21 June 2011

The Water of Life

Matthew 28:16-20

Trinity Sunday/ June 19, 2011

There’s something about water that’s healing, that’s restorative – that’s necessary for life.

But we live in a fallen, broken world where water can also be destructive and damaging, with an inexorable power to erode, to break down.  Think of the excessive rain and the flooding of the Mississippi, New Orleans after Katrina, the tsunamis of Japan and Southeast Asia in 2006.  We might bless water, but we just as easily curse it.

            I was cursing water a lot last week.  I was in Savannah for my brother’s wedding.  Craig is an extraordinary golfer and as part of his wedding activities that week a lot of golf was played.  Now, I like golf and having lived in St. Andrews, the home of golf, you would like I’d love it more.   I had a great time on the various courses.  But last Thursday’s game was not a good one.  It started off okay, but by the 16th hole I stopped keeping score.  My cousins started called me Aqua Kenny.  You see, my ball, once it left the tee, had this uncanny ability to land in water.  I had a bad slice that day which I couldn’t correct.  The balls were all curving to the right, exactly where most of the water was located on each hole.  I thought I was safe on the 14th hole because the water on my left.  Since I was slicing the shots to the right, I felt at least I was safe on that hole. But, no.  I sliced it to the left and it landed right in the water. Aqua Kenny baptized a lot of golf balls that day – full immersion, full dunks.  I was inevitably drawn to water.

            Water has a way of doing that to us doesn’t it?  Whether it’s a running brook or stream in the woods after a heavy rain, the vast expanse of the ocean, there’s something about water that draws us in.  Whether it’s at the neighborhood pool or surrounded by water on a cruise ship, we feel different around water.  Hotels always charge more for river views or ocean views because they can.  We want to see water.  Maybe you dream of living near the water one day.  We love to be in it, love to touch it.  We like the sound of water – the sound of rain. We like the smell of water, the smell of rain.

            One of the four key elements– along with air, fire, and earth – water is the source of life.  We know this cognitively – we need water to survive, we have to remain hydrated or we will die.  It’s essential to life.  But there’s also a deeper dimension to this awareness. Water has a way of touching something primal, archetypal in us.  Water connects with the depths of our souls.  It reminds of us of the source, the beginning, the emergence of our lives.  I think at some unconscious level we know that we spent time in water, that we were formed by the ocean, that we all swam in water for a time.  We came to be in amniotic fluid which is mostly water in early gestation.  In time we inhaled and exhaled that fluid through our lungs in order to breath.  We remember water as a kind of home.  That’s probably why it continues to speak to us so meaningfully – the sound, the touch, the feel of water, the experience of water resonates with something deep at the core of our being.  It’s why water can be therapeutic, restorative, healing.  It has a way of connecting us with the generative experience of life because at some fundamental level it is the source of life. 

            There’s also something about the flow of water that is essential for its healing, restorative power. We like the sound of moving water.  Water itself gains life and is renewed and refreshed when it flows.  The flow is essential.  If water doesn’t flow it becomes stagnant and the breeding ground for all kinds of deadly diseases.  Living water flows.

            In the liturgical calendar today is Trinity Sunday. The lectionary text for the day lifts up an early Trinitarian designation, rare in the New Testament.  Just before Jesus’ ascension, he commissions his disciples to go and make more disciples, more students, more followers. And as you go, he says – baptize them in the name of “the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

            In this text we find an amazing confluence of symbols and theological claims and missional tasks and at the center of it is the command to baptize – which cannot be done without water.  It’s remarkable that at the center of these verses is an allusion to something so primal, elemental, archetypal as water, water as essential for the making of disciples, water as essential for giving life to the nations, water as essential in the remembrance that Jesus is with us to the close of the age.

            The commission requires water.  Baptize.  Be bathed. Be washed.  Be cleansed. Be purified. Sink into a tub of holy water and be refreshed.  That’s what baptism means.  That’s what is symbolizes.

            And then Jesus connects the symbol of water, the act of baptism, with the Trinity.  The Trinity is linked to baptism; baptism to the Trinity.  Now the text doesn’t get bogged down in trying to explain (or explain away) the mystery of the Trinity and neither should we.  But this doesn’t mean we get to ignore the Trinity either.  Father, Son, Holy Spirit – the Holy Three reveals the inherent relationality of God, an image of God as relationship.  Father relating to Son relating to Spirit relating to Son relating to Father. Three ways of being; one essence that is inherently relational and dynamic.  The Trinity presents us with a dynamic understanding of God, not a static image.  The movement to and fro, between them denotes movement, fluidity, activity, action.  God is a verb (as the Old Testament makes clear), not a noun. As a verb, God acts and inherent to God’s action is God’s creativity.  When God acts, God creates. For God to act is to witness God’s activity, God’s creativity. 
            In this sense we can say that God is generative, life-giving, life-forming and reforming, the source of life, the elemental source of all that is – not unlike water.  And like water, God’s presence flows in and through the relationship of the Trinity, and flows into the life of Jesus’ disciples, who are then sent to flow out into the world to teach the good news of the God’s kingdom.  To be baptized in the Trinity is to be marked, immersed in the source of all there is.  To be baptized in the Trinity is to participate in the inexhaustible source of life.

            Like a fountain whose source is inexhaustible, so too is the life that flows from the Triune God.    When Jesus sends us out to baptize in the name of the Trinity, he’s inviting us and others to be immersed, to be drenched, to be soaked in the source of all there is, in the source of all love and grace and goodness and beauty in this universe.  It’s an invitation to come alive, fully alive: to let something new flow through us.  To be baptized is more than just what is required to join the church.  It’s not primarily about incorporation into the church, but about incorporation into Christ who is himself incorporated in the source of everything.  To be baptized in him is to be connected to the source of everything.  It means to come alive.

            Several weeks ago, I was in the ancient Roman city of Pergamum in Turkey. There you can see in the hillside valleys the remains of a Roman aqueduct that brought water from springs deep inside the mountain to the city of Pergamum. To this day, the source of that spring, deep in the mountain, has yet to be identified.  Its source is inexhaustible – not unlike God’s love. The font – this font (even though it has only six sides; baptismal fonts should have eight sides, for eight is the ancient number of new beginnings, of creativity, of holiness which baptism symbolizes; I’m not sure what six represents) – nevertheless, this font symbolizes for us that to be in Christ means that we are also sharing in the generative life of Christ.

            That’s what this font symbolizes.  It’s what baptism points us toward and invites us to claim.  John Calvin’s (1509-1564) favorite image of God was God as the fons omnium bonorum, the font of all goodness.  The font flows and flows.  The more you go to the font and draw from it, but more it has to give us.  It’s similar to what Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944) said of love: “For true love is inexhaustible; the more you give, the more you have. And if you go to draw at the true fountainhead, the more water you draw, the more abundant is its flow.”

            But we have to remember to go to the source.  Sometimes we forget that we’re not the source of life, we’re not the fountainhead.  Sometimes God’s life isn’t flowing through us.  The flow gets blocked and we become stagnant.  Then we wonder why we don’t have any love or grace or mercy to give, don’t have hearts left to give to others, to the world.

            It’s necessary to remember this, daily and often, which, I wonder, is why Jesus makes such a close connection between the Trinity, baptism, and the great commission.  Because the work Jesus is sending us out to do, the kind of struggles the gospel compels us to take up and take on, the overwhelming demands and burdens placed upon us because of his burden to love and his yoke of forgiveness and the desire to redeem, can’t be done if we’re relying upon our own resources, as if it’s all about us.  And it’s not about us.  He sent us to teach the kingdom – to teach this radical way of living, teach and live radical love, God’s way of loving and forgiving.  You can’t do this; I can’t do this unless you and I rely upon him, the source of life and allow God’s grace to flow through us.  We can’t do and become what we’re supposed to do and become individually as Christians and together as the Church without participating in Christ, without being drenched, immersed, soaked in this grace and presence.  We have to draw upon him, the fountainhead of love, and the more we draw from him, the more abundant is the flow in our lives.

            In a few moments we will witness two baptisms, an infant and an adult, using the Triune name.  As you hear the questions and hear the responses, as you hear the water flowing, as you see it drip from Charlotte and Sarah’s forehead, remember your own baptism.  And ask yourself – where is God’s grace flowing in us in you?  Where is it being blocked?  Where is it stagnant? What will it take to let is flow?  And let us not only witness this, but participate in this baptism. May we be drenched, immersed, soaked in Christ’s presence, in the grace of God, in the flowing love of the Spirit.  May we leave here dripping wet and sent out into a world that is parched and thirsty for the water of life.

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