Rev. Danielle K Bartz January 16, 2022
A friend recently told me this story: her denomination was having a statewide gathering. In order to create a space for worship that represented the entire state, each region was asked to bring a container of river-water, and that water from each of the major rivers in Minnesota would be displayed on the altar throughout the gathering. Various glass containers were arranged and as people arrived, they poured the water from their regional river into the containers. The conveners of the gathering, though, quickly noticed that there was as a problem. A lot of the water was cloudy, even dirty. Whether from pollution or erosion or run-off, the glass containers didn’t look nice – they looked unclean. Well, this wasn’t the atheistic they were looking for for their worship space, so a decision was made to pour bleach into each container. Most in attendance at the gathering didn’t know about this – all they saw was what they were told: crystal clear water from each of the regional rivers of Minnesota that were meant to symbolize the waters of baptism.
But my friend, one who was tasked to bring some of this river water, witnessed the deception. She watched as bleach was poured into the water she brought from the Root River. She knew no harm was meant. She knew the worship planners for the gathering were simply trying to make their idea look nice. She knew it was not an evil act. But, she also knew how dangerous it was. The waters on display meant to remind people of their baptism and the nourishment we get from God’s creation were chemically rid of any trace of humanity, any trace of the messiness of creation. Religion was once again being rid of anything that would make it unpleasant or ugly. It was an effort, no matter the innocent intention, to separate God from anything messy. As my friend told the story, and as I heard it, I couldn’t help but think: God had been bleached, and rid of anything that might offend.
As told in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus first public act was to be baptized by the prophet John in the river Jordan. John, that wild and itinerant preacher, emerges from the wilderness and calls all of the people to prepare themselves for the coming of the Kingdom of God. Someone is approaching, he told the masses of people, who will bring about the promise of God for all of you. But, in order to receive this promise, first you must prepare. Cleanse yourself of all that is holding you back and polluting your Spirit. The people responded in droves to this call from John. The scripture says people from all over, even Jerusalem, were coming out to hear his words and wash themselves in the Jordan. And Jesus, still an unknown figure, joined them. Jesus wades into the dirty waters of the Jordan with a teeming mass of humanity. And even though John objects, even though John – like the church today – wanted to keep Jesus separate from the messiness of humanity – Jesus’ first act of ministry was to join with the people and submerge himself into the muck of creation.
Why is this important for us to remember? As I am sure you have learned, I am fond of reminding you that Christians are Christmas people. A people of incarnation. We are a people who believe that God chooses to be with and in humanity, not separated and distant and safe. We are a people for whom God lives and breathes and cries and laughs alongside each of us. We experience this through the life of Jesus Christ – all the way from his humble birth to his trial and death at the hands of a threatened Empire to his resurrection. As a Christmas people, we know that we can never be separated from the presence of God. And Jesus was the living and breathing incarnation of this belief. So, when we read of Jesus wading into the murky waters of the Jordon in the middle of a mass of imperfect humans, led there by the words of a radical preacher from the wilderness, we are reminded that God wades into the waters with us. Jesus did not remain distant from the people, Jesus was there right in the middle. And so we know that God does not remain distant from us. God is right here, in the middle of all of us, no matter how messy we may make things. To be Christian is to be a people of Christmas, and to be a people of Christmas is to remember that no matter how hard we may try to clean up our idea of God, God chooses to be here in the muck with all of us.
But even that radical act of inclusiveness is not the true miracle of this story. Because, when Jesus emerges from those sacramental waters, he is claimed and renamed by God. You are “the Beloved” God tells Jesus. You are “the Beloved” God tells humanity. You are “the Beloved” God tells you and me. In Jesus, humanity and the divine collide in perfect harmony – so that naming of Jesus as ‘Beloved’ is a naming for us all. Jesus was not called ‘Beloved’ because he was careful to avoid anything that may make him unclean. Jesus was called ‘Beloved’ because he waded right into the middle of all of it. Jesus was not called ‘Beloved’ because was a step apart from humanity. Jesus was called ‘Beloved’ because he embraced it. And my Beloved Community, that means we are called ‘Beloved’ by God and claimed as one of God’s own just as we are, no matter how much of a mess we may make things. And I can’t think of a greater miracle than that.
I completely understand why this miracle may make some people uncomfortable. There is something tempting in trying to think of God as separate from anything that may offend. I understand the desire to bleach away any impurities and tell ourselves that this is the way God wants it. Keeping God distant from all of the mess can be easier than remembering God is in the mess with us. But, we are called ‘Beloved’ just as we are, in this untidy world. Our call then is to embrace our Belovedness. Our call is to embrace the name God has chosen for us and draw from that claim the strength to heal the hurts of this world, to rid the waters of creation from the pollution we have caused, to embrace the sick and unclean, and cleanse humanity of the sin of division we all suffer from. But, we do this not alone. We do this with God alongside us, God dripping with the murky waters of humanity – and being reminded over and over again you are my beloved and with you I am well pleased.
The water on the altar this morning is from the White Water river. I gathered it to as an act of repentance for each time I have chosen to keep God anyway from my own messiness. For each time I tried to fool myself into believing that God only loved me because of some sort of bleached persona I attempted to convey. And I brought it here to remind you of your name: “Beloved.” You are Beloved, no matter how messy your life may be. You are Beloved, even when you feel unclean. You are Beloved simply because you are a creation of God – as imperfect as you are. This water is not pure or perfect, even with the frozen January ground keeping a lot of the dirt at bay. And it has not been bleached. It is the waters of creation and the waters of baptism. It is the waters of humanity. It is a reminder for me and for you that we are named and claimed as “Beloved” by God. Amen.