The Rev. Casey dunsworth

serves as Associate Campus Pastor to the Belfry, the Lutheran-Episcopal Campus Ministry to UC Davis

and as Program Director for LEVN, the Lutheran Episcopal Volunteer Network.

Water and the Word—A Sermon on the Baptism of Jesus

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

What’s your favorite type of water? I know, a weird question. And I don’t mean like, La Croix flavor, I mean like, the ocean; a favorite beach? A lake your family visits every summer? The algae-tastic Putah Creek here in the arboretum? The turquoise of the Caribbean? Come on, tell me.

Were you baptized in that water, by any chance? Me either. I was likely baptized in good old tap water, since my home congregation’s baptismal font is attached to the rest of the plumbing. Throughout history, people have been baptized in all sorts of water, made holy in that moment.

In this week’s Gospel, Jesus is baptized. This version of the story does not say where he is, but this story appears in the other Gospel books, and in those versions, they’re at the Jordan River. It starts in the mountains of Jordan and flows through the Sea of Galilee and into the Dead Sea. It’s a very important water source in that region, to this day.

Folks who were gathered there that day were there to be baptized by John, known as John the Baptist or John the Baptizer. It’s a fairly straightforward title. He says, in the story, that the difference between himself and Jesus has to do with baptism. “I baptize you with water;” he says, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming...He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

John does not mean this literally—there is no fire danger—but to highlight the differences between their ministries. John has been preparing his followers for the reality that Jesus comes with a world-altering change. The life of Jesus provided this community with a new model for their lives, and that continues for us.

Before we go much further, here’s another pop quiz this week: what is a sacrament?

A sacrament is a visible sign of God’s invisible grace. In the Lutheran Church we have 2, in the Episcopal church there are 2 but also 7, like the Catholic Church’s 7. The two sacraments that we recognize in common are baptism and the Eucharist. What are the visible signs in these events? The elements that are used? Water! Wine! Bread! (Good job.)

These are not unusual items. These are very, very basic. Wine may not seem like a super common thing to you, especially if you are underage, but at the time of Jesus’ life and in our time, it’s widely available. It was (and is) an important part of Jewish ritual life. In the words of institution, after blessing the wine and bread, Jesus says, “when you do this, remember me”—knowing that his friends would gather to eat and drink together every week for shabbat.

Similarly, for the sacrament of baptism, the only necessary component is water. We all know that humans depend on water to live, so it is very likely that we are going to live near some—and, in our modern life, have several taps right in our own homes. The water in our font back there came out of the sink in the kitchen. We prayed over it earlier, though, and asked God to breathe new life into it. If you were baptized, the water used to baptized you was just like the water there.

We’re a Lutheran-Episcopal campus ministry here, but I know that you all come from a variety of upbringings. We may have varying understandings of the purpose or effect of baptism, and may wonder why Jesus needed to be baptized. If baptism is simply a cleansing of sin, why would the Son of God need that? If it’s an “initiation rite” into the family of God, why would the Son of God need that?

But, since we see baptism as an outward sign of the grace of God—as a fresh start, a new beginning, a clean slate, a change of perspective, a starting place—Jesus’s baptism sets the stage for our own. Jesus was baptized and lived in order to show us the way to live.

What does it mean, then, to be baptized? Looking to the text from Isaiah, we get a big hint about what it means to be in the family of God. “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isaiah 43:1b-2).

As God’s beloved, we are called by name. You, just as you are. God rejoiced when you were born, rejoiced when you were baptized, and rejoices as you live out your life. As you go through hard times, as you encounter challenges along the way, you are carried through those rapids by the God who loves you.

I think it’s really important to notice that the prophet Isaiah doesn’t tell us that we will not pass through deep waters or walk through fire, right? Being baptized does not mean being insulated from struggle. Being Christians does not keep us completely free from harm. But rather when we struggle, God will be alongside us. God will accompany us through everything. As Christians in community, we accompany each other through joys and challenges, too. We are each part of how God cares for the people we love. We’re all in this together, dear ones.

At a baptism, in the Lutheran and Episcopal traditions, there are at least four people involved. Do you know who? The person being baptized; their sponsor; the clergyperson; a member of the congregation. Normally there are way more people present, but that’s pretty much the minimum. Why? Because there are a bunch of promises to be made. God promises to love the person being baptized, that is a given. The sponsor and the congregation make promises to raise the person in faith, assuring that they are learning the good news, and accompanying them as they grow and ask questions and wonder about God. The clergyperson is there for the water splashing, to tie it all together.

If you’ve witnessed a baptism in your church, you have made promises to pray for that person, and to accompany them as part of the family of God. Everyone who was present at your baptism made that same promise. Isn’t that wonderful? I witnessed two baptisms while I was home for Christmas and it was such a delight. At the beginning of our service tonight, we affirmed our baptisms and revisited those promises.

We have promised and will again promise “To live among God’s faithful people; to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper; to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; to serve all people, following the example of Jesus; to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”

In our baptism, we are connected to all those who have been baptized, even those first few with John in the Jordan River. The Holy Spirit has been moving and is still moving.

Thanks be to God! Amen.


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