As the Deer Pants for the Water

A Baptism Meditation based on Psalm 42

“As the Deer Pants for the Water”

June 23, 2013 by  Pastor Kim Blocher

Yesterday, with another volunteer, I led a talk and walk at Pine Grove Furnace State Park.  It really is a wonderful place with so much to offer.  (Check out our bulletin board in the narthex with a listing of all the events in our area. )  So many of the visitors to the park arrive with canoes or kayaks on the roof of their cars, because it is known for its inviting waters.  Laurel Lake and Fuller Lake for recreational boating;  and of course Mountain Creek to just wade in and look for crayfish.  Or you just stroll by the creek and look at the wonderful ferns and native plants as we did.  But you are never far from water at Pine Grove.  Living where we do we are lucky like that.

So many places in the world used to be green and lush and are now a thirsty desert.  Thomas Friedman several weeks ago wrote a NY times blog posting called “Postcard from Yemen” on his trip to the Middle East for a documentary on climate change and the Arab awakening.  Here is an excerpt:  Taiz, the Yemeni city in the central highlands that is suffering from such an acute water shortage that people get to run their taps for only 36 hours every 30 days or so. They have to fill up as much as they can and then rely on water trucks that come through neighborhoods and sell water like a precious commodity. I am visiting Mohamed Qaid, a 25-year-old laborer from the nearby village of Qaradh who was struck the night before in the hand and chest by three bullets fired by a sniper from Marzouh, the village next door. The two villages have been fighting over the rapidly dwindling water supply from their shared mountain springs. Six people have been killed and many more wounded in clashes since 2000 that have heated up of late. One was killed a night ago. Qaid is in pain, but he wanted to tell people about what is happening here. I have one question: “Were you really shot in a fight over water?” He winces out his answer: “It wasn’t about politics. It wasn’t about the Muslim Brotherhood. It was about water.”

Friedman interviewed a former government minister for water resources who said “In Sana, the capital, in the 1980s, you had to drill about 60 meters to find water. Today, you have to drill 850 to 1,000 meters to find water. Yemen has 15 aquifers, and only two today are self-sustaining; all the others are being steadily depleted. And wherever in Yemen you see aquifers depleting, you have the worst conflicts.”  We used to think that the future wars would be fought over oil.  We now know that they will be, and are, being fought over water.  More so than us, those folks in Yemen would relate to the image in  Psalm 42 of a thirsty deer searching desperately for water.

Water is precious.  All life began in the primordial seas.   So it is no coincidence that one of our two sacraments is about water.  Like bread, water is essential to life and representative of the goodness of God’s creation.  Scripture talks about us hungering and thirsting after God.  One of the most beautiful passages in scripture is our appointed psalm for the day, Psalm 42.  “As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you.”  Or in Peterson’s The Message:  “A white-tailed deer drinks from the creek, I want to drink God, deep draughts of God.  I’m thirsty for God-alive.   I wonder, will I ever make it—arrive and drink in God’s presence?”  Traditionally in the church, Psalm 42 was sung as part of the processional to the baptismal font.  The font is where we are born as Christians, drink in God’s presence, and are acknowledged as being part of God’s family.  Tertullian, an ancient Christian philosopher, said that Christians are not born, we are made.   We are made in the water of baptism, and the living waters remain a part of us all our lives.  A baby spends 9 months in water.  And as baptized Christians we never really leave the waters!

Our green altar frontal (pictured on this blog posting) tells this story in such a graphic way that we should never forget it.  Two deer are drinking from the living waters flowing under the cross.  The water puts us in mind of baptism.  We know that Jesus’ public ministry began with his baptism when God acknowledged and claimed Jesus as his precious son. But have you ever wondered why Jesus never baptized anyone during his life?   Nor do we have a gospel account of the disciples baptizing anyone.  That does not take place until after Jesus’ death and resurrection and the early church is forming in Jerusalem.

Jesus and his disciples did not baptize because it was not yet time.  His baptism signaled the beginning of his saving work, the preparation that was being made to usher in God’s kingdom.  It was the cross and the tomb that revealed the full love of God, and when Jesus’ teaching was made fully visible.  William Willimon claims that when Jesus said, “it is finished,” he means the work begun at his baptism.  Now it was time for his disciples  to carry on the work.  “Go therefore to all the nations and baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”   As it was for Jesus, so it is for us.  Baptism is a once and for all sacrament that takes one’s whole earthly life to finish.  But it is God’s work that is being done in us, not work that we are doing for ourselves.

As William Willimon points out in Remember Who You Are (p. 40) this is precisely why we, in our tradition, we do not re-baptize.  Sometimes a pastor will be asked to do that—maybe from someone who has been away from church for a long time, or a life crisis has passed.  But to re-baptize would be as much as saying that God didn’t get it right the first time and needs a do-over.  That attitude is saying that it’s not God’s work, but the work being done by the minister or church.  We think that is wrong on both counts!  Willimon: “Baptism is a public declaration of the promise of God: I will be your God.  I choose you.  I will never let you go.  I will bring you home.”  Since God keeps promises, to re-baptize  is to say that God was lying the first time!  And even if we become discouraged in our faith and feel that our baptism hasn’t made any difference…we should just be patient and let God do the wonderful and mysterious work begun in our baptism.

Psalm 42 speaks to the difficulty of a life of faith when it seems that God’s presence is very far away.  Certainly the Hebrew people in exile felt abandoned by God.  Those exile times of thirst and anxiety  are felt by us all, “I say to my God, ‘Why hast thou forgotten me?”  Bu the living waters never leave us.  The deer, as on our paraments, return to the waters for help and end up praising God. “Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”

Yes, water is becoming scarce in this troubled world.  It is a precious resource that out of respect for our Creator we do not waste or take for granted.  But a paradox of Christianity is that the sacrament of water is an outward sign of an inward grace, and that grace is inexhaustible.  Yes, that grace is precious, but we don’t run out of it because God is inexhaustible.  No matter how we try to wear God out!

It is easy for us to forget that we are baptized…after all it was so long ago.  And sometimes we wander through life living as though that water was never poured over our heads.  As parents we might forget the promises made at baptism.   Sometimes churches forget the promises made when we witness a baptism and promise our love, support and care.   But God never forgets the one who is baptized.  God never forgets the promise made when God declares, “Child, you are mine.”  That’s why we do this in church, to remind each other in God’s presence, whose we are and to whom we belong.

Thank you God for the water of baptism.  And like the thirsty deer searching for the water, may we always seek the living waters that slake our thirst and give us life.