“The Water Is Fine”
Sermon on Matthew 3:13-17
Baptism of the Lord-A
January 13, 2005
The Rev. J. Curtis Goforth, O.S.L.
One of my favorite movies is made by the Coen Brothers. It is called “O Brother, Where Art Thou.” It features George Clooney and John Turturro as these escaped convicts in the depression of the 1930’s in America. George Clooney is a smooth-talker in jail for practicing law without a license. They escape from a road crew and at one point, after being on the run from the law a few days, they are in the woods and they behold a most strange sight. All these people dressed in white gowns singing hymns come walking by them towards the river where a minister is baptizing folks. Moved by the sight and overwhelmed by the opportunity for forgiveness, one of the sin-laden convicts runs to the bank of the river, cuts in front of several white-clad individuals, and takes his turn being baptized there in the river.
Immediately when he comes up, he calls to his friends still on the shore and tells them “Well, that’s it boys. I’ve been redeemed. The preacher done warshed away all my sins and transgressions. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlastin’s my reward…The preacher said all my sins is warshed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over!” George Clooney’s character, a bit puzzled, says, “I thought you told me you were innocent of those charges?” The newly baptized convict says, “Well…I was lying. And the preacher said that sin’s been warshed away too. Neither God nor man’s got nothin on me now!” Then he stretches out his arms as he’s dripping wet and says to his friends on the river bank with all three of his teeth gleaming, “Come on in boys…the water is fine.”
If we believe the account that Matthew has written for us in our gospel lesson today, there were probably a few convicts or other sinners coming out to the Jordan to be dunked and washed clean of their sins by John the Baptist that day. We’re told that even some Scribes and Pharisees, the religious elites of the day, were gathered there on the river bank. People were coming all the way from Jerusalem and all of Judea to hear John preaching, to seek forgiveness, and to be baptized in the river.
And then, as the people were making their way to the riverbank to be baptized, along comes Jesus standing there next to them, waiting his turn to be dunked in the river. This is one of those few stories that all four gospels tell. But it’s not an easy story to get our minds around. If baptism is all about forgiveness and the “warshing” away of sin, then why was a sinless Jesus in need of baptism?
The answer lies in the fact that baptism is so much more than just a washing away of sin. Baptism is certainly no less than that, but it’s so much more than that too. Baptism is not just some bath you take in the church sanctuary. There are many different components to baptism, one of which is death. When we are baptized, we are baptized into Christ’s death. In a very real sense, when we’re baptized a part of us dies.
I love to look at the icons that the Orthodox Church makes. If you ever get a chance to see one of these icons of the baptism of Jesus, there will typically be a picture of a snake swimming in the water or a whirlpool just downstream. The snake and the whirlpool remind us of the deadly side of water. Water cleanses and refreshes, but water can also destroy and kill. Water, particularly the water of the ocean, was seen as the abode of the chaotic. Countless numbers of people who worked on ships left their port and never returned. The prophet Jonah had a horrific encounter when he was thrown into the sea and eaten by a great fish. The apostle Paul was shipwrecked a number of times. The world was destroyed by water during the time of Noah.
That’s one of the reasons I like that icon of Jesus’ baptism with the snake in the water. Jesus wasn’t so much taking the plunge of baptism to wash away his sin as he was to come and be in the waters of this world with us and for us—to take on the dangers of the water, the snakes, the storms, and the whirlpools. Jesus is not stepping into the water to wash away his non-existent sins. He’s stepping into the water to do battle against the powers of evil.
Baptism is as much about our death as it is about our forgiveness. But this is no morbid ritual whereby we have the life sucked out of us somehow. Too often people in the Church have allowed their membership in this community through the mysterious waters of baptism to be something other than life-giving! Church is about more than budgets and fellowship dinners and committee meetings. Church is about so much more than the humdrum stuff we’ve organized it into. Sometimes I think we’d all be better off if we just met down by the riverside. Because it’s at moments like baptisms that the Church is most obviously the Church! We can build beautiful buildings and have pure, clean water in our font, but deep down, we’re dealing with life and death! We die to sin and we die to the world. But we are here to help give life to others. And, as the baptized, if we cease to be the agents by which others receive life, that’s when we truly die—not when statistics or bank accounts aren’t where we’d prefer them to be. Baptism is about forgiveness. Baptism is about death. But baptism is also about new life and eternal life.
I like that image of the convict rushing into the river to be baptized and then feeling like everything in the world is new. It’s sad that all of us don’t get as excited about the new life that Jesus has given us. And it’s sad that we aren’t as passionate about sharing that new life with others! We need to be calling to our friends who are still on the riverbank to come on in. You might not have knocked over a Piggly Wiggly or done anything else that would merit some time in jail, but we are all just as much of a law breaker as the newly baptized convict in that movie. When Jesus stepped into the waters of the Jordan that day, the water changed and the world changed. It was no longer the place of danger and death, but the place of hope and newness of life. And because of Jesus’ presence in the waters of this world, “neither God nor man’s got nothing on [us] now. Come on in boys, the water is fine!” Amen.