Here's the sermon I preached this morning at Seminary of the Southwest, the Episcopal seminary in Austin, TX. I've been here for about a week and have about two weeks more. We're here to study border communities and how ministry works in multi-lingual, multicultural contexts. Today, in the Lutheran lectionary, we use last Sunday's text, which was the Baptism of our Lord. I found that this theme of water, and of living water, was critical to our experience in Texas thus far.
Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you all.
You may have heard me say that I am from southern California like once or twice…a minute…all week. You may have heard me say that something we did was “SO TEXAN!” Sometimes this has been in jest, but other times this has been actual shock that things I consider “normative” are, at best, “unusual” around here…and absolutely vice versa. My politics are probably the most obvious – Dorothy laughed at me the other morning because I was wearing Obama 2012 yoga pants and an Obama ’08 sweatshirt. You can tell I’m shy about my affiliations.
And an affiliation about which I am never shy is my baptism. I note a poignant coincidence that here I am in the very dry state of Texas [on the only rainy day in the history of the state, I’m sure] reading you a Gospel text about the living waters of baptism. We have been immersed in words of drought and dehydration and exposure to harsh sunlight and extreme temperatures by those who lose their lives crossing the border or simply living near it. And here I am, reading you the story of an afternoon plunge into the Jordan River.
Water has always been dear to me. Growing up about a mile from the GIANT that is the Pacific Ocean, I find that water makes up not just 75% of my cellular structure but some larger part of my...soulular structure? Go with it. To mix my metaphors a bit, being in the ocean completes a circuit in my self-identity and community identity.
So! I really resonate with today’s watery texts. The Genesis story reminds us that God breathed over the waters in the very beginning. In Psalm 29, we feel the thundering of the mighty waters against the shore. As we gather at the river, the dove descending hearkens back to the dove that signaled the end of the great flood. This is one of those great days of the RCL where all of the texts fit together and there’s no weeping or gnashing of teeth. Just clear, beautiful, cool, pure, cleansing water.
But if we step out of this ancient world and into ours, we see that water is in jeopardy in this world. Climate change is raising the temperature of the oceans, causing them to evaporate at rates that cannot be replenished, which in turn increases the percentage of the ocean that is acidic. Some of God’s tiniest creatures, the mighty plankton, are suffering heavily from this. They produce less oxygen, they die before becoming adult creatures that feed others higher on the food chain. Ocean ecosystems are collapsing. How, here, can we speak of living water?
In Pennsylvania, Colorado, New York, Wyoming, Ohio, and even here in the great state of Texas, hydraulic fracturing has poisoned groundwater in communities that work to retrieve natural gas from below the earth’s surface. In the 2010 film Gasland, you can watch as Pennsylvania residents run their faucets and light the water on fire. How, here, can we speak of living water?
We watch as water destroys communities and nations in disasters like the 2006 Indonesian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, last spring’s tsunami in Japan, floodwaters each year across the United States. How, here, can we speak of living water?
In one of the hymns I grew up on, we sing, “Wade in the water, children – God’s gonna trouble the water.” These lyrics come from the Gospel According to John who wrote of an angel who descended and stirred a pool of water; all who were in the pool were cleansed and healed. When we were in El Cenizo, Moises, the Lutheran pastor, told us that the Border Patrol in his community had, in quite another way, “troubled the water.” -- the living water of his church – his church named Agua Vida, living water.
There was a river outside that church’s walls, but on the floor of the sanctuary there is a river leading from the back door up to the altar and to the stained glass window that depicts the living waters of baptism. But Moises also said that that river outside the walls of his church of living water is a witness to many deaths. The prophet Ezekiel said that wherever the river flows, it gives life. I do not think he knew the Rio Grande. How, here, can we speak of living water?
My generation has seen film of my mother’s generation’s black brothers and sisters pummeled with fire hoses in the streets of the Southern United States. Of those hoses The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “We had known water. If we were Baptists or some other denomination, we had been immersed. If we were Methodists, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water." This is how we speak of living water. While Dr. King witnessed our water of rebirth used to abuse and dehumanize, he could speak of the reign of God and of the promises of our baptism.
We have seen this past week many sides of the same story. Many people of different Christian denominations doing the work of Christ in their community, sometimes up against different understandings of what it means to be the Good Samaritan. We spoke of hearing these stories in opposition to one another but understanding all of them as true. Though that may seem complex and illogical, we’re working through that chaos to see that people helping people in the best way they know how comes out on the other side.
We know from our scripture that God created this our earth from waters of chaos. Water has always been a volatile part of this world. It gives life and it takes life. And while I prattle on about literal water pollution and spiritual water pollution, we must address that polluted water hurts most the least and the lost. People who drink polluted water acquire chronic illnesses and even lose their lives. People who have had water turned against them acquire chronic pain and can lose their hope.
And we know that the clean-up process is just that – a process. It is not immediate. We will not see instant gratification in our quest for clean water. But our main man, Martin Luther, puts it this way – “This life, therefore, is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed."
So, let’s wade in the water, children.