17 June 2010

Waters of Baptism, Waters of Life

For weeks now the waters of the Gulf have been despoiled by somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000 barrels of oil a day gushing from a pipe a quarter of a mile deep in the ocean floor. The ruin to the ecosystem of the Gulf has been devastating. Not only has the fishing industry been stopped cold, but the ecosystem of four states has been ruined by the oil slicks and tarry residue that have soaked the marsh coastlands and beaches. The eggs of the blue fin tuna are covered with oil in the marshes of Louisiana. The oysters which are filter feeders cannot swim to avoid the slicks. It’s nesting season for the sea turtles, and they must come to the water’s surface to breathe, but this year the surface is coated in oil and so are the turtles. Pelicans are laying eggs in crude soaked nests, and many are simply so soaked with oil that they cannot move, much less fly.

Clean, fresh, pure water is an essential element to life. But when the water is spoiled as it is in the Gulf, it ruins everything and endangers life. The water of baptism is a sacrament not simply because it represents a Jewish rite of purification used when Jesus himself was baptized, but because water is part of the foundation of life. It points to the goodness and love of the One who gave it to us.

I once asked a confirmation class of junior high kids who were discussing baptism how we use water. “You wash with it,” one girl said. Another said, “You drink it. Without water we couldn’t live.” One after another the kids came up with familiar uses of water, until one boy said, “It holds you up.” Puzzled by his answer, I asked, “What do you mean?” “The child answered, “It holds you up, you know, like when you’re floating on your back when you’re out on the water and the water buoys you up. It holds you up!” And then I realized what he was saying. The water of baptism not only sustains our life, it buoys us up.

Baptism is the ordination of the Spirit in the church, the blessing of the person who receives it by the One who gives it. We are baptized by water and the Holy Spirit, and once that blessing has been received there is no taking it back. We are watermarked forever. It is the original ordination and the floodgate of Christian service. Ordination to the ministries of the church stream from the living waters of our baptism, including ordination to the offices of Elder, Deacon, and Minister of Word and Sacrament. As someone once, wisely said, “If they didn’t want me to answer the call to ministry, they shouldn’t have baptized me in the first place.”

The theme of this year’s General Assembly in Minneapolis, Minnesota (the land of 10,000 lakes) is, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” (John 7:38) As we approach the Assembly, once again we have an opportunity as a Church to filter the homophobia, fear, and misunderstanding from the living waters of baptism. There are overtures to remove G.6-0106b, overtures to support the recognition of same-gender marriage, and overtures to direct the Board of Pensions to include same-gender partners in the benefits plan of the PCUSA. These are all faithful approaches to purifying the waters, removing the oil slicks from the surface, and gathering up the sludge from the beachline and marshes of the Church’s life. I am hoping, praying, and working for the day when the Church buoys all of us up; supporting, celebrating, and honoring the call to love and serve God in the ordained ministries of the church without regard to sexual orientation. I hope and pray that this July, at the 219th General Assembly, “Out of believers hearts shall flow rivers of living water.”

The Rev. Dr. Jon M. Walton
Pastor, The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York

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