“If you listen carefully you will hear that the words are underneath the water.”
A father says that to his son in the short novel A River Runs through It, by Norman Maclean; you may have seen the film version of that story with Brad Pitt some years ago.
The river in that story is in Montana. There’s also a river running through Saugatuck, where I now live in Michigan.
And there’s a river running throughout the Gospel, and every year, right after The Epiphany, Jesus is baptized in it.
Do we expect to hear anything from any of these rivers?
Theologian Douglas Christie has noted that many of today’s environmentalists worry that we will not hear anything from any of our rivers because they have died, or because we are no longer capable of hearing them. Christie holds out hope, however, that there is still a presence in the living world, calling to us, and that we can hear it if we listen carefully.
So I wonder, what does that presence speak as Jesus is baptized?
Unlike my religious childhood, Eastern Orthodox Christians pay a great deal of attention to that story. They refer to it as the “Theophany,” or the appearance of God. And they offer a “Blessing of the Waters” to mark the occasion, and I mean all the waters—ponds, creeks, streams, rivers, lakes!
It would seem that for Orthodox Christians, the baptism of Jesus carries nearly as much significance as Christmas itself. Or more precisely: the Nativity of Jesus and the Baptism of Jesus are meant to convey the same profound truth about God’s fathomless and unending love for us and for the whole creation.
So what might this image of Jesus plunging beneath the surface of the water tell us about God?
A colleague recently reminded me that we must never grow tired of saying that God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead and whoever brought Israel up out of slavery in Egypt. That’s who God is.
In other words, God is for us, and never against us—God is always and unfailingly for our thriving and for our flourishing.
We must never grow tired of saying this because far too many have heard from an early age that the God who made us is angry, punishing, and vengeful. This is simply and absolutely not true. The God who made us is instead in solidarity with us.
This is what it means to say that Jesus is “God-with-us.” Jesus is God’s commitment to solidarity with us in the flesh, and for the sake of abundant life. And what better way to express this solidarity than to be immersed, to be submerged, to be baptized?
God is committed to our thriving, not from a distance, but as one of us, fully immersed in the glorious fragility of the flesh.
I’m particularly fond of Daniel Bonnell’s painting (posted below) called “The Baptism of Jesus.” The image evokes a sense of Jesus diving into the river in a way that I have often done myself, and above him is the Holy Spirit taking the form of a dove, just like we hear in the Gospel accounts of this moment.
But notice something else as well—the shape of his body, especially beneath the surface of the water. Look carefully and you can see one leg is partially tucked under the other, and one knee is slightly bent. This is the classic shape of a body on a cross, with arms not stretched for diving but nailed to wood.
The brilliance of Bonnell’s image is his blending of baptism and cross, because the baptism of Jesus reveals God’s immersive solidarity with us, not only in our life but also in our death.
This is also the shape of our faith as Christians and how we are meant to live—not on the sidelines, not remotely, or from a distance, but fully immersed in the struggle for abundant life, especially among the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed; fully engaged in the work of striving for peace and justice, and to respect the dignity of every living being.
Those last few phrases come from the vows Episcopalians make in our baptismal covenant, but I do worry about how easily those vows can sound like a religious “to do” list, as if the life of faith is about checking off tasks; or perhaps worse, that our vows become a recipe to ensure divine favor.
I worry about such things because it has taken me a long time, many decades, even to start to hear the astonishing truth of the Gospel: it actually doesn’t matter what we happen to do or fail to do—God is present; and God is for us; and God seeks our thriving. Always.
That’s what caught my attention in Douglas Christie’s theological treatment of Norman Maclean’s novel, and I would invite you to pause over that moment with me just briefly. (And by the way, Christie’s book—The Blue Sapphire of the Mind—is on my list of top five best and most beautiful theological books I have ever read.)
In Maclean’s novel, a father says to his son, “I used to think water was first, but if you listen carefully you will hear that the words are underneath the water.”
His son disagrees with him; the words, he says, are formed out of the water.
No, his father says, “you’re not listening carefully. The water runs over the words.”
Christie quotes this exchange to suggest this: the Divine Word that became flesh is older than silence and runs deeper than the water and is woven through both. (You might want to read that sentence out loud and let it settle into your bones and muscles.)
Here’s what I take from Christie’s insight: The Word calls to us from all the many rivers running through our lives—the flowing, dynamic streams of families, friends, other animals, places, events, and yes, actual rivers of water.
The Divine Word is present in all of it, calling us to pay attention.
Yes, we pay attention for the sake of justice and accountability but also and above all for reassurance. And do we not, all of us, need some reassuring? I mean this: that we are not alone, and that God is with us, and for us, always.
That is why Jesus was baptized, to show us just how deep and how far God’s solidarity with us goes—it goes all the way down, without end.