Read Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
This is the Sunday when we traditionally think about Jesus going through the waters of baptism in the River Jordan, but let’s begin by considering the wonder that is water and its significance!
1) It’s the only natural substance found in all three physical states at everyday temperatures – so we see water as liquid in river and seas, solid in snow and ice on mountains, and as vapour in mist, clouds and steam, which doesn’t seem as unusual as it is because we’re so used to it. And yet if this wasn’t so then life would be a whole lot different.
As yourself what might happen if water didn’t evaporate in the sun. Snow and ice might not exist, and that might have interesting consequences on sea levels. And weather would be different (would it still rain?)
Then we have to get our head around the fact that ice is less dense than water, it floats - very important for polar bears and penguins!
And because of the particular melting and boiling points of water it means that for most of the earth’s population it is nearly always liquid, and there’s water for animals and plants to drink. Our own body cells are filled with liquid water. Ice and steam would not work!
Water is absolutely crucial for the way in which our bodies work.
2) As for the power of water, well, we’ve probably all seen pictures on our TV screens of bridges up north being swept away, buildings collapse, and cars, caravans and suchlike floating down rivers, and been amazed at how fiercely a swollen river can flow through a town street!
Remember the power of that terrible tsunami that hit Japan way back in 2011, and there have been others since. That’s the same substance that lies quietly in garden ponds with goldfish swimming peacefully within. It’s such an amazing substance.
You can apparently survive for several weeks without food, but without water, you wouldn’t last longer than a few days. Our bodies are composed of around 60% water, and we can lose up to 1.5l/hr in hot weather!
Throughout history, people have realised the importance of water, and have made the assumption that their god (or gods) have graciously provided it for human use. The writers of our Bible were no different, and water is there from the very beginning to the last pages.
The book of Genesis begins with a dark and formless earth, with the Spirit of God hovering over the waters, even before the appearance of land. Chapter two, which has a slightly different picture of creation sees a garden within which is a river which watered the ground and gave life to the seeds that Adam would sow.
The book of Revelation in its last chapter returns to this image of river. The angel reveals to the writer John the water of the river of life flowing through the eternal city, feeding the tree of life, the leaves of which (we are told) are for the healing of the nations.
We could do with that now, I think!
Between these two books we find lots of references to water and rivers. There’s the destructive power of water in the story of the flood, and when the people of Israel crossed through the river as they entered the promised land, and afterwards water drowned the pursuing soldiers and chariots. The biblical picture is one of water destroying sin and purifying.
Water is seen to cleanse. The Book of Leviticus is a list of do’s and don’ts and some of them even seem to be common sense even to us in the 21st century. One states that if an unclean animal such as a rat dies and falls on something, that item must be put in water until evening to render it clean again. It might not be hygiene as we know it, but the water would certainly have a cleansing effect.
Water was also used symbolically as a healing medium. 2 Kings has a lovely story about Naaman the Syrian who was cured of his leprosy in the waters of the Jordan. Then there’s the strange story in John’s Gospel in chapter 5 where Jesus meets a paralysed man in Jerusalem who is desperately hoping someone will take him down to the pool called Bethesda near the Sheep Gate where, it was believed, now and then an angel would come down and stir the waters, and the first sick person to enter the pond after such a disturbance would be healed.
Jesus by-passes the water ritual and heals him.
Jesus was certainly aware of the importance of water to life, and also as part of the people’s culture and faith. He talks to Nicodemus of the importance of being born both of water and spirit, and to a Samaritan woman at a well of asking him for that water which is ‘living water’ – a direct reference to God (in Jeremiah 2).
The first letter of John says this of Jesus, “This is the one who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ.” Remember the story at the end of Jesus’ life when a soldier pierces Jesus’ side and from the wound is seen to come blood and water.
And Jesus himself commanded water baptism in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
St Paul, writing to the church in Rome about baptism says that, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” It’s an echo of that ‘going through the water’ that the People of Israel did, from captivity to new life.
So, water is seen is many different ways, its remarkable properties being not only physical, but spiritual – powerful (sometimes destructive), burying, cleansing, purifying, healing and life giving.
Not all of that was going through Jesus’ mind as he met John the Baptist at the Jordan when he was around 30 years old, but he would have certainly known the rich historical connections that water had to the people’s history and knowledge of God. It was a lovely picture, particularly for baptism, of going under the water (dying to self) and then rising up again cleansed and renewed.
Did Jesus need to be baptised? To go through those waters of repentance, spiritual death to life?
Well, you have to look at the context of this encounter really. John the Baptist had appeared in the desert area near the Jordan and was attracting quite a crowd, because of his appearance and his preaching. His message was uncompromising, and he had the look of a prophet about him. The Jews were looking for a prophetic word from God, because everything seemed to have gone very quiet for an awful long time and they were getting impatient. John fitted the bill, so they listened to him.
What he said basically was that they should not consider themselves any better than anyone else when it came to sin and the need for repentance. Baptism was not just for Gentile converts, this time it was for them too, as gone were the days when they could simply refer to Abraham and look smug.
Lives had to be turned around, and the symbolic action of going through the cleansing water of baptism and rising up out of it was to be the way that they had to go – and not only that, but they had to do it with humility, and mean what they were doing.
And people were flocking from all over the surrounding area. It’s presumed that word had reached Jesus and, knowing that his time was close, he saw in John the catalyst that was to be his own entry into public life and ministry. There was the start of a new movement towards God. His time had come!
But if Jesus, as Son of God, was without sin, why the need for baptism?
The simplest explanation is probably the best one – that the Son of God was not going to place himself above those he had come to serve and save. He was born in humble surroundings to a working-class family and would go on to die the death of a common criminal. Jesus needed to identify himself with the people who were searching for God. It was a huge step that he was taking and within the water Jesus has that experience of God’s anointing, that confirming voice that this was his destiny.
The words we have come from Psalm 2 (“You are my Son, whom I love”) which was always considered a description of the Messianic King, and “with you I am well pleased.” which comes from part of Isaiah 42 from a description of the suffering servant.
So, Jesus is baptized by John, and receives not only the confirmation that his role is Messiah, God’s Anointed King, but also that there was to be no power and glory (at least humanly) in this earthly role, just a road that led to suffering and a cross.
Easter was never a surprise to Jesus, because it was always the destination toward which he was walking. But the water that Jesus walked into that day reminds us of our own need to pursue the life that John and Jesus were calling the people to follow – a holy life, a life of service, and a need for repentance and renewal. To seek out the Living Water that was offered to the Samaritan women, water to immerse ourselves in, water that brings life in all its abundance.