Water. Mayim, in Hebrew: the waters of creation when the Spirit breathed on the face of the deep. For forty days and forty nights, water fell from the skies, flooding the whole earth. The infant Moses found safety floating on the waters of the Nile. And when he led the people out of Egypt, it was the waters of the Red Sea that parted. In the wilderness, it miraculously sprang from rocks. The Psalmist spoke of the deer longing for water as the soul longs for God. And in captivity in Babylon, the people sat by the waters and wept tears of grief. Water. Hydor in Greek: the baptismal waters of the Jordan River. As Christ began his ministry, at Cana, he changed the water into wine. On the Sea of Galilee, Christ found his first disciples. He calmed the storm and walked on the face of the water. On the night he was betrayed, he washed the disciples’ feet. And when he was crucified, as the soldier pierced his side, blood and water flowed to the ground together.
Water. So simple: a mere two Hs and an O. So necessary: without it, we cannot live. And yet, so fearsomely powerful: the destructions of floods and tsunamis. In our Scriptures, it is a sign of judgment and sadness, a cause of suffering and fear. It is also a symbol of plenty and purity, a reminder of sustenance and salvation, a source of blessing and celebration.
In the sacrament of baptism, in the waters that flow, we find the Word made visible. The Word is the focal point of Presbyterian worship. It is the Word that follows our gathering and preparation, and lays the groundwork for what follows. For Christians who track a significant portion of our roots back to the Reformation, it’s no surprise that we give emphasis to the Word. The Reformation was when churches were changed by understandings of authority and access. The printing press was the innovation that sparked the translating and sharing of Scripture, such that it became an important mark of Protestantism.
And yet, there is more – much more – to “the Word” than Scripture. Sermons are meant to be expositions of Scripture. Our time with the children, too, is when we share the Word. The Word can be offered in song, in dance, in drama...all of these things can be reflections of the Word of God. And of course, there is Christ himself, in whom the Word became flesh.
It is the Word that gathers us here, for which we prepare. It is the Word to which we respond, that sends us out into the world. And the Word is made visible in sacrament. This is an old idea, that the sacraments of baptism and communion are the Word made visible. We can trace their trajectory back to the Reformation and John Calvin, and through him, back to Augustine in North Africa in the late 4th century. In other words, for Presbyterians, communion and baptism are the Word of God just as much as, if not more than, the sermon.
Like many Protestants, we Presbyterians have two sacraments: baptism and communion. For us, they are practices that Jesus himself commanded us to do – and yet, they are not the only things he commanded us to do. They involve the tangible: water; bread; cup – and yet, they are not the only tangible reminders of faith. They are community moments, too, taking place when the congregation gathers for worship – and yet, they are not the only things we do together. And they remind us of our connection to that great cloud of witnesses, to the whole sweep of salvation history – and yet, they are not the only moments that do.
If you were to draw a Venn Diagram of these things, though, they would likely pinpoint on these two moments: communion and baptism. And more than that, they are rituals where what happens on the outside is just a mere shadow of what is happening on the inside. In other words, there is nothing magical about the water or the bread or what is in the cup. And yet, as we share in them, we recognize what it is that God has been, is, and will be doing with and through us: calling us to newness of life, feeding us so that we might feed, setting us free to love and serve.
We can see this connection being made in our scripture lesson this morning from the Letter to the Hebrews. Twice in our reading, Jesus is referred to as a priest in the order of Melchizedek. Digging a little deeper, we can find connections that go back through the Psalms to Genesis.
Melchizedek first appears in the story meeting the patriarch Abram. He is identified as king of Salem (later Jerusalem). He is also the first to be called a “priest” – in his case, the god El Elyon, which may or may not be identified as Yahweh. In any case, he was not an Israelite. And yet, the point is that someone of Melchizedek’s stature and devotion easily saw that Abram was a righteous man – and through him, he recognized that the God Abram served and loved was worthy of pure devotion.
The Psalms, linking the dual roles of priest and king, saw Melchizedek a Messianic figure, linking him with King David. And now, the Letter to the Hebrews connects the dots from the God of Abram to the person of Jesus, with Melchizedek as an important key, helping to identify Jesus, too, as priest and king.
King is an archaic term to us, but it would have been one that his contemporaries recognized as a sign of God’s blessings and a rejection of King Herod and his ilk. As a priest, just as the priests of the Temple sought to reconcile the people to God through animal sacrifice, so Jesus himself was the reconciler. At the same time, he is himself the lamb, the sacrifice. It is in his death and resurrection that he is the bridge through which God draws close to us, even when we turn away.
It is with this same sweep of Biblical history that the sacraments carry us today and beyond. Whenever we celebrate them, we recount the story of salvation all the way from the first moments of Creation to Easter’s empty tomb and beyond. And we do so in order to remind us that we, too, are part of this holy stream that connects it all.
It’s almost absurd to say that we believe these things. And that is where we can lean into what the word “sacrament” means in its purest form: mystery. The sacraments are mysteries, holy mysteries that we will never fuller understand in this life time, where God is the one who closes the gap, who accomplishes through us what we could never accomplish on our own, who heals and holds and forgives and nourishes and sends and challenges and encourages and embraces us, even when we fail to recognize it ourselves.
Friends, what the sacraments are meant to do is to remind us of the transforming power of the Word of God. We are called to be not only those who hear, but do: we are called here and sent away to be God’s ambassadors of reconciliation to a broken world. In a sense, we ourselves become sacramental, the Word made visible, tangible, real.
As we baptize today, may these waters of baptism remind us of what it is that God calls us to be and do.