“Where’s the Water?”
A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
May 24, 2009
University Baptist Church
Water is such a powerful element in our religious services. Think about the washing of the feet. Think about the ritual washing that our Muslim sisters and brothers do when they prepare to pray. I want to focus this morning upon is baptism.
Baptists are downright insistent that the proper form of baptism is immersion. Let’s face it, on a hot summer day I would rather jump in lake than run through a sprinkler any day. Immersion is good. It represents the dying of an old way of life and rising again in newness. The warm baptismal waters also remind us of the womb so that as we are immersed, we symbolize rebirth. But with all of its beauty and power, the form of baptism for Baptists is much less important than the time that it happens. For a Baptist a conscious decision to be baptized is made by a mature believer only after they have made a commitment to following Christ. It’s the only model we see in the Bible. Rightly so, we get caught up in the beautiful ritual. But it’s more than a ritual. It symbolizes true commitment to being different. It’s about embracing the radical grace, acceptance and challenge of living the Christian life and making a commitment to symbolically wash ourselves clean and immerse ourselves in a different reality. So, let’s look at how understandings of baptism have developed.
Marcus Borg, in his book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, speaks about the difference between the pre-resurrection Jesus and the post-resurrection Christ. Looking primarily at Matthew, Mark and Luke, Borg contends that the true historical Jesus was not so focused upon individual salvation. In fact, he says that Jesus was probably not very interested in declaring himself as the Messiah. What he was interested in was freeing people from abusive religion, ushering in the reign of God, and encouraging people to live compassionate lives. In fact, he begins his ministry by being a follower of John the Baptist and being baptized into a baptism of repentance. Baptism, Mikveh in Hebrew, was a cleansing ritual done with a Rabbi in order to make you ritually clean to receive the full rites of the Jewish Synagogue, kinda like Catholics believe that you need to go to confession before you can take communion. It is likely that Jesus saw the baptism as a sign of repentance. But the meaning of Baptism changed with Jesus. The story goes that when Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit came and landed on his shoulder and a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.” The early church would later use the ritual of laying on of hands alongside Baptism as a way of imparting the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, it was believed, was passed on when we touch each other. That’s why touching each other is important from time to time in our worship. SO Baptism symbolized both repenting from an old way of life and receiving the Holy Spirit. This was the Baptism of Jesus.
Now, the Gospel of John and the writings of Paul emphasized not so much a pre-resurrection Jesus, but a post-resurrection Christ. The focus of this Christ was to grant individual salvation. The mainstream church adopted this priority, too. The problem was, what to do about Baptism? If baptism was an ordinance instituted by Jesus, was it about repentance or was it about salvation? Sometime centuries after Jesus died and rose, a theology emerged that said that no one could go to heaven unless they were baptized. It followed then that out of compassion you needed to baptize children.
So, infants were commonly baptized. The understanding was that the parents made the vows for the child which the child would later confirm when he or she was old enough. They came up with weird concepts like limbo to explain where a child would go if he or she was not baptized. Baptism, many believe, is your ticket to eternal life.
The Baptists, when they emerged in prominence in the 1600’s saw all of these legalistic conflagrations as silly. The Baptists were biblical purists, not only in what the Biblical record says about Baptism, but also about the priorities of the believers. They believed that authority came from Christ alone and not the government. No one could tell you what to believe about the scriptures. Rather, each individual has the right and responsibility to interpret scripture for themselves with the Holy Spirit as the guide and the congregation as the sounding board. That’s how you determine the word of God. They also saw Jesus as a peacemaker. They refused to conscript in the army. They refused to take any oath, for the only one you make an oath to is God. The earliest Baptists had themselves rebaptized, which got the accepted church’s hackles all drawn up. They called them Anabaptists, “rebaptizers”. But again, the form is not so important as reclaiming what baptism means. To be rebaptized or baptized into a Baptist life meant going against the state. It meant the risk of jail. It required a conversion.
In order to get a hold of the radical message of the early Christian church and what baptism meant for them, I want us to briefly look at the story of the Ethiopian eunuch. The thing that we immediately notice about this conversion story is that the main characters are odd-balls when it comes to acceptable religion or acceptable society. Philip was an ecstatic evangelist who is said to have had four prophesying unmarried daughters (Acts 21:9). He was not one of the original 12, but like the recently martyred Stephen, he was one of the first seven appointed by the Apostles to do the works of compassion with which the Apostles found themselves too busy to bother themselves. As today’s scripture opens, Phillip is on a desert road heading away from Jerusalem toward Gaza after having led a successful campaign of preaching to the multitudes in Samaria. Maybe God wanted to balance Philip’s ministry.
The other odd-ball is the unnamed Ethiopian eunuch. Now, it is very important that this man is a foreigner, likely of a different skin color, and a eunuch. These were three reasons that he should not be an obvious choice to become the first gentile convert in Acts. Deuteronomy 23:1 says “He whose testicles are crushed or whose male member is cut off shall not enter the assembly of God.” There are strict Jewish restrictions against marrying an outsider. It speaks of the uncircumcised as the holy unwashed, the outsiders, the ever-present other. Israel had spent a good part of its existence establishing itself and its people as decidedly different than the Goiim, the gentiles, the rest of the world. The eunuch was also a government official, in charge of the Queen’s treasury. He was also a well-read religious seeker.
But he was also coming from Jerusalem. He was not allowed into the temple because of his race and because of his unique sexual function. He likely received the kind of racism which many outsiders feel, even those of considerable wealth. He might have been viewed with suspicion by the people of Jerusalem. After all, there had recently been a few skirmishes between Rome and the Meroe, whose Queen was often referred to as the Candace. So we can at least imagine that he might not have been welcome. At the hands of religious sexual purists, the military and the cultural elite, he was an outcast. He headed out on the same deserted highway leading to Gaza.
These two unlikely people met each other on that road. And the meeting changed both of them. What is interesting is that Philip did not see him as an Ethiopian eunuch who was the treasurer of his Queen. He saw him as a seeker who wanted to learn of the ways of Jesus. So Philip prophesied to him in a government vehicle heading away from Jerusalem, heading away from the place of restrictions and heading to the desert of freedom and the desert of opportunity. The desert can be both a place of challenge and of discovery.
Marcus Borg points out the probable mistrust of the Ethiopian. The story of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 appealed to the Ethiopian. It also contradicted the restrictiveness of the Torah. The Eunuch, we imagine, identified with the suffering servant. Philip explained that Jesus was just like the suffering servant, always granting extravagant welcome. The Ethiopian then says, “Here is water. What’s to prevent me from being baptized right now?” That is a question many are used to experiencing. “You say you are welcoming and affirming, but does that really mean you are welcoming and affirming of even me? You are a partner congregation of the Baptist Peace Fellowship, will you be welcoming and affirming of me, a military veteran on Memorial Dayt? You preach those scriptures of love and compassion, but do you really believe them? Do you really live them?” He was used to having something prevent him from full membership. His was a membership with an asterisk. Will the community include him or exclude him? Will his asterisk be in tact? It was a test.
In a moment of clarity and joy, Philip agreed to baptize. Of course there was nothing to prevent him from being baptized. That is the good news. Luke, the writer of Acts emphasizes that the ministry of the Jesus movement is to break down the restrictiveness of organized religion and offer God’s grace to the whole world. There is no asterisk. The fact that a commitment and eventually a rite of membership happened decidedly outside the temple and to a person ritually unclean reveals that the priority of the early church was on welcoming the outcast and reforming the way we look at religion and faith.
Irenaeus said that the eunuch was “sent into the regions of Ethiopia, to preach what he had himself believed.”(Against Heresies: 3.12.8)
So part of what baptism means is to not only make a response as an adult to believe in and to follow Jesus, it also means buying into Jesus’ plan of inclusion and love.
Baptists believe strongly that Baptism is a sign that your life has changed. The way we look at ourselves has changed. The way we look at this sin-sick world has changed, for the scales have come off of our eyes and we see the truth, which makes us both free and odd. We say that it is an outward sign of an inward conversion. It is the conversion that saves, not the Baptism. Since only adults can make that conversion, only adults are baptized in a Baptist Church. In our church, we recognize a baptism that happens as an infant, but we also want of all of our members to seek conversion.
When I think about the scripture we just read, I can’t help but think about the Baptism of Michael Pugh. Michael was a bear of a guy who had lived on the streets of San Francisco with his partner Jose for about 25 years. They shared and apartment, their laughter, their lives, and their addiction to heroin. When they were both diagnosed with HIV, they found methadone and found Jesus. They graced us at Dolores Street Baptist Church for a couple of years, with their street language, their testimonies of grace, their generosity—bringing the leftovers from their meals on wheels to share with other needy members of the church. I remember preaching my candidating sermon there 15 years ago. Michael started a dialogue with me right there in the middle of the sermon.
When Jose succumbed to his disease, Michael decided he needed to get baptized. He had been baptized as an infant, but his life had changed so dramatically in the years right before his own death, that he wanted to recommit himself to Christ and the work of being a follower of Jesus. Maybe he and Jose had spoken about it, but Michael realized that he might have limited time.
So the congregation gathered at a borrowed baptistery one Sunday afternoon at St. Mark’s Institutional Baptist Church down the street. He and I were getting changed and I was trying to impart some wisdom to him, but all he wanted to know was, “where’s the water.”
We emerged from the dressing room and looked at not only the congregation, but his aged mother from North Carolina, his daughter and his grandson all looking down at Michael in the sunken pool. There, his tears mingling wit the baptismal waters, he responded “I do” to the questions, “Do you truly repent of your sins? Do you accept Jesus Christ as your savior and do you promise to walk in the ways of discipleship?” We added our tears as we saw his gratitude and the burden that was lifted off his massive shoulders as he emerged dripping wet. We hugged him and felt the Holy Spirit in our midst. That’s what Baptism is all about.
What was so powerful about this baptism, was not the form. It was the fact that Mike had seen a change in his life. With Jose’s steadfast assistance he had gotten himself off of heroin. He had reconciled with his daughter. He had come back to church. He was living his life in a new way. He wanted to symbolize it. He was like the Ethiopian Eunuch. He was seen as an outsider. He was a recovering drug addict, a divorcee, a person living with AIDS, uneducated, a bit disheveled at times. But he had a conversion. He was a changed man. One of his proudest possessions was the cross the church gave him at his baptism.
So, if baptism is an outward sign of an inward conversion, the question for us is, how have you been converted? Are there ways that you need to still convert?
My friends, the conversion which is symbolized in Baptism is what the church is all about. The conversion we seek is a conversion from restrictive religion that oppresses to a religion that embraces compassion and love.
It takes time and it takes a lot of work, but the work of Christianity is to welcome the outcast. It is to clothe the naked. It is to preach the good news that God has not forsaken us and that means that those of us who have converted to God’s ways will not forsake each other. It is to forgive. It is to proclaim the year of God’s favor for all of God’s children rich and poor, male or female, old or young, gay or not so gay, of whatever race, whatever temperament whatever physical ability.
I would ask you, how are you doing on your conversion? If you feel the world or religion has forsaken you, remember that angels directed Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch. I invite you to remember the commitments you made at your baptism. Maybe they were made for you as a child and reconfirmed later. Maybe you need to remember your commitment. Maybe you need to renew those baptismal vows. But I invite you to consider the radical grace and inclusion and welcome that Jesus began and that we continue.
Where’s the water? It’s right here.