Water and Spirit

Baptism of Jesus • Mark 1:4–11, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on January 10, 2021

Truth be told, we Americans are in deep shit. Our lofty ideals and our soaring rhetoric mask our great national hypocrisy. Claims of liberty and justice for all are simply absurd. You’ve seen the photos and the footage. When peaceful “BLM” protestors gathered at the nation’s capitol, police in full riot gear lined the steps. When Indigenous people protected their water at Standing Rock, law enforcement authorities beat them, shot them, and tormented them with fire hoses in freezing temperatures. And yet when armed supporters of Trump swarmed the legislature with plans to intimidate, capture and even murder, their whiteness granted them easy access. Their whiteness allowed them to pose for selfies with confederate flags wearing sweatshirts declaring “6 million was not enough.” Their whiteness offered them safe passage down the steps, out the doors and back home to their families. This is who we are as nation. This is who we’ve always been.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not a cynic. Though I’m heavy-hearted and troubled this week, I am not in despair. In fact, I believe there’s more reason than ever to be hopeful. As Adrienne Marie Brown said, “Things aren’t getting worse; they are getting uncovered.” This unveiling is excruciating and yet the clarity it brings is essential. We who are alive now have a unique opportunity and responsibility to turn the tide, to push forward an agenda of change with all our strength, to press on through our weariness and our mistakes, to begin the work of many generations to come.

Now, water may seem like an odd place to focus, as we struggle with our nation’s original sin of racism. And yet, from the beginning, the Creator has chosen water to show us who we are. John the Baptist said to the crowd in the wilderness, on the banks of the muddy Jordan river, “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Our minds are taught to assume an opposition between water and Spirit, to impose a hierarchy that places the heavenly above the earthly. Instead, I wonder if it is possible to view “water” and “Spirit” as partners, as different expressions of the same reality.

This week, livestreams of the events in D.C. grabbed our screens. Journalists, historians and politicians endlessly analyzed and agonized. It might have been easy to miss another, similar invasion, a deeply disturbing desecration of all that is sacred, unfolding here in our home. Louise Erdrich, in a recent editorial for The New York Times, describes the work of water protectors seeking to stop the Line 3 pipeline.

My daughter and I are walking along the fast-flowing stream of pure darkness that is the young Mississippi River. Patches of snow crunch on pads of russet leaves as we near the zhaabondawaan, a sacred lodge along the river’s banks. It is here that Enbridge is due to horizontally drill a new pipeline crossing beneath the river. We enter the lodge. The peace, the sweetness, the clarity of the water is hard to bear. The brush and trees hardly muffle the roar of earth-moving and tree-felling equipment across the road. The pipeline is almost at the river.[1]

In her piece, Erdrich calls Line 3 “a tar sands climate bomb.” She explains that the process of extracting this sludgy oil would turn the boreal forest of Alberta into a wasteland. This pipeline would create as much pollution as 50 coal-fired power plants. Yearly, it would release more carbon into the atmosphere than the entire state of Minnesota. Spilled tar sands oil that enters the watershed of the Great Lakes would present “an existential threat to our water supply.” All this is bad enough. It’s truly terrible. We clearly can’t go down this path if we want to avoid the worst effects of climate change. And, yet, it is our state’s utter refusal to listen to Indigenous peoples, to honor their sovereignty and heed their wisdom that reveals a truth about who we are that is both troubling and important.

White Christian supremacy is our inheritance, not only in congregations like ours, but also in the institutions of state government. This delusional, yet reality-shaping framework denies that water matters. It misses the plain, obvious, and vital truth that water is life. And I mean that in many senses. “Water is life” expresses the complex and intimate way we are related. Water teaches us: we belong to creation. Creation is not just raw material that we are free to exploit. Creation is full of relatives—both human and more-than-human relatives—to whom we are responsible and accountable. White Christian supremacy, instead, establishes the non-sensical and death-dealing hierarchies of spirit over water, human over non-human, white over black and brown, Christian over non-Christian. This worldview is embedded in our minds and bodies. It is stored in the very cells of our DNA as generational trauma.

One indisputable historical fact about Jesus, scholars point out, is that he was baptized by John. It’s indisputable because it’s surprising; no one would have thought to make it up. It’s surprising that Jesus, who was declared to be more powerful than John, allowed John to teach and guide him. Jesus was John’s disciple first. It seems Jesus’ power was not about investment in a hierarchy. It was a paradoxical power that came from self-emptying, from sharing. John welcomed Jesus into a community to which they both belonged, the same community that is our true home all these millennia later. Baptism in water is the way one enters this community. Water brings rebirth, reveals a new identity. Water is a sign of whole-hearted and whole-bodied commitment to a way of being that honors connection, that cares for all our relatives. Jesus chose to be powerful through a partnership with John, through collaborative leadership in the “water is life” movement.

John preached a “baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins.” Let’s stop individualizing this statement. Sin is the name for that which distorts and harms our collective wellness, tears a wound in our relationship with God and each other. John himself recognized that Jesus would bring another dimension of baptism into their partnership, and their community. When Jesus emerged from the water, the Spirit came upon him and the sky opened. And we see that water and Spirit are interrelated, that sin and belovedness are a conversation and that these two realities create a dialectic that shapes who we are.

In Greek, the verb that describes the heavens torn apart is the same as the one used to refer to the tearing of the temple curtain as Jesus breathes his last upon the cross. So we are told that even as the dove’s flight anointed Jesus with grace and power, the sky revealed creation’s woundedness. The divine voice spoke in that moment, declaring Jesus beloved, and making it clear that belovedness would call him to confront the forces that deny creation the fullness of life. Water is life because we are all made of it. Water is Spirit, in a very literal way, because it connects us. Water is the conduit of God’s presence. Water is how we see and touch our divine companion. And water binds us in solidarity with both the joy and the suffering of creation. Water is life and water is who we are.

Louise Erdrich concludes her editorial on a note that is both sobering and hopeful:

Young people here are chaining themselves beneath pipeline trucks, clamping themselves to bulldozers, facing down semi trucks. It is unbearable. They know exactly what’s at stake. The Mississippi widens and becomes mighty as it flows south. Holding my daughter’s graceful hand in my own, listening to her sing an ancient song to the four directions, I can feel her strength and her fragility. In the protest camp, people are talking around the fires about First Nations resistance and Standing Rock—they held off a pipeline; so can we. Every morning at 10, people gather to pray. Every day there are more people in the circle.

The baptismal river immerses us in the many truths about ourselves. We are awash in generations of unhealed trauma that have brought us to an absurd place, to a painful and frightening moment of reckoning. In this nightmare, lies and conspiracies are the same as the truth. Good people (like you and me) are also racist to the core. We are terrified and fragile. We can easily we can be persuaded to do anything, anything at all to ease the dissonance and pain of this time.

And, through a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, we are reborn and renewed. In water and spirit, we come to understand in our bodies and in our commitment to community, that together with all creation, we are truly beloved, truly sacred. Amen.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/28/opinion/minnesota-line-3-enbridge-pipeline.html