Ezekiel 36:22-28

In the great metropolis of Oscar, Kentucky (where nearly 100 residents live) there are only two churches: Oscar Baptist Church, which is really in the suburbs, about two miles north of town, and Oscar United Methodist Church. My grandmother’s house is about two tenths of a mile from the Methodist church, in which I grew up. I remember the humorous conversations had between Methodists and Baptists about the amount of water used in baptism and that it often came down to us Methodists accused of being afraid of water. Well there was one cold, snowy Sunday morning when the roads were less than ideal to be traveling on. We watched the ticker along the bottom of the TV screen to see what churches were calling off, waiting for the time it would get to the O’s. There aren’t a lot of towns that begin with ‘O’ so we had to pay attention. And sure enough, Oscar Baptist Church showed on the screen: “Sunday services cancelled.” But Oscar United Methodist Church did not show up on the cancellations so we packed into the car and made our way to church. When we got there, my Granny said something I’ll never forget in her sweet voice, “We Methodists may be afraid of the water, but at least we aren’t afraid of the snow.”

Let’s review where we are in this series on baptism. We’ve said over and over that baptism is a sacrament primarily of identity rather than of experience or feeling. Baptism is being united with Christ in his death and resurrection and is the recognition and receiving of the Holy Spirit Who was poured out at Pentecost. To illustrate these two realities of baptism, we’ve talked about immersion and pouring and how they convey this reality. So that leaves us with just one other common mode of baptism, so let’s talk that this morning. What is the reason behind the one that Methodists are sometimes known for, sprinkling? (Or the fancy word for it, aspersion.)

Baptism by aspersion (Photo credit - www.northalabamaumc.org)

Baptism by aspersion (Photo credit – http://www.northalabamaumc.org)

I want to acknowledge first of all that I know, because of conversations I’ve had with several of you about your own experiences and stories of baptism, that you were not given a choice on the matter. Of course, if you were raised in a tradition that does not approve of baptizing infants then you were more than likely not given the choice when it came to how the water was to be used; you were immersed. But it’s equally true that for many who were baptized in a United Methodist Church, you were not told or given options either as a new believer or as parents about how water was to be used on you or your child. The baptism was simply done and you were sprinkled with water. I also want to acknowledge that some of you may be frustrated about not having gotten the option to do otherwise when it came to your baptism or the baptism of your children, and had you to do it over again, you would probably have it done differently. It is unfortunate that we have not given the option as much as we should have. (We UM pastors are encouraged to counsel with parents and with individuals about the different ways water may be used so that they can select whatever mode in accordance with their conscience.) And this may not be true of anyone here, but I heard a fellow clergy describe to me that one of her parishioners at the age of 90 was terrified of dying and going to hell because he was sprinkled rather than immersed. Some of our friends are so insistent that it has to be done their particular way or you will be condemned to hell for eternity. And that often casts a real sense of judgment and fear that is so significant, it persuades many to go through the waters of baptism in that particular way for fear of being damned. Now, these friends are probably for the most part well-meaning and are so convinced of this and do care for others such that they want to convince others to follow through their process. So as much as I disagree with that belief, I see it as though that at least they love us enough to try to get us on the(ir) right path.

With that said, however, what I would like to share with you, especially for those who may be frustrated about your own experience of baptism or who think of sprinkling as “less meaningful” than immersion or pouring, is to maybe help you come to be at peace with your own baptism or at least to understand the validity of sprinkling as a mode of baptism.

So here goes…Every time you find the action of “sprinkling” mentioned in the Bible, it is in the context of the covenant God has established with God’s people. Covenants, or contracts, today are typically ratified by what? Our signature at the bottom of the agreement or a password of some sort. Covenants in Scripture were typically ratified with the shedding or sprinkling of blood. In establishing covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15, God had him collect 5 different animals to be sacrificed and then in chapter 17 required the shedding of Abraham’s own blood through circumcision. This would be the mark that Abraham and his descendants would have indicating that they are God’s people, much like how baptism is the mark of God’s children of the new covenant established and fulfilled in Jesus the Christ. After God delivered the Israelites out of Pharaoh’s hand in Egypt and brought them through the Red Sea, God made covenant with them on Mount Sinai, where the Law was given. On that occasion in Exodus 24, Moses was instructed to take the blood from the sacrifices and sprinkle half of it on the altar and then to sprinkle the other half on the people saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD now makes with you.” Those words ought to sound familiar to those of us with New Testament eyes and ears: on the night that our Lord was betrayed, he took the cup and said these words, “This is my blood of the new covenant which is poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” In the sacrificial instructions in Leviticus there is all kinds of blood sprinkling going on, again given in the context of living into the covenant established by God in bringing them out of Egypt.

Sprinkling, therefore, is about the covenant. But there are a few times when water, rather than blood, is what is being sprinkled upon someone or something, all of which are about ritual cleansing and purification. You can find it in several places in Leviticus and Numbers, again in the context of covenant living, but is also seen in what we read from Ezekiel this morning. Only in this passage, we are not being taken back to the covenant established in the first books of the Bible, but we are hearing the notes to the prelude, promising the establishment of a new covenant. Ezekiel uses the analogy of a heart transplant with God’s people receiving a new heart and the implanting of God’s own Spirit into our lives. The ritual cleansing that signifies this new, deeper relationship (covenant) is the sprinkling of clean water on the people brought into this new covenant.

John Wesley said of this sprinkling of clean water: “This signifies both the blood of Christ sprinkled upon their conscience, to take away their guilt, as the water of purification was sprinkled, to take away their ceremonial uncleanness and the grace of the spirit sprinkled on the whole soul, to purify it from all corrupt inclinations and dispositions.”

What does this have to do with baptism, you may ask? Why this fits with the theology of baptism is because we understand baptism as a sacramental gift given by God in the context of a community in covenant with God and one another. Turn to page 32 and following in the UM Hymnal and you’ll find the services described this way: “Baptismal Covenant.” Thankfully we use the gift of water rather than blood. Yet when we use the water in baptizing someone, be it via sprinkling, pouring or immersion, we are also recalling the blood that Christ shed and are ourselves being united with him in his cleansing death and resurrection.

In thinking about these two liquids that are sprinkled in the context of covenant living, I was brought back this week to the way that St. John describes Jesus’ death and how when the soldier pierced his side to see if he was dead, blood and water came out from his side.

In his commentary on John, N. T. Wright traces through some of the medical descriptions of what happens at death and says: “The point seems to be, though, that whereas a living body would have produced [only] blood, a dead body, from somewhere in the chest or stomach, would produce a mixture of clotting blood and a watery substance. Jesus really was dead…But of course, at this moment of all moments, none of this is simply told for the sake of historical detail, vital though that is…John has left us in no doubt that all these details, too, though from point of view ‘accidental’ (nobody could have guessed what the soldiers might do next), were all to be seen as heaven-sent signs of what it all meant. We only have to think back through the gospel, to all the occasions where water or blood are mentioned, to realize that again and again they point to Jesus as the source of life, cleansing and purification.

In other words, it all comes together at the cross. The blood, the water, the establishment of the new covenant, all of it finds its meaning right here because in this event and what transpired on the third day, we find the source of life, of cleansing, of purification, of the covenant of our being brought into identity with Christ. The blood and water flowed from his pierced side, fulfilling the picture painted in Zechariah 12 & 13, which tells of God’s people mourning over one who was pierced, but that out of the pierced one would flow a fountain that would cleanse the sin and uncleanness of the people.

Hebrews 10:22 provides, I believe, the perfect response to this reality, how we should live in light of this gracious action of God in Christ, how we should live out our baptism. The author of Hebrews says, “Therefore, let’s draw near with a genuine heart with the certainty that our faith gives us, since our hearts are sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies are washed with pure water.”

Baptism is the sacrament of identity. I repeat from last week: There is debate about just how wet Jesus got. But everyone agrees on the identity proclaimed by the voice… “This is MY Son.” For us it is, “This is MY child.” And this promise was given in the final words of our Scripture this morning: “Then you will live in the land that I gave to your ancestors, YOU will be MY people, and I will be YOUR God.”

Sprinkling: that action of the covenant. And the thing about this biblical notion of covenant is that it is established by God. Notice that the One doing the action in all of this morning’s passage is God. “I will make my great name holy…I will take you from the nations…I will gather you…I will bring you…I will sprinkle clean water on you…I will cleanse you…I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove your stony heart…and replace it with a living heart…I will give you my spirit…” God does this. And this is what we believe about baptism: God does this. God has established the covenant with us. God has washed away our dirt, our shame, our guilt, our sin. And this is done because of the cleansing and purifying death and resurrection of Christ. Now let us live as God’s people, “water-washed and Spirit-born” with this living heart and Holy Spirit implanted in us by God’s own doing. Thanks be to God!