I recently heard a story about seminarians from differing traditions having a deep theological discussion about baptism. Each tradition has different methods of baptizing: some will immerse, some will pour, some will sprinkle. In an attempt to get a definitive answer about how much water is required for a good and proper baptism, the students gathered with a career theologian and scholar and asked, “How much water is required for baptism?” The scholar answered, “Only what is required to drown a person.” In the story, the scholar rambled on about the comparisons between baptism and drowning and how baptism is meant to symbolize our dying and rising with Christ.
But saying, “Only what is required to drown a person” doesn’t really solve the dilemma the students found themselves in, nor do I think it was meant to. You can drown in an inch or two of water as easily as you can in the ocean or in a river. Any amount of water that can cover the mouth or nose is enough water to drown you. And maybe knowing that such small amounts of water can drown a person is not what anyone wants to hear on a day when their child is being baptized, then again maybe it makes you happy that we just pour water over their head.
But the thing is, it’s not about the amount of water. It’s about the Spirit of God present in the moment, working a new and marvelous and mysterious thing that the water points to. It’s about the Spirit, the wind from God, hovering over the waters of creation way back in the beginning, when God began to create the heavens and the earth.
It is about the spirit, the wind from God, that Ezekiel is told to prophesy to—it’s the same word in Hebrew “ruach” that we read in Genesis and in Ezekiel. The Spirit is called to breathe life into bodies so dead — into bones so old—they are bleached and dry.
The story is so dramatic you can almost hear the sounds of bones joining and sinews creaking and a long, slow, rattling breath being inhaled as the spirit-wind is breathed into the valley.
The spirit present in baptism is the same spirit-wind present when the waters parted for Israel to leave the life of slavery.
It is the same spirit that hovered over the waters of the Jordan on the day Jesus was baptized.
It’s the same spirit working through Jesus that breathes life into the four-days dead Lazarus.
It is the same spirit wind that Jesus breathed upon the disciples after his resurrection, and that filled the upper room in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost.
Baptism isn’t so much about the quantity of water as it is about the presence of God’s Spirit; and as parents, god-parents, and the community of faith, we teach and we remind the one we baptize that they are new creature, that they are God’s Beloved with whom God is well pleased; and every day is a chance to breathe in, not just the perfectly balanced mixture of air that we find here on earth, but also to each morning, each day, each evening—EVERY BREATH—to breathe in the spirit-wind of God, remembering that the first breath from God that was given to the first human is waiting for us to inhale it once again.
And then to make something of that spirit wind breath filled body.
There is an 11 minute short film called Moving the Giants that is about David Milarch, an arborist from Michigan, who died in 1991 from renal failure, and came back to life with a vision and a mission to save Redwoods. He is cloning old-growth Redwood Trees—trees that are upwards of 2,000 years old, more than 30 feet in diameter and can—each tree—clean 1,000 tons of CO2 from the air. He is taking the new life given to him and using it to make new life here on the earth, sharing that passion with children and grandchildren—teaching them that life is a gift that is given to do something with.
Each day we are given the chance to take that first breath of the day and think, either, “Oh, God. One more day of being a slave to the grind.” We can have the mentality of being trapped in the tomb, or lying in the valley of dry bones.
Or we can take that first breath in, feeling in it the spirit wind of God and know that we have been breathed into again for a purpose.
But there is the problem of the bones of those in exile; the problem of the beloved friend in the tomb; the problem of those “Jesus if you had only been here” moments. Because that is part of the baptized life, too.
When Ezekiel is asked, “Mortal, can these bones live?” it’s somewhat humorous that his reply can only be, “O Lord God, you know.” The hope of new life is perhaps at its most powerful when we feel far and removed from the power of the God’s spirit wind—when our health is ravaged, when our energy is sapped from serving, when our eyes have been cried dry. Maybe the question is often reversed as we look over the unexpected or unintended wreckage of life and ask, “What now? God, can these bones live?” Those dry bones moments are the things we teach our children to live through and sing through, like the old spiritual that says, “I know it, deed I know it, dese bones gwine to rise again.” Or the one that sings, “I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger, traveling through this world of woe; ain’t no sickness, toil, or danger in that fair land to which I go.”
These passages are important passages to remember as we continue our journey through Lent and as we remember our baptisms, because “More than anything else human beings can hope for, [John] Calvin claimed, the resurrection of the dead is so utterly dependent upon God that there can be no doubt that it lies outside of our powers.” (Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett (2010-10-12). Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) (Kindle Location 4609). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.)
Because if baptism symbolizes or points to our identification with the death of Jesus, even more our baptism points to our hope of rising like Jesus. While the scholar may have said that you only need enough water to drown someone—because of the ways that the baptism promise links us to the death of Christ and our forgiveness—we must remember as we look at how we might live and sing and dance through seasons of struggle or despair—of how these bones might live—that our baptismal hope is rising to a new life, our baptismal hope is resurrection. And what we make of that new life, how we choose to use that new spirit breathed resurrection life, many times requires the same utter dependence upon God as our hope in being raised like Christ.