Stepping Into Muddy Water
I heard a deeply disturbing story last week. Evidently, someone was recently robbed at knife point in the parking lot of a local hospital. This is sad, but unfortunately not shocking news. What is disturbing is that the robbery occurred on a sunny afternoon with people present in the parking lot. No one called for help or went inside to call 911 or dared to intervene.
What is even more disturbing is that I found myself having sympathy for the people who didn't get involved. For who, in their right mind, would intervene at knife point? Such involvement might endanger both yourself and the person being robbed.
The bystanders in the parking lot probably assumed someone else would call 911 or go to a security guard for help. Most of us are busier than we can stand now. And, we know the drawbacks of the legal system. To get involved is likely to take time away from our job for a court appearance, not to mention getting on the bad side of someone who is already a thief.
The more I listened to my reasoned rationalizations for non-involvement, the more disturbed, no sickened, I became. What kind of life is it that encloses itself in a protective shell, shielding itself from cries of need? What kind of life is it that guards against potential risk or hazard?
Some call such a life prudent. After all, we can't go around solving everyone else's problems. Some call such a life sensible. After all, we can't help anyone unless we first take care of ourselves. Jesus calls such a life impoverished, missing the ingredients that give life any real substance.
Has it ever puzzled you why Jesus stepped into the Jordan to be baptized by John? What prompted him to step into the muddy water of a river filled with sinners? John himself said he was unworthy to even stand in the same water with Jesus. Why does Jesus go down into the Jordan?
In the Jordan, Jesus begins something that won't be stopped until soldiers put nails through his hands. He steps into the muddy, crowded water of life. He asks John to do for him what he has done for every sinner in the river. He refuses to be baptized in purified water. He asks for baptism in water muddied by human fault and failure. As Mark tells the story, this is when Jesus hears words every child longs to hear from her parents, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased." Jesus stepped from the muddy water of the Jordan to the muddy water of sickness, injustice, and lack of faith.
He stepped into Capernaum and not only healed a paralytic, but forced Pharisees to reexamine their most basic beliefs. He stepped into pride and prejudice and announced no people had exclusive rights to God. He stepped into broken lives and applied the healing force of forgiveness and love.
Though advised against it by his closest confidants, Jesus willingly stepped onto the streets of Jerusalem. He walked the halls of political and religious power. Judas betrayed his whereabouts, but in truth, Jesus was not hard to find.
He still isn't hard to find, though people spend entire lifetimes searching for him. Just look where the water of life is muddy from human hurt and pain and ignorance, and you'll find him. You'll find the one who freely stepped into muddy waters from the Jordan to Jerusalem. We may step through life as carefully as we like, trying to avoid any conflict, traveling on only well-lit roads, singing Jesus Loves Me This I Know, but there's no way to follow Jesus without getting muddy. Our baptism sets our steps in sometimes dangerous and dirty and dark directions.
When I think of the image of the Christian life as stepping into muddy water, I think of Vernon Johns. One of the brilliant minds of the 50s and 60s, Johns was a black Baptist preacher born in Virginia. As the predecessor to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, Johns had a reputation for speaking his mind.
In his Pulitzer prize winning book, Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch tells about an incident involving Johns during the peak of the civil rights movement. Branch writes, "In Baltimore, after nearly a decade of persistent negotiations, the city's white and Negro Baptist preachers came together to discuss the role of the church in a time of racial tension."
Everything went beautifully. A worship date was set with a white preacher and a black preacher, each to deliver a sermon in the same church. Johns was the choice for the black church.
Branch describes the scene this way: "As the white preacher developed his sermon on the theme of Christian salvation, of being `washed in the blood of the Lamb,' Vernon Johns began to twitch noticeably in his seat. When the white man finished, Johns stood up abruptly. He did not wait to be introduced . . ."
" `The thing that disappoints me about the Southern white church is that it spends all of its time dealing with Jesus after the cross, instead of dealing with Jesus before the cross.' . . . Johns turned to the white preacher who had just sat down. `You didn't do a thing but preach about the death of Jesus. That's all you hear. You don't hear so much about his three years of teaching that man's religion is revealed in the love of his fellow man.'" He who says he loves God and hates his fellow man is a liar, and the truth is not in him. That is what offended the leaders of Jesus' own established church as well as the colonial authorities from Rome. That's why they put him up there.'"
Talk about stepping into muddy water. Some say Johns stepped right into quicksand. I say he had the courage to tell the truth. His manners were questionable. His timing stunk. But sometimes the truth will not wait and cannot be courteous.
To wear the mark of baptism means we're willing to get muddy. God only knows where we might step. We might step into work for racial harmony locally, refusing to contribute to the ignorance of prejudice. We might step into the halls of power, lending our voice to the dispossessed, hungry, and homeless. We might go down to our knees refusing to give God rest until God hears our cries for peace.
What would you have done if you had been in that hospital parking lot? What would I have done? I can't honestly say. But I can say this. All my rationalizations dissolve in shame before the bold truth of my baptism.
If we want to avoid the failings and faults of other human beings, we follow the wrong God. If we want a risk-free or even a low-risk faith, we are out of step with the one we call Lord. You and I are baptized in the name of Jesus, who willingly stepped into the crowded Jordan.
Stepping into muddy water. It may not be our choice, but it surely is our calling.
Gary Charles Alexandria, VA