River crossings were much more hazardous than they are now. We cross rivers and streams easily our ancestors had to struggle with. Even now, the Missouri River is a dividing line for many of us: I’ve crossed it thousands of times. If we go into the rivers now, it’s the same as when our ancestors went in the water: we go into muddy water and come up wet, but not necessarily clean.
John’s baptism wasn’t about literal cleanliness. Ritual purity isn’t about being physically clean, it’s about being ready to enter into the presence of God. It didn’t matter that John wasn’t particularly clean, or that his followers may have come up looking like a mud pit. It mattered that they were the people that God intended them to be. It matter that they were ready for God.
Now Jesus comes to the river. He is the one that John has been talking about. It’s not clear why Jesus gets baptized, it’s part of the story that doesn’t make sense, which means it probably happened. A perfect man doesn’t have to do a baptism of repentance. Jesus goes down into the water, goes under the water, comes up out of the muddy water, and the heavens open. It isn’t a moment of perfection, of nice neat people with shiny white skin in a perfect tableau. It is a picture of dust and mud and ordinary people who aren’t that pretty. But it’s about God’s presence here and now, and being ready to live in that presence.
Jesus’ baptism is the model of our baptism; we go into the water to share in Jesus’ life. We go into the water to share his birth, his life, his teaching, his death, his resurrection, his ascension. In baptism we take Jesus as the model of our lives. We use cleaner water than they did, we dress differently than they did, we celebrate differently than they did, but the effect is that same. Baptism doesn’t make us perfect, but it perfectly connects us with Christ. It means we’ve crossed a river, and now we’re in a special place we shouldn’t cross back from. The river of baptism becomes a highway, as rivers have always been, a highway deeper into God’s presence every day.
Reconnection to Baptism is something we do every week when we bless ourselves with Holy Water. Reconnection to Baptism is what brings us to the body and blood of Christ. We’re called to reconnect those who are apart from their baptism, apart from us. We’re all called to remember we’re on Christ’s side of the river, we’re a place we want to be, we need to be. When we make that last crossing, to the next life, we hope to hear the same words that came from heaven in today’s Gospel reading: “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”