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BAPTISM SERVICE | WHY ARE YOU WET?

Updated: Feb 1

Speaker: Pastor Tristan Sherwin



As we think about baptism, instead of reading from one place, I'm going to give a handful of texts.


Think of them like a family photo album, if you like, in that, as we see these snapshots, they stir up memories of the moments they describe:


“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.” Genesis 1:1-3 NIV 


“[Noah] sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. But the dove found nowhere to perch because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah. … He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. When the dove returned…, in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth. He waited seven more days and sent the dove out again, but this time it did not return to him.” Genesis 8:7-12 NIV 


“By the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up. The surging waters stood up like a wall; the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea. The enemy boasted, ‘I will pursue … I will gorge myself on them. I will draw my sword and will destroy them.’ But you blew with your breath, and the sea covered them. They sank like lead in the mighty waters.” Exodus 15:8-10 NIV 


“At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”” Mark 1:9-11 NIV 


“[D]on’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his…. We know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”  Romans 6:3-5, 9-11 NIV


SOAKED

Back in 1992, I spent a lot of time messing about on the river.


In my hometown of Skelmersdale, there is a river, called the Tawd, which ran past my high school. Every dinner break, after eating our school dinner of chips and gravy, I and three friends would leave the school grounds to explore every nook and bend of this river.


Most of the time, we’d come back dry.


There was one time, however, when I slipped, slid down a 10ft muddy embankment and ended up in the river. After clambering back up, I had a streak of dark mud that was smeared all the way up the right side of my trousers, the inside of my school blazer and all over my school shirt. Mud and silt (along with other things) caked my shoes and would ooze out, making a squelching sound with every foot step.


I was soaking wet.


I didn’t smell nice, either. For various reasons, this river wasn’t the cleanest. If you can imagine the smell of a ‘wet dog’ combined with a ‘public toilet’, you are somewhere close to how I smelled.


By the way, I still had a school day to finish.


I had no choice but to take the Tawd into my form room. I left brown puddles on the chairs of my geography and German classes. And when I got home, much to the delight of my mum, I smeared the river over the kitchen floor and filled the room with the fragrance of the river Tawd.


To encounter me was to encounter the river.


And I learnt this lesson: When you look like you have fallen into a river, you turn heads. It’s a 'style' that raises questions.


Thinking back to the days of John the Baptist, when people came down to the Jordan river to be baptised, I imagine that they would have resembled my own river encounter. They would have left the Jordan, trailing water everywhere, turning heads, raising questions.


It’s a shame, really, that after being baptised this morning, those who have been plunged will be towelled off, changed and dry. A part of me would like to see the reaction they would get walking into the local Asda, dripping water down the bread aisle and smearing the fresh produce. I’m certain it would raise questions—important questions!


I’m not going to say everything there is to say about baptism, but I want to explore three questions that would come to everyone else’s mind if you left here and flooded Asda.

As it happens, they are the same three questions my mum asked me, 32 years ago, when I came home stinking of the river Tawd.


The three questions are these:


Firstly, ‘Why are you wet?’


I think that’s a good place to start, and we’ll spend more time on this question than the others. But, once answered, we’ll look at question two.


The second question is, ‘Why are you wet?’


And the third and final question is, ‘Why are you wet?’


Q1: WHY ARE YOU WET?

The simple answer is, because of water. Obviously. But this doesn’t answer the question, does it?


Really, we want to know why water? What’s so special about water?


Well, to be honest, there’s nothing special about this water in and of itself. It’s just Bury’s corporation pop; it’s come from the tap. It’s not Buxton, Evian, or Highland Spring. It’s the same stuff you brushed your teeth with and flushed your toilet with.


But even though this is just ordinary water, water tells a thousand stories.


Water is one of the greatest “props” God uses to tell us His story. The Bible is awash with water, dripping with stories that shout of how God rescues; how God saves; how God makes a road through what it is chaotic, dark, enslaving and death dealing; how God leads people into new life.


They are stories of birth. And water is apt for those stories because all births are about passing out of darkness, through the waters, into the light.


There’s the story of the Exodus, for example. In the story, the people of Israel are enslaved under the power of Egypt, a place of darkness and death. If you know the climax of the story, or seen The Prince of Egypt, then you have heard about how God delivers Israel out of darkness, like a baby delivered out of the womb, through the waters and into new life.


The Exodus story doesn’t only end with water, though, it also started with water. It’s important to remember this if we are to appreciate the power of it’s ending. At the start of the story, a tyrant weaponised water in order to drown children. Water was used to bring about death. But, in the end, God sabotages this intent and uses water to birth the Hebrew nation, while drowning the powers that wished to devour them. God brought life out of the instrument of death. The waters of death become waters of birth. The waters that drown are the waters that save.


But even this story looks further back.


Before there was human, there was the deep; a watery, shapeless chaos, a darkness with no form and no meaning. God’s Spirit hovered and brooded over this nothingness, fluttering, like a dove, over this anarchy. Then God speaks, and light and life begin to take form. God separates the waters, and land appears; land comes up, out of the waters. Creation itself began with an exodus of sorts, a baptism. Out of the water and into life.


Then there is the story of Noah, where waters of judgement have covered the earth. The people who were made to image God instead became destructive, imaging death and chaos, and so death and chaos come to reign, flooding the landscape. But God, again, provides a way through the waters. Not only with the Ark, but, like in the creation story, God’s breath moves, making the waters retreat, bringing land up out of an abyss (Gen. 8:1).


At the end of the story, Noah releases a dove. It doesn’t return. But this is not bad news. This absence fills Noah’s heart with hope. He knows the dove must have found a refuge in this waterlogged world. From that moment on, we could say, Noah’s hope resides in discovering where the dove has descended, because wherever the dove is, there is land, the unveiling of a restored creation. The sign of the dove assures Noah that death will not have the last word.


There are many more watery stories, and it is the same thing, over and over again: Through the waters into freedom; Through the waters into newness; Through the waters into life.

God’s stories are full of water because God is a plunging God. This is what Baptism means: it means to be plunged into something. Time and time again, God descends, God plunges into the depths of our world in order to rescue us and our world from bondage, from sin, and from death.


At the end of the Bible, there is a wonderful promise, a wonderful vision, where, in the future, the sea is no more. Not the literal sea, but all it represents: all that drowns, all that is destructive, all that overwhelms us, all that enslaves us—the sin, the death, the chaos. In the restoration of all things, death will be no more (Rev. 21:1-5). ‘Don’t let anyone ever tell you that God allies with death, when it’s the thing God came to overthrow.’ [i] God has conquered death. God has conquered the waters.


God’s critical blow against death happened in Jesus Christ. All these watery stories in the Bible, in their own ways, foreshadow what Jesus came to do. Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan is loaded with photographs of these watery stories. Jesus is the light in the darkness; Jesus is the way through death and the destroyer of all that seeks to destroy you and me; Jesus is the dryland, the restored creation, coming up and out of the waters, that the Spirit (the dove) leads to; Jesus is the one who overthrows death and brings life—new creation life.


Strangely, however, although the snapshots of these stories are all here when Jesus enters the River Jordan, this, really, isn’t Jesus’ baptism. This event in water points forward to the goal of Jesus’ mission. Whenever Jesus spoke about his own baptism (Mk 10:33-34), and whenever Paul (like in Romans) speaks of Jesus’ baptism, the focus is on Jesus’ entrance into death: his crucifixion.


In Jesus’ death, once again, ultimately, once for all, God brings life out of an instrument of death, defanging it, de-weaponising it.


In Jesus, God plunged into the depths of our human condition. Jesus entered into the pain, the suffering, the sin, the mess and mayhem of our world. As the Apostle Paul puts it, in Philippians 2, in Jesus, God emptied himself: God became human. God became a servant. Plunging even further, Jesus plunged himself into our death, disarming the powers that wish to devour us.


To put in another way, ‘Christ comes to us under the waters, beneath the waves of chaos,’[ii] beneath the waves of sin, beneath the depths of despair, and overcomes the waters for us. He brings life to us. Resurrection life.


God wants to rebirth us; to pull us out of darkness, through the waters, into light. And being born is not something you do to yourself. It’s something that is done to you. As such, our call is to put our trust in what God, in Christ, has done for us.


So, why are you getting wet?


Because God is a plunging God, and this water, going through it, coming out of it, speaks, not of you, but of what God has done in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, for you and for our world.


Which raises the second question…


Q2: WHY ARE YOU WET?

After all, if this is about what God has done, why are you the one who will be dripping water over the carpet this morning?


We could answer this in many ways. But let’s put it this way: As I’ve said, baptism means to be plunged into something. As crazy as it sounds, it doesn’t mean coming out of what you have been plunged into. It’s not even a word exclusive to religious rites.


In the ancient Greek-speaking world, baptism was often used to describe the process of dyeing cloth. We know how this process works: An uncoloured piece of cloth gets plunged into a vat of colourful dye. Even though the cloth is lifted out of the vat, it is not actually lifted out of the substance of the dye. The cloth remains immersed, baptised in the dye. You could say that the cloth is in the dye, and the dye is in the cloth. In other words, there has been a union which has transformed the cloth forever.


In a similar way, what you are doing in water is a picture of what happened when you put your trust in Jesus Christ. This water baptism is a means of communicating your ultimate baptism into Jesus.


We will not be drowning anyone today, by leaving anyone underwater. However, the idea being expressed is not that we get dipped into Jesus and then taken out of Jesus. Rather, like the dyed cloth, the image is that of being forever immersed in him.


To echo something the preacher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote in the 1950’s: The most wonderful thing about salvation is not forgiveness of sins, or eternal life, although we have those things; the most glorious aspect of our salvation is that I am in Christ and Christ is in me. There is this vital, life-giving union—a baptism. [iii]


To put it another way, this baptism is a sign of your new identity. The water symbolises how we have died to our old ways by going down into the waters of death—sharing in, trusting in Christ’s death. But the waters also symbolise birth—new life. With Jesus, we rise up from the waters to new life and the promise of resurrection beyond death. [iv]


So, why are you getting wet? To express, before others,  that you have plunged into what God has done, entrusting yourself to Jesus. To show that you are counting yourselves dead to sin, that death no longer has mastery over you, and that you are alive to God (Rom. 6).


Which brings us to the third and final question:


Q3: WHY ARE YOU WET?

To word that differently, what’s next?


Well, simply put, you are called to the waters. To say we are baptised people, people plunged into Jesus, means that we are learning to express this plunging nature of God in our world.


Baptism, being in Jesus, doesn’t pluck us out of the world or cut us off from the world, its people, its pain, or its problems. In fact, it is the opposite: Baptism calls us to go deeper into our world in order that God’s love, light and hope can be shed there.


Baptism does not mean that we are better people, or that our job is now to master others and be above them—it calls us to be below them, with them, in a life of service. It is a calling that throws us, with Christ, with the Spirit, into the depths of the world to embody the solidarity of God, the empathy of God, the grace of God.


Jesus said he would teach his disciples to become fishers of men (Mk. 1:14-20; Lk. 5:1-11). That involves getting wet—coming alongside others, lifting them, loving them. The Christian life is not a dry life. We plunge to others because Christ first plunged to us.


I remember my first swimming lesson, aged 10. It annoyed me that the person telling me what to do was stood on the side of the pool, fully clothed, nice and dry, throwing instructions at me, while I was practically naked, soaking wet, cold, scared and drowning (most of the time).


Followers of Jesus are not called to this kind of dry life.


There are too many judgmental people. Too many people handing out cheap advice. Too many people stood at a safe distance, throwing out anecdotes, uninvolved, apathetic, critical and unwilling to help carry the things people wrestle with.


Instead, let the life of Jesus teach and empower you to share burdens. Follow the Spirit, the dove, and be someone who makes hope come alive in people’s hearts because you show others that there is a hope and a refuge in the storm—and his name is Jesus.


To repeat something Rowan Williams once wrote, “[B]aptism means being with Jesus ‘in the depths’: the depths of human need…; in the depth where the Spirit is re-creating and refreshing human life as God meant it to be.” [v]


So, why are you wet?


1. To retell the story of how God has plunged to us, bringing us life, forgiveness, freedom and hope.


2. Because you are showing to others that you have plunged into the identity and exploring the inheritance God gives to us in Jesus.


3. Because you are commissioned to be fishers of men, to take to the waters of life, the storm-tossed seas of the world, and bearing witness to One who is hope, come alongside people.


My prayer for you, is the same prayer I pray for myself: When people encounter you, may they encounter the river of God’s grace.

 


 


[i] Jonathan Martin, How to Survive a Shipwreck: Help is on the Way and Love is Already Here (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2016),  p.212


[ii] To use the words of the Orthodox minister, Fr. Stephen Freeman. His full statement is: “Christ comes to us under the waters, beneath the waves of chaos. His ministry is an underwater ministry. It is there, beneath the waves, that we find Him. It is to be noted that all who come to Him are immediately plunged beneath the waters. It is our union with Him. Baptized into His death, just as He was Baptized into our death, so we are Baptized into His resurrection, for He has overcome the waters. We, too, now have an underwater ministry as we seek to save those who are lost. There are moments of sheer resurrection in which we also become water walkers, as winds and seas obey Him. And He rescues us yet again as our unsteady feet, guided by an unsteady faith, begin to slip back under the waves. Buried with Him in the waters of Baptism, we are raised in the likeness of His resurrection. As He is, so are we in this world. Our ministry is beneath the waves. We daily enter into the aquatic life that we might save some who are drowning. Here, we hasten to destroy the Enemy, hidden in the waters, trampling Him underfoot in the name of Christ.” (Taken from Fr. Stephen Freeman’s blog, The Life Aquatic – Underwater Ministry.)


[iii] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: Exposition of Chapter 6: The New Man (The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1975), p. 37: “The great thing in salvation is that we are not only justified, not only forgiven; in a sense the most glorious aspect of salvation is that I am ‘in Christ’, and Christ is in me, - this vital union!”


[iv] Lucy Peppiatt and Matthew Lynch, The Discipleship Course: Discovering what it means to follow Jesus (WTC Press, 2017), p. 11


[v] Rowan Williams, Being Christian

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