lead “a mellow life” for millions of years – scientists call them “Zen microbes.”

How cool is that?

It turns out that life is far more pervasive, varied and enduring than we ever suspected. And so simple! While we complicated human creatures are madly trying to lengthen our lifespans and improve our looks with no carbs and comb-overs, these strange invisibilities are eating granite and living practically forever. Even as we reach for our cell phones, breathing hard and on the run, there are bugs out there sitting calmly in lotus positions, simply being bugs – they have no mortgages, no soccer practice, no sibling rivalries, no crummy co-workers to moan about, no nuthin’…

Of course they have no brains, either – no self-awareness, no emotions, no music, no aspirations, no ice cream. There’s not a Rembrandt or Ted Williams among them. And that’s one reason that, as cool as it is to contemplate the sheer tenacity of these little lives, and as humbling as it is to know that when our high-achieving species disappears from the planet, extremophiles will still be doing their no-thing thing in unseen places, I’m glad I’m me, and not one of them.

And yet…  Aren’t there times when our human environment seems every bit as extreme as theirs? Times when we discover that we are all extremophiles (well, not philes exactly, since we don’t usually love our hardships)?

Sooner or later most of us find ourselves in unforgiving conditions, at the far limits of livability, eating grief instead of bread, breathing pain instead of air; colonizing a subsurface world of depression and shame, or sojourning in the bewildering landscape of a bad diagnosis, an unfair dismissal, a financial disaster or some other almost casual calamity.

We cling to life in the hot core of anger or on the frozen crust of indifference, subsisting for what seems like an eternity on only the tiniest of kindnesses and paper-thin hopes. And somehow we hang on, scratching out a living in extremis, expanding the definition of the spiritual habitable zone.

How do we do it? Some people think it’s by force of will. Others think it’s by dumb luck, or good genes. More and more people swear by pharmaceuticals. But if you ask me, I’d say it’s water. We would never make it for a minute without water.

The Globe report agrees with me. It noted that one of the reasons scientists are so excited about the discovery of extremophiles is that in the search for life elsewhere in our universe, the amazing microorganisms we are finding here may be the clue to what to look for there. And in that search for life, scientists have one cardinal rule: Keep to the trail of water. “Studying life in extreme environments,” one said, “reinforces our focus on water. One thing all these life forms need at some time in their life cycle… is water.”

And let all the thirsty Israelites of today’s first reading say, “Amen!”

They have come out of Egypt thinking that unbearable misery is behind them, a painful memory. But now they are three days into the even more miserable wilderness of Shur with no water in sight, except for the polluted stuff they find at Marah. Worse than no water at all is lots of water you can’t drink; and so, wanting to live and not to die, the people cry out to Moses to do something. Moses cries out to God to do something. And God? God answers Moses by giving him… a piece of wood.


Moses picks it up and tosses it into the water. Now, notice that God does not tell Moses to do that. He does it on his own. I read one preacher who wondered if, when he saw that piece of wood, Moses thought, “Great! A piece of wood. This is so not a good answer to our prayer!”, and threw that stick into the bitter water in disgust – or in utter despair.

But Moses’ God is the same God who makes it possible for some little bug somewhere under the earth in Peru to do rather well by eating rocks and breathing iron, so there’s no reason that a piece of wood can’t quench the thirst of God’s people, ailing in the wilderness of Shur.

And sure enough, it does. As soon as it hits those acrid waters, they turn sweet. The people drink and live. They live to thrive, for soon afterwards they arrive at the oasis of Elim, with its twelve springs and seventy palms. And there they camp, the Bible says, “close to water.”

If you are looking for a life that persists in extreme conditions, for a life that thrives when by logic it should shrivel up and die, keep to the trail of water.

And if you want a life that is more than life, more than merely coping with adversity, more than occasionally rearranging the furniture, more than the illusion of balance; a life rescued from the undertow of regret, fear, guilt or the dullness brought on by a lack of depth and challenge or by casual sin; if you want your life of obligation (and resentment) transformed into a life of delight and inexplicable, indestructible joy, take the same advice – keep to the trail of water.

Follow that trail to a village wedding where the wine has run out, or to some other human circumstance in which even the best intentions and the hardest work have not been enough to make us completely happy. Follow it to an ordinary disappointment or embarrassment that rubs your nose in your everyday limitations, brings you face to face with your lack of foresight and wisdom, your inability to control circumstances, your lack of imagination, your tendency to give only a small fraction of who you are and what you have to the great feast of life, and then to complain that you have been shortchanged, that there is not enough.

The trail of water – follow it to six stone ceremonial washing jars, holding twenty or thirty gallons each. Follow it to Jesus, who said that he has living water for everyone, and who out of compassion for our ineptitude is always changing the water of obligation and self-preoccupation and low expectations into a kind of extravagant and useless delight, a new and better wine. Always transforming the bitterness of the cross into the sweetness of resurrection. Always taking ordinary life and creating from it a miraculous adventure.

How do we thrive in impossible climates?  Human will?  I admire it. Dumb luck? I am always amazed (and amused) by it. Good genes? I wish I had ‘em. Drugs? They can help. But I believe, and I know, that we would never make it for a minute in the challenging conditions of this life without the daily water of God, without the Christ of transformation – without their extremophile grace.

Call it mercy, forgiveness, acceptance, welcome. Call it the power of the Holy Spirit, divine adoption, vision, vocation, hope. Or call it the central symbolic expression of Christian faith – call it baptism – that washing, drowning, refreshing, soaking, birthing, forgiving, restoring, including, welcoming water that makes extremophiles of us all, able and even willing to live and thrive in any circumstance or condition, including the forbidding habitats we are, by our sin, forever creating for ourselves.

In a few minutes, God is going to make an extremophile out of Aidan. We will pour over him the water that signifies the grace that will help him thrive in all climates and conditions – including the harsh geology of his own sins and weaknesses (which, of course, he does not have very many of right now, but will surely start acquiring as soon as he is old enough to make a mess of things other than the purely biological ones he now makes several times a day).

We don’t know what life holds for him – bringing a child into the world is one of the greatest acts of faith anyone can make – but by baptizing him we believe we will have done the best we can for him from the start. We will have given him water, the secret of an existence more astounding than iron-eating microbes and Zen bugs breathing slow. We will have welcomed him to the trail of water, where Life is always seeking other life, to know, to love, to thrive and to rejoice.

Now, how cool is that?

Four Sermons on Baptism: 1. Water World

Isaiah 41:17-20; John 4:1-15

Baptism of Anne Elizabeth B.

He gets really tired, our Jesus, and worn out from traveling. So he takes a load off his feet at the highest, hottest hour of the day at a well in a Samaritan town where the neighbors are unlikely to be friendly. But it can’t be helped, because he has this great thirst. And because he has no bucket, and the well is deep, he’s going to have to ask somebody for help, the first person who comes along, who is likely to be a woman, and if she happens to be hard-nosed about Jewish-Samaritan relations, she might just cut him dead if he speaks to her, and if she does, he won’t get his drink of water. And water is what he wants.

When she comes, Jesus asks her for a drink. She gives him a little lip about not having a bucket, but he isn’t put off; before long they’re talking theology. First they talk about water, although at the start she thinks he’s talking about the water from Jacob’s well. But eventually the conversation gets around to establishing that the water she needs and the water he wants to give her are different. Then they move to the subject of life—just a short step away from the topic of water, since water and life are twins. But it’s not life in the abstract he is interested in; he wants to talk about her life, including her five husbands, and “everything she’s ever done.”

She drinks his “living water.” How quickly it revives her; how unencumbered she becomes! She drops everything and plunges into town to tell everybody about Jesus, and about a soul-thirst she didn’t even know she had, about the thirst Jesus first awakens in her, and then slakes. It turns out that she is the one who had no bucket, standing at the deepest of deep wells. It turns out that Jesus is the one who hospitably dips into unseen depths to refresh her. You could even say that he baptizes her, immerses and drenches her from the inside out; and from that day on, she who lived in a hot, dry world begins living also in a world of water, amid secret pools of refreshment, intimate cascades of acceptance and favor, and subterranean streams of joy.

She enters a water world: we have come to call it the church, the great reservoir of life. Since time immemorial rejuvenating waters have been collecting in its cisterns: the waters that buoyed up Jesus in Mary’s womb, they’re in there. The water by which John the Baptist cleansed Jesus, it’s in there, too. That water that by wedding’s end became good wine, it’s all there.

The church’s well holds the angry sea that Christ rebuked to save his friends, the waters he made as firm as a road so that he could reach them in their swamped boat; the tears he cried over the city he loved, and over Lazarus, his friend; the water from the basin he dragged from foot to foot at his last supper; the water that flowed from his side when the soldiers pierced him; the waters of ecstasy and revelation at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit, poured out from above, became living water within us.

The church is a great reservoir of all the waters that heal and challenge, cleanse and refresh, delight and save and serve and compel. And when by God’s mercy we are invited into the church, we who live in such hot, dry places get drenched with them. Safely submerged, we learn to swim in a brand new world, wet and wondrous; we learn to go deep and drink to our heart’s content.

Today we baptize Anne Elizabeth, child of God. We bring her not into the world (her parents managed that just fine), nor into communion with God (God knew and loved her from her mother’s womb), but into Christ’s body, into the church, into this world of water. By water we quench a thirst she is too small even to know she has—a thirst for becoming completely who she is, a thirst for fellowship with God’s people, for belonging to a household of faith and service, a thirst for home and the eternal vision of God.

Her baptism is pure gift to her: before she is able to fend for herself, to understand anything, to name anything or even to ask for anything, Christ drenches her with welcome and acceptance, makes her an indispensable member of his body, and reserves for her a unique place at our table of memory, justice and love.

Her baptism is pure gift to her: it is a lifetime pass to our village well, a right to draw from the church’s reservoir that never dries up or runs out and at which she will always find Jesus waiting for her, ready to help her, to talk with her about her life, to help her uncover who she really is, what she most truly desires. She will always find him at the center of town, at this well; and in life-long conversation with him she will drink in the kind of unencumbering good news she can’t produce for herself or get from anybody else.

And if the rest of us water babies do our part, the part we promise in our vows to God, as she grows up among us, she’ll never dry out, because we will daily be soaking her in the gifts of God with which the church is waterlogged—worship, sacraments, prayer, singing, fellowship, encouragement, teaching, counsel, correction, stewardship, healing.

If the rest of us water babies do our part, she too will someday go squishing about to tell others what it’s like to live in a water world, about the One who lives at the source, the One who can awaken their thirst too, and then quench it, the One who will hospitably draw out for them the same unending joy she knows.

Anne Elizabeth, child of God, baptized today. You came here with no bucket of your own to draw water from this pool, and Jesus was here waiting for you. He has now given you everything you’ll ever need to be safe and sound  — he has given you to us and us to you; he has made you a water baby and introduced you into a water world.

And something else too, something that we all too soon forget; but as you grow up here, we want you to remind us of it. Here it is: today we baptized you also into a mission and ministry. “What is it?” you will ask someday.  I’ll tell you now, and if we keep the promises we made to you today, we’ll be telling each other again and again for years to come.

Remember the drink that Jesus asked for? In all the commotion, it isn’t clear if he ever got it. We need to find out. Our mission and ministry is to ask and keep asking if Jesus ever got his drink of water, to ask and keep asking whether he is still thirsty, and to be on the lookout for him in all the village squares where he is dying for refreshment, in all the places where in so many guises he sits down to rest (including pews like these). Our ministry is to see him and give him that drink, to make sure someone passes by to refresh him. It isn’t much, but it’s all he’s ever asked for, all he’s ever wanted, all he wants from us today.

If you see him in the heat of the day or in the cool of the evening and give him a drink, if together we help each other do this day by day, on the Great Day when God calls us home, you and I and everybody here who loves you, along with all the saints who, waterlogged with the works of love, squish their way before Christ’s seat at God’s right hand, will hear Christ say:

“Well done, good and faithful church; well done, good and faithful Elizabeth Anne. Now enter my Father’s joy, prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for I gave you living water, and you gave it back to me. When I was thirsty, you gave me a drink.”



They paint you standing in the river, or kneeling,

never more than waist deep, head inclined,

hands folded in prayer or fluttering at your breast

like a demure virgin answering an angel, ecce ancilla,

while John pours dainty trickles from a shell over your hair.

They are all like this, annunciations not baths,

not baptisms, nothing like the drowning dream

you gasp through at night: dead weight in water,

you kick and claw but go nowhere, air gushes out

in a geyser of bubbles, and the last thing you see is your own

dear face upturned, lolling half sorrowful, half serene

just beneath the surface, the panic over, given in.