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Any place can be made holy

July 7, 2011

As I’m preparing for four baptisms this Sunday, I’m reminded of our day in Israel when we remembered our baptism…

For our last stop of the day we ended where we started…at the water.  Yet this time the bus simply pulled over on the side of the road and we got out at a random, unmarked spot.  We were at the Jordan River.  What I think surprised everyone is that the river was not moving, but this is because we were closer to the mouth coming off the Sea of Galilee, and there is a dam that regulates water flow.  It was believed that Jesus would’ve been baptized closer to where the river ends, further South into the Dead Sea.

As we walked down the bank to the water’s edge I have to admit I was a little grossed out.  The stagnant water was dirty and polluted, and even looked green.  We’re not talking beautiful sea green…we’re talking almost nuclear waste green.  I’m sure it was from algae and other things growing in the water.  After all, this is “living water”.  But it was not what I had expected the Jordan River to be.  As I neared the bank the last thing I could imagine doing was getting fully immersed in this nasty water.  There were bits of trash and debris floating around and sunk at the bottom, and it made me sad.  With all of the money we’ve seen thrown into building churches and museums commemorating the important spots in Jesus’ ministry, you would think they could use some of the finances to help keep the natural beauty of this river healthy and clean.

Overlooking the trash, it still was a beautiful spot, and as a group of pastors we all immediately rushed down and started filling water bottles with Jordan River water to be used in our home churches for baptisms (after proper boiling, of course).

Bishop Watson came down and began sharing, not an inspirational message at first, but a cautionary warning to all of his newly ordained pastors.  He exclaimed how pastors especially tend to lose their minds when they see the Jordan River.  They can’t wait to get in there and start baptizing droves of people (perhaps it’s the Messiah complex we all have hidden deep inside).  But as United Methodist pastors, we do not condone re-baptism.  In fact, and this is a little known fact, any pastor caught re-baptizing can be brought up on chargeable offenses and risk losing their credentials (so please don’t ask us to do it).  Bishop Watson pointed out that even in scripture there was nothing Christian about Jesus’ baptism (obviously, he was a Jew).  John the Baptist himself said that he only baptized with water, but one after him would come to baptize with water and the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:6-11).  This was said not to ruin a spiritual moment for us, and not to scold us for something we had yet to do, but to truly drive home the point about what we, as United Methodist’s, believe about baptism.

It’s not about us.  It’s about the Holy Spirit.  We believe that God is the one at work in our baptism, welcoming us into the family of the church universal, offering us divine grace and inviting us into a covenantal relationship with God.  It is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, and one where God promises to show up and be present.  This alone is reason to rejoice and celebrate baptism done by any means, whether sprinkling, pouring, or immersion.  The amount of water is not important, because no amount of water can contain, restrain, or limit the abundance of God’s grace and love.  The age of the baptized is also irrelevant, because God’s love and grace is available to all from the moment we are born.  Thanks to prevenient grace (God’s grace for us before we are even aware of it) and God’s active participation in our baptism, any baptized member, from infant to senior adult, is sealed into the covenant of God for life.  And for that, I am truly thankful.

To read more about the United Methodist understanding of baptism, check out our official stance on it here:

Or feel free to come dialogue with me and ask questions.

Back at the river, we moved into a service of remembrance.  Eric came and read the story of Jesus’ baptism from John 1:19-34.  Bishop Watson led us in the service of remembering our baptism, and the liturgy we use is truly beautiful and powerful.  We renew our vows to the church and to God to be faithful disciples, to continually renounce evil in the world and ourselves, and to support the church with our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.

We then take turns with each other, walking down to the edge, dipping a finger into the water, and making the sign of the cross on our fellow believer’s forehead, saying, “Remember your baptism and be thankful.  May the Holy Spirit work within you, that being born of water and the spirit, you may continue to grow as a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.”  It was a touching experience to watch spouses and friends go down together to affirm God’s presence in one another and give thanks for the work God has been doing and will continue to do in our lives.

As we walked up from the bank and loaded the bus once more, armed with our bottles of algae filled Jordan water, I had forgotten about the bacteria and trash littering the bottom of the river.  I was reminded once again that with the presence of the Spirit, any place can be made holy.

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