“The reason why I came baptizing with water
was that he might be made known to Israel.” (John 1, 29 ff)
In the encyclical letter, Laudato Si, Pope Francis urges Christians to let the sacraments lead them into a deeper relationship and respect for creation. Created things like water, bread, wine, oil are signs in the sacramental world inviting us into the divine mysteries; they also call us to care for our common home, the created world.
Water, for example, is the key sign of the sacrament of baptism. It’s more than the stuff we drink. Water has a long history in the bible, where it symbolizes life and chaos. In the beginning, God creates the world by moving over chaotic, formless waters and then God makes a world that’s good. (Genesis 1, 1-2)
In the story of Noah, God brings new life out of the chaotic flood. The earth becomes fruitful as water, by God’s command, goes back to its boundaries and earth flourishes again. Water is an instrument God uses to bring life.
Because it symbolizes the life and chaos found in the world, it’s no wonder that Jesus begins his ministry by going down into the waters of Jordan River. I doubt the Jordan was sparkling clean then. Judging by the river we see today, it was likely always muddied. It was muddied then as now, muddied as human life is muddied then as now.
When Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan, he entered human experience and brought new life to it by the power of God. The liturgies of the eastern churches, especially, see the waters of the Jordan, changed and blessed by the Word made flesh, flowing all over the world. Wherever human life is, wherever life of any kind is found, there is water. It’s a sign of God’s blessing.
Water is holy. We baptize in clean water because, by the power of Jesus, we are given new life and the promise of eternal life. We become a new creation. Water is holy, but it also has its chaotic nature. In the gospels it threatened the disciples on the Sea of Galilee. “Did you not know that when you were baptized, you were baptized into his death.”
The scriptures say Jesus is revealed as he goes into the water at his baptism. “This is my beloved Son,” a voice from heaven proclaims. Jesus continually reveals his power over water. He quieted the storm on the Sea of Galilee, he turned water into wine at Cana. “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink,” he said. Blood and water flowed from his side on Calvary.
Let’s not forget either, that water today plays a major role in climate change. In the last century the sea level globally has risen almost 7 inches and in the last 10 years it has risen more rapidly than ever. The rise in sea level is caused primarily by two factors related to global warming: the added water from melting land ice and the expansion of sea water as it warms.
This affects us especially in the New York/New Jersey area where I’m writing from. More than 20 million people live along our coastlines, near the water. Flooding and drought from changing patterns of rainfall can affect the homes we live in, our water supply for food and drink. The poor and the vulnerable will be affected most deeply as sea levels push salt water onto our coasts and further upstream in our rivers.
Water, in which Jesus was revealed, now calls us to live responsibly and care for the earth.