Mark 1:9-15 – 1st Sunday of Lent – for February 26, 2012
“…Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” (Mark 1:9)
I was baptized once.
No, hundreds of times.
Raised in the American Baptist Church, my parents had me “dedicated” as a baby, but it would be my decision for a formal, full-immersion baptism. As a United Methodist clergy, most of the baptisms I’ve celebrated have been squirming infants while I dribbled H2O on their heads. Thus, based on my childhood church’s traditions, and the denomination I serve as a so-called responsible adult, I’m uniquely qualified to argue with myself about when (and how) a believer should be baptized.
Let’s see what you believe . . .
Those who think infants should be baptized, please line-up against the digital wall on the right side of the virtual room. And you adults-only supporters . . . over to the left wall. Both sides, please behave!
I’ll remain in the middle of the room and give a quiz:
The proper way to use the baptismal water is:
A. Minister sprinkles water on head once
B. Minister sprinkles water on head three times (symbolizing Father, Son and Holy Ghost or Creator, Christ and Spirit or . . .)
C. For a once-only ceremony, minister pinches believer’s nose closed and immerses her/him in water.
D. For as many times as it takes (for sinners keep sinning and need to be saved again…and again…and again), the minister pinches believer’s nose closed and immerses her/him in water.
E. The water better be a river, and not just a Jolly Green Giant-sized bathtub behind the sanctuary’s altar.
F. Who needs a minister? Like Robert Duvall’s Sonny in “The Apostle,” you can baptize yourself.
At “F” I grew weary (wary?), so that’s where the quiz ends. (For example, I began research on Anabaptists and their baptismal beliefs and practices, but my head started hurting. So “F” is where I’ll stop, though I hope it’s not the grade I’ll get as I reflect about this wondrous sacrament.)
It’s complicated: who we baptize and when; how we baptize and why.
And yet, maybe not. For Christians, before baptism evolved into a sacrament, a special set-aside ritual to acknowledge and celebrate a believer’s trust in the God revealed by Jesus Christ, it was the simple act of a man* wading into the Jordan River.
Therefore, let me tell you about Jane. That’s not her real name, but I do want to protect her identity. I grew up in the 1950/60s and recall those insipid, vaguely helpful, Dick and Jane (See Jane run!) books that taught kids how to read. Dear, sweet Jane. A simple name: easy to pronounce and neutral. So I’ll use it to keep my Jane anonymous.
This is a story about Jane heading for H2O. In her case, it was not the Jordan River, but on a backpack at the snow-fed Lake of the Lone Indian in the Sierra Nevada’s high country. Truth be told, this is really not Jane’s baptism, but mine. Oh, did I tell you I’d been baptized only once? A lie, indeed a faithful, lovely lie! Not only, as an ordained clergy, have I baptized hundreds of believers; I myself have had many baptisms because of others. Let’s call those second-hand baptism.
Jane was adventurous and stubborn. She’d directed several non-profit agencies. You should also know she was around 60 (shouldn’t reveal a woman’s age) when she arrived at Lake of the Lone Indian. Further, she was a cancer survivor. And . . . she’d been my boss because she’d chaired the church’s Staff-Parish (or personnel) Committee. Every year, that group evaluated the lay and clergy staff. No one, in my entire ministry, had been as critical of me as Jane. She bluntly, and fairly, shared with me how I could improve and strengthen my ministry. In other words, Jane was a tough, loving, smart lady.
But she stumbled along the trail on the hike. She wasn’t a spring chicken. She was a cancer survivor. She hadn’t backpacked in years.
Mid-way through the journey, we arrived at the lake. It would be our campsite for two nights, allowing aching legs and sore shoulders to heal. Some of the younger folks decided to swim. I watched Jane watch them. She slowly stripped off her sweaty hiking clothes until only in “skivvies.” Jane, the professional woman, the person who’d staggered up and down the trail, ran toward the water. Ran toward joy. Ran toward the sheer pleasure of a plunge into an alpine lake.
Her water splashed me. Second-hand glory.
A few years later, Jane died. Is this why I vividly recall her dash toward the water? Yes. No. More it’s because she embraced life. How much every single dry or watery, blessed moment mattered.
Jesus waded into the Jordan. You and I are second-hand recipients of that sacramental moment of trust in God.
But I also think of Jesus’ actions, in its simplest form, as a plunge into life. Sure, we can all argue about the “best” way to baptize. But I see Jane run, feel her water splash on my arms and within my heart, and imagine baptism as a thousand different moments where I am reminded of life’s gifts.
*Here I will get in trouble with everyone in a virtual or real room. There are those who believe Jesus the divine was Christ before/at the moment of birth. There are those who believe Jesus the man became Christ after baptism and/or transfiguration and/or resurrection and/or…? All statements of belief create tension, whether polite debate between friends or nations battling each other. If I say anything is simple, it’s also something we humans have muddled up.