“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” — Matthew 3:16


Today is Baptism of the Lord day; a day when we acknowledge and celebrate God’s presence made known to us in Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. I know many of you have been to the Jordan, sat at its shallow muddy banks, wondered at Jesus’ baptism, …and considered your own experience of God at the baptismal font. Yet, today, we aren’t’ there, at the Jordan River, and so Langston Hughes poem takes us one step beyond—to every river, to ancient rivers, where God’s presence might be made known. Langston Hughes wrote this poem when he was 17. As he was moving south from the Midwest to Mexico to live with his father, his train passed over the Mississippi River, and the poem floated from pen to paper, as if it appeared before him.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers
by Langston Hughes

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world
and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi
when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans,
and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

For all the attention Christmas receives, it seems abrupt to halt our celebrations of Jesus’ birth. But in reality, the story of Jesus’ beginnings are such a small part of the Gospel of Matthew, that your clergy get a bit anxious to move along into the rest of the story in these precious few weeks before Easter arrives. And so, after Jesus’ birth, a visit from the 3 Magi, and some turbulent time spent as refugees in Egypt, Jesus’ family returns to Nazareth and the film cuts unceremoniously from Jesus as a child to Jesus as an adult. There is no “growing up” montage with clips of him as a teenager or a young adult, no video footage of Jesus learning to ride a bicycle or photo evidence of Jesus graduating from high school. The Gospel of Matthew cuts directly from Jesus’ infancy to Jesus’ baptism, with only the briefest backstory on John the Baptist who presides at this earth shattering event.

Matthew 3:13-17

At that time Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan River so that John would baptize him. John tried to stop him and said, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?” Jesus answered, “Allow me to be baptized now. This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.” So John agreed to baptize Jesus. And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

One man was skeptical about traveling to the Holy Lands, but upon opportunity to go with his 17-year-old son, they packed their bags and ventured forth.[1] Growing up Pentecostal, his family had never really recognized any “sacred places.” A storefront church and a cathedral had equal measure of God’s divine presence, he thought. Likewise, praying from the threshold of your bedroom window could bring you just as near to the Holy Spirit as praying in a pew.

And anyway, visiting these so-called “sacred places” always seemed to come with their own burdens. Visiting the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, for example, he noticed that the place was run by argumentative monks, whose quarrels unleashed something approaching profanity and blasphemy in a place that might otherwise seek to convey Jesus’ message of reconciliation and hope. Plus, each so-called “sacred place” along the path of Jesus sought to outdo the next with their inescapable merchandise—selling Jesus to tourists, instead of seeking him.

Yet, when he visited Jesus’ baptismal site, there was something more spiritual than commercial, more sacred than materialistic. It was an austere desert place with archeological remains, a church, a prayer hall, and a gracefully underpopulated pedestrian trail that meandered through the ancient tree line toward the Jordan River. Yes, it was barely a trickle—years of international fighting over water resources had diverted over 96% of the river’s flow; and yes, it was muddy and polluted with everything up to and including untreated sewage.[2] But, together, he and his son were moved by the knowledge that “here, near the shores of the Dead Sea—the lowest point on the surface of the earth—the ministry of the one who was to reunite heaven and earth began.”

Have you been there? Is it true? Is there something there at the banks of the Jordan River, that connects heaven to earth? Did you know that throughout the centuries, hermits—monks living strikingly solitary lives—carved out dwelling places there upon the riverbank, hoping that just by being there, at the Jordan River, at that ancient meeting place of heaven and earth, that God might draw near?[3] Did your encounter with God shift and move, too, under the power of that river?

I have always felt called to rivers—any body of water really. My grandfather’s farm had a river woven through it. I went to college on a cliff overlooking the Ohio River. I am fascinated that by some strange feat of engineering, Chicago has in fact reversed the flow of its own river. Each of these rivers, and many others, serve to ground me spiritually in some way, connect me to the God whose spirit flows through us.

This year, surprisingly, pop-culture made room for a river-powered spirituality with a song called “River” by Leon Bridges. Leon Bridges—a Texas-born former dishwasher turned Grammy nominee—is proud of his musical career because he’s been able to pay off his mother’s debt with the money he’s made singing a Sam-Cooke-and-Otis-Redding-inspired Memphis Soul-Gospel fusion.

I saw him perform about 18 months ago, at the Green Mill, which, if you’ve been there you know that even packed to the gills seems to barely fit 100 people. But now, Leon Bridges is on Obama’s Spotify list of favorite songs after being invited to play at the White House earlier this year. It was a rocket-fast trip to the top of the charts, and if you ask me, he’s probably going to (or at least should) win a Grammy for best music video for his song “River,” …but admittedly he’s up against Beyoncé’s Formation video, so it’s yet to be seen.

While his song is simply titled “River,” it doesn’t take a trained theological eye to recognize the baptismal imagery he calls forth. It’s a hauntingly soulful song that itself meanders, river-like, toward its chorus, saying:

In my darkness I remember
Mama’s words recur to me
‘Surrender to the good Lord
and he’ll wipe your slate clean’

and then the chorus comes in singing “take me to the river, I wanna go.” And, it meanders ever closer to baptism, toward full-immersion, singing:

Tip me into your smooth waters,
I go in as a man with many crimes.

Come up for air
As my sins flow down the Jordan
Take me to the river, I wanna know.

In the music video, the lyrics compete with images of himself driving along a quite different river—the full over-industrialized Patapsco River in Baltimore, lined with those enormous cranes that pull cargo off international container ships—the kind you’d see driving through Gary, Indiana. Then, the video pans across to images of the riots in Baltimore that unfolded in the wake of Freddy Grey’s death in April 2015—you see a man using a bright orange traffic cone to beat through the window of a car, and then a group of women and children at dusk, holding vigil with candlelight and balloons, followed by a group of people standing in a spring rainstorm that echoes the washing clean of baptism, even in the midst of chaos.[4]

You remember these riots, yes? That White Sox/Orioles game which was not quite canceled, but which was plated in an entirely empty stadium, void of fans, so as to prevent public violence in the midst of such uncertain racial and political tension?

Now, in the New Year of 2017, the tensions have not lessened since Baltimore, of course, just shifted and changed, as we’ve sought to learn and understand and respond in our racially diverse country with a troubling racialized history and an ever-present hope for the future. Now, we remember not just Baltimore, but Ferguson and San Bernadino. Now, we remember not just Orlando, but Ft. Lauterdale. Now, we remember not just the summer Bastille Day in Nice, but the Berlin Christmas Market. Tensions have not lessoned, just shifted and changed.

When Leon Bridges paired his lyrics of baptism alongside such social discord, he underlined the very world into which Jesus was born on Christmas Day, and into which Jesus, too, was baptized today—a world fraught with injustice and violence, such violence that innocents might be slaughtered at the hands of the Roman government, and Jesus might be crucified for the crime of preaching truth and love and hope. Somehow, the need for baptism, that longing for spiritual cleansing, renewal, and a right path with God, comes within a greater social context, in which our own hope for a right relationship with God spills over into our way of living in this weary world.

Leon Bridges was not originally seeking a social message, however. He was drawn to the way gospel music has historically used the river images to symbolize personal change and redemption—a turning toward a new way of life. The song came up from the depths of his own spiritual experience during a time of real depression in his life, and so he sat in his garage trying to write a song that echoed that struggle. He was stuck between multiple jobs, trying to support his mother. It seemed there was little way out. The only thing he could cling to, he said, was his faith in God, which led him again toward those images of baptism, which led him down to the river.[5]

We, too, turn to God in these moments: both in personal despair and in the wider social hope for change. His time of real depression is not far from our own, his experience is linked to ours, whatever sorrow brings us to seek out God at the river.

Langston Hughes’ poem that we read, too, unleashes that same personal and prophetic narrative. Yes, he was only 17 when he wrote that poem, but as he crossed over the Mississippi River by train that day, he saw below him a riverbank that held more than just water. He knew the history of slavery that flowed up and down that river, both as a student of those barely bygone days, and as a grandson to a woman who had served the Underground Railroad with body, mind, and soul. In fact, his grandfather died at Harper’s Ferry, trying to assist fugitive slaves, and Langston’s grandmother so cherished the shawl he was wearing when he died, that she would wrap Langston up in it on cold winter nights.[6]

He intimately knew the history of slavery, that “one of the worst fates that could befall a slave was to be ‘sold down the river’ to the large slave market in New Orleans, sent away from family to be worked to death on a cotton plantation.”[7] And he also knew the legend of Abraham Lincoln who witnessed a slave auction as a young man in New Orleans, and, as the story goes, resolved at that moment to overthrow slavery. The Congo and the Nile, too, have connotations of slavery and exploitation by colonial powers.

And yet, here, rivers are “comforting maternal presences, evoking a history of suffering, endurance, survival, and achievement.”[8]

Years later, inspired by Langston Hughes’ poem about the Mississippi, another poet takes these rivers all the way back to our spiritual home, saying “But believers know the old Mississippi travels across the seas down to the Jordan…. Only muddy waters can scrub a soul clean.”[9]

Baptism, he’s suggesting, is not about some far-fetched idea of cleanliness, nor is it about standing in the right river at the right time—but that any muddy water can scrub a soul clean, because God—who met Jesus at the Jordan—meets us where we are, and uses ordinary water—and much more ordinary people—to turn us toward good.

Jesus’ baptism in the muddy waters of the Jordan connect us across time and place to a God who reaches out to you at frozen lakeshores and riverbanks, in pews and at bedside windowsills, in the garage of your despair and on a train ride that strikes inspiration.

As the New Year dawns and a wild future is at our doorstep, wild in every way we might imagine it, we need Jesus’ baptism, just as much as we need his Christmas-Day birth.

Yes, we might be grateful that the commercialized version of our faith is Christmas, not Baptism, because manger scenes and crib sets are less messy and more attractive than a water-filled river scene and John the Baptist wearing his scrappy animal skins and feasting on locusts…but this under-recognized Baptism Sunday offers us a chance to renew our relationship with God, both prophetically and personally.

Like Leon Bridges, we call out to God, “Take me to the river.” Like Langston Hughes, we long to stand with God at the edge of “ancient dusky rivers” soul growing deep. Like the hermits on the bank of the Jordan, we seek the meeting place of heaven and earth—where God might find us, where God might shelter us, where God might call us by name, beloved and belonging. May it be so. Amen.

[1] Miroslav Volf, Reluctant Pilgrim: A Visit to the Jordan. Christian Century. November 3, 2009.

[2] Friends of the Earth Middle East: The Lower Jordan River http://foeme.org/www/?module=projects&project_id=23

[3] Miroslav Volf, Reluctant Pilgrim: A Visit to the Jordan. Christian Century. November 3, 2009.

[4] Watch the Music Video here: https://youtu.be/0Hegd4xNfRo

[5] Stephen Thompson, Leon Bridges, ‘River,’ February 1, 2016. http://www.npr.org/2016/02/01/465140411/leon-bridges-river

[6] Langston Hughes, A Biography: Laurie F. Leach, p. 2.

[7] Langston Hughes, A Biography: Laurie F. Leach, p. 12.

[8] Langston Hughes, A Biography: Laurie F. Leach, p. 12.

[9] Down to the Dark River, Contemporary Poetry about the Mississippi River: The River Burial, Philip C. Kolin, 106.