Holy Water and Us

“Untitled”: Children filled with happiness playing in the water. Brazil.
Photo and caption by Seth Solo/People/National Geographic Photo Contest

A sermon for the Day of Pentecost, May 27, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104: 25-35,37, Romans 8:22-27, and John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15.

Some years ago I was on a retreat day with a small group of people.  It was in late Lent, not long before Easter.  At the end of the day, the priest who was leading the retreat brought us together in a room that had a large table.  We sat at the table, like we were going to share a big meal, but there was no food.  There was just a clear, glass pitcher of water and a small bowl of salt.  The priest explained that during the day we had shared various stories.  We had been reminded of the stories Jesus told.  During the day, our thoughts and prayers had been guided by those stories, and especially with the ways in which they resonated with our lives.  So, now, the priest explained, each of us was invited to pass around the pitcher and bowl of salt.  Each was to take a pinch of the salt, put it in the water, and tell a “sad story.”  In other words, we were invited to share a story that had made us sad, or scared us, or hurt us.

We went around the room and did just that.  One person spoke of loss through death.  Another talked about her business going bankrupt.  (I recall that I was not willing to be as deeply honest as some people, and so I told about the time I had a bad case of pinkeye, and how that has continued, over the years to affect my vision in one eye.  It’s more of an occasional nuisance than anything else, but it visits on occasion reminding me of aging, of mortality, and of weakness. )

Once we had gone around with a sad story, the priest then asked us to go around again.  This time, we were to take a pinch of salt, toss it into the water, and tell a joyful story—a story that made us happy, or filled us with hope, or showed us a quick insight into the love of God.  Those stories flowed more freely and before long the room was filled with a different mood. There was laughter.  There were a few tears again, and there was gladness. When the bowl of salt and the pitcher of water came back to the priest, he very quietly stood up.  He placed a stole around his neck and invited us to stand and to pray.  He led us in old and ancient words:

O God, who art the Author of unconquered might, the King of the Empire that cannot be overthrown, the ever glorious Conqueror: who dost keep under the strength of the dominion that is against thee; who rulest the raging of the fierce enemy; who dost mightily fight against the wickeness of thy foes; … we beseech thee graciously to behold this creature of salt and water, mercifully shine upon it, hallow it with the dew of thy lovingkindness: that wheresoever it shall be sprinkled, with the invocation of thy holy Name, all haunting of the unclean spirit may be driven away; far thence let the fear of the venomous serpent be cast; and wheresoever it shall be sprinkled, there let the presence of the Holy Spirit be vouchsafed to all of us who shall ask for thy mercy.  Through Christ our Lord.  Amen. 

At the conclusion of the prayer the priest looked at us and said simply, “your stories—your stories of sadness and of joy, your tears and your laughter, have all been used by the Holy Spirit to make this water holy.  This water will be used at our next baptism.  It will be used to splash people with as a reminder of their baptism.  It will used quietly by those who dip their finger in and make the sign of the cross with it.  Remember that the Holy Spirit uses us to make water and the world holy.”

The salt is made holy.  The water is made holy.  We are made holy.

Since its discovery in primeval times, salt has been used for its curative and preventive qualities.  Just as it keeps away bad things from invading food, so salt was early on thought to help in warding off bad spirits.  The Early Church used salt when a candidate began the catechumenate, the process toward baptism.  In some places it is still used around baptism and is known by the wonderful word, “exsufflation,” which included blowing the catechumen’s face, as well as putting salt on the tongue.  As salt is put on the tongue, the priest says, “Satisfy him or her with the Bread of Heaven that he or she may be forever fervent in spirit, joyful in hope, zealous in your service.”  Salt on the tongue symbolizes the prayer of the church that the faith that is infused at Baptism will be kept strong, distinct, and keep its edge, mindful of Jesus’ words, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matt. 5:13).

The theological word for God making us holy is a word we don’t hear much: sanctification.  But it’s a word that is still promised and made complete in God by the work of the Holy Spirit. Sanctification is like a woodworker who slowly, lovingly, carefully sands the edges off a rough piece of wood, eventually revealing the wood’s truest beauty and purpose.  Sanctification is like a cook who adds a little of this, has a taste; adds a little of that; has a taste; and on and on, until the food is just right.  Sanctification is like the slow, patient work of water that carves its way through rock over years, over decades, over centuries.  Sanctification happens as our stories—the sad, the happy, the embarrassing, the horrible, the sentimental, the mundane—our individual and unique stories are brought into the story of God’s saving grace for the world.  The story of God’s coming into the world in the form of Jesus, of his dying and rising again, of his living out what love can look like—this becomes mixed up with our story, so that as we grow towards God, it’s impossible to tell where one begins and the other ends. 

In just a few minutes, Anthony will be baptized.  Even though he’s young, he already has stories that he will bring to the baptismal font with him.  He has all kinds of stories: sad and happy. He has stories about his parents, his wider family, his friends, maybe his pets.  With the Holy Spirit and with the story that is, and is to be Anthony, holiness will begin its tale—extending the action, thickening the plot, adding characters, and developing new themes of love and faithfulness.  

We and Anthony return to the baptismal font.  We can return every time we walk in a church, but we can return in our prayers, as well, to claim again and again “I am baptized.  I belong to God and God is making me holy.” 

May God continue to draw us into the story of salvation, so that we may never forget that the Holy Spirit uses us to make the water (and the world) holy.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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