A friend of mine told me about an incident from her seminary days. One year at the Easter Vigil the celebrant poured clear, fresh water into the baptismal font and then added water from the Jordan, the river where Jesus was baptized. As the river water flowed in, the water in the font lost its sparkling clarity. In that discolored water a baby was baptized, named, anointed, welcomed into the family of God.
The next day my friend entered the chapel, dipped her finger in the font, and crossed herself. When she looked down at her black blouse, she discovered white spots wherever her finger had touched the black fabric. Someone had added chlorine to the baptismal font. That water from the Jordan was just too unsanitary.
What a commentary on the way that we often interpret our baptismal call! We see baptism as a call to cleanliness, a call that separates us from the muck and the mess of the world. We try to live chlorinated lives, with chlorinated baptismal water.
The earliest church stipulated that, whenever possible, Christians were to be baptized in living water. Though we may envision crystal clear water from a mountain stream, living water is simply flowing water. It is not sterile, and it is not necessarily clean. Living water is full of living things.
In his book Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says, “You don’t go down into the waters of the Jordan without stirring up a great deal of mud…If being baptized is being led to where Jesus is, then being baptized is being led towards the chaos and the neediness of a humanity that has forgotten its own destiny.” Following Jesus is not a chlorinated, sterile business. Our lives are not under our own control. They are messy and dirty and disorganized and mucked up with the real needs of real people. Things seldom go as we have planned them. People annoy us and disappoint us and hurt us. We disappoint and shame ourselves.
Yet it is there, in the midst of human shame and human failures and the real-world messiness of life that Jesus joins us. When John the Baptist was calling the people of Israel to repentance, Jesus didn’t keep himself apart, trying to keep himself uncontaminated by the muck. He stepped into the waters of the Jordan to be baptized with all the others who were standing there in the mud. It was not a sanitary business then, and it is not a sanitary business now. Still today he meets us there in the dirty baptismal water, calling us to be his disciples and to learn from him how to live and how to love. Still today Jesus shows us by his example that we don’t love others by separating ourselves from them. Our baptisms call us to follow Jesus into the real world. There he meets us, in the mud and the mess.