(Luke 3.15-17, 21-22 ) Some years ago, a friend went on holiday to Jerusalem. He brought me back a memento – it was an old lemon-squash bottle, half-full of murky fluid. I asked what it was, and he solemnly told me that he’d brought me water from the River Jordan. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with it. He warned me not to drink it - apparently the river is so polluted that the tourist board recommends that no more people should be baptised in it.
What made this water special enough for my friend to cart it all the way back for me? Speculations abound. Ancient tradition holds that because Jesus was immersed in the Jordan, that this river’s water is transformed and made holy for posterity. Some even taught that water itself was especially privileged, because water witnessed some of God’s greatest creative activities. Water was there at the beginning when God created the world, and was there in the River Jordan when Jesus was first revealed as being God’s son.
Be that as it may, water itself is special. It goes without saying that we’d die without it. It has many symbolic and spiritual meanings. Water from the Jordan has its own particular significance depending on your religion and your cultural background. When a certain Knight, Sir Felix Faber, went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the 1480’s, some of his companions jumped into the Jordan wearing all their clothes, convinced that their outfits would now magically protect them from enemy spears and swords. Others dipped bells in the river, believing they were now invested with great power so that ringing them would ward off lightning and thunder. Pilgrims filled flasks with Jordan water, treasuring its supposed healing properties.
And I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with my water from Jordan. Did I put it on the mantelpiece, the refrigerator., or give it to the vicar for some kind of church use?
We know that John baptized Jesus, in the Jordan. In today’s gospel, Luke is so brief and to the point that we may be left wondering, why was Jesus baptized? What was it all about? Everyone was expecting the Messiah to come at last, and John the Baptist had said that he wasn’t this person.
It was 18 years since the 12-year-old Jesus had visited the Temple. During this time Jesus must have increasingly realized “his own uniqueness. But, still he remained the village carpenter in Nazareth. He must have known that one day he would have to say goodbye to Nazareth and go out on his larger task. Perhaps he waited for some encouragement or sign… When his cousin, John the Baptist, emerged and people flocked to him to be baptized, there was an unprecedented movement towards God throughout the whole country… Jesus knew that he too must identify himself with this movement towards God…”
Perhaps he needed some kind of confirmation that he was on the right track “before he took this tremendous step… and in the moment of his baptism something amazing happened when God spoke to him.
“Make no mistake; what happened to him at his baptism was an experience personal to him. God’s voice spoke to him, declaring that he had made the right decision”.1 It was one of life’s defining moments - a bit like being the hinge on which a door opened.
Some of the symbolism about the river Jordan is about putting down borders, drawing lines, and defining those moments and those hinges when situations change.
This way of thinking might appeal to you if you’re the sort of person who likes everything straight, tidy and at right angles - the mind-set of someone who feels more at home in the order of a carefully manicured shrub-garden, than in the semi-organised disorder of an English country garden - where everything blooms all over the place.
If you’re the “beautifully manicured shrub-garden” type, then you’ll probably warm to the idea that in the Old Testament, the River Jordan was important because it formed the border of the land which God promised would belong to the Israelites. While, in the New Testament, it is Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan that not only marks a turning point in Jesus’ life, but also marks the inauguration of the Christian Church – nothing would ever be the same again. A cusp of history.
In today’s gospel reading, we can picture Jesus queuing up to be baptised along with everyone else. And when John finally does baptise him, it becomes very clear that Jesus is indeed God’s son, who gives such great pleasure to his father.
Be that as it may, I still wasn’t sure what to do with my bottle of murky water. It sat low down on a bookcase, and I hoped no one would ask me what it was, or what it was for.
I’ll always remember a friend telling me about a service he attended where Archbishop Desmond Tutu was in the congregation.
In the middle of the Eucharistic prayer, Archbishop Tutu interrupted the proceedings by falling to his knee, in front of the elderly priest who was conducting the service, and asking for his blessing. Our friend remembers, “how the confused and embarrassed old man protested, and how the Archbishop insisted.
“In much the same way, John the Baptist objects when he sees Jesus patiently waiting his turn, queuing up to be baptised along with everyone else. For John, this was all wrong. He should be the one being baptised! But Jesus insists that his baptism, far from being ‘a departure from the script’, is in fact a compete fulfilment of the script.”
As we know, our baptisms, as infants or adults, is the time when we are marked out as belonging to God. I baptised two of my grandchildren when they were babies. In their teens, they both decided to be baptised by total immersion – and I didn’t protest too loudly saying, “But you’ve already been baptised – you don’t have to do this again!” because, for both of them, this was definitely the time when they took a stand and dedicated themselves to God’s service. It marked a turning point for them.
My mother was extremely keen that every child she knew should learn how to swim. Why? So that we wouldn’t drown! Unless we can swim, we’re likely to be terrified of deep water fearing it will overwhelm us. My mother also taught us not to play with matches, and she taught me how to build an open fire. She didn’t want me to get burned. God gives us promised to do with another kind of safety.
In our Old Testament reading today from Isaiah 43 we read:
…this is what the Lord says …
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.”
We don’t need to live in fear of the future. God knows each one of us by name and will look after us. No matter what happens God promises that nothing will be too much for us.
I kept that bottle of murky water until I moved house and had to downsize. With time I began to see it as my “great expectations” bottle – the Jewish people’s expectations were met when Jesus was baptised in the Jordan, and my expectation that God would get me through life, more or less in one piece, has never failed.
God keep the promise, “I will be with you” no matter what! And this is God’s gift to each one of us today – hang on to it!