January 6, 2024
From the Water
The opening words of the book of Genesis are awesome and powerfully poetic. I remember a seminary professor who began his Old Testament course by reading those words and then saying, “If that doesn’t stir your blood and send chills up your spine, then maybe you don’t belong here.” Those words are even more stirring and chilling in the original Hebrew, some of which I’ve shared with you before on a different subject:
b’reshit bara’ Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz v’ha’aretz hayatah tohu vavohu v’hoshek al-p’nai t’hom v’ruah Elohim m’rahephetz al-p’nai hamayim vayo’mer elohim y’hi ‘or vay’hi-‘or
There’s something about the mystery of creation itself that is powerfully reflected in those words, “tohu vavohu v’hoshek al-p’nai t’hom” – everything was a “formless void, and darkness was upon,” what the author of Genesis describes as “the face of the deep.” This ancient story says that it all started with water. Life itself came forth ultimately from what began as “t’hom” – the vast oceans of the primordial world – the “deep.”
Modern science concurs. One of the more recent theories on the origin of life on the planet comes from William Martin and Michael Russell, who theorized that the first cellular life forms may have evolved inside what are referred to as “black smokers” – hydrothermal vents that are chimney-like structures at sea-floor spreading zones in the deep sea. Older theories involve the idea of biomolecules springing from a “warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts.”1 But in any event, there are few scientists who postulate theories on the origin of life that don’t involve water in some way. At least on this point, modern science and the ancient Biblical stories agree. We come from the water.
The dark ocean depths are also archetypal from a psychological standpoint. Freud saw water as a sexual symbol, perhaps harkening back to the watery environs of the womb from which each of us has sprung. Thomas A. P. van Leeuwen tells us why we have swimming pools: “The pool,” he says, “is the architectural outcome of man’s desire to become one with the element of water, privately and free of danger. A swim in the pool is a complex and curious activity, one that oscillates between joy and fear, between domination and submission, for the swimmer delivers himself with controlled abandonment to the forces of gravity, resulting in sensations of weightlessness and timelessness. . . . Springboards are launching pads for the swimmer’s eternal game with death. The embrace of water is an erotic one, yet at the same time its cool fingers presage the immediacy of mortality. Eros and Thanatos,” he concludes, “occupy the two antithetical components of the complex sensation that we call swimming.”2 You probably didn’t know you were doing all that when you jumped in the pool.
I can relate to it somewhat, though. At least to the business about swimming being like a “game with death.” For me, it all goes back to my childhood. I was maybe eight years old, and had just worked up the courage to dog-paddle my way out to the raft beyond the swimming area of our church camp, Forest Lake. The older kids were there, jumping and diving off the raft and having a great old time. I pulled myself up onto it, and sat in near exhaustion, trying to catch my breath. To paraphrase Martin Short, I wasn’t much of a swimmer. Anyway, the older kids, doing what children do, decided to throw me in the water. I remember flying through the air, then going down, down, down into an increasingly dark, yellow abyss. I was sure I was going to drown, and I struggled for the surface in panic. I had to be pulled out by an older swimmer. The incident was traumatic, and is as vivid today as it was then. I was terrified of the water from that moment on. I conquered that fear enough to resume my dog-paddling, but I never actually learned how to swim properly until I was in college. I was at the pool one day, doing my usual dog-paddle when the swimming coach walked up and asked me if I’d like to learn to swim. He taught me in about five minutes. Go figure, now I enjoy swimming.
Maybe there is something about plying our way through the water that has to do with “defeating death.” Maybe we love to frolic in the waves precisely because they can be so deadly. Under the water there is no free oxygen to breath. Every oxygen atom in the lake is tied to a couple of hydrogen atoms, and if we try to breath them they fill up our lungs and suffocate us. To dive under the water and emerge above it, and then keep our bodies moving along it, evading the gravitational tug into its depths, is to score something of a victory over the elemental forces of nature.
All this ruminating about water leads me to think about baptism – your baptism, my baptism – of which the baptism of Jesus we heard about this morning is the prototype. I’ve often wondered why Jesus chose to be baptized by John, who was practicing a “baptism of repentance for sin” (we don’t often think about the sins of Jesus). I suspect it may have more to do with this imagery about drowning. There is a powerfully symbolic message in Jesus giving himself over into the hands of another to be laid down beneath the water, and then drawn back up out of that water to begin a new life, a new ministry. It is a foreshadowing of the way in which he would later give himself over into the hands of the authorities and be put to death, only to defeat death with new life.
That’s what our baptism is about too. In the waters of baptism, we are buried in those primordial waters of chaos and death – buried along with Christ. And, like him, we are drawn up again to new life, new dedication, and hope.
Now, I realize that our baptism ceremonies here aren’t quite like that; we don’t put people under the water. I used to do that when I was a Baptist. When we baptize people here, we just touch a little water to their foreheads. But the symbolism still holds. When we touch them with that water, we are recalling that same act of submersion and rising again, even if only emblematically.
It brings to mind the story of the Baptist preacher and the Congregational minister who were having an argument about baptism. The Congregationalist said, “Now, as I understand it, you don’t consider a person to be baptized unless they are dunked completely under water.” “That’s right,” said the Baptist. “They have to get entirely wet.” “So,” he shot back, “it’s not OK to just have them wade in the water up to their ankles?” “Oh no,” said the Baptist. “That’s not nearly enough.” “Well, how about if they get in the water up to their waste?” “No way.” “Is it enough to get under water up to their chin?” “Nope.” “How about if you get them in water all the way up until just the very top of the head is sticking out.” “No. Even that won’t do,” said the Baptist. “Well, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you all along,” said the Congregationalist, it’s just that little bit on top that matters.”
Be that as it may, Baptism is baptism, however you do it. And in my mind one of the most significant aspects of it stems from the way Jesus chose to be baptized. He didn’t go down to the river and dive in. He went to John the Baptizer, and asked to be baptized, along with, so scripture tells us, “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem.” You see, this act is not an individual, private thing. When a person is touched by these waters, they are drawn by all the hands of grace that surround them into the “Body of Christ” – the church.
When that happens, the Genesis story is repeated all over again. Out of the watery chaos (the tohu vavohu), out of the frightening deep darkness (the t’hom), a new kind of order is created. It is the order that comes to our lives when we immerse ourselves in the family of Christ.
In that sense, then, all of us here come “from the water.” And this community of faith, this family of believers, this church comes “from the water.” It’s just a chemical compound, dihydrogen monoxide, two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, but somehow, it’s what we come from – it’s the source of life, and the source of new life in the spirit. In that way, it ties us together. Our bodies are mostly made up of it, and our spirits are linked by the act of yielding ourselves to it through baptism. I must tell you that every time I take a shower, I let that glorious water run down over me and, in my mind, I reaffirm my baptism.
Swimming as we do through life, in that mysterious balance between Eros and Thanatos, tossed about by the waves of love and mocked by the deep abyss of death, we who journey together in this “ship” we call the church share a matchless gift. It is the gift of new life, fresh possibility – for those who rise above the drowning, daily patterns of futility and meaninglessness (in the incomparable words of Ruth Duck) “water washed and spirit born.” This gift is the treasure of a second chance, passed out freely by a congregation of people who have each been rescued themselves and live by the law of grace.
Life can be hard. A lot of the time it’s “sink or swim.” But what an immeasurable joy it is, and what overpowering gratitude comes, to look around and find you are not alone when you’ve been pulled “from the water.”
1 Charles Darwin in a letter to J.D. Hooker, February 1, 1871
2 The Springboard in the Pond: An Intimate History of the Swimming Pool
by Thomas A. P. van Leeuwen (The MIT Press, 1999)