I’ve been a part of all kinds of baptismal services in my life—my own when I was baptized as a child in my father’s church in Tennessee at age 7 . . .
The ones where babies have been brought forth to be claimed in the waters by their parents . . .
And, the ones at the sick beds of those who are dying and ones by faith professing teens and adults who want to claim Jesus for themselves . . .
But I have to say the most memorable baptismal service I’ve ever experienced happened two months ago when Kevin and I were in Nairobi, Kenya.
One of the joys of our work with Feed the Children is that wherever we go, I get to be known as the unofficial pastor of the team.
Sometimes this means staff ask me to pray for them or their families that are sick.
Sometimes this means I get to enter into the deep waters of God related conversations.
And then sometimes I am asked to baptize people—something I never expected would occur.
As our relationship with the children’s orphanage in Kenya has grown, we learned there were several children who never were baptized and wanted to be. But no pastor was around to do it.
These are kids that grow up learning about God and God’s love for them, but don’t have the opportunity to be a part of a church community, where baptism would normally take place.
So on our last trip (and as part of the staff Christmas worship service), four children and one staffer from the US came forward for baptism.
As I thought about all the traditional things that are said at baptismal service about being supported by your family and having your parents by your side at such a momentous occasion, I was sobered in my planning of the day.
For these kids did not have parents. Most of them had no known biological relatives—that is why they were there in the first place.
We even had to make our own certificates because I couldn’t just buy some at Christian bookstore. All of them contained a slot where parents were listed. And of course we didn’t want them to feel isolated or uncared for in any way.
So what did this liturgy I was about to perform mean?
First of all, started with what every other baptism ceremony began with: repentance.
These children know understood who Jesus was and wanted to follow Him in their life. They knew they’d already made choices that were less than God’s best for them in how they treated their peers. They wanted their life to to be about Jesus' teachings.
So in the service, each child declared Jesus to be Lord to the gathered community—even those with learning disabilities. It was awesome (in the truest sense of the word!) how clearly and passionately they projected their confession.
And then, it continued with the naming as I placed water over their heads and said, I now baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.
Though these were the words that I are ones I say at every baptism and have been said through the centuries by other clergy that have gone before me, I knew in this room with these children it was different.
For in baptizing them in God’s name and reminding them that they were God’s child and their life belonged to God—they were beginning a brand new story.
And not that all of us who are baptized don’t begin this same story but that with them—this newness was all the more profound.
This is why: no longer were these children orphans. They were adopted, adopted by Christ Jesus Himself, the adoption that Paul would later write about in Ephesians, chapter 1:
God predestined us for adoption to sonship (and daughtership) through Jesus Christ . . .
Can you imagine the scene? Getting to tell a child who was abandoned by their relatives, “You are an orphan no more.” POWERFUL!
And the same is true of us—all of us who have followed the example of Jesus into the waters of baptism—no matter if that day was one we remember or it was a covenant made on behalf of our parents for us as a baby--- we too have been given a new identity.
I'm so glad for the witness of these kids and how they helped me see in this ritual in a whole new way. I, too am, God's child and in my own way-- an orphan no more!
P.S. The reason we all had on Feed the Children shirts that day was for the staff photo afterwards. It wasn't like we were proclaiming the church of Feed the Children or anything 🙂
A Sermon about Exodus 17:1-7 preached at The Federated Church, Weatherford, OK
Do you remember the last time you were really thirsty? Parched mouth? Dry tongue? Dreaming of water flowing from a faucet?
In our water bottle, water fountain and Sonic on every corner culture, it’s unheard of that any of us would ever "die of thirst” as we are all known to dramatically say from time to time.
Water is something we have enough of, almost always in this part of the world. Unless, of course, a tornado threatens to come through or an ice storm hits and our neighbors hoard the bottles of water off the shelves at Wal-Mart leaving nothing for the rest of us . . .
In Old Testament reading for this morning, Israelites found themselves with one very big problem and it had everything to do with water.
Two weeks ago, we left the Israelites on the their journey out of Egypt as the miracle of the crossing of the Red Sea just happened. With joyous celebration they exclaimed the amazing provisions of their LORD leading them on their way into the Promise Land!
Just three days after crossing the Red Sea-- the big and dramatic-- experience of faith, the group was short on water. Scripture tells us that God led them to a spring where their thirst could be quenched. All was well. God was mightily at work among them, providing for their every need.
But, of course we know that their water jugs did not stay filled for long.
In chapter 17 verse 2 they said to Moses again: "Give us water to drink."
And, such was a good, normal, everyday, essential need, right? Of course they had a right to ask this request of God.
H2O, we know, is critical to our very existence: the definition of a need. Most medical professionals will say that a human being, in reasonable to good health can only live between 3-5 days without water before suffering from extreme dehydration and shock leading to death.
So, while, we might read Exodus 17 with thoughts in our head like "here they go again complaining,” simply the Israelites sought to express a deep need. They needed to say to Moses, their spiritual and administrative leader, "We must have water now!"
In the meantime, however, what were they to do? How were they to wait?
How were they to respond to an unmet need that they were powerless to fix?
Did it mean that their need was not really a need?
Did it mean that God had abandoned them and truly wanted them to die, as they feared? It sure felt that way . . .
It's easy to kick the dog when you are down right? And, so, went the days of the lives of the Israelites and their relationship to Moses.
As they perceived God not giving them the life they wanted, they took out their pain on the easiest next best thing: Moses.
Voicing their frustration to the point that we hear Moses fearing for his life in verse 4-- believing that in their extreme thirst the crowd might stone him if they didn't get a drink and fast.
Moses' natural response to the crisis as a leader was fearful of the crowd's response, but tempered. We hear in the words of this text, Moses saying to the crowds: simmer down stop bothering me and simply trust in God’s provisions-- as this was God's job to meet their needs.
I can imagine, if I were a member of the crowd, I would have found Moses' calm as a cucumber leadership style really annoying. Wouldn’t you?
Trust that God would provide?
"Oh, Moses," I would have said. "It's so much harder than that. When, tell me, when God is going to get God's act together and find us some water!”
For, secretly they hoped that in Moses' bag of superpower, bring on the 10 plagues kind of tricks, he could lead them by another spring and they'd worry about water no more. But, such was just not going to happen.
They needed to wait. They needed to wait to see what could become.
A friend of mine shared with me this week a similar frustration with the world and with God.
After being out of work for the past nine months due to a company downsizing in these difficult economic times, she is currently at the end of her rope.
After sending out over 500 resumes, doing everything she can to do what experts say to do when you are looking for work: networking, staying on a schedule everyday and trying not to get down on herself even as the funds in the bank account slowly begin to run down, she says the best parts of her life are dying more every day.
After interview after interview, rejection letter after rejection letter, and sleepless nights and pleas for prayer to any religiously minded person she knows, my friend shared she was beginning to think that God had forgotten her.
No one in her life seemed to care that she was out of work and without a job coming her way soon; she might lose everything she's worked so hard for including her modest home. She hears her pastor say often at church that “God is going to work things out” but to her God is a distant figure that doesn’t seem to care about her pain.
But in the spirit of these same frustrations, the Israelites were asked to have ACTIVE faith in their waiting.
They were asked to believe that God was still at work, even if they couldn’t recognize it in the moment.
And so, these were Moses' instructions from God: "Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile and go. . . . Strike the rock,” God said, "and water will come out of it."
It was a simple as that. Strike the rock with your staff.
I can imagine that laughter erupted from the crowd AND anxiety of what might be next (if this didn't work) from Moses. This God they were serving was just getting crazier and crazier all the time . . .
But, Moses did as instructed by the LORD. And to the amazement of all, it worked. Sweet God Almighty brought them water from a big ole rock!
Let’s stop here and note that this provision was nothing like they expected. NOTHING. But yet it was water nonetheless and EXACTLY what they needed.
The water came not from a spring (as it did before) nor from going back to Egypt (as they had suggested), rather, it came from something that was dead.
Though it would have not been a word they used at the time, the best way I know how to describe the scene is by calling it resurrection! That out of something that seemed life-less and certainly not life-giving, out flowed streaming of living water.
Professor Amy Erickson sums up what happens in this way: "It strikes me (pun intended!) that God choose to bring water-- and the life it symbolizes and will impart-- out of something that appears to be lifeless . . ."
But, this my friends is exactly how God works.
Dead is never dead in the kingdom of God.
Lost causes are never really lost.
And the broken down and washed out are really never without hope.
When I was serving as an associate pastor at Untied Methodist congregation while in seminary at Duke Divinity in North Carolina, I told it was my job to make most of the pastoral visits.
On a Monday afternoon only a couple of months into my second year at the church, I found myself sitting in a rocking chair on the back porch of Mrs. Melba’s house. She offered me some iced tea—as good southern women do. We began chatting about life. She wanted to know how my classes were going.
Mrs. Melba, a spunky woman in her early 70s, tried to keep a brave face for this young pastor student. But soon she was fighting back tears as she began to recount to me details about her husband’s recent death. He’d died of cancer recently.
She misses him more than she could even say.
She had trouble, she said, finding the energy to get out of bed in the mornings, many days still.
She couldn’t seem to find her purpose for living life anymore, she told me.
I remember this afternoon so well because in the moments that followed, I broke what I had learned only a few days earlier in class, some of the “rules” of pastoral care. My classmates and I were told to not show too much of our own emotions when we made visits. But, I cried too. Melba and I sat and rocked on that porch and cried. Her feelings of this great “dead end” sign life had handed her felt just as overwhelming to me. Sadness felt thick in the air.
Because most of all Melba felt like God had forgotten her. Everything around her felt dead. She felt dead without her beloved, even though her pulse told her she was still living.
A few years later, a man in mid 30s sat in my office. We were chatting about life. How crazy the amount of snow that winter had been.
But soon, Tom began telling me about how he felt his life had hit a dead-end too.
Tom was the father of three kids, but none of them were living with him at the time. His ex-wife had sued him for full custody of the kids, and had won because of the hot-shot lawyer she’d hired.
Lies had been told about him court.
Though Tom had made some mistakes in life—been a big fan of drinking too much in his younger years—he’d cleaned up his act and there was no good reason why he couldn’t even see his kids on the weekends.
To make matters worse, at a church Tom had previously attended, he was told by an associate pastor that he was no longer welcome to worship at the Sunday services. The pastor, it seemed was the reason his marriage broke up in the first place. His wife and the pastor had a long-term relationship on the side that he was just now finding out about.
Tom felt let God was as far away as possible. Everything around him felt dead too. No wife, no kids, and no church family to help him through this hard time in life.
But—and there is always a BUT in the kingdom of GOD—these feelings of deep despair was not the end for Melba and Tom.
Though in these moments they faced some of their darkest hours, God was still at work.
New water was about to come out of rocks in their lives.
As Melba continued to put one foot in front of the other, getting out of bed every morning, slowly she began to see that life wasn’t finished with her.
Through the loving embrace and watchful care of her church family, she started moving toward service of others once again. Melba started singing in the choir. She involved herself in the mission projects of United Methodist Women and she took her turn leading the lessons in her Sunday School class—using the lessons she learned about finding God in this hard place with other widows like herself.
And Tom, as he took the risk of being a part of a new church community, putting aside the hurt of his previous church in the past, began to see new life spring up around him too.
Tom’s secret passion for writing became a real gift to the church’s communication ministry.
And with encouragement from some new friends and the recommendation of a new lawyer, he was able after 5 long years of separation to spend weekends with his kids again.
Both Melba and Tom learned through their pain that this exactly how God works. Dead is never dead in the kingdom of God. Lost causes are never really lost. And the broken down and washed out are really never without hope.
So, my friends, I tell you today, the God of Israel, the God of Moses who struck that rock that day to watch water flow from such a dead place is alive and wanting to be at work in your life too.
Let us be active in our waiting.
Let us not grow weary in doing good.
And let us surround ourselves with loving community to remind us of the Lord’s goodness if we forget.
And in fact, this is what we are about to celebrate in a few minutes as we come to the table of God—we’ll taste and see that what was once dead has come to new life. We’ll taste and see the sweetness of resurrection called the body and blood of our Lord. And we’ll celebrate together that anything, yes, anything is possible in the kingdom of God. God is always at work!