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Troubling the waters

Troubling the waters
January 7, 2018
Passage: Epiphany 1: Baptism of Jesus January 7, 2018 Genesis 1:1-5, Mark 1:4-11, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7
Service Type:

Wade in the water, wade in the water children

Wade in the water,

God's gonna trouble the water

I tried to imagine just reading those words—like the poem I read last night, or the words to other hymns, and it just would never do. As most of you probably know, “Wade in the Water” originated as a slave spiritual. The verses, which vary considerably from one version to another, are full of code language to guide people along the underground railroad. It was also sung at baptisms and continues to be sung at baptisms all over the country. I love the reminder that God’s gonna trouble the water. The Holy Spirit is like that.

Our reading from Genesis reminds us of the wind from God that sweeps over the face of the waters, infusing water and all creation with Spirit. The Psalm echoes this movement and this presence: The voice of the LORD is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders; the LORD is upon the mighty waters. The Spirit troubles the waters, and, at times, the Spirit troubles us. Or it should.

Fifty-one weeks ago I visited the Jordan River at the site where Jesus’ baptism is thought to have taken place. It was a great scene—a huge parking lot, a couple of tour buses, abundant tastefully appointed interpretive signage, and steps down to the banks of the Jordan. We heard singing before we could see the water. When we got there, the first thing we saw was a group of people dressed in white, wading in the water about waist-high, being baptized, dunked. Rob and I had a seminary classmate who had baptized as a young adult in the Jordan River. I was always jealous of that experience. But when I visited, I realized in my gut something I’d known intellectually for a long time: every experience of baptism in the Holy Spirit is equally authentic and profound, equally wed to the invitation Jesus offers of citizenship in the Kingdom. I’m not saying being at the Jordan was not a powerful and important experience for me—it was. We renewed our baptismal covenant and dipped our hands and feet in that water. I’m returning to Israel in a few weeks to finish my pilgrimage, and to begin making plans to return in early 2019 with many of you, so that you, too, can renew your baptismal vows at the site of Jesus’ baptism and dip your hands and feet in the Jordan River.

The water is indeed muddy and very fast-moving in that spot because it’s narrow—you’re just a stone’s throw from Jordan on the other side. The water is troubled, perhaps like the land around it, but it reminds us that God’s presence in creation, like the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, is not a quiet, peaceful force, not usually.

One thing that sets Mark’s baptism story apart from the others is the use of the phrase “torn apart”: He saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. We hear these same words, “torn apart,” at the very end of Mark’s gospel; listen for them on Palm Sunday. This is strong language. This tearing apart is a re-ordering of the world.

The Holy Spirit is not supposed to be gentle. The Spirit rips into our lives, troubles us, changes our plans. This happened to me when I decided to come be with you all here at St. Paul’s. It happened on my visit to the Holy Land a year ago. Yes, I had an accident that changed my plans, but I also experienced God’s entering in, getting my attention in new ways. Fairly disruptive, to say the least.

In baptism, we invite God in, and we invite the Holy Spirit in to mess with us. We promise to accept God’s presence in our lives through thick and thin, to repent and return whenever we fall into sin. The other thing we promise to do when we make our baptismal vows is to be the Church: To see Christ, in all, and to proclaim good news, to all. In this, we continue the work begun in Jesus at his baptism, of transforming the world into the Kingdom of God. We don’t build the Kingdom—God does that—but we pull back the curtain on it, to share it with others. We look for it. We live into it, because it is here. We do that in our worship together, our music, our prayers, and our turning and returning to God throughout each day. We live into this Kingdom when we take risks, when we open ourselves to the Spirit breaking through what God has torn apart.

I know that many of you are here because you love the calm of our sanctuary, its respite, the peace and consistency of what we do together. It feeds us for our kingdom work of tearing apart injustice and indignity, the kingdom work of love and respect. We are not the police department, vowed to preserve and protect things as they are. We are the Church, and our vows are to seek, serve, pray, break bread, strive for justice and sometimes, trouble the waters.

As we reaffirm our baptismal vocation, let us rejoice in the Spirit’s presence among us, and eagerly anticipate what mischief she will do in us and through us.