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There is Water in the Font

January 12, 2014

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Baptism of Jesus Sunday, January 12, 2014

Stained glass window reflection with Christ's image in baptismal font.


Matthew 3:13-17         Psalm 46

“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.”

Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River.  We hear how as Jesus was coming up out of the water the heavens were torn apart, the Spirit descended upon him as a dove and a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

But if Jesus presented himself at the Jordan River today, he would find that what little water remains is polluted with saline, sewage, and agricultural run-off.  “In places – including the site at which John baptized Jesus – the river is not much more than a stagnant canal of effluent.”

In just over 50 years, the countries that share this watershed have dammed and diverted more than 90% of the Jordan River’s historic flow…As the river has dried up, the Jordan Valley has suffered an ecological collapse.  Half the valley’s biodiversity has been lost.  The Dead Sea, sustained only by inflowing water from the Jordan, is sinking by more than a meter every year.

This is not just a tragedy for wildlife.  Springs that irrigated farmland for thousands of years have started to falter and fail.  Wells used for generations have run dry.  Refused access to the river and denied a fair share of the water pumped from beneath the land, Palestinian communities have seen fields turn to dust, livelihoods lost, and families forced to migrate.

The neglect of this river shows a disregard for our own spiritual heritage, as well as a failure to meet our moral responsibilities as custodians of God’s earth…

At the root of the problem is conflict.  The basin that drains into the Jordan River is divided between Lebanese, Syrians, Jordanians, Israelis, and Palestinians.  Instead of seeing the valley as a single, trans-boundary watershed, these nations have raced to capture the greatest possible share of the Jordan’s water.  Friends of the Earth Middle East estimates that Israel diverts about half of the river’s average annual flow, while Syria and Jordan take about a quarter each.  Palestinians, denied access to the river, take almost nothing.[2]

The idea of our Savior being baptized in sludge is [or should be] enough to stop us in our tracks.  It’s a blasphemous image, is it not?  Well before Matthew wrote his gospel account of Jesus’ baptism, Ignatius of Antioch said that Jesus was baptized “that he might hallow water.” In other words, make it holy and pure for all who follow. But we have neglected, polluted, stolen and near destroyed it. “Pilgrims trying to bathe [today] at the spot where tradition says Jesus was baptized and Joshua crossed into the Promised Land would contract a rash – or vomit, should they swallow some of the once-pure holy water.”[3] 

But it’s not just the Jordan, is it? 300,000 people in West Virginia, spread out over nine counties, are without water right now because of a chemical leak into the Elk River just north of the State Capitol in Charleston. Reported on Thursday, 5000 gallons of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM), an industrial chemical used locally to clean up fine coal dust, was discovered leaking into the groundwater from a storage facility owned by Freedom Industries. This is not a boil-your-water situation, but a do not drink, bathe, brush-your-teeth or do-your-laundry situation. Toilet flushing only. Hotels and restaurants are closed, and hospitals are postponing all but emergency surgeries. Hundreds are sick, reporting nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headaches, diarrhea, reddening skin, itches and rashes. Several are hospitalized, pets are sick, and no one has any idea when the water systems will be flushed or service restored. Nor has there been a report on how the river ecology, fish and wildlife, or animal reproduction is or will be affected. As if wasn’t horrifying enough, on the same day West Virginians lost their water the House or Representative was busy gutting the federal hazardous-waste cleanup law. May their efforts die in the House.

Are we outraged by the destruction, diverting and depletion of water resources worldwide? Sometimes these practices are acts of aggression or defense against other nations.  Other times they are attempts to cultivate crops or raise livestock in environments in which they would not naturally flourish.  At other times corporations have dumped refuse and toxins both without and with the knowledge of governments.  And some corporations have purchased or are depleting water reserves, so that they can create profit out of what was one public, free resource.[4] In our own nation’s southwest there is a race both to conserve and acquire water resources as prolonged and perhaps permanent drought places states and communities in competition over water. While on vacation with my family on Arizona, this concern was apparent everywhere, from the Sonoran Desert to the Grand Canyon. This is a slow-motion crisis that is no less real than what is happening in West Virginia.[5]


Baptism in water is a central sacrament of the church and to our very identity as Christians.  Through it, we are pledged to Christ and incorporated into the church. Less obvious for too long, we are pledged to the Earth and to the systems that sustain life everywhere – to this world that God loves so much. Whether infant or elder, sprinkled or immersed, through Baptism we die to sin and rise with Christ, confessing we have been sealed by the Holy Spirit for God’s good purpose.  Through this washing in water, we are named as God’s own.  But if we have lost our connection to the earth in which we live and to our impact on it, we have, as the United Nations prayer puts it, forgotten who we are.

We have forgotten who we are.

We have alienated ourselves from the unfolding of the cosmos.

We have become estranged from the movements of the earth.

We have turned our backs on the cycles of life.

We have forgotten who we are.

We have sought only our own security.

We have exploited simply for our own ends.

We have distorted our knowledge.

We have abused our power.

We have forgotten who we are.

Now the land is barren.

And the waters are poisoned.

And the air is polluted.

We have forgotten who we are.

Now the forests are dying,

And the creatures are disappearing,

And the humans are despairing.

We have forgotten who we are.

We ask for forgiveness.

We ask for the gift of remembering.

We ask for the strength to change.

We have forgotten who we are.[6]

On this Sunday, when we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord and remember our own baptisms, we have begun through our very liturgy, to re-member the connection between ourselves and the earth; to take up our God-entrusted responsibility as stewards of creation. Too often, though, we shortchange the very material sign of water, through which we are initiated into new life with Christ, into a liturgical abstraction; not water that is set apart for sacred use but water that is dangerously divorced from its source, masquerading as apolitical. Imagine: If we were in West Virginia this morning, would we let our font sit empty, or fill it with bottled water taken from other’s rivers and desperately needed for other purposes, or would we fill it with local water suitable for cleansing coal, but not cleansing souls?

Our very liturgy of Baptism in the name of the One who Created, the One through whom our world was created, and the one who hovered over the watery face of the deep at creation’s dawn, provides an opportunity for us to refashion a sensate liturgy – alive to the challenges of preserving and sharing this precious gift of life.

May our remembrance of Jesus baptism, and our own baptisms, strengthen us for the long-haul ministry of social, spiritual and environmental wholeness God’s covenant requires; that emerging from these ritual waters, we too might hear a heavenly voice and, awakened from our forgetfulness, remember who we are.



After singing “Take Me To the Water,” the following prayer was offered by Rev. Sarah Henkel.

God of living waters,

For each holy memory of water remembered here today, we give you thanks.  For quiet lakes, roaring oceans, and flowing rivers, we give you thanks. For cooling water in summer heat, warming hot springs bubbling up from ground, and frozen lakes to walk upon in winter’s fullness, we give you thanks.

We pray for the healing and renewal of all sources of water.

We pray …

*for those who face the scarcity of clean water as a daily reality,

*for countries at war to secure access to water,

*for communities who have lost water access because of corporate greed

*for all who overuse the precious resource of water because we have not yet understood the urgency of protecting it.

God grant courage to your – adopted into God’s family through the cleansing waters of baptism – to reclaim and remember our role in healing and renewing the waters of this earth.

We pray for this community of faith as we remember our baptismal call together, as we live out that call together.  Hear the prayers of our hearts this morning:

for all who grieve…

for all who continue to heal…

for those who weigh the challenging decisions that aging requires of us…

for all nations…

for Israel and Palestine as the former prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, is laid to rest.  We continue to pray fervently for peace in that region. We give thanks for the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship delegation traveling through Israel and Palestine to listen and learn.  We pray for all who daily work for peace where the Jordan River flows.

Holy Spirit, as you hovered over the waters to bring this world into being, so dwell among us.  Inspire in us passion and call to do the work of remembering our baptism.



(The photo of the Jordan River, below, was taken yesterday by Rick Ufford-Chase during a Peacemaking Delegation in Israel/Palestine. Read one participant’s reflection on “living water” here)


[1] Our opening hymn was Fred Kaan’s “Out of Deep, Unordered Water,” the refrain of which is “There is water in the river bringing life to tree and plant. Let creation praise its giver: there is water in the font.”

[2] “River Out of Eden, Friends of the Earth Middle East, p. 6 and 8,^$^~ChristianBrief.pdf , accessed 1/2/14.

[3] Alan Weisman, Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on the Earth. (Available in our church library)

[4] For Coke and the impact on the supply of water for farmers in India see PBS Newshour.

[5] NYTimes, Jan 5, 2013, “Colorado River Drought Forces a Painful Reckoning for States.

[6] The United Nations Environmental Sabbath Service.

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