Jesus’ Healing Waters
January is one of the worst winter months in the Midwest of the United States. Ironically, days where the sun is shining brightly are often the most bitterly cold. Inches of snow and ice replace the warm and cozy wonderland of Christmas—icicles instead of ornaments, jumper cables instead of stockings, and lots and lots of lip balm.
In many parts of the world, however, Christmas hasn’t happened until January 6, when Epiphany celebrations recall the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem. If we study the history of the Christian calendar, we discover that January contains a good many feasts and celebrations—from the naming of Jesus (January 1) to remembering his baptism (January 7), to telling the story of his miraculous act of turning water into wine at Cana.
If December is oriented toward the birth of an infant during Advent and Christmastide, January seems focused on asking, “Just who is this Jesus going to become?” And like the chill of January winds along drifts of snow, the answer is potent: The Magi are clear. Anna and Simeon know. Herod carries out infanticide because he is afraid of the answer. Jesus is God’s beloved, whose presence in the world brings illumination, possibility, and change.
Malinda Elizabeth Berry is a dissertation fellow at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.
Baptism by the Elements
Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Oceans, rivers, groundwater, mist, clouds, rushing streams of melted snow—water renews everything that has life.
It makes perfect sense that we baptize with water, calling on God to also baptize us with Spirit and fire. Indeed, in our gospel passage, John the Baptist tells his hearers: Jesus “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). Earth, wind, fire, and water. All of the ancient elemental properties are part of the baptismal experience in which we are reborn according to Jesus’ model—he is the new adam, an ancient Hebrew word that translates as “earth creature.”
There is an “earth care” ethic in all of this. The snow plowed into piles in parking lots melts and refreezes, picking up all kinds of debris. That stuff makes its way into creeks, streams, and rivers like the Jordan. Can you imagine a baptism administered with a handful of oily, grimy slush? At the other end of the spectrum, we use water that’s been chemically treated to counteract the effects of pollution that we the adam put into the water supply in the first place.
Just as God created adam, so too is God animating wind and purifying flame, and so too does God desire that the waters of the earth be healed so we can also know that we are the beloved of God through baptism.
When we read the psalmist’s words—“The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders … over mighty waters” (Psalm 29:3)—let us consider how snowdrifts can change into baptismal waters.
Being God’s Body
Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11
A reading from the gospel of John when Luke’s gospel is featured in the current lectionary cycle may seem odd, but it is in keeping with the season of Epiphany.
Liturgist Laurence Stookey writes, “Jesus is the One whose ministry is to be characterized by wonders. But these wonders were not, like the magicians of the day, intended merely to astound or amuse the observer.” He explains that Jesus invited others to experience the wonders he performed as reliable signs of God’s glory.
Bible commentaries can tell us all kinds of interesting things about wedding customs in first-century Palestine, or expand on the significance of the six water vessels being empty. But in a simple reading of John 2:1-11, I wonder if we can see the water as a symbol of baptism, the wine as a symbol of the communion chalice, and the chalice as a symbol of God’s reign?
The psalmist writes, “Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgments are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike, O Lord. … you give them drink from the river of your delights” (Psalm 36:6, 8). Again, an earth care ethic is strongly implied—Jesus’ miracle points toward a time and place when there is no enmity among the creatures of God’s earth. A time of rejoicing—akin to a wedding feast on a sultry summer day. A place free from fear, like the “world house” about which Martin Luther King Jr. preached.
In the dead of winter, we are urged to think about the myriad ways God tends the ending, rekindling, and sustaining of life. And in our passage from 1 Corinthians, Paul urges us to wonder, “How is God giving the Spirit’s manifestation in me for the common good?”
There is a Communion benediction from Central America, based on a prayer from St. Teresa of Avila, that challenges me with its opening line: “Christ has no body now on Earth but yours.” This benediction connects the dots for us as socially engaged and socially conscious Christians. If we believe that a) we now have some share in Jesus’ mission of proclaiming God’s in-breaking reign of love and justice through b) baptism and sharing in God’s supper, then c) we are affirming that we are willing to do God’s work, living in God’s way by being God’s body.
When water changes to wine, we know the Spirit is at work, animating us to be Christ’s body in the world—working for the healing not just of nations, but of the whole planet.
Different Bodies, Same Mind?
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Luke 4:14-21
The human body receives and transmits all kinds of messages, using all our many body parts, and when we are unable to communicate in one form, we adapt and find other ways. This is part of the reason we need all the different parts of the body.
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12). The problem with Paul’s well-known and maybe even overused analogy of the church and the body is one of interpretation. Some argue that the different rites, numerous denominations, and diverse styles of Christianity each represent a different body part. Others argue that the body represents the local congregation and that we should both strive for and embrace diversity of gifts, ethnicities, and expressions of faith.
There is a great deal of enmity among Christians of goodwill about how we give an accounting of our faith. Jaroslav Pelikan’s study Jesus Through the Centuries identifies 18 different Jesuses showing us what Christ’s body has meant at various times in human culture. If Jesus is revealed to us in so many different ways—rabbi, king of kings, liberator, prince of peace—then what does it mean to be his body?
The way the body experiences being in the world—what the eye sees, the ear hears, the nose smells, the skin senses, the mouth tastes—can result in conflicting reports and information. “War is not the will of God.” “Waging war on terrorism is a noble cause.” “Peace is patriotic.” “Freedom isn’t free.” Is it ever possible to have Christians who are of the same mind—Christ’s mind?
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30
With Isaiah’s words still echoing in the synagogue, we don’t know why Jesus meets the congregation’s approval with provocation. His observation that “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (Luke 4:24) becomes self-fulfilling. As he’s talking, Jesus reminds those gathered of when Naaman the Syrian followed Elisha’s instructions, bathed in the Jordan River, and received healing.
Naaman wades into the water, and God heals him (recall 2 Kings 5:1-3, 9-14). This story makes me think of spirituals and songs from African America, such as “O Healing River”: “O healing river, send down your waters, and wash the blood from off the sand.” When I sing these words, war in Iraq, environmental racism in the United States, people who die of thirst in the desert between Mexico and the American dream, and rising storm waters all take on new meaning. “This land is parching, this land is burning, no seed is growing in the barren ground.”
There is hope when a baby emerges from the water of its mother’s womb, reminding us both that new life and new insight are possible. Understanding who Jesus is today and how we are his body requires epiphany. Epiphany is like the Annunciation. When Mary arrives at Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home, Elizabeth declares, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Luke 1:45).
As we pray for healing to fall from the skies, struggle to scrub blood from our streets, and find ways to turn garbage into compost, can we believe God is using us to renew the earth?
To be Christ’s body, to share his bread and cup, to receive baptism, to be adam—this call, this invitation, has new meaning in this bleak midwinter.