A few years ago, I was trading emails with a priest who serves at Trinity Wall Street; Mark Bozzuti-Jones is their priest for pastoral care and community.
I don’t remember anymore what we were talking about, but I will never forget how he addressed me in those emails. He called me Anne of God! I found that very daunting. I wondered how anyone would live up to a name like that.
I wasn’t sure why he called me that—so it really stuck in my mind. I soon discovered that—at least in the church–he called everybody that: Sylvia of God! Edwin of God! Tim of God! Karen of God! Ricardo of God! Gia of God! I though—okay, that takes a little of the pressure off. But what does he mean? I didn’t ask him—what would be the fun in that? In thinking about it, I decided he was saying something about Baptism—he’s saying that by virtue of being Baptized, and alive and participating in the Church, that I am blessed in a special way, and that my identity is changed into this Anne of God.
As we hear about the Baptism of Jesus, there are lots of different layers of meaning in Baptism. Baptism is something we do because Jesus did it. It is the sacrament of initiation into the church; it is a naming ritual; it is an incarnate connection to God and the story of God’s people in the Hebrew Scriptures; it incorporates us in the resurrection life in Jesus Christ. We continue to do Baptisms in our church tradition, but we don’t do them exactly the way Jesus did. If we did:
- We would only Baptize adults
- They would be Baptized by full immersion
- We would do all of our Baptisms in the Jordan River.
So what is there in common between that Baptism and what we do? There is something about the way we do Baptism which is consistent with the Baptism of Jesus, even though the sprinkling of a few drops of water on an infant is very different from immersing an adult in a river. Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River for the purification of John’s Baptism. Which is different from what we do; we are Baptized into our Christian faith, and in the name of Jesus. What is there that is consistent in both rituals? Water! Water is central to Baptism.
In the rite itself we have a beautiful prayer called the Thanksgiving over the Water that connects all of the layers of meaning that the water holds. While the font contains just a small amount of warm water, it holds the power of symbol that connects us to all of salvation history. In the prayer we say: “We thank you Almighty God for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved at the beginning of Creation.” So we’re bringing the whole history of how we understand God acting in the world, into this moment of Baptism. So the chaos of those waters, and the fact that God’s Spirit moved over them, is something we remember in Baptism.
“Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise.” Now that’s a mention of two specific bodies of water. The first one that probably comes to mind pretty easily is the Red Sea. Moses led the people of Israel out of that desperate situation in Egypt, where miraculously they were able to cross and escape Pharaoh’s army. There’s another body of water that is mentioned here, that may not come to mind as quickly. After the people were in the wilderness for forty years, their leadership transferred to Joshua and they crossed a body of water into the Land of Promise, the Holy Land. That body of water was…the Jordan River! So the Jordan has historically been a threshold, a liminal place, a space where you leave behind the person you were, and you become a person shaped by a new experience of promise and hope. That is very consistent with Baptism!
And yet there is one more body of water that isn’t mentioned in this prayer, but I think it could be. It connects with a lot of what we experience in Baptism. It’s a river called the Jabbok. It is in modern Jordan, and it lies east of the Jordan River. It might tug on your memory when you hear that at the edge of the Jabbok, Jacob wrestled with an angel. If you look at the text, it is not really clear who Jacob’s wrestling partner was—was he wrestling with an angel? With God? With his own conscience? Jacob was a crooked man. He fought with his twin brother in the womb before they were even born, he tried to trick his brother out of his birthright as the older by a few minutes, and he lied to his father and stole his blessing. His trickery availed him nothing, because he had to flee to escape the consequences of all he had done. He encountered another crooked character and had his own trials—but ultimately he accumulated livestock, had a family and property, and something touched his heart that told him “it is time to go home.” And perhaps even, “it is time to make amends for what you have done.”
So Jacob journeyed toward Canaan, and when he reached the Jabbok he sent his family, his belongings and his animals ahead across the river. He knew that his brother was coming to meet him, and he was certain his brother would try to kill him. It was that night, at the river’s edge, when Jacob had his dark night of the soul, and he wrestled with who he was, where he had been, and what he had done. And at the end of the wrestling he had a new name and a new identity. His wrestling partner said: “You will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with Man and have prevailed.” And the surprising thing is that this crooked character, whom we have had sympathy for and interest in despite his less-than-godly ways, becomes the father of twelve sons, who beget the twelve tribes of Israel. So this is a foundational story—it is fundamental to our faith history. Jacob is given a new name, and a new hope, and a new way of being, which connects this story to Baptism.
Baptism is about identity and transformation.
There is a lot of wrestling related to Baptism. If you were baptized as an adult, you probably wrestled–with your faith, with what Baptism meant for you, with what kind of change it might work in you. Babies, they don’t know much about wrestling at this age—although there is a certain amount of wrestling just in being born. But I tell you, Will [the child about to be baptized], there will be wrestling—and that’s good. It is how you become who you will be, who you are. And some of that wrestling will be with yourself—to figure out how to do the right thing. And some of that wrestling will be with your friends, when they want to gang up on the new kid, and you know that isn’t right. And then you also wrestle with yourself, because it is hard not to go along with your friends. But I hope that you will win that wrestling match, and do the right thing. I hope you will stand up, when people are being bullied. I hope you will do good in the world.
In Baptism you are given the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You are anointed and blessed. And if you fail to choose the good—WHEN you fail, because it happens to all of us— don’t give up! God is cheering you on! Keep wrestling! You will be transformed, with God’s help, into someone who is truly made in God’s image. You will live as one beloved by God. You will live a risen life in Jesus Christ. God is right there to help you live into the fully realized person you can become: the YOU of God. You may not remember your own Baptism, which is one of the reasons we do Baptisms during Sunday worship. You are present and you are part of this Baptism. And, like Will, you are a person in the process of becoming. May the waters of your Baptism never dry. May you live into the newness of your Resurrection life in Jesus Christ. May you be the YOU of God.