A biblical text can become so familiar that we simply bypass statements that would ordinarily puzzle us. I’m thinking of an aspect of the Gospel you have just now heard, viz., John’s baptizing at the River Jordan. Although I have read this passage countless times, today something about it suddenly struck me as strange, as requiring comment. And what is this mysterious feature of the text? It’s this: why did John baptize at all, i.e., why did he immerse the repentant sinners in the Jordan. Surely it would have been sufficient for them simply to admit their sinfulness and ask for forgiveness, as the publican did in the temple: “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And Jesus said that, by this simple confession of guilt, he was justified in the sight of God whereas the preening Pharisee at the front row was not. We can approach the question by examining a principle of Old Testament Judaism, by which water represented a cleansing from sin as in Psalm 50/51:
Have mercy on me, O God, . . . Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
More interesting, and suggestive, is the use of water to overcome what was known as “ritual impurity,” a concept that most of us find mysterious, even offensive; I’m not certain that I understand it fully myself. In the first place, it has nothing to do with morality. The term was used to describe the condition of a man—or woman—who was barred from public worship for performing what you would call a virtuous act. The noble Tobit, for instance, who buried the dead, was rendered ritually impure by doing so. So were soldiers who were battling to defend the nation; as was a woman who had had a child, all of which are good, very good things.