Jesus was dipped by John in the Chattahoochee. That's how Clarence Jordan's Cotton Patch Gospels share the story of Jesus' baptism. I wish I knew Alan Jackson; I would've asked him to come over to church and read Scripture. Imagine – Alan Jackson, who sings about the Chattahoochee, reading in his wonderful southern Georgia drawl the southern-country-telling of Jesus' baptism in the Chattahoochee! But I don't know Alan Jackson, so ….
So on a whim I emailed a friend of mine who also grew up along the Chattahoochee and has a great Georgian southern drawl, and she readily agreed to read our Scripture story – all the way from her home in Oregon. And, with a word of greeting to us, and with the word of God for us, author Karen Spears Zacharias shared with my congregation via video the Cotton Patch version of Jesus' baptism (click here to watch).
I spent a good part of the week preparing for my sermon by reflecting on the baptism scene from O Brother, Where Art Thou? – Delmar jumps into the river along with a robed congregation, cuts in line, and at the preacher's hand has all his sins washed away (including that Piggly Wiggly he knocked over in Yazoo). “Come on in, boys, the water is fine!”
What a great scene of hope and redemption and good ol' old time religion in the rural American south …
That is until the news during the day Saturday distracted me from O Brother, Where Art Thou? and made me think instead of Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle; Taxi Driver is not conducive to meditating on Jesus and baptism.
But maybe it should be.
How can we talk about the baptism of Jesus amidst the reality of the hatred, fear, violence, and assassinations and attempted assassinations that erupted Saturday in Arizona?
We have such beautiful and glorious painted images of Jesus being baptized …
the pure white light shining down from heaven like an upside down triangle with the point setting with the dove on Jesus' head … Such a reverent and majestic moment in time.
But this did not happen in some holy, purified, unstained-by-human-sin river.
Nope. If you're reading Matthew NOT verse by verse, but reading it like you do your favorite Stephen King novel … you'll experience Joseph and Mary fleeing with Jesus to Egypt to escape the wrath of a jealous king; they return after Herod's death; then BAM! There's John in the river baptizing folks and here come Jesus. About 30 years later in less than a few sentences, and with the bitter taste of a turbulent society still fresh in our mouths, we are reading about Jesus wading into the water.
Reading Matthew from the Cotton Patch Gospels is even more revealing; Clarence Jordan tells the story of Jesus not in and around Jerusalem and under Roman rule, but in and around Atlanta, and Birmingham, all under Jim Crow rule – translating New Testament Greek into the southern dialect of the civil-rights era American South.
Jordan forces us to consider the reality of the Gospel story in the midst of our very real American world of political hatred, racism, fear, murder, burning crosses, assassinations, and cell phones and Internet access and instant news and individuals and fringe groups feeding off the heated rhetoric calling for revolutions ...
Far from being simply a glorious wonderful beautiful day at the river as portrayed in our paintings, the baptism of Jesus happens in OUR world – with civil unrest, mayhem, inequalities of wealth and power – and assassinations of presidents, leaders, and judges and even little innocent children.
I've never swum in the Chattahoochee River, but I have swum in creeks and ponds. And at five or six years of age I clearly remember my older cousin instructing me that unlike the swimming pools I was used to in Metairie, Louisiana, when swimming in a country pond with fish and cows you don't “use the bathroom” because there is no bathroom to use – you just “let it go” while you're standing in the water.
Baptismal waters today are heated and like nice big bath tubs with clear water. After all, we preach cleansing and washing away sins as part of the baptism symbolism.
But Jesus was baptized in waters that could wash away dirt as well as expose you to animal excrement and everything else that finds its way into a river in the wild.
And that is exactly why Jesus' baptism is in fact so important in the face of recent events in Arizona. This is exactly what ties the innocence of Delmar in O Brother, Where Art Thou? with the alienation and anger of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.
Not only does Matthew put it directly in that context regarding Herod and the threat of a new king, but the very act itself mystically involves the dung of the world simultaneously washing over Jesus in the purifying act of baptism. Jesus' baptism reminds us that our faith is not one of escape from the world, nor one of victorious rule over the world, but of loving service to the world just as it is.
The disturbing reality of assassinations and the joyous ol' time baptismal gatherings at the river. Jesus going under and coming up from the Chattahoochee.
For God so loved the world, indeed.
Now then, I wonder if Karen Spears Zacharias knows Alan Jackson …