Confirmation students often surprise me with the questions they ask. Recently we were discussing the Lutheran sacrament of baptism. They wanted to know, “why do we use water for baptism?”
The simplest answer would be that this is what Jesus used and commanded (though technically Jesus never used water since he never baptized anyone, see John 4:2). Though John the Baptist baptized Jesus with water, he remarked that the Messiah would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 4:11). However water remained the essential physical element for baptism in the early church. As the Ethiopian Eunuch observed after his conversation with Philip about Jesus, “Look, here is some water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ (Acts 9:36). Since the early church, water has remained an essential element of baptism.*
Jesus might have chosen another physical element, but water was what he chose. Water remains a basic part of life. Without water, biological life dies. Jesus takes this simple, basic element and does something extraordinary. That is the power and wonder of the baptism.
In my old church I was leading worship and preparing to do a baptism. I discovered a great-grandfather of the child was a former governor of Minnesota and he was present for the service. I was a bit nervous knowing this. As I called the family forwarded to the baptismal font to start the service, I looked into the baptismal bowl. It was empty. No water. My nervous meter shot straight up.
I started to walk towards the side door, saying as I walked, “There are two essential parts to baptism: the Word of God and water. I have God’s Word here (holding up my Bible), but I need water as well. And do you know where we get our water for baptism?”
I stepped into the kitchen.
“From the faucet right here in the kitchen.”
I turned on the water and filled the bowl.
“It is just ordinary water that we start with, but used with God’s Word it does extraordinary things.” I walked back into the worship area holding the bowl of water.
“And that is part of the power of baptism. God takes ordinary people, like you and me, and does extraordinary things we them. Turning us into the children of God.”
I placed the bowl of water back into the font and continued the baptism.
Later the former governor told me that was one of the most memorable baptisms he had seen. It was for me as well.
Lord Jesus, thanking for taking ordinary stuff, like water and me, and doing extraordinary work with them.
*The gift of the Holy Spirit remains connected to the act of baptism, but certainly not restricted or limited to water baptism (see the story in Acts 10:44-48).