When was the last time you felt really, really thirsty? Remember that feeling, and imagine you are thirsty now. When was the last time you felt really lonely, or alone, or lost, or confused about who you are, and what you should do? Can you remember that feeling?
Thirst is a powerful metaphor for that kind of spiritual need, that we may not have an exact word for, that is about this thing we need, in order to be who we really are, to know the peace that comes with doing what we are meant to do.
Jesus lived in a hot, dry climate, in a part of the world where people understood that water was precious. It makes sense that when they made themselves ready for a new life, when they re-dedicated themselves to living as faithful followers of God, they would use water.
Jesus’ older cousin, Elizabeth and Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist was at the Jordan River, preaching, and calling people to begin their lives anew, with a commitment to follow God, to be who God knew they could be. As a symbol of that commitment, they would enter the waters of the Jordan, and be ritually washed, baptized. It was as if they were rinsing off the residue of their old ways, and starting fresh and clean.
Jesus came out to hear what John had to say. He was part of the crowd who heard John call people to repent, to turn away from lives of selfishness and narrowness, and to turn towards God, and God’s ways. If they felt ready to do that, they could be baptized.
Immediately after Jesus had been baptized and was coming up out of the water, the sky suddenly opened up and Jesus saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and hovering over him.
With that, a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Own, my Beloved, on whom my favor rests.”
In that powerful moment the thirst in Jesus’ soul was quenched. He was filled with love, surrounded by grace, and knew exactly who he was, and what his living would be for. He knew himself to be a beloved child of God.
That is a good way to talk about what we deeply desire for ourselves, and others. We want them to know that God loves them, they are beloved children of God, they matter to God. We want to know that we matter to God. It can be so easy to wander away from that knowing, to forget who we are meant to be, as beloved children of God.
In Christian churches, baptism is usually just done once. We use the ritual to welcome, and to bless, and as an outward action that represents an inner desire, to follow God. For John and his followers, baptism was a ritual that could be repeated, as needed.
Do you remember the instructions they used to have on shampoo bottles? Wash, rinse, repeat. Wash, rinse, repeat. It’s a great marketing strategy.
If you took it literally, and to a ridiculous extreme, you could be caught in a never-ending loop of washing, rinsing, and repeating. But there is some truth in it. I don’t just wash my hair, or any part of my body once, and be done with it. Pretty much every day, I need to clean up.
This is true of all the things we do to be a healthy, fruitful people. We do them over and over again. Wash, rinse, repeat. Get enough sleep, eat things that sustain our body, breathe deeply, drink enough water, exercise. Smile, and say hello, and please and thank you. Follow through on things you said would do. Give other people the benefit of the doubt and pause a moment before judging them. Ask people how they are, and listen for their answers. Look for ways to be helpful. Give generously from what you have. Leave things better than you found them.
Most things that are important for us to do, to live well, need to be done over and over again, and have to be taught. We need to be trained, shown, encouraged, guided, supervised, held accountable. We need each other in order to be healthy human beings. This is true in our faith lives as well. We need each other’s help, and encouragement, and guidance, and teaching. These are some of the benefits of a faith community.
An vital part of what we do when we gather as a congregation, is remind each other of what we need to do, to keep ourselves healthy, and whole, and faithful. An old-fashioned word for it is “discipleship”. We are meant to encourage each other in our lives of faith. We are to comfort each other when needed, but we are also to challenge each other to keep going, keep moving, keep growing, and learning, and deepening in our understanding of God.
This morning we are picking up on a tradition started by a man named John Wesley. Wesley began his career as a priest in the Church of England. He came to see that people needed help to bring faith out of the sanctuary, and into the everyday. He did not limit his preaching to the pulpit, but took it to the streets, and spoke to thousands of people who would never set foot in a church. He organized new believers into societies, small groups that met regularly so that the members could encourage each other, and challenge each other, and help each other live out their faith.
The group leader would ask each member in turn, “How is it with your soul?” and the whole group would listen to each member. They studied scripture together, prayed together, and for each other. They worked together on projects to help others. They talked about how their faith changed and shaped their lives, and was the basis for the choices they made. Faith became personal, and real, not just something you heard about at church once a week.
The movement Wesley started was called Methodism. At first the name was a put down, coined by those who made fun of Wesley’s strict, methodical program. Over time, the movement grew into a new branch of Christianity. The Methodist Church was one of the three denominations that joined together to form the United Church of Canada in 1925.
Wesley taught that baptism, and confirmation as members of a church are outward signs of the covenant between each of us and God. God has promised to be our God, and love us, and strengthen and guide us, and help us overcome sin and weakness in our lives. In return, our covenant calls us to learn and grow in our faith, and to live out our faith in every part of our lives.
Wesley believed it helpful to offer believers opportunities to re-new their covenant relationship with God, and with their fellow believers. Wesley tended to have these covenant services around New Year’s- it seemed like a good time to make a fresh start. Wash, rinse, repeat.
When I’ve done this service in pre-Covid times I would invite people to come up to the baptismal font and dip their fingers in the water, and make the sign of the cross on their forehead. We can’t do that right now.
Instead, I am going to ask you the same questions we often ask when parents present their child to be baptized, or when we baptize an adult. It won’t be a test, because we’ll have the questions and answers up on the screen.
After the questions and answers we can each take a moment to trace the cross on our own forehead, as an outward sign of our inward desire to renew our faith commitment.
If you have not been baptized, and want to be, let me know, and we can plan a time to do that. What we are doing today doesn’t take the place of a baptism.
This is a chance to say to ourselves, to God, and to each other, that we choose to live as beloved children of God. Amen