Jesus’ Baptism, 2023
Theologians question why God would say to Jesus, “In you I am well pleased,” when he hasn’t done anything yet, hasn’t begun his public ministry. Most decide – and rightly so – that Jesus was beloved and pleasing simply by being, that God was expressing what a parent or grandparent feels for a child without any need for justification.
But I wonder if something more was going on in this gospel story.
When I was growing up in northern New Jersey in the 1950’s and early ‘60’s, every summer day, unless the weather was truly dreadful, my mother took my sister and me to the town pool. We took it for granted, this kind of public good provided by the town.
But — I’ve since learned — that was not a universal experience. In 1959, a federal judge ordered the city of Montgomery, Alabama to integrate its recreational facilities. The city, instead, sold off all the zoo animals and closed the zoo so that Black families couldn’t look at the same animals as their white neighbors. Then they padlocked the playing fields so no one could play. Then they filled every swimming pool – there were eight of them in Montgomery — and planted grass over them, rather than let “the others” join them in the water.
This happened all over the segregated South. The Fairground Park pool in St. Louis, Missouri was the largest in the country, with a capacity of 10,000 swimmers. But when a new city administration changed pool policy to allow integration, a race riot ensued when white residents showed up at the pool, attacking every Black person they came across. The pool was closed, and eventually drained. As one historian wrote, “racism drained the pools” throughout the South.
Now, you can’t drain or fill in the living water of the Jordan River. And that was where Jesus’ outspoken cousin John has come to baptize. And remember that John specifically comes to baptize sinners, the repentant ones who could echo the psalmist: “I know my transgressions only too well, and my sin is ever before me.” This isn’t the Baptism into the life of Christ that we undergo in our Sacrament; John’s was specifically a baptism of repentance and forgiveness. So when Jesus arrives to be baptized, John says, “But you have no need of repentance; there’s nothing you need to be sorry for.” After all, Jesus isn’t a sinner. But Jesus refuses to separate himself from those whom the arrogant, entitled religious authorities standing on the riverbank see as “others.” Instead, Jesus splashes right into the water. By accepting the baptism of John, Jesus makes the statement, “I am one with humanity in all its sorrow and sin. I share this water, this ritual. I will get into the pool with anyone, of any race or religion or sexual identity, of any social class or education level, those with disabilities, those burdened by sin or wracked by guilt.”
I want to be careful here not to seem to equate any particular race or class or category with sin, but I also want to admit that probably most of us, at some point or another in our lives, have had a group – “those people” – with whom we’d just as soon NOT swim. We’d rather stand on the edge than venture into the water with “them.”
I think back to my sophomore year in college when my assigned task through the campus outreach center was to visit an eight-year-old boy at what was billed as a “residential treatment center” for the mentally handicapped, but seemed to me to be a chamber of horrors. Danny, the boy I spent time with every Tuesday afternoon, was a Down Syndrome child who had been dropped off at birth and never visited since. He’d been so neglected in the overcrowded facility that at eight he was just now learning to walk. He was still in diapers. The place smelled of disinfectant and despair. I was 19 years old, untrained, unprepared, and terrified. And I know that I would have avoided any pool where children like Danny swam, because they were so “alien,” so “other.” – A digression: Ten years later, while living in Colorado, I got to know a family at church with a much beloved Down Syndrome child, and as I saw what love could do – had done – for that child, I wept at last for Danny’s lonely life which I had done so little to alleviate, because I was scared, because he was so different, because I was 19 years old and wanted to run away. I felt again the heavy, guilty sadness of those Tuesday afternoons.
But Jesus stands in the water, lovingly shaking his head and saying, “Yes, ok, you failed in that interaction, but you weren’t much more than a child yourself then, and God forgives you. Don’t stand on the riverbank with the Sadducees and Pharisees judging yourself or others. Come on in.”
So this is our Messiah; this is God’s own beloved Child: born in a barn to an unwed mother, a refugee from political persecution, living in exile for two years, growing up learning a trade, a man who was often without a home. His choice to get into the water with all sorts and conditions of human beings, sinners all, before he even begins his public ministry, offers a foreshadowing of his crucifixion, when he chooses to accept the charges of being a criminal, a sinner, an outcast deserving execution – to bear the sins of the world on his shoulders as he hangs on the cross. Beginning with his baptism by John in the Jordan, Jesus’ life, his ministry among the poor and sick and needy of the earth, his death on the cross, all demonstrate his passionate desire to share our humanity, to be among us, even us, even now.
In so many ways, in so many places, there are people still trying metaphorically to fill in the pools – to keep out of their lives and their space anyone they see as “other.” Our calling as Christians instead is to follow Jesus’ example and welcome everyone into the water, into God’s loving, forgiving embrace.