Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
creeping things innumerable are there,
living things both small and great.
26 There go the ships,
and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.
27 These all look to you
to give them their food in due season;
28 when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
May I speak in the name of the living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
As some of you know, I was born and raised near the beach—not the Beach here in Toronto, but Daytona Beach, in Florida. And as an adult, I returned to Florida and lived for 12 years just 30 minutes away from the Atlantic Coast. Often, on a day off, I’d drive over to New Smyrna Beach to run or walk on the boardwalk at Smyrna Dunes Park. Or drive further down the coast to Canaveral National Seashore, to walk on the beach, look for manatees in the Intracoastal Waterway, and follow the trail up to the top of Turtle Mound (a shell midden built centuries ago by the Timucuans) to enjoy the sweeping view of both the Intracoastal and the Atlantic, and the dolphin filled estuary where they meet. Whenever we return to Florida to visit family and friends, we always make time for a visit or two to these special places by the water.
So, when I have lived in other places, like Texas and Alabama, I have felt kind of landlocked. The first time I lived in Texas, about 20 years ago, sometimes when I got to really missing the shoreline, I would drive three hours roundtrip to Galveston Island just to have an afternoon by the water. Thankfully, the first two years I lived in Alabama, a small creek flowed behind the backyard of our house. I kept a chair in my favorite spot by the creek bank where I would commune with God as I listened to the water quietly babbling or loudly coursing (depending how much rain we’d had), looking at how the sun shone through the water (depending on the time of day), and watching the birds, squirrels, and chipmunks who, like me, were drawn to the water.
Settling here in The Beach, just steps from Lake Ontario, has felt in a way like coming home. I prefer to be close to a body of water, be it an ocean, a lake, or a river, because there is something about being near the water that reminds me that God is there—and that God provides for us through the gift of water. Seeing the expansiveness of an ocean—or a Great Lake—reminds me of my size in the grand scheme of things. Hearing water flowing over rocks in a river or creek, or waves breaking on the shore of a sea or lake, reminds me to be still and to trust that God’s spirit, too, is moving things along—just as leaf in the brook is lifted up and carried along by the current to a new resting place.
In both the Old Testament and Gospel readings for today, we hear stories of life-changing turning points taking place by the River Jordan. In 2 Kings, we hear how Elijah is being called away from this life and into the life to come, and how his protégée Elisha does not want to let his mentor Elijah go. This is a turning point in both their life stories. The River Jordan is a place of transition. This is where Elijah hears the call from God that it is time for him to leave this life—and this is where Elisha hears the call to pick up Elijah’s mantle and carry on the work that God has given him to do.
The River Jordan was a place where Elijah and Elisha had walked together, and crossed over together when Elijah struck the water with his mantle so they could walk across on dry land. And later, once Elijah was taken up into the whirlwind, the river became a place in which Elisha had to learn to carry on, to follow in the ways that Elijah had taught him—striking the water with the mantle Elijah had given him, trusting that God would continue to guide him as he crossed back to the other side of the river.
Likewise, the River Jordan is the site of a major turning point in the life of Jesus, as we hear in today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew. John the Baptist has been living out in the wilderness along the Jordan, proclaiming the Good News of the Messiah and baptizing all who came to believe that Good News with him. Jesus arrives at the banks of the Jordan, asking John to baptize him as well. John doesn’t feel worthy to untie the straps on Jesus’ sandals, let alone baptize him, “saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’”
Here, in the moment of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan, is when we have the clearest picture of the Trinity, present together in this pivotal moment: Jesus the Son allowing John to immerse him beneath the surface of the river, Jesus rising up from out of the water and seeing the heavens opened to him and the Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him, and hearing the voice of God the Father declaring that ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
Not only is Jesus’ baptism the moment in which the Trinity is most clearly revealed, it also is a great turning point in his life on earth—for Jesus’ baptism has prepared him to spend 40 days praying and fasting in the wilderness, then successfully facing the three great temptations, and then beginning his public ministry in Galilee. In order to do all of that, Jesus first had to be baptized in the river—the very same river in which Elisha took up Elijah’s mantle and began the next stage in God’s call on his life. In both these stories, being by the river, crossing the river, being immersed in the river are moments of great transition.
Being by a river, lake, or ocean—at the edge between land and water—is symbolic of transition. Water can divide us—people on one shore, people on another. And water can connect us, a means of transporting us from one shore to another. Water allows us to wash ourselves, hydrate our bodies, and grow plants that clean the air and provide food to nourish us. We cannot be fruitful without water. We believe in a God of abundance, a God who gives us water that allows us to grow fruitful crops and reap an abundant harvest. In the sacrament of baptism, we are called to follow Jesus’ example, being covered with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, marked as Christ’s own for ever. Being baptized, or having our children baptized, is a sign of our faith in God’s abundant, unconditional love for us—an outward sign of believing that God’s love overflows for us like the waters of an ever-flowing river or the most expansive ocean.
As we pray in our Thanksgiving over the water in the service of Holy Baptism,
We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over water the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through Water you led the children of Israel out of their bondage into the land of promise. In water your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.
We thank you, Father, for the water of baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. Therefore in joyful obedience to your Son, we brings into his fellowship those who come to him in faith, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Rebecca L. Bridges, Incumbent
Delivered Sunday, October 8, 2023