Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

Click here for directions

A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Water, Wind and Fire

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Luke 3:15-22


About three or four times a year, I lead worship at The Beverwyck.  There is a woman who attends those services and at least once a year, she tells me about her father.  Her father was a lay Baptist minister in Ohio.  She says that one of the great joys of his life was breaking the ice on the river for baptisms.  For the record, I would not consider that a joy.  But people baptized in ice water would remember it, wouldn’t they?


People remembered Jesus’ baptism.  Matthew, Mark and Luke all describe it, even though by the time they wrote their gospels, it was kind of embarrassing.  It was embarrassing for them to admit that John baptized Jesus.  That implies that John was superior to Jesus.  In the early church, there was some competition between John’s living disciples and Jesus’ living disciples, so Matthew and Luke try to minimize the fact that John baptized Jesus. The fact that they tell the story at all is evidence that it was remembered and deemed important. 


About the baptism itself, Luke is remarkably succinct.  He says, “Now when all the people were baptized and Jesus also had been baptized. . .”  In terms of the baptism itself, Jesus does not get any more attention than anyone else.  There is a whole crowd of folks being baptized and Jesus is just one of the crowd.


Have you been to the DMV recently?  When you go, you get a number.  Every time you interact with a DMV employee, they call you up using that number.  And they tell you the same things  they tell everyone else.  To get a driver’s license, you have to have certain forms of ID.  No exceptions.  It does not matter if you just moved in from out of state or if you have lived at the same address for 50 years. It does not matter if you are qualified to drive a race car or if you have wrecked every car you have ever owned, when it comes to getting license plates and registration papers, you are going to be just like everyone else in line. 


Jesus gets in line at the Jordan to be baptized, just like everyone else.  It is a deep statement of incarnation, God in line with the rest of us.   


John says “I baptize you with water.”  Water is basic to life.  We are watery beings living on a watery planet.  Our need for water is second only to our need for air to breathe.  Water has life-giving and life-destroying capabilities.  It is a powerful symbol.  John says, “I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I am is coming and he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  Remember that the word for Spirit also means wind.  So we could translate that “I baptize you with water, but the one who is coming will baptize you with wind and fire.”  


Water, wind and fire – this becomes a very primal experience.  It recalls the account of creation, where a wind from God blew across the waters, bringing order out of chaos, bringing life, and God saw that it was good. 


Baptism is a primal, elemental experience.  (Even more so if you’re baptized in ice water in Ohio.)  You have to hold your breath and you get soaking wet and sometimes you get other people wet too.  Our Baptist ancestors understood this and sometimes I wonder if we are losing that sense.  Maybe because we don’t tell our baptismal stories very often.  Perhaps that is because the most logical time to tell those stories is when there we witness a baptism and that doesn’t happen very often either.  I believe that some of you told your stories at Bible study this week.  Good for you.


I remember baptizing a man who was a good foot taller than me.  It was in a baptistery with concrete steps on each side for entry and for exit.  I had baptized his two sisters before him.  As I baptized each of them, I had moved away from one set of steps and towards the other set.  Then it was his turn and as I put him under the water, all 6 feet of him, I was suddenly alarmed that perhaps his head was going to hit the steps on the other side.  So in the midst of dunking him, I was suddenly contorting myself to keep him from going under and hitting his head.  Then there was the 10-year-old boy who was much shorter than me.  He had to stand on a box on the floor of the baptistery to keep his head above water.  He was concerned about that.  Apparently, I was not concerned enough about it, because sure enough, as soon as I baptized him, the box shot out from under his feet and he was left swimming. We say that we die with Christ in baptism, and sometimes it is a very good way to remember our mortality. 


More seriously, I also remember a young college student.  He had been baptized as an infant in the Church of England, but his family had never taken him to church after that.  He was involved in the Episcopal campus ministry and was actively claiming his own faith.  He wanted to be baptized again.  His Episcopal priest could not perform the baptism.  If she had done so, she would have lost her ministry credentials.  She asked me to meet with him.  So I did.  As a Baptist, I believe in believer’s baptism, but I also recognize that the wider Church has multiple understandings of baptism.  I am reluctant to re-baptize a person for fear of doing damage to Christians who hold those other understandings.  So I required this young man to persuade me that this was a good thing.  I became convinced that he really needed the profound, elemental ritual of baptism as he staked his own faith in Jesus.  And incidentally, his priest agreed with me.  She and members of his faith community were present to bear witness when he was baptized. 


For that young man, baptism was wrapped up in his identity.  I think that was true for Jesus as well.  Luke says that after his baptism, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus and a voice from heaven says, “You are my Beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” 


The Holy Spirit shows up, in some kind of tangible form, something that people can observe and God claims Jesus as God’s own.  This is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the inauguration of his calling.  This is the point when Jesus knows that he is grasped by the power of love.   And it changes his life.  Sharing that love, serving as a vessel of that love, becomes his purpose, his passion, his life’s mission. 


In his baptism Jesus identified with humanity.   Through our baptisms, we identify with him.  Through our professions of faith and baptism, we begin to know that we are grasped by the same unending love that grasped Jesus.  We submit to God. We give ourselves over to God’s will.  We accept the force of love as our passion and purpose and life mission.  We know that we are God’s beloved children.  These are all different ways of saying the same thing. 


Some of us don’t remember our baptisms.  Some of us do remember, but the sense of calling and commitment that accompanied it has dulled over time.    Which is unfortunate, really, because I’m convinced there is a power there which we need to tap.   It’s the power of God’s Spirit, poured out on us.  It is the power of words spoken by us and for us, which have the capacity to shape us for love, despite all kinds of non-loving external circumstances. 


Sarah Jo Sarchet is a Presbyterian pastor.  A 10 year-old boy in her congregation, named Cameron, walked into her office and said he needed to talk to her. “I’d like to be baptized,” he said. “We were learning about Jesus’ baptism in Sunday School. The teacher asked the class who was baptized, and all the other kids raised their hands. I want to be baptized too.” Using her best pastoral care voice, Sarah said, “Cameron, do you really want to be baptized just because everyone else is?”


 “No,” he replied, “I want to be baptized because it means I belong to God.” The pastor was touched by the young boy’s understanding.


“Well, then,” she said, “How about this Sunday?” His smile turned to concern and he said, “Do I have to be baptized in front of all those people in the church? Can’t I just have a friend baptize me in the river, like Jesus was baptized by his cousin John?” Caught off guard, Sarah Jo conceded, “You have a point. But, if a friend baptized you in the river, how would the church recognize it?”


She thought this was a teachable moment.  She was climbing up on a step stool to get the official Presbyterian Book of Order from the top shelf, so that she could make her point that baptism should take place in public worship. But before she got there, Cameron answered her question.  “By my new way of living?”  he said.  “That’s how the church would recognize my baptism, by my new way of living.” 

She nearly fell off the stool.[1] 


And a little child shall lead them.  His understanding of baptism was profound.  Baptism represents a way of living, based on our identity in Christ.  The more that we can claim that identity as God’s beloved child, the more power it gives to our living. 


I refer to the Rev. Howard Thurman fairly often. He was a distinguished theologian and professor at Boston University, the first African-American person to hold a faculty position there.  One time someone asked him how he had survived all the hostility and cruelty and discrimination he had experienced.  He answered, “My mother kept telling me I was a child of God and I believed her.”


The more we claim our identity as God’s beloved children, our identity as persons seized by God’s love, the more power it gives to our living.   Every time I see someone do this, I am amazed.


I saw it this week when my friend and colleague Cindy Meyer took the courageous step of telling the truth about her sexual orientation to her congregation. She said, “I have been an ordained UMC pastor for 25 years. At last, I am choosing to serve in that role with full authenticity, as my genuine self, a woman who loves and shares my life with another woman.” She now faces church discipline and she may be forced to leave ministry.


It is ironic that the faith she learned in that denomination is what empowers her to speak this truth.  She said, “It’s soul-crushing to speak to my congregation each week about God’s love for them as they are, while being unable to speak of my own God-given identity, my loving relationship, and much of my day-to-day life. I do this not only for myself, but for my partner, for my daughter, for all those who are excluded, and for the good of the church.”[2]   She knows that she is God’s beloved child.  The church taught her that forty years ago, and she believed it, and now it has led her to commit civil disobedience to remind the church of what it should already know. 


Another Methodist, a woman named Anna, is active in her local church.   Some years ago, on this Sunday, she moved toward the baptismal font along with every other person in the congregation as they remembered Jesus’ baptism.  She says, “As I dipped my hand into the font, the pastor whispered, "Anna, you are beloved by God. You are God's beloved child." It was the first time that I had ever heard those words with my name attached to them. I grabbed onto the side of the marble font, gasped and looked at him in the eyes. He whispered, "You do know that, don't you?" I nodded my head YES, but NO, I had not known that.


After worship, I ran to the back of the church where the pastor stood.  I asked him if he would say those words to me again ‘Anna – you are God’s beloved child!’ I have grown to know this to be a precious truth that flows over me like the waters of baptism.  I remember that the great power at work in creation, that same Spirit that tore apart the heavens yet fell gently upon Jesus like a dove, is the very same spirit at work in me.”[3]


Sisters and brothers, believe the good news – You are loved.  You are God’s beloved child.  Know that.  Trust it.  May the Holy Spirit grant you the power to live into every moment in the fullness of that love.  Amen.


[1] Sarah Jo Sarchet in her sermon Set Up by the Spirit, January 10, 1999 http://fourthchurch.org/sermons/1999/011099.html

[2] http://www.kansascity.com/living/religion/article53739145.html#storylink=cpy 

[3] Anna Murdock, Lay Servant/Broad Street UMC/Statesville, NC www.pewponderings.blogspot.com