Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany – Mark 1:4-11
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander

As the new year begins, I’ve been thinking about how divided we are these days. You don’t need your preacher to count the ways, most of them are pretty obvious in today’s political landscape. It’s complicated and daunting, but it’s also motivating. As a Christian community, we can make a difference in healing divides, or reconciliation in fancier language, which is the mission of the church. We can renew our efforts to show a bit of God’s grace wherever it’s needed the most. On most days, I think I have a handle on the contested issues. Until I come across a new one, which happened the other day. Water apparently is a hot issue right now. I had no idea that water could be a seriously divisive issue in a brand new way. Obviously, we know that bottled water, for example, can be controversial. We know that there can be conflict between conservationists and developers. And we know that infrastructure disasters like the one in Flynt raise important moral questions of public health. Given all that, I thought I knew the ins and outs of water issues.

But then a headline from Business Insider caught my attention. “Silicon Valley elites are spending $60 for less than 3 gallons of dangerous, unfiltered water — and it’s flying off the shelves.” Several of my west coast friends reposted the article with eye roll emojis. We native Californians worry that such headlines only confirm your stereotypes of us. At any rate, the article covers a movement that goes by a few different names – raw water, live water, unprocessed water. There is a growing movement of people trying to get off the water grid. And there are now companies that collect water from a variety of sources and sell it unfiltered, untreated, and unsterilized. The New York Times reports that “adherents share a wariness of tap water, particularly the fluoride added to it and the lead pipes that some of it passes through. They contend that the wrong kind of filtration removes beneficial minerals. Even traditional bottled spring water is treated with ultraviolet light or ozone gas and passed through filters to remove algae. That, they say, kills healthful bacteria — “probiotics” in raw-water parlance.”

This movement is growing, maybe faster in some parts of the country than here in Arkansas. Enthusiasts claim a variety of health benefits. They also contend that this is a different kind of water than we’re used to. The founder of a company called Live Water explains, for example, that his company’s water ”stays most fresh within one lunar cycle of delivery. If it sits around too long, it’ll turn green. People don’t even realize that, because all their water’s dead, they never see it turn green.” Before I read that statement, I honestly had never considered whether my water was alive or dead.

At this point I should probably cue the critics in the interest of balanced reporting. Public health officials are making a joint outcry against these companies. The counterargument is that water treatment is crucial for safety. There are acute and chronic water-born risks, like E. coli, viruses, parasites, cholera, and giardia, to name a few. It’s clearly difficult to find any middle ground between the proponents and the critics on this. And what was particularly fascinating to me were the online comments to the articles. The question of live water was like a lightening rod in today’s divided climate. The accusation of fake news was flying in all directions, and both sides railed against the stupidity of the other. It’s probably good advice to not read very far into online comments in general. But they do reveal how quickly we step into contested territory, even over a drink of water. And maybe this modern-day story of how divided we are has something to do with why Jesus stepped into a river a long time ago to be baptized by John.

The meaning of that event has been debated for centuries. Mark’s retelling of it is predictably sparse. He does not explain why Jesus did it, and the gospel accounts disagree on the details. It’s theologically tricky to have Jesus participate in John’s baptism, which was for the repentance of sin. Why on earth would the one sinless man get in line for such a baptism?

I believe it was an incredible act of solidarity between God and humanity. Jesus didn’t come to redeem us from a safe distance. He got into the water like everybody else. He stepped into the water, right into the human condition. He stepped into all of the good parts, and into all of the conflict, division, and sin that this world has to offer. Such solidarity would come to mean that there are no areas in our lives beyond God’s reach and redemption. He took it all on so that God would reach the most brilliant and the most desolate parts of human life. That’s the purpose of incarnation.

The great German theologian Karl Barth said it in a much more erudite way, of course. We should take note that at the baptism, the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit descended with a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Barth proposed that God’s claiming of Jesus summarizes the heart of the Gospel: the astonishing truth that God does not will to remain hidden in the heights of heaven but descends to the depths of earthly life in order to be seen and heard by us finite creatures (Lee Barrett).

Which answers the great need we have to know God, and to know something beyond only what we can see in this contested world. And to be known. The great Presbyterian minister Henry van Dyke once said that “the heart’s eternal thirst is to be completely known and all- forgiven.” When Jesus stepped into the water that day, this very thing was promised to us, to be completely known and all-forgiven.

It’s the need of the ages. Modern life in some ways could not be more different than living in biblical times, and yet maybe it could not be any more similar, too. If you go to the river Jordan today to visit the historic location of Jesus’ baptism, you will find contested water. First of all, several places claim to be the authentic location. Then there’s the fact that it’s really more like a small stream now due to a large damn up river. And there is barbed wire on one side, marking a border impossible to cross given the conflicts in the region. Tourists with the wrong stamp on their passport might not be able to visit both sides of the river depending on the which way the political winds blow that day. I find it poignant that the very place in which Jesus stepped into the baptismal water is so contested, so rife with the perils wrought from the human condition.

And yet that’s also the source of our hope. Those are the very places that God finds us. God always has. And to make sure we know it, God sent the Son into the contested water in the river one day, in an astonishing act of solidarity. Which was the beginning of true reconciliation with God and one another. We’re still working on the one another part.

If you happened to see the raw water article, you might have noticed several online comments on both sides of the issue that simply said, “SMH.” The meaning of that acronym, for the record, is also contested. SMH typically stands for “shaking my head,” although it can also be used to mean “so much hate” or even “stupid minded humans.” All those meanings seemed fitting, and some days I wonder if God thinks the same thing about the messes we get into down here. And even if God does think that from time to time, today reminds us that no matter our messes, no matter the contested waters of this world, we are completely known and all- forgiven. Even the people drinking the wrong kind of water.


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