How handy to have a reading about water on the day we have a baptism!
It might we worth imagining, for a moment, that the font is a well, a place from which we draw deep water – water that sustains us for the whole of our life’s journey.
This might seem a bit confusing, because very often baptism is associated with washing: a rite of purification, a cleansing from sin. Such are its most prominent associations for many.
I do think that we have problems thinking about symbols these days. In science and mathematics it is quite important that it is obvious what the radiation sign or a plus sign means. If road signs were ambiguous we would be in big trouble. An icon on our computer usually indicates one thing, one function; but in theology, as in poetry, symbols, like water, are appropriately fluid.
In the prayer which is said in every baptism over the water in the font, we hear of the Holy Spirit moving over the water at the beginning of creation. We are reminded that the children of Israel escaped from Israel due to the parting of the waves of the Red Sea, and that Jesus himself was baptised in the Jordan. So, water there is seen as the source of life, a sign of freedom, and something that Jesus went through before us. It is a sign of God’s solidarity with humanity. But the first sentence of that prayer also connects with the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well: ‘We thank you, almighty God, for the gift of water to sustain, refresh and cleanse all life.’
That Gospel reading is a very long story and has many layers and complexities – some of which are explicit, but others of which are just under the surface. The well in the story is not just any well but is the one traditionally associated with the great figures from the Hebrew Scriptures, Jacob and Joseph – ancestors who were exemplary of the Jewish way of life. Joseph didn’t just have a multi-coloured coat, but was a survivor of fratricidal hatred and slavery, who became a person of great nobility, who also happened to be a prophet who could read dreams. No wonder the Samaritan woman who found herself strangely and marvellously understood by Jesus, immediately called him a prophet, ‘a new Joseph.’ The deep well here is the wisdom of past spiritual insight and lives lived in a way that honours God.
Like too many of the most extraordinary women recorded in the Bible, this one from Samaria has had her name forgotten, but she is a great example of someone on the edges of society who spars with Jesus. She is compared positively with the disciples, who are a bit slow to catch on and fret that Jesus is associating with such a person; she, by contrast, comes over as someone who can see who Jesus is and what he means.
Religious matters are not, for her, about theory but about something life- changing, and she is very quick to catch on to the distinction Jesus makes between water as a necessity for being alive and as a metaphor for something that makes life meaningful and true: ‘…the spring of water gushing up to eternal life’.
Which leads me to one final point, following on from what Daniel said in his sermon last week. In the baptism service there is a reference to being born again, another to being reborn, and finally, after the baptism when a child is anointed, to being renewed every day by God’s Spirit. All mean the same thing: that by drawing on the deep well of faith and by listening to God and one another, we can all change and grow in love.
One of the most helpful illustrations I have heard for what this process of rebirth is like is the story behind the opening scenes of The Sound of Music – all those close-ups of Julie Andrews singing. This was filmed by a passing helicopter which not only deafened her but knocked her over. So, she had to keep on getting up and starting all over again. I read that it took ten takes to get it right.
This is a process we find continues throughout our lives. Being reborn isn’t a magic moment; it is a process that lasts a lifetime. Each time we get to our feet again, we will have changed a little – with God’s grace.