The word ‘baptism’ in the text isn’t a religious word; it is an everyday word. The Greek ‘baptizo’ has been taken directly into English for the religious ritual of the church, but in its day it was just a word that meant dipping. It’s used for drowning, sinking ships, dipping a cup into a bowl of wine and flooding a city with pilgrims. So what do we hear if John says: “I need to be dipped by you?” “I need to be washed by you?” “I need to be drenched by you?”
Of course John’s action has religious overtones. John is out there at the Jordan river, the border between the ‘wilderness’ and the ‘promised land’, the border that marked the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, Issac and Jacob, the border that marked the end of that forty year journey from slaves and refugees to possessing a land of their own. The story is told that when the priests leading the procession, carrying the ark of the covenant, the symbol of God’s promise and presence, stepped into the Jordan River the waters stopped flowing so that the people could cross on dry land. The ark stood there in the middle of the river till the last refugee crossed over, then as the priests came up from the riverbed, the flow of water returned.
It is a great story, full of theological significance. As God parted the Red Sea so he parted the Jordan. Deliverance from Egypt is only the beginning of God’s saving deed; it is fulfilled in a place to live in freedom. This land is gift of God, not a battle won by their force of arms (or a slow, dribbling occupation by immigrants.) It is, of course, conceivable in human experience that the run of the river could simply have been delayed for a time by a landslide, but the event remains a powerful sign. Who they are now in the land cannot be separated from God’s work to free them from slavery. And it is why God’s law was intended to keep them from sliding back into slavery or slaveholding.
They didn’t do well at that. So here is John, out in the wilderness, calling the nation to start over. The people must go back to the beginning and get their feet wet anew; they must start over as the people of God.
But now John stands, with Jesus before him, and says, “I need to be wetted by you.”
Jesus is not only the faithful son; he is the Jordan River. He is the path into the Promised Land. He is the border through whom one enters the reign of God. He is the one who drenches in the sacred Spirit. The Gospel of John will pile up such images: water of life, bread of life, the light of life, the way, truth and life, the gate of the sheepfold. Jesus is the pathway into humanity’s true life, into the world made whole, into life governed by God’s spirit not our passion and fears.
But not yet. “Let it be so for now.” For now, Jesus stands as the embodiment of Israel. He stands with us and among us as one of us – and as all of us. He will be the faithful Son, the one who does not break faith, who does not turn aside, who does not pluck the ancient fruit, does not seek to be as God. He will be the son, who honors and trusts the Father.
For now. And then the grave will be opened and the Spirit poured out. Then he will be revealed as the true measure of our humanity. Then he will be revealed as the firstborn of the new creation. And we will be dipped into him.
But for now, he is us – us as we were intended to be – us as we shall be in him.