By Living Waters
© Rev. Dr. Gary Blaine
University Congregational Church
September 16, 2007
Reading: “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes
I’ve know rivers:
I’ve know rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Langston Hughes speaks of rivers that flow with life and culture; rivers that pulse with commerce; rivers that flood with fresh silt every year bringing fertility to the soil. He writes of the community of rivers, villages, and cities. Hughes understands the social weave of nature and humanity and perceives the organic relationships of water, fish, turtles, barges, gardens, human freedom and the blues. These are living waters that course their way through deltas and valleys, imagination and song. We are talking here about soulful waters vital to flora and fauna and essential for the human drama of transformation. For example, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is the story about a boy who travels down the Mississippi with a slave named Tom. As they move toward New Orleans Huck begins to change and mature. On the river he discovers that Tom is a full human being who deserves respect and freedom. He learns that slavery is not simply the chains around the ankles of an African American, but also the shackles of prejudice and greed that bind the slave holding society as well. The river is the vehicle that transports Tom and Huck to freedom.
Water is not only the means of conveyance and freedom; it is also fraught with danger and death. Huck and Tom must contend with gamblers, bounty hunters, sandbars, murders, and con-artists.
Living waters are social waters, communal waters. Water is never an isolated element. Water is never individualistic. In its very composition it is a community of hydrogen and oxygen. Think of the ocean. You cannot go down to the beach and look across the floor of the ocean and watch a wave rise up out of nowhere or nothing. The wave is a society of water, geology, gravitational pull, wind, and current. And when that wave rushes and crashes onto the beach what happens to all of its elements? They return to the sea. They return to the source of their being to reformulate new waves. What is more, you will never go to the beach and see one wave. There may be large waves and small waves but there are never isolated waves. The wave does not rise up from a mirror surface and return to stillness. The waves rise and fall in company.
These lessons shape some of the fundamental understandings that I have about baptism. The waters of baptism are living waters, constantly transporting us through life while they nourish and transform us. The waters of baptism speak not only of life but also of death. The waters of baptism are corporate waters. Time does not allow me to go into detail about the history and conflicted theology about baptism. So this is only one part of the conversation that reflects my perspective and experience.
We tend to think of baptism as a one-time event, typically in the life of the infant. We see it as a rite of initiation, a photo opportunity whose relevance is more or less important to a family. For some families it is a means of assuaging the concerns of parents or grandparents who worry that the unbaptized will not go to heaven. Some spend inordinate amounts of time troubled about the methods of baptism such sprinkling, pouring, immersing, or dry-cleaning. I certainly do not think the amount of water determines the aggregate of God’s grace.
Baptism, rather, signifies God’s initiative on our behalf. Baptism is the sign of God’s grace, God’s action, or God’s “first move.” It is not offered as a “once in a lifetime opportunity.” The “sale” does not end in thirty days. I understand baptism as the affirmation of continuous grace. My baptism is a living baptism of providence. Everyday I am immersed in love, fellowship, food, forgiveness, humor, death, reconciliation, work, and the growth of my consciousness. Let me give you some real examples.
Last week Arland Wallace baked a cherry pie for our family. I have had several conversations with members of this congregation thinking and dreaming about our ministry together. My dear friend, Kay Bessler Northcutt sent me an email this week and said, “I wish I could hear you preach every Sunday.” When a homeletics professor says such a thing it is quite a compliment. My daughter, Jamie, gave birth to Isabella, eight pounds and ten ounces. With the help of our neighbor we tried to save the life of a kid goat. Mimi and I buried her Thursday morning – the kid, that is, not the neighbor. I have heard this week painful stories, confessions if you will, of loss, abandonment, frustrated reunion, death, sickness, and morbid grief. Thursday night we were the guests of Larry and Anita Jones at the Pete Zimmer concert at the Botanical Gardens. Friday morning I read the 73rd psalm and was reminded of the reality of evil: “Pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment. Their eyes swell out with fatness; their hearts overflow with follies. They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression.”
Each of these, joyful and sad as they may be, are expressions of grace. Without them I would shrivel and die. These are the living waters that expand my appreciation for the fragility and wonder of life. By these sacred encounters I learn something of the mystery of God. I am taught what is God’s will for the Christian life. I am judged and forgiven in each episode. I am challenged with wonder, comforted with light, and called to deeper commitment to the welfare of nature and human nature. I did not earn them and I do not deserve them. They are all gifts offered to me week end and week out.
By offering these examples of providence in my life I hope that no one thinks I am trivializing the meaning of grace. I worry that we make grace so abstract we do not recognize it on the streets of our lives. By my baptism I have been invited into a new covenant with God and God’s people. It is a new relationship that opens my eyes to the life and joy all around me. It opens my heart to the pain and loss of others. It is a new humanity that is founded on grace, the life of sacrificial love that we traditionally identify as the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Baptism is the continual flow of grace, constantly before us. It is the ever-present call to respond. Baptism is God’s act and our response to it. The assumption of baptism is that a person will continue to grow in faith and responsibility. We will grow in our commitment and courage to affirm our freedom from the laws of death. By the laws of death I mean racism, sexism, violence, fear, political/social/economic oppression. We are free from the bonds of segregation and division, judgment and hypocrisy, greed and anger, purity codes and indifference. We are free to stand before every power on earth as women and men of conscience. I think of old Giles Corey in Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible. You remember that he was a villager in the town of Salem caught up in the scandal of witchcraft. Corey figures out that Thomas Putnam is using the charges of witchcraft to gain the property of those accused. The court demands to know how he obtained that information and Corey refuses to co-operate with the court. Huge stones are pressed on Corey’s body to coerce him into confession. Barely able to breathe Corey says to his torturers, “More weight.” Now that is freedom!
The living waters of baptism are waters of life and death. Most of us do not have to face death like Giles Corey. Certainly we will know death and loved ones will pass away. That is a reality that every human being must encounter. But if we are faithful to our baptism we will encounter death in many forms. We will witness the dying of fears and attitudes that hamper our ability to live out the faith values of justice, peace, brotherhood, kindness, patience, and joy. Those fears and attitudes may die a slow death. Many will not go willingly. Greed and desire are tenacious. Fear is persistent and anger never leaves without a fight. Sometimes there are social impressions that we must spot and wash multiple times before they go away. Racial prejudice is one that I have taken to the laundry many times. You know, some stains are stubborn and re-emerge in the light of day. But God sends someone like that preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr. who gives us a little soap to scrub out the residue of prejudice. Some folks are lucky. They only need to go through the permanent press cycle. Others of us require the heavy duty and double rinse process. The important thing to know is that baptism is a life of renewal and change and some of us need a lifetime to get it all done. These are the cycles of death and resurrection that begin with our baptism.
Baptism effects or signifies our incorporation into the life of love and grace. We are invited into the family of God. The act of baptism redefines to whom we belong and broadens the base of our family’s membership. The act of baptism redefines our identity, not only as the child of particular mothers and fathers, but also as the child of values that transcend the survival of the fittest and social conventions. The act of baptism redefines our social roles and what it means for us to be in right relationship with our neighbors. Indeed, the act of baptism calls us to the work of bringing every person home to the wholeness of being. Baptism, therefore, is not something that the minister or the church does to a person. There is no strange magic afoot here. Rather, baptism is the recalling of persons to the freedom of God’s grace in the context of the human condition. By baptism we do not “scotch guard” a human soul against dirt and mud. Baptism is not a prophylactic against sexually transmitted diseases, character flaws, or annoying personal habits. Baptism is the flow of call and response to grace and the kingdom of God. Let me return to a practical example of the call and response of grace. It is found in a poem by Julia Kasdorf entitled, “What I Learned from My Mother.”
“I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you now how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.”
The living waters of grace are expressed in flowers, food, desserts, presence, and gentle touch. These are the practices of baptism that we perfect in our own daily practice and teach our children.
If you have listened closely you have heard me use these words: Kingdom, community, communal, company, society, church, family, and relationship. Baptism is by definition a corporate reality. Baptism is a call and response to the grace of God, the love of God and the love of neighbor, just and right relationships. Baptism is the single most important event in the Christian community of faith. It is the signal ritual for the household of God welcoming more places at the table, more souls to feed and nurture, a larger community to embrace. As a rule baptism is not a private affair but a public witness to a shared faith. For this reason I believe that baptism’s place is in the sanctuary amidst the people of God. That, I believe, is the norm. And, of course, there are times when baptism requires closed quarters. As I said, I believe this is the norm. It is an act of faith in the communion of faith. Mitch Finley described it so well when he wrote:
“The Christian doctrine
of the communion of saints
is simple, really.
All it says is
that once you buy the farm
you still live on the farm.
All it says is
that those who have gone before us
are still with us.
All it says is
that past generations
and must be taken into account.
In other words,
we’re all in this together.
All of us.”
 Langston Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (New York: Vintage Classics, 1995), p. 23.
 Julia Kasdorf, “What I Learned from My Mother,” Good Poems selected by Garrison Keillor (New York: Viking Press, 2002), p. 156.
 Mitch Finley, “Reflection” as printed in Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life, eds. Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat (New York: Scribner, 1996), p. 478.