Water is mentioned 719 times in our holy scriptures. While less than the number of references to God, Jesus, heaven, or love, it is much more than the number of references to faith, hope, prayer, or even worship. Water is mentioned in the very first sentence of our scriptures…at the very beginning of our creation story in the Book of Genesis. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” (Gen. 1:1-2) These primordial waters existed before us – before light and land, even before the heavens.
God’s second act of creation was to separate the waters above and below: “And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky.” (Gen. 1:6-8a) Water forms the foundation of all life – life as we know it under the sky dome, as well as in the heavens above. This life was then nourished and made fruitful by these same waters.
And yet, also from the very beginning, water has been not only an agent of creation, also an agent of destruction. Curiously, these twin powers of creation and destruction are less in opposition than they are two sides of the same coin. There seems to be a natural movement from one to the other. In one of the most harrowing stories in our holy scriptures, we read that God used the mighty power of water to destroy nearly all of life on earth, save the remnant found in the Ark. And yet as these waters receded, God brought forth life again.
Despite much energy and creativity expended over the millennia, it has always been difficult to tame the wild creative and destructive forces of water. We may find we are clever and successful for a time but all it takes is one unplanned and uncontrollable force of nature to destroy our illusions of control. The levee breaks; the sea surges inland; the river carves new paths as it wishes; the once quiet brook becomes a mighty and powerful channel of nature’s uncontrollable power. Not unlike how we so often attempt to contain God in a box of our own comfortable design, neither God nor water is content to reside tamely within our constraints for too long.
Also throughout scripture, water is used to mark a significant transition from one state or condition to another. With divine assistance, Moses led the Israelites across the Red Sea, marking their transition from Egyptian slavery to liberation. Forty years later, Aaron led the Israelites across the River Jordan, marking their transition from a desert journey of purification to rightful residence in the land promised them by God. Hebrew law frequently employs water to mark the important transition from the state of sin to that of ritual and communal purity.
And, of course, John the Baptizer immersed repentant Israelites in the River Jordan, not only re-enacting the crossing of the Jordan led by Aaron but also as a sign of returning to right relationship with God in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. Jesus even sought out baptism by John in order to publicly mark his transition into his public ministry. The imagery of Jesus being baptized in the river as preparation for his mission and ministry, one that eventually would lead to the cross, became so essential that the earliest Christians further developed this baptismal theology to use the waters of baptism to mark one’s transition to becoming followers of Jesus and his Way of the cross.
It’s no wonder that I’ve been thinking a lot about water recently. Like you and most of the country, I have been consumed with the on-going catastrophe wrought by Hurricane Harvey. As bad as the winds were, they have paled in comparison to the powerful destructive force of the flood waters. In the past 100 years, no other kind of natural disaster in America has caused more death and destruction than floods. They can happen any place, any day, and any time, and are likely to only get worse.
The awesome and destructive power of moving water has been on display in a fearsome way over the past week. The sheer breadth of the widespread destruction is like little else experienced in the United States. The aftermath of Harvey will be ongoing for the foreseeable future. This tragedy will require constancy on our part – constancy of love, aid, financial assistance, and prayer. Countless lives of those we know and love, as well as those we have never met, will never be the same.
While these lives will be changed forever, I take refuge in the promise that our God is the God who continually brings forth new life from what has died. I pray less for restoration and rebuilding to an old life, but more for resurrection into new and different life. What had been is gone but will be is yet unknown. I pray that maybe, just maybe, God will transform these flood waters of destruction into living waters of new life.
In the face of this tragedy, I have found it important to remember that water not only has the power to create and destroy; it also has the power to transform. As water marks transition, it is itself can be an agent of transformation. Water’s power of transformation is clearly evident within our physical world. Many of the features of the Earth’s surface have been formed by the cutting and eroding action of moving water.
In a similar way, the waters of baptism reshape our lives. As Christians, we believe that through the waters of baptism we die to ourselves and our old lives and are reborn into a new life shared within the Body of Christ. Through our entrance into the Body of Christ, our Christian formation begins. Like moving water flowing over rocks, our lives are molded to be cruciform-shaped. It is the Apostle Paul who teaches us that when we take on the mind of Christ – when we act, love and participate in the way of life that Christ embodied – we are formed more and more into Christ’s very likeness. For most of us, this transformation – our conversion – happens slowly over time.
Sometimes, however, it is more like a mighty storm, chiseling into us suddenly and sharply, changing us in unexpected ways with surprising speed and ferocity. But, if we remain centered in God, we may find within this newly transformed life the eternal life found in resurrection that may be lived here and now. This is the already-and-not-yet theology that Paul writes about. Jesus promises us that the Kingdom of God is already in-breaking and we may taste it now, even as we wait for its coming in fullness.
I treasure this hopeful promise because I am living the new life of resurrection. I know resurrection personally. But this joy is not one that came easily or comfortably. As Jesus taught, the acorn must first die and fall from the tree before it can transform into new life. Likewise, the journey to resurrection first passes through the valley of the shadow of death. This is uncomfortable – it is painful and few of us eagerly chose this path. Usually it is chosen for us and we find ourselves with no other alternative than to shoulder our burden and follow Christ. All roads eventually do lead to the cross, but our hope is found in the assurance that the journey does not end there. Following Christ, we, too, may journey through the cross and into the new life found beyond.
And it is important to remember that we will not be alone in this journey, for Christ will be with us. This “being with” attribute of God is as essential to God’s nature as goodness. God has always promised to hear the cries of his beloved creatures and to be with us. The most beautiful part of the story of Moses and the burning bush that we heard as our first lesson is the simple promise God makes to Moses: “I will be with you.” God elects Moses for this crazy suicide mission to confront Pharaoh and lead the Israelites to freedom, but God promises the consolation of his continual presence: Do not be afraid, for I will be with you.
As most of you know, I have been called to be the next Rector at another Good Shepherd, this one in northern Virginia. I will start my ministry there this coming Tuesday. \In order to get our daughter Emma registered for school in time, we had to move very quickly and arrived in Fairfax two weeks ago, just five days ahead of Harvey’s arrival. This time of transition and change has been uncomfortable and a bit strange, as such times always are. I have been living in that disorienting state where the old hasn’t fully completed but the new hasn’t yet begun.
Witnessing the terrible tragedy unfolding in Texas from the distance of Virginia, I have felt torn, with my heart held in two places – with two Good Shepherds: you here in Austin and the Good Shepherd in Burke, Virginia. And I realized this week that in many respects, my heart will always be torn. You have shared your lives, joys, sorrows, and love so generously with me that I am forever changed because of my time with you. I have been quite literally re-shaped by your love into something new and different. It has been a privilege and a joy to be allowed into your lives and to be granted the honor to share my own with you.
While our time together in this particular way is coming to an end, I rejoice that our God is a God who brings new life out of death. Our God does not entirely destroy, rather ends and transforms, endlessly recreating and regenerating life to share in His glory. I am thankful and I rejoice that we are made one in the Body of Christ and that we will never be apart in love.