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Sunday, May 5, 2013

On the River

Baptism can be overlooked as an individual act, something that happens to one person.  But in fact, baptism is the act of joining the entire community of believers and the community of the Triune God.  On this river of life we join together to make a difference in the world.

Vicar Neal Cannon; Sixth Sunday of Easter, year C; texts: John 5:1-9, Acts 16:9-15, Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

One summer, we rented an RV.  I was in early high school and our family decided we we’re going to see some of the country.  Apparently our Suburban with eight seats wasn’t big enough for our family of six for this kind of road trip.  In fairness, we’re a big family, we needed the elbow room.

We did a lot of things on this trip.  We camped in various locations, we visited with extended family, and we saw a lot of touristy sites.  One of those sites that we saw was Lake Itasca State Park here in Minnesota.  For those of you who aren’t familiar, Lake Itasca State Park has a special claim that makes it a popular tourist destination.

Lake Itasca is known for being the headwaters to the mighty Mississippi River.  So when the Cannon clan arrived in our RV, we jumped out in the middle of July, and hiked a short path to the headwaters of one of the largest and most important rivers in the United States.

And I remember, coming out of a little clearing seeing something only slightly better than a creek, a small plaque noting the creek’s significance, and being WILDLY disappointed.  This particular creek made Minnehaha Creek look like a roaring rapid! And I have to admit, after spending about two minutes there my first thought was, when can we go back to the RV?

Perhaps I missed the significance of this particular headwater.

You see, what you have to appreciate about the headwaters of the Mississippi, is that this little creek, this trickle, this seemingly insignificant water, joins another creek, and another creek, and then another creek.  And then this creek becomes a river. And then many other rivers join this river until at its greatest point the Mississippi is seven miles wide, and continues flowing south until it reaches the Gulf of Mexico.

Now think about that for a minute.  What once starts out as an insignificant little creek becomes one of the most important waterways in all of North America.  This creek that begins as something you could overlook or pass by becomes something of staggering beauty and importance.  This creek becomes a river that brings water and life to most of this country.  Through this little creek, you are connected to the ocean, and thus the entire world.

Still, it’s easy to miss the significance of something with a small beginning.  The sad reality is that like my reaction to the Mississippi River’s headwater we in the church often miss the significance of baptism.

In many churches baptism is viewed as a cute ritual or rite of passage, but often we miss baptism’s real importance and meaning.  For example, in baptism we make promises to the baptized, but rarely reflect on the importance of those words.  Congregants make promises to support the baptized in faith, but often never speak to the baptized again.  Baptismal sponsors and parents promise to help raise the child in faith, but how often do we remember to celebrate a baptismal anniversary?  As church leaders we hand parents a certificate, but too often we never find ways to support families in faith formation.

In this sense, baptism is viewed in the same way I regarded the headwaters of the Mississippi.  We’re not impressed.  But like the mighty Mississippi, our baptism starts as something small and easy to overlook, but becomes something far greater.

Lydia’s baptismal journey, for example, begins with one seemingly insignificant encounter.  When Paul and his companions arrive in Macedonia, they come to a group of women, one of whom was Lydia.  Acts tells us that God opens Lydia’s heart to the Word of God, and she is baptized.  Right away Lydia says, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.”

Think about this rapid transformation.  Lydia, a woman on the outskirts of the city who is possibly a widow, encounters two strangers who proclaim a foreign gospel to her.  In this encounter God opens her heart to hear the Gospel and when she is baptized she immediately welcomes these strange men into her home.

Like one creek that flows into another creek and one river that flows into another river, in baptism Lydia immediately enters into a new community that supports her and she in turn supports back.  In this same baptism, God opens Lydia’s heart to the Word of God, to Jesus, and is given the Holy Spirit.  In other words, in baptism Lydia is in community with the Triune God and the entire body of Christ.

In the same way, in our baptismal journey we begin as individuals and leave as a community.  We begin as strangers with nothing in common and we leave as a family connected through Jesus Christ.  And like the Mississippi these baptismal waters bring us together and connect us to the world.

Think of it this way, today Tate Kaufenberg will be baptized as a child of God.  And in this baptism, this community will promise to uphold her in faith.  So much so that wherever Tate goes, no matter what she does, our promise is to support her with all the love, wisdom, and guidance that this community and the Triune God offer.

As such, she joins all baptized children of God who gather to worship God and to make a positive difference in not only this community but in all parts of the world.

This communal influence is radically important, especially in a society such as ours that values me, myself, and I above all else, because it’s also a society that has forgotten the value of ‘us,’ the value of community.

This is a society that has forgotten that we all need the collective love, wisdom, and guidance of those who have gone before us. We need people who say yes and no to us.  We need others to love and care for us when we’re down.  We can’t operate on our own.  Without community, we are on an incredibly lonely journey, like a creek that never connects to a larger body of water.

But in baptism, in community, we are shaped by and help to shape those around us because in baptism, we join a community that gives life to a neighborhood that gives life to a city that gives life to a region that gives life to our world.  And it’s in this baptism we join the headwaters of Triune God, where all healing and life giving water comes from.

As Revelation tells us, “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.”

I sometimes laugh when we compare this image to the image of our baptism because it doesn’t seem like it measures up.  One could easily point out that our baptismal water doesn’t come a crystal river, but from the sink in the sacristy.  It’s not as if it were chipped away from the purest ice on the top of a mountain, and then hauled down by Franciscan monks and delivered directly to Mount Olive.

The truth is that this water begins as ordinary water.

But the beauty about baptism is that we claim that the water that comes from our sacristy sink is in fact the same water described in Revelation.  In baptism, it’s not ordinary water because as Luther says, “it is water enclosed in God’s command and connected to God’s word.” It’s water that’s connected to the headwater of the Lamb because it is connected to God.  And so in these words that Pastor Joseph will say to Tate, and to Tate’s Family, and to this congregation, we find that this is in fact the water that gives life to the world.

Revelation goes on to tell us that this water feeds the tree of life with leaves that bring healing to the nations.  And never more intimately is that healing found than in our gospel text today in the story of a man who had been ill, presumably paralyzed, for thirty eight years.

Now, there are a couple interesting points about this story. The first is that this story takes place at Beth-zatha, which in Hebrew means House of Nets.  But some manuscripts actually have Bethesda, which means, House of Mercy.

The second, is that it’s important to remember that at this time people with disability were stigmatized because it was believed that people became ill because of sin or wrongdoing that they or their family had committed.

So whatever the translation we use, it is clear that people came to the House of Mercy to be healed not only in body, but also to receive mercy and grace in the waters that were found there.

This is why it’s ironic and cruel that this man, who is lying on a mat and seeking healing in the House of Mercy, is bypassed, shoved out of the way, and disregarded time and time again; unable to even get into the waters that he believed would bring him healing. That is of course, until Jesus comes.

When Jesus comes he appears to be the only one who notices this man.  Jesus is the only one that cares enough to ask him, “Do you want to be made well?”

“Do you want to be made well?”  What a strange question to ask to someone who has been ill for thirty eight years.  The answer seems so obvious.  Of course he wants to be made well!  But the man essentially responds by saying, “I can’t get to the water.”

Jesus doesn’t waste time.  He says, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”  And the man does.

What I find fascinating about this story, is that the man never gets in the water at the House of Mercy but the water of life comes to him.  This man never knows who Jesus is, he never even makes a confession.  Still, the water of life that flows from the Lamb comes and brings mercy to this paralyzed man.

This same water of life comes to us in our baptism.  The same healing and mercy and love come to us before we’re ever able to make a confession and before we even know who Jesus is; before we know Jesus, Jesus in community with us.

In Tate’s baptism today and in all of our baptisms, the grace and mercy of God comes to us in seemingly insignificant ways.  And whether it’s the headwaters of the Mississippi or the kitchen sink from Mount Olive, this water does incredible things.  Like a creek that joins a river that joins the ocean in this baptism, we are joined together with this community that promises us love, guidance, and support. And what’s more, the Triune God comes to us and brings mercy and healing in these waters.

Baptism is an incredible gift, and I wonder what it would be like if we treated baptism not as the day we received a plaque but the day we set out on the mighty headwaters of the Lamb of God?

Because after all, this is the day that Jesus Christ comes to us and removes our shame and disgrace and instead clothes us with mercy and grace.  This is the day we join others and set out on an incredible journey to bring healing to our communities and yes, this entire world.

This is the day we remember that baptism is not ordinary water.  This water is water that is enclosed with God’s command, and connected with God’s word; this is the river of life.

And on the river we surround others with the Word of God and the community of God.  And on the river, the word of God and the community of God surround us also.

Thanks be to God.

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