Bishop’s Sermon on May 5 at St. Paul’s Church in Fayetteville

Even if the weather does not feel like it, it is finally May, and we are getting ready for a seasonal migration ritual. I am not talking about moving out of dorm rooms for the summer; I am talking about something larger: vacation. What I would love, and what we have the GPS cell phone technology sufficient to do these days, is to see the map of movements across the United States of people as they head out on vacation. Look where the dots clump. Look where people want to be in order to refresh themselves. I am not psychic, but I can predict where those dots will indeed clump: the seashore, lakes, rivers, and streams. Most of us will want to be near significant bodies of water when we escape our workaday or school lives. I have to admit that it is why Arkansas is never going to be a vacation hotspot. Outside the Buffalo River, we have little exciting water to be near. The lakes are manmade, and even the mighty Mississippi is locked away by levees. We want waves and rushing streams that we can stand beside and get into. We want honest-to-God water.

It is no wonder, then, that all three of our lessons today, three lessons written as the church was forming, have one thing in common: water. Paul goes to Macedonia and on the Sabbath heads down by the river to pray. Yes, that action is the inspiration for the song so beloved by rural churches in the South. John the epistler tells us that the heavenly city Jerusalem will be dominated by a river flowing through its center that offers sustenance for the leaves that provide for the healing of nations. And Jesus, when he is in the actual historical Jerusalem, heads to a pool where tradition had it that people would be healed of their infirmities when the water stirred. He encounters a number of invalids who have come to be beside the water specifically for that reason; they want the illness in their lives washed away. It is not too large a leap to connect their desires with ours, as we want to get away from daily infirmities and struggles and the messes of jobs and school, and find water that will heal us.
Water changes who we are. Put a child in front of the ocean for the first time, and, as a priest told me only last week who had just seen it happen with his own child, you can’t pull that child away. He is happy. Bring an adult to a trout stream, and he becomes a new person. Bring an infant to a baptismal font, and families for a moment forget their disagreements and congregations stand in awe. The cry of a child is suddenly welcome in the stillness of a church.

If there were ever lessons for baptism, these are the ones. At the water’s edge people find healing. At the water’s edge the healing of the nations becomes possible. At the water’s edge, people go to pray. It sounds like baptism to me.

The lesson from Acts tells us that Paul goes down to the river because it is there that there is supposed to be a place to pray. The story does not say that he begins to offer up a prayer, either silently or aloud, as we typically think of praying. What he does is to start talking with the women who are gathered there. To be in relationship and to form new relationships IS his prayer. Or as the Book of Common Prayer reminds us, prayer is our response to God. And let me assure you that such a response almost always involves what sort of actions we take to be in closer relationship with our fellow human beings. The purpose of prayer is to change how we act.

We repeat the baptismal covenant on this day. We are hoping for new and life-giving responses to old illnesses. In each of the lessons today relationships change in the proximity of water. Paul reaches out to Lydia and she finds a new way to live. From the stream of water from the throne of God the nations themselves find healing. A man is able to stand and walk as he had not done in decades because Jesus comes up to him and stirs up something inside this invalid that enables him to see and act on his condition differently, a new relationship with one’s own body.

On this day we baptize and we confirm our baptismal hope that relationships can and will be restored, and in their restoration will come health. We gather as a church near a baptismal font, sort of like people gathering at the rivers and lakes and streams and oceans each summer, and we find ourselves refreshed and healed, ready to look at the world with new eyes, ready to see Jesus in every new relationship that comes our way. We stand beside water, on the lookout for something stirring, ready to find healing in the very midst of a world that so desperately needs a vacation from business as usual. We anticipate what the face of Jesus might next look like. Amen.