According to the Christian calendar, this is the second Sunday after the Epiphany, the Baptism of Jesus. Just yesterday, we Jews read from our torah in the book of Exodus the account of crossing the Red Sea, celebrating the moment when we left Egypt behind by passing through water in safety and watched our tormentors drown. Afterwards we sang and danced to the One who helped reach freedom, a new state of being.
What do these stories have in common?
Water. Water that marks transformation.
Water is an integral element of many religious rituals—Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews—we all use it.
Our first human home is in the water of the womb, and we pass through a narrow canal, breaking through the waters to reach our first breath of air.
Water is about transformation.
We use water to clean—our homes, our clothes, our bodies and our souls.
At a Passover seder—the re-enactment of gaining freedom from slavery, we wash our hands twice: the first time is to cleanse our souls, and the second is to get ready to eat the wondrous meal.
Transformation and purification were both components of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, who was the son of Zechariah, a Levite, a member of the Jewish priestly tribe, the same tribe as Moses and Aaron. The preeminent Jewish historian of the time of Jesus, Josephus, describes John ben Zechariah as “a good man, [who] commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God.”
The word “baptism,” I recently learned, means that one is immersed in water as a means to wash away one’s sins, to purify oneself, and accept God.
Keeping in mind that both John the Baptist and Jesus were most likely observant Jews, embedded in their community, I wanted to understand the linkages between this week’s Christian and Jewish readings, how Judaism and Christianity can learn from each other and see where they share common ground. How did what John and Jesus were doing fit into Jewish life at that time?
And more importantly, what does it mean for us today? History in and of itself is interesting, but not necessarily life altering (although it can be, of course).
So, if we assume that John and Jesus were observant Jews, and that John was a prophet and Jesus a respected teacher or rabbi (invited in to many synagogues and communities to teach, according to the Gospels), they would have been familiar with using water in soul cleansing ways.
How many of you know what a mikveh is?
The mikveh, or immersion in a “gathering of water,” is a ritual traditionally required of both men and women for different reasons: before marriage (for women), the Sabbath (for men), and before sexual relations can resume after a woman’s menstrual cycle ends (again for women) and before conversion to Judaism (for both men and women).
So a mikveh is a ritual spiritual cleansing bath that Jews have used for centuries. It dates back originally to Aaron and his sons as they were invested as the first priests (Ex. 29:4): Moses washed each of them with water, dressed them and then anointed them with oil.
The practice really grew in the middle ages, in part because Jews were often not allowed to use public places for any type of bathing…Both men and women used it for different reasons, but the basic motivation remained as it was during the time of Jesus: to cleanse our souls, prepare for transformation and connect to the divine. Immersion in a mikveh happens at liminal moments, moments of transformation or change.
A mikveh, a ritual bath, uses water that we call mayyim chayim, living waters—water that comes from a naturally flowing source: think of the Russian River, the Petaluma River, the Pacific Ocean, Lake Tahoe – all mayyim chayim, all living waters and all legitimate mikvehs. Nowadays, most mikvehs are likely to be more like a warm, very large soaking tub that undergoes several processes to maintain its mayyim chayim, its living waters.
Using a mikveh is never about physical cleansing, but about spiritual cleansing, recognizing that change is happening. In fact, you have to take a shower, brush and floss your teeth, take off your nail polish – so that nothing comes between you and the water.
Let me tell you about my first experiences.
I learned all about mikvehs in my first semester of rabbinic school, when our creative ritual class took a field trip to the mikveh at the University of Judaism, now the American Jewish University, in LA. The mikveh lady gave us a complete tour, and explained everything. We sat next to the pool, in a softly lit, quiet room, lined with warm blue tile, as she matter-of-factly explained: about the water filtering process, the way she maintains each person’s modesty even while unclothed, the seven steps into the pool—seven for spiritual perfection and steps to contemplate the change in process, to release the old and prepare for the new; the three immersions; and the blessings that accompany the immersion.
As she spoke, I realized that tears were streaming down my cheeks. And I was surprised, but not surprised. As we sat in the warm room, not unlike a hot tub space in Berkeley or San Anselmo, I could feel myself as part of the chain linking generations of Jews before and after me. I could feel the energy of ancestors who had visited similar baths all over the world, coming to the mikveh at moments of transformation, recognizing that contact with the mayyim chayim, the living waters, brought them closer to the Holy. I could feel the energy flow through me toward the Jews yet to be.
My final exam for the class was a creative ritual, and I designed one that brought us back to the mikveh, where I immersed as a way to acknowledge the transformation that rabbinic school was bringing me, as I sought to connect to the holy, to be an energetic link in the chain.
Nearly five years later, I visited the mikveh in San Francisco, and immersed again, two days before I was to be ordained.
Each time, the water and the air hummed with the energy of people seeking to purify themselves, release their sins, move forward to a new place in their lives—and connect with the energy in the universe that bends toward good. Each time the tears came again, mingled with the mayyim chayim, the living waters. The second time, as I felt the weight of the transformation from lay person to teacher. It’s not just about immersion in water: it’s about the intent that you bring with you, what the water and change means to you.
But let’s go back for a moment to Jesus and John. They lived in a precarious, very dangerous time. The Romans were becoming more and more ruthless, and did not appreciate the rebelliousness of the Jews trying to regain their independence. While some Judeans rebelled, others felt that this life was hopeless: during the hundred years surrounding Jesus’ life, Judeans swarmed to six different leaders whom they felt would offer them a new way. Some went to live in small communities in the desert—you probably know about the Dead Sea Scrolls that were the property of one of those groups.
People believed that the end of the world was near. And so teachers like John ben Zechariah, John the Baptist, and Jesus, were trying to help people stave off the end, by returning to the teachings of their ancestors: follow the commandments, with all your heart. Purify your souls, connect to the God of love. Recognize and fulfill your responsibilities. This would help purify their souls and reconnect to the divine in their lives.
This week too, the lectionary reading includes a powerful section of the prophet Isaiah, who talks about the suffering servant—the people Israel, who were a covenant people. The Holy One reminds us that He is the one
Who created the heavens and stretched them out,
Who spread out the earth and what it brings forth,
Who gave breath to the people upon it
And life to those who walk thereon: (Isa. 42:5).
Isaiah goes on to remind us of some of the responsibilities of covenant: [being]
a light to the nations—
7 Opening eyes deprived of light,
Rescuing prisoners from confinement,
From the dungeon those who sit in darkness. (Isa. 42:6-7)
So two of the tasks of this covenant people are to open the eyes of people in darkness and freeing the captive—those who sit in darkness.
While I fervently believe that these are instructions for social justice—that we must help people with disabilities and help those in prisons—whether for political crimes against the state or not, I feel even more strongly that this task is about spiritual darkness and psycho-spiritual imprisonment.
What we are being asked to do is to reach out to the people we know, the people we see in the halls or in the dining room or the music room, or wherever, who are living in darkness: loneliness, depression, sadness, sorrow, the pain that blocks the sun, and to reach out a helping, a caring hand.
When we see someone caught in a prison of their own making or of their own history or their own pain, we are being asked to offer a hand to bring the light in, to let them see that maybe there is another way. Our hands and hearts do the work of the most holy, and through these acts, we fulfill our covenant responsibilities.
This is a message, an instruction, we all share—Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, secular people: that we are instructed to be the hands that help, the heart that reaches out, the eyes that see the people sitting in darkness: that’s living in purity that John ben Zechariah, John the Baptist sought for us all.
The water of baptism, the water of mikveh, is only as purifying as the intent and the action we bring to it. If it can soften us or lead us to see our tasks ahead and give us the impetus to take it on, then the ritual has worked.
May it be so for you, and for all of us.