Overcome by the Water

listen to mp3 file of “Overcome by the Water”

I Kings 18:20-39

Psalm 96

Luke 7:1-10

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church

The baptismal font in which I baptized the most children (including two of my own) is in a Presbyterian church in Geneva, IL. It is huge. The font bowl, made of heavy, patina-ed bronze, is about three feet across, set in an enormous solid wood stand that adds another foot or two to its width. You can fit a whole baby in this font: it is so big that my eldest daughter, when she started to talk, called it, “the church bath.”

And one time, when I was teaching a pre-baptism class at this church, it hit me: this baptism thing is scary. Because the plan was: these parents would hand off their baby who, let’s be honest, didn’t really know me very well, to me. And then, I was going to have to lean well over that font, holding their baby in one arm, and splash three times, in the name of the Trinity (I am a splasher, not a dripper, when it comes to baptism…the more water, the better!).

I don’t know about the rest of you who have parented, but I do know that under other circumstances, I would not normally hand my baby off to a sort-of-stranger, and allow her to dangle this precious child over a three-foot wide basin of water.

Bathing is one of the easier metaphors for baptism. It easy to see when we sprinkle or splash water on babies. The church bath.

Baptism, in fact, is not entirely safe.

One of the other metaphors for baptism is death and new life. In baptism, we join in the journey Jesus took, from death to new life.

It’s easiest to see this metaphor when a baptism is done by immersion, when the baptized is taken down into the water, and then brought back out. (Incidentally, there is no theological problem for Lutherans, or Presbyterians, for that matter, with baptism by immersion…but since we more often baptize infants and children than adults, and our sanctuaries are set up for these baptisms, that’s what we’re more familiar with–adults and older children who are being baptized can also be baptized at a font, and so that’s the more common practice, for practical reasons, in sanctuaries like ours…It takes a lot of water to do an immersion baptism.)

Water has a paradoxical danger: water is deadly. But it’s necessary for life.

Have you ever heard this idea that human beings love to go to the ocean’s shore because it reminds us of life? The rhythmic pounding of salty waves, like a heart beat, like the blood coursing through our veins? And what’s the number? Our bodies are 90% water?

Sing to the Lord a new song, Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice, Let the sea roar, says Psalm 96. Maybe going to the shore is even a way of participating in that new song.

Water is life. Too little of it, and we die. But in an instant, too much water can also be death.

Water is one of those places where we have to give up control. We cannot control the riptides, or the downpours. Neither can we control the weather (though, sadly, we might influence it for the worse with our pollution and poor care for creation).

The people of the Hebrew Scriptures lived in a climate like ours, tucked up against an ocean, with wet and dry seasons, and droughts.

A drought is the setting of this story from 1 Kings. Israel has been dry for three years. The King, Ahab, and his queen, Jezebel, were pushing Israel to follow Baal, a neighboring god, who was worshipped for ability to control things like water and lightning and the seasonal rains. Some people in Israel were essentially hedging their bets. “Well, if our God, YHWH, isn’t going to do anything, maybe we should trust Baal. I mean, it is a drought…we’ll try anything to end it.”

Elijah calls them all out: which God is real? The prophets of Baal get a chance to convince their god (the one who controls lightning, remember?) to light up an altar. After hours of begging, nothing.

And then Elijah builds an altar and does everything possible to make it impossible to light. Including three dousings of water (a baptism!). But Elijah’s God, YHWH, controls water and lightning and drought. The altar is consumed by fire, and clouds rise up over the ocean and the rains begin.

Elijah knows, has full confidence: God is in control. Baal is not even a thing. And he comes at that knowledge with breathtaking confidence, with a clear sense of purpose and mission (I am in awe of him for this confidence.)

And then there’s this centurion who we meet in Luke: we have a few clues about his religious inclinations. He’s Roman, but he seems to have respect for the Jewish community. He is, by our modern standards, problematic and imperfect, a slave owner, a member a repressive military regime. He is at the same time confident that Jesus can heal his slave, but reluctant to meet him face to face. He is unsure if he deserves God’s favor. He is, for me a confusing character. But one thing sticks: Jesus says he has great faith. Somehow, he has figured out that this Jesus, among all the other religious options available to him, and in spite of all the privileges and safety nets he has as a high ranking member of society, somehow he has faith that Jesus is the one who holds back the chaos of sickness and death.

In our fear, in our worry and anxiety, we can get distracted, and we can put our hope in something that will not ultimately save us. Most of us are not erecting an altar to Baal in our backyards, but perhaps we become convinced that we will be saved by bank accounts, our educational degrees, or social status. We will make it safely through because we exercise and eat right and raise perfect children. Or, if we don’t feel secure yet, maybe we can achieve that thing that would make our life secure: a relationship, a house, the perfect car. And those things become our idols: not because they are inherently bad (some of those things have the potential to be quite good.) No, not because these things are bad, but because they do not have the power to hold us safe.

Life is scary. Ann Lamott, who you may all be sick of me quoting, wrote this about her son Sam after he was born:

Sam is unbelievably pretty, with long, thin, Christ-like feet.  I told my friend Carpenter this and he said, “It’s an often difficult world out there, and it’s good to have long, grippy feet.” (Operating Instructions)

But Psalm 96 reminds us: God’s world is firmly established. It shall never be moved.

There are days when it is difficult to believe that our grippy toes are going to hold on, when we are sure we will be overcome by the chaos….maybe not by water, or weather or lightning, but by all the other things that feel like they are spinning out of our control.

But here’s the truth: whether we come to the whole thing with a clear plan like Elijah; or whether, like the centurion, we can only send our friends and neighbors, and we’re not even sure we deserve what God has to offer, God is in control. This world belongs to God: the oceans and heavens sit firmly in God’s hand.

It all belongs to God: and so do we all. God will bring us through, and draw us out; call us by name, and invite us to service; God’s hand is holding us fast. This is love, that God is present for us whether we come with the full confidence of Elijah, or the impartial understanding of that centurion. God is present, whether we come to the waters walking on our own two feet or carried, a babe in arms. God made this world, it is firmly established. Let the earth rejoice. Let the sea roar its praises. We will not fall into the waters.

Thanks be to God.