Water Has Memory (The Baptism of Our Lord)

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The other evening, Maddie and I were cuddled up on my bed watching Frozen 2 for about the 564th time, when Maddie turned to me and said, “Is that true?” Now, I’ve seen Frozen 2 about 400 of those 564 times, so I hadn’t been paying close attention, and was mostly allowing social media to entertain me, so I wasn’t quite sure what she was asking me to verify.

“What, babe? Is ‘what’ true?”

“Can turtles breathe through their butts?”

Momentary pause of bewilderment while I re-enter the world of Elsa, Anna, Christophe, and Olaf.

Ah, yes. Olaf. Now, I’m clear what we’re talking about.

There’s a portion of the movie where Anna is desperate for a way out of all the chaos and turmoil that’s been engulfing her, and she asks Olaf if he can see a silver lining, a bright side. So, Olaf offers his humorous anecdote, “Did you know turtles can breathe through their butts?” As an aside, this reminds me of how my husband often manages difficult times by making a joke at an inopportune time to try to lessen the tension.

But, regardless, Maddie wants to know if it’s true: Can turtles really breathe through their butts?

Now, my initial reaction is ‘No.’ From what I know about anatomy and physiology, breathing typically takes place in the upper respiratory portion of the body. However, before I laugh off Olaf’s statement, I’m reminded of another statement that Olaf made earlier in the movie:

Water has memory.

Now, I had previously looked this statement up, because it’s essential to the plot line of Frozen 2 and because I was intrigued by the possibility of water having memory. In Frozen 2, water memory is defined as the capacity for water to retain a memory or form of substances which were previously dissolved in the water. In the movie, this is portrayed as an irrefutable fact.

In the scientific community it is debated. In theology it’s undeniable.

So, Olaf’s statement about turtles could be true, based on my previous research.
And, lo and behold, turtles can breathe through their butts. The technical term is cloacal respiration, and it’s a little more nuanced than just inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. But, regardless, Olaf is a little sage; his wisdom is often on point, even when it seems unbelievable.

And, at this point, you’re wondering if we’re ever going to talk about Jesus, Jesus’ baptism, or God in any form or function…

Don’t worry. We are.

But, first, back to Olaf and water having memory. You may have caught on to a little sentence I just said: In theology water memory is undeniable. That’s the piece that I want to talk about today; the turtles are just a funny way of reminding us that what may seem impossible, isn’t always impossible. And that when things are incredibly chaotic, hope often shows up unexpectedly.

Water has memory, at least from God’s perspective, and it’s crucial to why Jesus is baptized and what he is baptized into, and therefore what we are baptized into. From Genesis to Revelation, water arcs through the Bible, courses through the scriptures, shapes the landscape of our sacred texts, and surfaces again and again in the story of the people of God.

Water has almost always been a sign of God’s provision, God’s providence, and God’s care for those God has claimed. So, by the time we reach the shores of the Jordan with Jesus today, we (and all the people of God) have already been swimming in the stories:

~ God begins by forming land and water from the formless void.

~A stream is placed in the middle of the Garden of Eden for the health of the people.

~Noah, his family, and all animals are saved through water (although admittedly, this saving use of water is a bit catastrophic to much of the world, and God realizes just how powerful and dangerous water can be).

~Hagar receives a wellspring in her desperate wilderness

~Moses strikes a rock, so that water will spring forth for the saving of the people. And Moses split the Red Sea, so God’s people could pass.

~Jacob met Rachel by a well.

~The psalmists proclaim again and again the God will our water on thirsty and dry lands.

Water has memory.

And these examples are just a few from the First Testament; there are numerous holy water moments which took place at the River Jordan, which functions as a threshold linking the past, the present, and the future.

This is the river which was stopped, so the ark of the covenant could be carried to the other side. This is the same river that Elijah struck with his mantle, so that he and Elisha could cross (just before Elijah ascended to heaven amid blazing horses and fire). This is the same river where Naaman is healed by Elisha. This is the same river that King David crosses with all of Israel as he fights the Arameans.

Water has memory.

As Jesus wades into these storied waters, he is the recipient of all the graces that these waters hold; he is also covered with all the grit and grime of the earth – the sweat, urine, blood, and run-off of humanity courses through these waters. The waters that John pours over Jesus are imbued with layer upon layer of blessing and pain. Jesus steps into all that has been, all that is, and all that will be, beginning his ministry upon this earth covered in filth.

Jesus’s first public act was an act of radical solidarity. Instead of holding himself apart, instead of protecting his own purity, Jesus stepped into the same water we stand in, and wedded his reputation and his destiny to ours.

Waster has memory.

As I reflect on the past few days, I feel sadness, shame, horror, and fear. We are a flawed and humiliated nation, and like all of you, my heart breaks. It’s almost unbelievable that my heart can keep on breaking, as I feel it’s been broken so many times over the past years. But, somehow it’s breaking again. Somehow, my soul has been crushed again. Somehow, here we are – bleeding out – again.

There were and are many things that infuriated and alarmed me about the actions which occurred on the Feast of the Epiphany, but what sent a dagger through my heart were the Jesus flags. Jesus tattoos. In God we trust banners. Cross necklaces. Large wooden crosses. Signs that said: ‘God, guns, and guts’ and ‘Jesus Saves.’

All I could think was, ‘Don’t bring Jesus into this mess.’

I don’t know the Jesus they paraded and waved around in the Nation’s capital. Maybe they’re acting in the name of some other Jesus, but THAT is not the Jesus in the Gospels.

God did not send his beloved Son into our world as a convenient scapegoat for us to use to excuse our immorality. Rather, Jesus’ baptism was his commitment to engage with the evil of this world, no matter how it rises up. I guess that’s why he dashes off into the wilderness still dripping wet – he knows evil is lurking in plain sight.

But, here’s the thing (there’s always a ‘thing’ when I preach, I think): Jesus is already in this mess. Not in the way those that sought to bring chaos into this world purport, but Jesus is in it. Jesus chose to step into those muddy waters so many years ago, and in doing so he stepped into the story and mess of every person that has ever walked the earth. He’s likely up to his eyeballs in sewage and filth right now, and potentially wondering why the world is so bent on dissolving into hell, but he’s not going to let us drown. That is the promise of baptism.

When Jesus stepped into those waters, he went all in. And not only does he go all in, but he brings with him all that was, all that is, and all that will be. He brings with him Adam and Eve, Rachel and Jacob, Moses and Elijah, Hagar and Ishmael, Naaman and Elisha: their storied lives – and many others – inhabit these blessed, wild waters of Jesus’ baptism, which are used for the healing of the nations and peoples.

Water has memory.

In baptism God rains down waters of faithfulness, promises of cleansing and forgiveness, the defeat of hell, and the dawn of tomorrow upon the chaos of the earth.

So, yeah. Jesus was there on January 6th. But not in a flag, or on a symbolic cross, or in the violent chants.
But Jesus was there solely because he has promised to always be with us.
He came for such a time as this.
To see us through to a new day; to die with us and raise us up.
May it ever be…

Honestly, it’s been hard for me to keep finding the good news. To keep holding out for hope. To keep shining a light. But, I’ve been as faithful as I can be, not only because it’s part of my calling, but because it’s essential to my faith. I don’t have the best, most eloquent words right now.

But, this is what I do know:

It’s serious thing to be alive today.
To be baptized into the waters with Jesus.

To be baptized into this broken and fragile world.
Jesus knew this.

And I think, we all know this to be true today, in a brand new way.

At times such as these, we live into our baptismal calling:

To proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; to serve all people following the example of Jesus; and strive for justice and peace in all the earth.

These are the days of rebirth, renewal, and resurrection, may it explode all around like Spring, in every living thing.
That’s what Jesus’ baptism grants us.
Water has memory.
But, more important, water has promise.