In Epiphany of 1922, the New York Times reported that Babe Ruth (despite a contract dispute) would leave winter in the big city for the Yankees’ early spring training camp, which, that year, would be held in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Ruth had first visited Hot Springs as a member of the Boston Red Sox some ten years before, and he believed in the powers of the natural thermal springs flowing from Hot Springs Mountain. He, along with politicians and celebrities of the day – from Franklin Roosevelt to Al Capone – helped make Hot Springs one of the most popular vacation destinations in the country during the first quarter of the twentieth century.
Anticipating such popularity and the inevitable arrival of profiteers, Congress established Hot Springs as a “National Reservation” in 1832, the first federally protected property in that governmental structure anticipating the National Park Service. This Reservation intended to guard the forty-seven natural springs which gushed – uninterrupted – 800,000 gallons of 143-degree water every day. As Hot Springs’ popularity grew, developers created Bathhouse Row, a series of eight resorts, all built between 1890 and 1923. These resorts annually hosted hundreds of thousands of guests who visited the area for the springs and the Row’s lavish spa treatments.
In elaborately tiled basement rooms, guests would bathe in the spring waters within private stalls positioned all along its perimeter. At the center of several of these bathing rooms were large pools for communal soaking, where guests would drink generously of the spring water while they reclined together. Upstairs were bowling alleys and large gymnasiums with cutting-edge exercise equipment (imported from as far away as Sweden) for the rehabilitation work doctors prescribed to be partnered with the curative waters. Naturally fed steam rooms and steam cabinets provided space to relax following these workouts.
As with all good things, however, even the Hot Springs heyday came to an end. Burdened by rampant illegal gambling, prostitution, and changing attitudes toward public baths, Hot Springs’ resort industry declined precipitously in the years following World War II. The Fordyce Bathhouse closed in 1962, followed by the Maurice, the Ozark, and the Hale during the 1970’s. The Quapaw and the Superior closed in 1984, and The Lamar closed the following year. On the Row today, only The Buckstaff still operates as a bathhouse.
This morning’s Gospel lesson begins with the appearance of John the Baptist in the wilderness, a familiar scene and he a familiar character: wearing his camel’s hair coat and leather belt around his waist; eating locusts and wild honey; and “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”[i] In response to his spectacle, “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” go out to visit John and see what he’s stirring up.[ii] Upon their arrival, John announces, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”[iii] Thereafter and as John predicted, Jesus arrives “from Nazareth of Galilee.”[iv]
While Jesus’ arrival fulfills a portion of John’s prophesy, Mark’s details otherwise seed confusion for those paying careful attention. For us who annually recall the baptism of our Lord on this, the first Sunday after January 6 (that is, after the Feast of the Epiphany), we tend to ignore the story’s inconsistencies for we know how the whole tale ends. However, we do well to ask worthwhile questions of this Gospel’s beginning:
. for one, while John promises Jesus will come to baptize, in fact, Jesus comes
to be baptized right alongside of everyone else, possibly complicating the traditions affirming his sinlessness, among other curiosities;
. further, while in Matthew and Luke the crowds witness the Spirit’s descent and God’s declaration, in Mark these experiences read as limited to Jesus: “just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water, he saw” – he saw – “the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove…And a voice came from heaven, ‘You’” – you – ‘“are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”[v] That is, the descent of the Spirit and the voice from heaven in this version of events appears to be for Jesus’ benefit, and not for those watching;
Why, then, does Jesus choose to be baptized? Bathing rituals were not novel to any emerging Christian experience, so what does Jesus’ baptism accomplish in him? And what does Jesus’ baptism accomplish in God’s plan for the salvation of the world?
Perhaps, the answer lies not in the actions of that day, but in its substance…not so much in its actions, but in its substance. That is, perhaps the sum of these testimonies witnesses a fundamental, human belief in the power of water: from Hot Springs to the River Jordan, we and John and Jesus believe in water’s capacity to wash, to change, and to heal.
Now, before we consider ourselves evolved from such primitive ideas of Israel or Arkansas, consider your local Bath & Body Works. This afternoon, one can visit any of those ubiquitous retail outlets and choose from aroma therapy combinations to optimize the home bathing experience. One will discover ginger scents for concentration, and eucalyptus extracts for relaxation. There are bubbling salts for muscle soreness, and murky gels for exciting the immune system, all to be added to a hot bath (defined on the back of the bottle as “a tub three-quarters full of water at 100-104 degrees Fahrenheit”)…accompanied by “positive thoughts for a period of twenty to thirty-five minutes.” Indeed, we still believe in the power of water.
Today the Fordyce bathhouse in Hot Springs serves as the National Park Service’s area Welcome Center, and visitors can now tour the Art Deco building. In the ceiling of the men’s bathing room in The Fordyce, immediately above the communal pool, is an enormous work of Tiffany stained-glass. This oval window depicts three mermaids swimming around a bright blue orb, and when the pool below is calm and when light shines through that window just so, reflections of the mermaids swim in the water alongside the men who would have bathed there. Thereby, the water itself becomes a rippling canvas, imaging the magic and hopefulness of the hot springs as mythological maidens.
In God’s plan for the salvation of the world, certainly the baptism of Jesus reminds us of water’s power across time and across cultures, and reminds us, too, of our call to be as humble as the carpenter’s son and to submit ourselves to God and to the baptismal community. Surely, too, Jesus’ baptism calls us to carry forward John’s traditions and to invite others into the baptism we all share.
More fundamentally, perhaps, too, Jesus’ baptism calls us to be like water. That is, just as mermaids still swim reflected in that Hot Springs’ pool, and as the face of our God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – would have been reflected in the river when Jesus prayed, we are to reflect in our lives the hope and wholeness of our faith, and, like water itself, to change and to heal the world that God has made.
By our common baptism and our common prayer, I pray that we would become God’s rippling canvas, imaging and reflecting the power and the hope of that Holy One who made us, who saved us, and sustains us, still.