Text: Matthew 3:13-17
Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Atlanta, GA, 1-15-2017)
I have never lived through a drought. I have never seen trees bend over and shrubs shrivel and plush lawns become clay pits because the skies went mute. I have never watched people fear for their livelihood because their jobs depended on rain. I have never watched huge lakes and reservoirs recede to the point that they look like kiddy pools. I have lived most of my life never thinking much about the length of my shower or how much water I used to wash the dishes or how long I ran the faucet when brushing my teeth. There is something about a drought that can bring on a profound respect for water.
I have, though, lived through another kind of drought that can be just, if not more, severe. Unlike droughts that are cyclical, affecting some and not others, this drought affects us all. And unlike most droughts from which the results are easily visible, this drought’s results are largely invisible but still quite devastating.
I have watched this other kind of drought develop from the day I was ordained. It is the drought of loss of meaning in life. I witness this other kind of drought nearly every direction I turn and I meet more and more people who yearn for and are in constant search for a way to end this drought.
Some try to quell this other kind of drought through work – convinced that if they get the promotion or work enough overtime or finally land the right job then the drought will end and their life will have meaning. Some people slip on a wedding ring or move in with a partner, sure that a lasting relationship will end the drought. Some go for long nature walks, train for the Iron Man or travel to exotic, “spiritual” spots, hoping to find that elusive something to end the drought. Some people grab a hammer or bunk down in shelters or stack cans in food banks, hoping that with one more good deed they will stop feeling like their lives are parched and their souls are bone dry. Some have given up on the drought ever ending and try to drown it out at the bar or dull it with the latest drug of choice.
The Gospel of Matthew today takes us to the water’s edge, to the banks of the Jordan where the two kinds of drought intersect in the baptism of Jesus. It is an odd story, but when you get right down to it, the whole notion of baptism is odd.
I got a phone call some years ago from a couple wanting me “do their baby” in a garden party one Saturday afternoon. Once I figured out that “do their baby” meant to baptize their child, I explained the Presbyterian theology of baptism, how it is a sacrament of the gathered community, requiring parents and the congregation to answer some profound questions and therefore should occur in a worship service. “Yes, yes, we understand all that, pastor. What we want to know is if you can do our baby at the garden party next Saturday?” I felt like the losing contestant on a “Reality” baptism show!
Jesus arrives at the banks of the Jordan and tells John that he has come for the same water treatment that everyone else is getting. John is not wild about the idea and suggests that he be baptized by Jesus. Jesus insists that he get the same treatment as everyone else and when the baptism is over, he walks right out of that water and heads dead center into a drought-suffering world.
The water of baptism was not for Jesus some sort of first century “power drink” that turned him into a “super hero”; the baptismal waters were a life’s reminder to Jesus and to every follower of Jesus that not a day goes by when we are anything less than beloved children of God. Baptism is the water mark that we could not get rid of even if we tried.
Baptism can set us free from an endless search for meaning so that we can start living out the full meaning of our divine vocation as “drought-busters.” You want the drought of loss of meaning to end in your life? Follow Jesus out of the waters of the Jordan, says Matthew. Never forget who else is in the waters with you, says Matthew. Be drought-busters, say Matthew.
There is a problem, though, with these lofty imperatives about baptism. A large majority of people today are turning almost anywhere to end the drought of loss of meaning in life except to the body that is born in the waters of baptism – the church. Pollsters say that a majority of citizens describe themselves as spiritual but not religious; they believe in God but do so without a perceived need for church or synagogue or mosque, for that matter. In fact, for many, the church is the last place they would go to look for life’s meaning and if baptism still means anything for them; it is not much more than a quaint water feature for children at a summer garden party.
So, where does that leave those of us who wear the divine water mark? What are we who are called to be “drought-busters” to do? To begin with, we are to do nothing and to do nothing regularly. That is, if you consider praying “doing nothing.” Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther argued that he was far too busy not to spend considerable hours daily in prayer.
In addition to prayer, we, drought-busters do what most people no longer do as we set the alarm, wrestle with the kids, put off important work that is waiting, dust off our doubts and join other drought-busters in worship Sunday after Sunday. Whatever we do, pray, worship or serve, we do so not in a desperate search to find life’s meaning, but in celebration that the meaning of life finds us in the waters of baptism.
And the meaning of life finds not just us; we meet all kinds of
drought-busters in these waters. Heidi Neumark tells of a reticent, soon-to-be drought-buster in the Bronx. “Stardeshia came in with a question about her upcoming baptism,” writes Heidi. “When she went to the doctor, he told her that he had just the medicine she needed but would not prescribe it for her. Why not? . . . `As long as you smoke pot, there’s no point in my prescribing this medicine, because the chemical reaction of the medicine with the pot makes the medicine ineffective – so prescribing it would be a waste’.
“The question Stardeshia then asked me was whether or not her inconsistent behavior and her doubts would cancel out the power of her baptism as marijuana cancels out the power of the medicine.” Heidi answered, “Nothing we do cancels out God” (Heidi Neumark, Breathing Lessons, p. 252).
God claims reluctant, even scarred drought-busters in the waters of baptism, whether they are as young as Oliver or as old as Stardeshia. Drought-busters do not wear halos, but they do wear the same water mark worn by Jesus and with eloquent voices and sometimes clumsy, even unintended invitations, they help lead others out of the drought of loss of meaning and into the great baptismal waters, through which life’s meaning can be found.
As I said earlier, there is something about a drought that brings on a profound respect for water.