Teri's Blog

Baptism as a Thin Place


The Rev. Teri Daily


IMG_0914A sermon for baptism on Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5 and John 5:1-9…


There are moments in our lives when we know for certain that heaven and earth are comingled, moments when a veil is lifted and the most ordinary moment is shot through with divinity.  In Marilynne Robinson’s book Gilead, an old and ailing pastor writes a letter to his young son, describing his experiences and life lessons.  Reverend Ames writes of what he saw one morning on the way to church:

There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me.  The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet.  On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted but she wasn’t.  It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth.  I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash.  I wish I had paid more attention to it.[1] 

We go through our day to day lives largely oblivious to the deeper reality that enfolds us—at least until a scene or an object or a person is transfigured before our very eyes, and we see the intersection of heaven and earth as clearly as if we were standing in the New Jerusalem.  In fact, maybe what happens to the old pastor in the book Gilead isn’t all that different from what happens to John of Patmos in the book of Revelation.

In today’s reading from Revelation, an angel carries the writer of that book to a high mountain.  Mountains are well-known to be “thin places”—places where the boundary between heaven and earth is particularly thin and porous.   What we see in John’s vision is a thin place so stretched out that the accessibility of God, the intimacy between creation and God, surpasses anything we’ve experienced.  The holy city of Jerusalem comes down from heaven and actually resides on earth, shattering the boundary between the eternal and the historical, the heavenly and the earthly.  There is no temple in the New Jerusalem—that which is holy is not set apart.  God isn’t set apart.  Instead, as we read earlier in the 21st chapter of Revelation, the “home of God is among mortals.  He dwells with them.”  According to Hebrew tradition, no one could see the face of God and live.  But here, in the New Jerusalem, those who worship God do so face to face.

Not only does the intimacy between God and all creation speak of a beautiful oneness, but that oneness also extends horizontally—to relationships between nations and peoples.  We see in John’s vision that the glory of God and of Christ provides continuous light, and by this light all the nations find their way.  The river from the water of life flows from the throne of God and the Lamb; it is as bright as crystal.  There are trees on both sides of the river that produce fruit in abundance year-round; their leaves provide healing for all the nations.   The profound communion and inclusivity of this vision is striking, especially compared to what we so often experience in our own world.

Too often we see this vision of the New Jerusalem as just a dream for the future, as if it says nothing about our present reality.  We see the New Jerusalem in the same way that the man with an illness in today’s gospel reading saw the pool at the Sheep’s Gate—“all of my healing lies over there, just beyond my grasp.”  But this is where we are wrong.  The New Jerusalem isn’t a place that exists outside of us in some distant time.  Instead, it is the deepest truth about who we are in the here and now, the deepest truth of who we are in relation to God and to one another.  It’s the truth that God loves us and is with us, sustaining us at every moment; the truth that everything is shot-through with the mystery of God if we only have the eyes to see; the truth that our differences don’t really separate us; the truth that there is enough for everyone, if we just trust in this vision and open our hands to share.

The problem is that this truth (this New Jerusalem) is often concealed by the divisions, violence, fear of scarcity, and competitive lifestyles that we see all around us.  And because this is the case, we need thin places—places where we can have mirrored back to us the truth about ourselves and this world we live in.  That is why sacraments are so very important to the life of the Church.  In the sacraments, a veil lifts and we see the very ordinary elements of water, bread, wine, oil, and hands all participating in the glory of God.  In the sacraments, we are reminded that there is really no separation between the ordinary and the extraordinary, the secular and the holy, the finite and the eternal, the earthly and the heavenly.

Today Lily will receive the sacrament of baptism.  We will take water from the faucet, and pour it into the baptismal font.  But make no mistake about it—the water we pour on Lily’s head today is not just ordinary water.  For those of us who have eyes to see, it is the river of the water of life running through the New Jerusalem—bearing witness to the truth that Lily is the beloved child of God; the truth that God dwells with her, sustaining her each and every moment and healing the broken places in her life; the truth that the people who share the earth with her are her brothers and sisters, beloved by God as well.

We will baptize Lily just this once, but God’s grace remains with her a lifetime.  Our prayer is that Lily will learn to see this grace all around her—that veils will lift again and again, revealing the deepest truth of who she is in the laughter of her family, in the eyes of someone asking for help, in juicy red tomatoes from the garden, in hands that bring healing, and in the luminous water that falls from a tree branch after a rain.

[1] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Picador, 2004) 32.