Preaching and Baptism: The Power of Living Water
Larissa Kwong Abazia
Rev. Larissa Kwong Abazia is the founder of Courageous Spaces and also serves as the transitional head of operations for More Light Presbyterians.
I received the opportunity to baptize a baby during my first call as an associate pastor in a growing, vibrant congregation. I was both excited and anxious because such opportunities are rare while working under a well-established head of staff. I was encouraged to focus on connecting with the parents, holding the child in order to determine “how they might do during the sacrament,” and creating a mutual understanding should things not go as planned. Baptisms in this particular congregation always happened earlier in worship, assuming the baby would be less fussy and easier to handle at the beginning of the service rather than at the recommended liturgical placement following proclamation of the Word. I learned, directly and indirectly, that baptism was about comfort. The family should be theologically knowledgeable and eagerly awaiting the special day for their child. The child shouldn’t cry as the Trinitarian formula accompanied the dripping water on their forehead and as we walked through the congregation for an initial welcome to the community. The congregation should enjoy the sacred, joyful moment unfolding before them. Everyone was supposed to engage in a moment of baptismal bliss as the giggling baby gleefully received the blessed water on their forehead, the perfect image of a sacred, holy moment.
The Baptism of Christ After Tintoretto, ink on paper. Jennifer Bunge
Years later I was called to serve at a multiethnic congregation in the heart of Queens, New York. I followed the same approach by meeting with the family, placing the baptism early in the service, and eagerly anticipating the special day. Several portions of worship came and went, but the family was yet to arrive. Scripture read, sermon preached, and second hymn sung, yet we were still waiting. Elders and worship leaders looked at me with curiosity as to what would happen if the family did not arrive before the conclusion of the service. Right before the organist hit the opening notes of the final hymn, the family came through the sanctuary doors. I walked down the aisle, welcomed them, and accompanied everyone to the baptismal font. All of our well-made plans had to make room for the unexpected nature of the circumstances that unfolded right in our midst.
The sacramental moment creates and expands the space for the gathered faith community to affirm its commitment to nurture, equip, and empower the newly baptized on behalf of the whole church. Focusing primarily on the moment of baptism misses the opportunity to participate in this commitment from the very beginning. The preaching moment and surrounding liturgy provide a powerful, tangible occasion for worship leadership and participants to explore the significance of their promises and live into them. And yet the teaching and practice of this commitment do not need to be limited only to services in which a baptism occurs. Scripture is rich with stories and imagery that point toward the promises of the sacrament, both individual and communal.
Preaching on texts about water cracks open opportunities for the gathered congregation to more deeply understand the human and divine commitments that we affirm in our practice of baptism. While the preacher should always proclaim the abundant love of God for humanity, they also cannot miss the potential to invite us to take risks. A faith life lived out loud involves disruption. Pondering the expansiveness of living water in Scripture allows the preacher to consider the deep well of stories that challenge us to ask:
- What is living water?
- What is its power? It’s potential?
- What are the earthly barriers we place on the living water (so freely given by God)?
- How might we share living water with others?
- What are the ways God transcends our boundaries and limitations to provide living water? How can we practice being more attuned to God’s overflowing presence in order to engage in breaking open God’s reign before us?
The Power of (Living) Water
The baptismal font testifies to the living water freely offered to God’s people. Water is central to humanity’s ability to live and thrive in creation. It also possesses the ability to shape terrain, create oases, and steadily flow toward and through destinations. Water can quench as well as destroy. Understanding the power of water illustrates the depths of the living water provided to people of faith.
Water Possesses the Power to Shape and Transform Landscapes: The Samaritan Woman at the Well (John 4:1–15)
In John’s historical period, the well was a central gathering space for women. Yet here is the Samaritan woman, walking on her own in the heat of the day toward the depths of refreshment. We can speculate about the circumstances: Is she fleeing someone or something? Does she seek a respite from the discomfort within her community, feeling out of place rather than connected to the people who surround her each day? Is she weary from conditions requiring her to face all odds with resilience, doing whatever it takes to make it to another day? How are the burdens on her whole being embodied in her walk to the well that day?
The Samaritan’s vessel always stands out to me in this narrative. The unnamed woman comes to the well bearing a water jar. Her initial task is clear: she needs water. Yet by the conclusion of her engagement with Jesus, she leaves the jar behind and runs eagerly back to town. Without a thought to its necessity, she so easily leaves behind the object she carried with determination to meet her needs in the heat of the day.
The woman becomes the vessel, bearing living water as she shares the transformational story of her time with Jesus. Her witness is boundless, its impact exponential, like a wellspring that cannot be contained.
Water possesses the ability to carve out new spaces and places that we may never have imagined possible. Consider the billion-years-old alteration of the rock formations that eventually became the Grand Canyon. Flooding, down-cutting, and gradual erosion led to one of the most beautiful natural settings in the United States. Sometimes the shifts take time and slow transformation. Sometimes, like in the case of the unnamed Samaritan woman, water finds a space to dwell and spring forth with immediacy.
Water Is on the Move: Let Justic Roll Down Like Waters (Amos 5:24)
The prophet Amos speaks truth to people in the midst of a season of prosperity and peace. Over and over again, he reminds the nation they are not beyond reproach, lifting up the tension between the oppression of the poor and their comfortable circumstances. His words are reminders that the nations, too, will be judged for any empty acts of supposed faithfulness. Amos 5:24 is all too familiar: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
As a person of color, I find the words of Amos to be deeply comforting. There are moments both inside and outside the church walls where I am made to feel as though I do not belong.
Preaching in predominantly white contexts, I hear repeatedly, “You speak English so well,” or “I can hear you clearly.” These seemingly innocent comments testify that my body is foreign, my voice assumed to possess an accent, and my life experience to be “other.” I acknowledge that I have responded to the call to serve as a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), but I do not hide the impact a 92 percent white denomination requires of me to navigate systems and structures that were never made for me. Many people of color have employed techniques of code-switching to navigate these experiences. Our awareness of the predominant norms and ways of being cause us to exist in places that were not created with us in mind, systems and structures that function to maintain the status quo. Disruption comes at a cost to us. And yet Amos’s words boldly proclaim the movement of justice and righteousness to preserve bodies that are overlooked, ignored, abused, or exploited.
Often, the bias in predominately white spaces while reading this passage is the assumption they are on the side of justice and righteousness. These communities of faith often celebrate their engagement “on the right side of history” at the expense of the internal work necessary to acknowledge how far they actually have to go. Amos warns the people that their senseless adherence to ritual, ties to familiar practices, and the marginalization of certain groups are, in fact, idolatrous. The contemporary church, too, has idolatries to uncover, familiar practices that keep us from recognizing our participation in injustice.
How does an adherence to niceness create dams that stave off the deeper, harder conversations which must be had? Do we worship a God of polite comfort or transformation? Present limitations do not stave off the flowing water of justice and righteousness. Aspects of the church’s life which become normative and the elements believed to be immovable or unchangeable are human-made bodies of water for our own pleasure, earthly aberrations of God’s presence.
How can we find ways to become more malleable where our practice has gotten in the way of our call to seek justice and inclusion?
Water Allows Us to Remember: The Israelites Cross the Jordan (Joshua 3:1—4:24)
I’m guessing the Israelites are feeling fear and uncertainty as they stand at the edge of the Jordan River and move ever closer to the Promised Land. It’s flood season, when the river is ten to twelve feet deep, 140 feet wide, and boasts a current that can carry your whole body downstream. Crossing the Jordan at this time is absolutely risky. On top of this, it is Joshua giving them directions, an unfamiliar voice of authority with whom they may have doubts.
There’s so much riding on what happens next. Each decision and action plays out to take the Israelites to the Promised Land (or not). Joshua must be obedient to fulfill what the Lord has promised. He has to first tell the crowd what will be required of them in order to cross safely to the other side. The Jordan will recede only when the priests dip their toes into the turbulent, deep current. Then the people have to step in themselves as their rational minds warn that the flood waters could sweep them away at any moment.
Following God is all about movement, trust, and remembrance. It is about getting our feet wet and dirty in depths that no one would think we could survive.
The narrative anticipates a question from the next generation of Israelites, “What do these stones mean?” The stones to be placed in their camp aren’t to be forgotten. Instead, they are markers to remember who brought them through the wilderness and what hopes they bore into the Promised Land.
In the narrative, it’s the children who help them remember where they have come from when they ask “in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’” (Joshua 4: 6). Then and now, the children are the ones who will inevitably ask us to tell our stories. Baptism is a tangible moment when the gathered community can point back and recall the sacred story when the living water laid its claim on their life. In order to be inspired witnesses, everyone within the gathered community must consider for themselves what the stones mean. We learn the stories, practice telling our own, and deeply listen to the narratives of others. Wading through the waters together contributes to the grand story of faith with words as encompassing as the waters that wash over us.
Water Is Necessary: The Life-giving Spring (Revelation 21:1–8)
Can we fathom the radical potential of a new heaven and a new earth? In the proclamation of Revelation 21, the faithful are told this new space will become the dwelling for the human and divine together. Mourning, death, dysfunction, difference, and brokenness will have no place there. God becomes the comforter and healer through which all things are brought to completion. The Lord says, “To the thirsty I will freely give water from the life-giving spring” (Rev. 21:6).
Freely-given, thirst-quenching water may sound unfamiliar in our current capitalist American context. Very few things come for free here; strings are always attached; bodies are commodified, devalued, and abused. We are tethered to obligation, debt, and oppressive colonial histories. In contrast, the flowing waters in Revelation are accessible to all living beings. All parched bodies will be hydrated and enlivened through the abundance of this new heaven and new earth.
Here is the opportunity to expand the vision of the listener, allowing them to dream of an abundant creation where everyone is cared for by God, the divine being who lives alongside us. This is the tension of the already and the not yet. While we know that this world is far from the new heaven and new earth, we can acknowledge the radical hope that God possesses for creation. The triune God shows up over and over again reminding us that, despite our humanness, a new sacred dwelling will one day be possible.
Barriers, Danger, and Anticipation
Living water is meant to be boundless and ever flowing; however, there are biblical stories in which human-created barriers impact the movement of water. Such blockages continue today as congregations and responsible leaders attempt to control living water. Then and now, Scripture and lived experience bear witness to God’s interventions that open the floodgates of healing, restoration, and hope, regardless of the people’s ability to comprehend such abounding grace.
What Do We Do with the Thirst Before Us?: Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26–39)
One of my favorite baptism stories is Phillip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch on the desert road. The unnamed man is reading the prophet Isaiah when Philip comes toward his carriage, initially led to the desert road by the direction of the Lord. Philip begins instructing the Ethiopian official concerning all which he has read as a testimony to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Something in this teaching stirs the eunuch’s spirit and he is overcome with eagerness.
“Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
The carriage is stopped, Philip and the eunuch walk toward the pool of water, and the baptism takes place. When both resurface, the Spirit immediately sends Philip on his way, and the Ethiopian eunuch rejoices as he reenters the carriage.
I am curious about the conversation that transpired in the time between the Ethiopian man’s question and the baptism itself. There are two very clear reasons why this curious listener may have received a negative response to his innocent question. First, as an Ethiopian, the man lived far from the holy temple and sacred rituals of the faith. His proclamation of faith following the teaching of Scripture would be met with challenges if he sought a community of which to be a part. Second, even if he were to find a gathered assembly, in this period the eunuch’s castration made him a sexual minority. Religious rules would have kept him outside of any sacred spaces. I wonder about Philip’s mental calculations in the moment. Any hesitation he may have had quickly transformed to abundant welcome of this Ethiopian eunuch, with whom he would never cross paths again. In this encounter, Philip had to let go of some of the conventions and policies he may have previously held and be open to God’s surprising presence in his midst.
Denominational polity and local church governance provides countless examples of the ways the church seeks to maintain order in the midst of God’s unwieldy, free-flowing living water. Most recently, debates around LGBTQAI+ ordination and marriage illustrated decision-making by those in power to give access (or not) to those kept at the margins of the church, similar to the discernment Phillip was engaging in within this story. In the practice of baptism, we have processes to adhere to and checklists to follow that help us maintain baptismal responsibility. But these processes can keep us gazing at our navels, preventing us from being open to God’s outward-focused abundance before, during, and after the sacrament.
Too often we understand baptism as a commitment to the local church congregation. I have had many conversations with church leaders who desire assurance of the baptized one’s regular attendance and participation in the life of the community before performing a baptism. The impulse toward relationship and the desire for opportunities to nurture the spiritual life of the newly baptized is important, yet the relationship is not transactional. The baptismal waters are freely given as a witness to the abundant love of God. Such love is not limited to our own sanctuaries and church buildings but extends outside these walls to acts of compassion and care in the world. The boundless, transcendent power of the baptismal waters is that God is dedicated to finding and meeting each one of us whenever we are.
How Do We Fall Short?: The Pool of Bethesda (John 5:1–15)
The power of the waters stirred up in the pool of Bethesda at the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem was well known by the faith community. At the edge of these waters, between hope and uncertainty, we encounter a man who has been ill for thirty-eight years. Jesus sees him lying there, knows that he has been there a long time, and asks, “Do you want to be made well?” I find this question somewhat offensive; why would the man be lying there if not to be made well? The man’s response is crushing. “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”
Day after day and year after year, despite all odds, the man still comes to the healing oasis in Jerusalem. His own efforts are consistently thwarted. The individual and communal investment in his marginalization was so apparent that even he assumed community members would ignore his needs and others would do whatever they could to take his place in order to reach the lapping water before them.
Where are our churches in this narrative? Are we the gatekeepers around the healing waters of baptism, missing the opportunity to provide access to all who desire to enter the pool? Are we those that step over others, seeking our own healing and wholeness first?
We have developed a practice over the last years of including reaffirmation of baptism in many of our churches’ services. While it is a celebratory invitation to remember one’s own movement through living waters, there are often some present in the worshiping congregation who have never been baptized. Even as we celebrate God’s loving claim in baptism, we exclude when we assume that everyone experienced the sacrament of baptism or was told stories about their baptism in a positive way. Instead of assuming and excluding, exploring what it means to provide access and connection to baptismal waters, no matter one’s baptismal status, will expand the theological and homiletical possibilities of the preaching moment and the enacted liturgy.
While it takes a long time for him to experience it for himself, the man knows the power of the water simply by being present to the healing of others. He knows that there would be healing for him, too, if only he can make it to the water’s edge. Maybe this is why he remains by the pool for so long. What would it look like for even one member of the community to accompany him to the water’s edge? How can a gathered community live into the anticipatory posture of those in its midst and meet their yearnings with resurrection hope?
The marginalization from the community does not end once the man is healed. Religious leaders question and challenge his actions as he carries his mat and walks through the streets. Jesus heals the man physically, yet the crowds lack the courage to trust his story and offer him social healing. He is still separated from those around him. This can be a lesson for us. Once healing happens, in whatever form it takes, it is our responsibility to listen deeply and trust the words of others. Our skepticism, doubt, and confusion in the midst of a healing encounter cannot close us off from the living water springing forth in new places.
Like baptism, healing is more than a one-time event. God defines the baptismal community as a life-long covenant relationship without margins or boundaries. Jesus’ healing the man may not bring him back to his immediate surrounding community, but it incorporates him into a new form of communal life which transcends the individual-focused, rule-abiding, culture of his society.
When Can We Release Control?: Pentecost (Acts 2:1–47)
The unwieldy power of the Spirit’s movement on Pentecost causes people to respond with exuberant faith, eager to engage in the faith-filled movement before them. Their spontaneous multilingual speech causes others to seek an explanation. The skeptics begin to say that wine is all that could cause such raucous behavior. Peter’s prophetic sermon assures the skeptics, and anyone in earshot, that the commotion is part of the continuing ministry of Jesus Christ, in whose name they are invited to be baptized. This young preacher and eleven other apostles bring three thousand people through the waters of baptism in a moment!
Can any of us fathom welcoming three thousand new members into the life of our own congregation in a day?! Even with our most expert efficiency and orderliness, it would be a disruptive scene. Our well-placed patterns of welcoming persons into active participation by building connections and deepening relationships over time would no longer work in such a large crowd of unfamiliar faces.
The passage immediately following the baptisms on Pentecost invites us to trust in the movement of the Holy Spirit in the way we organize our church communities: “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. . . . All believers were united and shared everything” (Acts 2:42–44, CEB). This image of the church as a community in which resources are freely shared and everyone’s needs are met looks different from current models of programmatic engagement and member retention. Shared meals, prayer, and religious teachings were central to life together for the early church. Might they be for us, as well?
Each time I welcome visitors at the beginning of a worship service, I say, “Today we are different because you are here. For that we are blessed and thankful.” I truly believe these words, and yet their implications can be difficult to swallow when we recognize that this means we change as a community when we welcome difference. We can be tempted to seek unity by finding commonalities rather than courageously making spaces to explore difference as transformational. There is no doubt that the early church community felt unwieldy and unfamiliar as thousands of newly baptized believers joined the small group of followers once scared and hiding in an upper room. Yet they maintained the commitment Jesus gave to them: being in community by learning, living, and eating together. Their communal faith was embodied in their practice.
How Do We Face Our Yearning for Predictability?: Jesus Calms the Storm (Mark 4:35–41)
The waters are choppy and Jesus is sleeping in the boat. This is a perfect storm to create conflict between the teacher and his followers. It is Christ who invites them to get into the boat and cross to the other side of the lake, leaving behind some crowds that were pressing in on them. Jesus takes his place at the stern, where a captain would usually sit to guide the ship’s direction, while the disciples crowd in. I can imagine they are eager for breathing space. The boat is not only a vessel to take them from one place to the next, but also a space for restoration and connection with their dynamic leader before the next teaching or healing opportunity.
It becomes clear that, as the high winds begin, the disciples do not trust they will arrive safely to the shore. They become frightened by the storm surrounding them and worry they will soon die. It is no wonder that their fear turns to anger when they see their guide, Jesus, sleeping on a pillow at the stern of the boat. Actions speak louder than words, and his peaceful sleep seems to say he does not care about their lives. He seems to them a lackluster captain, sleeping on the job and leading them to disaster rather than safety. But in their panic-stricken accusations, they miss the obvious: Jesus is with them in the boat. This very clear reality should inspire them to imitate Jesus’ calm demeanor at the stern of the boat. His ability to remain asleep as the waves surround them is the calm in the storm. There are things to worry about, but right now, this raging storm is not one of them. Christ intends for his disciples to do and believe the same.
Much like the disciples, many of us do not like choppy waters and stormy conditions. Few want to face conflict, discomfort, or fear. Instead, we desire a comfortable, predictable, and familiar communal life together. If only this was the way things could be! Instead, stories about God’s living water often lead us to choppy waters and challenge us to experience just how transformative (and dangerous) such baptismal waters can be. God’s claim on our lives in baptism means we are equipped and empowered to try new things, learn from what we thought might be failures, face our fears, and step into unfamiliar places. When we foster ways to live into this kind of discipleship, we may find ourselves challenging the norms that have become systemic cycles of exclusion, both inside and outside our walls. This is a way for our faith communities to become truly comforting and radically familiar for everyone present, even if it means we can’t always predict what will happen next.
We would do well to consider access to baptism as God’s domain rather than our own. Over and over, Scripture provides stories of well-intentioned people of faith and God’s expansive, abundant movement in their midst. Baptisms and biblical narratives around water provide a steady stream overflowing with opportunities to uncover the richness of God’s call, both individually and communally. Our role is to immerse ourselves in the Living Water, not bottling it up, but allowing it to spring forth; because no matter what, God will find a way to create floodwaters of new life.