Baptized Into the Human Experience
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
January 7, 2022, Words By: Gideon Ochieng, Image By: Blakely Dadson
I have known Susan for over 14 years. She’s a pastor here in Nairobi with a reputation for speaking her mind. Susan is passionate about working with youth and vulnerable women in our community. The locals see her as an advocate for the rights of the most vulnerable in society. Among her best friends is a group of reforming, hard core criminals.
But Susan’s work goes beyond advocacy; she wants everyone to know the Good News that God loves them — and likes them. Her drive comes in part from her own life experience.
As a child, Susan was abused by close relatives. Like many “good” African women, she kept her trauma to herself, enduring years of pain all alone. Exposing the heinous crimes was taboo; she was afraid to bring shame to her family.
But then she encountered a theology from below — a theology that reads scripture through the eyes of the Crucified-Risen One, the Son of God who became a vulnerable and forgotten person himself. In particular, the stories of women like Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba — the grandmothers of Christmas, deeply impacted her. Susan recognized herself in these stories and found great comfort in these courageous women who suffered so much, and in the Gospel’s refusal to edit them out of salvation history.
If these women could be choreographed into salvation history, then so could she and others like her. No longer bound by fear, Susan shared her story publicly. As she exposed the scandal, it not only freed her more, it also loosened the bonds that had trapped so many others. Her courage led many young and old women to come out and share their pain, creating a pathway for healing to begin.
I can’t help to think of Susan as I read the story of John baptizing Jesus. Luke tells us that “crowds” of people went to hear John’s message of deliverance and receive his baptism. He addressed tax collectors and soldiers, agents of the empire, telling them to change their ways. And I’m sure many others in the crowd were victims of the empire. All of them were looking for deliverance from the pain of brokenness.
John’s message of baptism and deliverance embodied both law and gospel. He believed it was for everyone — except Jesus. John said, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
And yet, Jesus chose to be baptized alongside the crowds, into the human experience and all that entails. He wasn’t afraid of his own family’s scandal, and he wasn’t afraid of the crowd’s scandal. Nor, does it appear, was his Father in Heaven, who responded to Jesus’ act by saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus shows us a different way. Surrounded by those who were desperate for deliverance, he went into the waters of baptism with them, not as the beloved Son of God, but as someone who shared their human experience, both the beauty and the shame and affliction. He went into the water to usher in the new kingdom in solidarity with those who were seeking it, not as a king, but as a commoner among the rejected, those whom society had labeled beyond redemption, both victims and perpetrators.
Dwelling Among Us
In what ways might Jesus be calling us to be baptized alongside those we are called to serve? How can we get back into the water of baptism with the victims of pain and suffering. What stories can we lift up and share with those who have been victimized if only to identify with them and help them find their own freedom in Christ? Susan’s story continues to inspire many and to irritate many at the same time. What is your story?