John Romero recalls running in the 1973 Boston Marathon1. The weather was hot ... too hot for a Marathon. By the start of the race the temperature had already climbed to 76 degrees.
Two miles into the race Romero was in the midst of a large clutch of runners. Every single one of them, bone dry and thirsty … and there was no water in sight.
Orange peels lay strewn across the pavement, but there were no oranges to be had. Empty paper cups littered the road ... but there was no water.
There were several hundred runners ahead of Romero. He figured they had sucked up every drop of water and sucked down every orange in sight.
Six miles into the race, with a pounding head, Romero began to lose heart. He wondered if he could finish.
And then, suddenly, somewhere past Wellesley ... there appeared a man with a hose. He was spraying it on the runners. Romero made a dash for it.
The water hit Romero’s body and made his eyes pop. It was icy but wonderful. He jogged in place, gulping water down his throat and turning pirouettes, revolving in place like a pig on a vertical spit. He took off his cap, filled it and put it back on his head.
Baptism. It was baptism .... a gift of grace. Surprising. Luxurious. Delicious. Cooling. Refreshing. Life-giving. Life-saving.
Human life holds many rites of passage: major ones and minor ones, sacred ones and secular ones.
For many runners, completing the Boston Marathon is a major rite of passage. Merely to qualify, let alone finish, is an achievement.
You see, to qualify for the Boston Marathon is to have taken on the habits of a community of practice. Some would say an odd community, a community of those marked by disciplined practices around eating, stretching, weight-lifting, proteins and carbs, running and the intake of fluids … a community of those willing to endure pain for the sake of their practice.
In the life of the Christian ... the single most important rite of passage? Baptism.
When the earliest followers of Jesus submitted to baptism, they threw in their lot with one who had been executed by the state. To submit to baptism is to become a marked person … marked by water, but marked.
Christian baptism transports us by water into a strange new land. It is a land in which peace-makers are blessed and the poor are treated as kings and the ill receive free medical care and the hungry are fed whether or not they have money in their wallets. It is a land in which God loves and liberates slaves. It is a land in which death – not an end – becomes its own passage into something more.
The practices of this land of grace are baffling to many and – make no mistake about it – they are painfully difficult to master: practices of loving one’s enemies, forgiving those with whom we have complaints, giving away whole portions of our incomes, engaging in prayer and study, turning the other check, pursuing peace.
In a few minutes we will enact this ancient rite once again ... touching water to the forehead of one who chooses to inhabit this land of grace ... to abide by its high ethics and rigorous disciplines. Following that, nine young people will stand before us and claim this mark for themselves ... this life of living as marked persons.
(Names of Confirmands): it is a harsh world into which you have grown up ... a world in which shoddy buildings collapse in Bangladesh. A world of hurricane and tsunami. Of epidemic and famine ... It is a world of too many refugees and too many prisons. A world where terror visits our own doorstep. A world in which evil exists ... it does ... And Fear. And Hatred. And Violence.
Such is the world into which you make your vows and claim that you are marked people ... marked by water for a land of grace. It is here, at this font, that we take our stand with God’s grace.
Here at this font we dare claim that at the worst moments of drought and despair ... when your hearts are aching and breaking for God’s bruised and bloodied world ... when your feet grow weary and your spirits are turning to dust ... God will surprise and revive you, with a water hose of grace:
Grace enough to douse the fires of anger and hate that will lick at your own souls.
Grace enough to forge swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.
Grace for you to gulp down your own parched throats.
A shower of grace to cleanse the air of shrapnel and smoke.
Hat-fulls of grace to sustain you on the journey.
Grace that rains down justice like a mighty stream.
Here, at this font, we choose God ... and we choose grace. Amen?
1 "Back Among the Legions," an essay by John Romero, from Boston: America's Oldest Marathon, ed. by Ray Hosler, Anderson World Inc. (1980), page 10f.