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Danger: Rough Water Ahead

Luke 3:15-22
For a high school science project a few years ago, a certain student conducted a survey. And in that survey the student asked people whether they thought dihydrogen monoxide ought to be outlawed. And before the people responded, the student provided them with some information. He pointed out that dihydrogen monoxide is a major component of acid rain; that it is a leading cause of soil erosion; that it decreases the effectiveness of automobile brakes; and that accidentally breathing in dihydrogen monoxide can kill you. Based on that information, nearly half of those surveyed said Yes, that in their opinion there ought to be a law against dihydrogen monoxide. Little did those people realize, though, that dihydrogen monoxide is actually the technical name for water, for H2O.
The truth is that although we cannot live very long without water, water can be a dangerous thing. That's what the blockbuster movie Titanic shows us. When that great ship was built, they figured that it was indestructible, that nothing in the ocean would be able to stop it. But sadly, on its maiden voyage, the passengers on the Titanic learned all too well that the perils involved in going to sea can never be underestimated.
Today's reading from the Gospel of Luke is a story about water. It's about the day when Jesus was around 30 years old, when he went out to be baptized in the Jordan River. But that event raises a number of questions for us. For example, the biggest question is: why did Jesus go to be baptized at all? If he was sinless, as the Bible says, then there wouldn't be any need for it.
I think that to understand the story of Jesus’ baptism in the waters of the Jordan River, we need to take a look at what water meant to the people of the Bible. First, in the Old Testament, we see that for the most part the Hebrew people looked on the waters of the sea as something to be afraid of. They saw the threat that water posed to them as something that only God could deliver them from.
They remembered the story of Noah, when the great flood destroyed everything on the earth. It was only because of God that Noah and his family and the animals were able to survive. The Hebrew people also remembered the story of the Exodus, when the Hebrew slaves had just escaped from Egypt, and all of a sudden pharaoh's chariots began to chase them. And the Hebrews found themselves trapped, with the on-coming Egyptians on the one side, and the waters of the sea on their other side. And the Hebrews remembered that it was only because of God, with God parting the waters of the sea, that they were able to cross over to safety.
And when the Hebrews had completed their 40-year journey through the desert, and they were finally ready to enter the Promised Land, they discovered that yet one more obstacle stood in their way—the deep and wide water of the Jordan River. But once again, God was able to take away the people's fears, as God parted that water as well, so that the people could enter into the land that they had waited for so long.
And the New Testament has pretty much the same outlook when it comes to water. There is the story in the gospels of how one day the disciples were out on the water in a boat with Jesus. And suddenly a horrible storm kicks up, so that the boat starts to take on water and is beginning to sink. The disciples figure that the situation is hopeless. But then Jesus, who had been asleep the whole time, wakes up. And with a simple command, he calms the storm and saves them.
Or another time, the disciples were out on the water of the lake in their boat at night. And as a fierce wind and rainstorm starts up, they begin to panic. But then in the midst of their panic, Jesus appears walking on the water. And as soon as he steps into their boat, the storm stops, and they reach the destination to where they were headed. And at the end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, it's interesting to note that when heaven is described, we are told that there will be no death there, and there won't be any pain or suffering or sadness. And we are also told that in heaven, there won't be any sea. In other words, the threat that water can pose to us won't be a danger anymore, because God will get rid of it.
So when we think about baptism today, those are the images that the baptism waters should bring to our minds. The images of all those times in the past when God's people have faced challenging and threatening situations, and how God delivered and saved the people. And so Jesus went to be baptized, not because he needed any sin to be washed away from him. No, Jesus stood with the other people in the water to let them know that it was all right. That because he was with them, the people did not have to be afraid of the water, or be afraid anything else.
It's like the scene that you often see at a swimming pool in the summertime. Some small child will be standing at the edge of the pool, in tears, afraid to get in the water. So the mother will be standing waist deep there in the pool, waving for her reluctant child to jump in, saying, "It's OK. I'm right here." And that was what Jesus did at his baptism. He stood in the water and told us all that it is OK. That he is right there for us, so we don't have to be afraid.
One night during a thunderstorm a little boy was scared and ran into his parents' room and jumped into their bed. The mother tried to reassure the child by saying: "You know, you don't have to be afraid. You should remember that God is always with you." But the little boy said: "I know that. But right now I need someone with skin."
We know in our heads that God loves us. We know in our heads that really we don't have to be afraid. But even so, it just seems that at times we want to hold that hope in our hands, to remind ourselves that it's real. And that's what the sacraments are all about. When we take the water of baptism, and the bread and the cup of communion, those are things that Jesus has given to us to feel, to smell, to taste, to take hold of. To remind us of all the ways that God has loved and cared for his people across the ages. And to remind us that God loves and cares for us even today.
C. Edward Bowen
Crafton United Presbyterian Church
Pittsburgh, PA