But before we get to baptism, we should notice that absolutely nothing rattles Jesus. Jesus remains composed when faced with hostile crowds. Jesus remains composed when learned men try to publicly humiliate him. Jesus remains composed when religious leaders plot to kill him. Jesus remains composed when on trial for his life. Jesus remains composed even on the cross.
All of that is really impressive. But on the question of composure, today’s gospel reading may be the most impressive of all.
Jesus is at a dinner party with people he does not know particularly well and has every reason to distrust. In comes a woman of questionable reputation, and she stands directly behind Jesus, weeping. That seems awkward.
But, as you just heard, it gets worse. The woman cries onto Jesus’ feet. She dries his feet with her hair. She kisses his feet. She anoints his feet with expensive perfume. She kisses his feet some more.
This may surprise you, but nothing like that has ever happened to me. Still, I am pretty sure that if something like that were to happen to me, I would die of embarrassment. I am even more sure that I would want to be dead. It would be a gross understatement to say that I would find this woman’s actions distracting.
But not Jesus. Jesus was totally unfazed. Sitting there, with this woman kissing his feet, Jesus carries on a conversation with his host as if nothing strange is happening. If you need evidence that Jesus is more than an ordinary man, this story ought to do it!
And what Jesus talks about, while this woman is sitting at his feet, is forgiveness, and faith, and love.
First, forgiveness. In our reading, Jesus tells us the woman’s “sins, which were many, have been forgiven.” God’s grace, and love, and mercy kick off the whole process of redemption for this woman. We sometimes act as if we have to earn God’s forgiveness, as if we have to do something to convince God to forgive us. But God’s grace and forgiveness come first. God is in the forgiveness business, and business is good, and God is good at it.
So God forgives this woman, despite her great sins. And somehow—this is the second thing to notice in our reading—somehow the forgiven woman has come to have saving faith. It is worth spending a little time on what “saving faith” means.
This woman’s faith surely includes belief in God and in Jesus Christ as God’s agent of forgiveness. But saving faith means more than knowledge about God. Belief in God would not be enough to inspire this woman to bathe Jesus’ feet with her tears and her kisses. Saving faith, the faith that inspires this woman, is far more personal than abstract belief.
Our reading is clear that this woman really is a sinner. Her sins are notorious enough that all the Pharisees know about her. Her sins are great enough that Jesus can hold her up as an example of one who has been forgiven much. We all need forgiveness. But this woman REALLY needed forgiveness.
And God forgave her. And in an act of faith, she accepts that God has forgiven her. She lets go of her shame and her guilt, and she responds to God’s forgiveness. She embraces the God who embraces her. The faith that saves this woman, the faith that changes her life forever, is the deep knowledge, the heart-knowledge, that God forgives her, that God loves her, despite her sin.
The third thing we see in this story is that God’s forgiveness and the faith that receives God’s forgiveness inevitably spill over into love. This woman’s very demonstrative love is her response to the great forgiveness she has received. Love brings this forgiven and now faithful woman to Jesus’ feet.
Now, what does all of that have to do with baptism? Everything.
Baptism is one of the great Christian mysteries. Christians talk about baptism a lot. We say that baptism washes away the guilt, but not the punishment, of original sin. We say that in baptism, we are crucified with Christ so that we die to our sins. We say that in baptism we are incorporated into the mystical body of Christ. We say all that and a lot more about baptism.
I believe all that. In baptism classes, we talk about all that. But the fact is, baptism remains a divine mystery. We cannot possibly comprehend the full truth of Christian baptism. Certainly little Alexa and Jensen cannot comprehend the full truth of the baptism they are about to receive.
But here is something that we can all understand. What we try to describe with our theological language, what matters in baptism, is that God acts. I will sprinkle these children with water. We will all say a few prayers. But what matters is that God will touch these children in a special way this morning. In baptism, God will mark Alexa and Jensen “as Christ’s own forever.”
For Alexa and Jensen in baptism, as for the woman in our story, God’s action comes first. The Christian life we try to lead is our response to God’s action.
In our gospel reading, faith—the heart knowledge that God forgives her and loves her—faith is the woman’s response to God’s action.
Alexa and Jensen are young and innocent. But they are not too young to learn that God loves them.
And it is important that they learn about God’s love early because they will turn from away from God sometimes. We all do. And when they turn away from God, they are likely to experience guilt and shame. We all do that too.
And that sets up a great and tragic irony. God forgives us. But our sense of guilt and shame prevents us from accepting God’s forgiveness. We cannot bring ourselves to believe that God can forgive even us.
Somehow the woman in our story got past that shame and guilt. Somehow this woman came to know the awesome power of God’s forgiveness and love.
Today we commit ourselves to helping Alexa and Jensen do the same. We commit ourselves to reminding Alexa and Jensen that God loves them. It is our task to tell them, over and over again, until it sinks all the way into their hearts, that they are beloved children of God, that God loves them, that God forgives them, that God will always be with them.
We need to teach Alexa and Jensen that they are beloved children of God. And we need to remember that we, too, are beloved children of God, that God invites all of us to bask in God’s all-embracing love.
And what would our lives look like if we could really do that, if we could get that knowledge of God’s forgiveness and love all the way inside, if we could accept the fact that God knows us perfectly and loves us fully? The woman in our story gives us a picture of that life. Our hearts would overflow with love, and we would fall at Jesus’ feet and cover them with our kisses.
And so, on this day of Alexa’s and Jensen’s baptism, I pray that they can come to know deep down that they are God’s beloved children, that God truly has marked them as Christ’s own forever. I pray the same for all of us. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.