Strange and Holy Waters
“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” — Luke 3:21-22
This Sunday, Lance, with the help of our gospel text, called us to reflect on Jesus’ baptism and to remember our own. Pondering those stories, I recalled my time in India with seminary friends a few years ago, and the many instances of holy water we encountered there:
Walking through the garden of Humayun’s Tomb, we learned that the four water channels we crossed represented the Islamic belief around the four rivers of Paradise. Passing the cremation site of Gandhi, we were reminded that Hindus spread the ashes of those who have died in the Ganges River as a sign of liberation of soul and rebirth. At Jama Masjid, the largest — and most breathtaking — mosque in India, we witnessed hand and foot washing from its central pool before Friday prayers. At Gurdwara Bangla Sahib, a Sikh house of worship, we washed our own feet before entering as many people gathered around its outdoor pond for spiritual cleansing.
The multiple invocations of water apparent in the practices and holy spaces of other faith traditions contrasts our singular — in occurrence and importance — water event in Protestant Christianity. They flow forth from the idea of sacred manyness, a belief particularly evident in Hinduism. This prevalence echoes how much of our bodies, and the body of Earth, is constituted by water. Each of these acts in and around water is, like baptism, a marker of restoration and rebirth leading to new life and signifying physical and/or spiritual distinction.
My time in India asked rather bluntly what is life-giving and life-renewing for me — a question echoing these post-Epiphany, beginning again days. It affirmed and made clearer some sources, questioned or challenged others, and revealed previously unknown or unrecognized restorative founts.
What is life-giving, life-renewing for you these days?
Thinking about life-bearing waters in a place known to many travelers for its “bad” water — water we are quick to avoid, spit out, shake or dry off — is ironic. It made, and still makes, me wonder if we have rejected some baptismal waters, our biases keeping us on comfortable shores when we have been called to wade in. It makes me wonder about the ways we, like Jesus, can immerse ourselves more deeply, better lovers of the One who opens the horizons and calls all of us Beloved.
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