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Season of Creation: WATER

Water is a matter of life and death. We know we need to drink water to survive. Human bodies consist of more than 50% water. Humans can only survive about three days without drinking any water.

We’re paying closer attention to water these days, as climates are changing, and dry places on the Earth are becoming drier, and groundwater used for irrigation is depleting aquifers faster than nature can replenish them.

Water is a holy and life-giving resource. We need it for cleansing, for the sacrament of Holy Baptism—God gives us water to wash us clean of our sins and welcome us into the community of Christ. There is always water in the baptismal font in the sanctuary, so at any time, you too can touch the water and remember that you are called by God, you are called by name, you are called “Child of God.”

We also confess that in baptism we die with Christ. While water can be life-giving and life-sustaining, we also recognize that water can be deadly. Humans can drown and die in water.

As the climate changes on the Earth, storms are growing larger, dropping more rain than the ground can absorb all at once. Hurricanes are hitting places that have never seen hurricanes, like Southern California[1] and Maine[2]. A huge storm over the Mediterranean Sea hit Libya, overwhelming dams and flooding coastal cities, with over 10,000 people presumed dead and 11,000 more people reported missing.[3]

No one is celebrating death and destruction.

God knows how powerful water can be, and I don’t believe God is pleased with disasters or loss of human life. We read the Old Testament story of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, miraculously on dry land, but the sea closes upon the Egyptian soldiers and their horses and chariots and weapons of war. The people of Israel are astounded: they celebrate and dance because they are amazed to be alive. They have escaped slavery and they survived.

It wouldn’t be right to say “God must not like Egyptians.” Why would God have gone to such great lengths to get Joseph to migrate to Egypt and later get all of his brothers to join him there? It’s because of the dreams and wisdom of Joseph, son of Jacob who is called Israel, that the Egyptian people were saved from starving to death during a years-long famine. Doesn’t God love the people in Egypt too?

Anna Marsh, an Old Testament scholar, writes in a commentary that this story in Exodus is really about the character and the power of God, and liberation is messy work. She translates the original Hebrew text to note where active verbs describe God’s work of hurling Egyptian chariots into the sea. Also she notes the military imagery—both Israelites and Egyptians are referred to as “camps,” time is marked by “the morning watch”—but it is clear God is the one doing the fighting.

“In short,” she writes, “this is war. Many of us can only imagine what such situations feel like…we are more likely familiar with a sensation of profound and God-given relief—which we might call redemption or liberation—or with how quickly fear and despair can rear their ugly heads, especially when our resources are depleted.”[4]

God fights for human life and also feels grief for the loss of human life. In the rabbinic tradition, God is not celebrating the death of Egyptian soldiers. In the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Megillah, there is a midrash—a teaching—on this section of Exodus, that when the Israelites were singing songs of victory beside the sea, the heavenly host wanted to join in, but God rebuked them, saying “My creatures are drowning in the sea and you want to sing songs?”[5]

Mercy interrupts the cycle of violence. Where can violence end? The story of God bringing the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt is not a story of death and destruction but a story of birthing a people with whom God is in relationship. And that relationship is marked by grace and mercy. God provides.

Jesus also instructs his disciples to act with mercy. In the Gospel lesson, the disciple Peter wants to know precisely how many times he must offer forgiveness, as if he’s keeping score and wants to know if God is keeping score, too. Jesus essentially says: this isn’t the right question to ask.

The concept of vengeance is as old as humanity, and when Jesus says to forgive “seventy-seven times,” he’s referring to Lamech, the great-great-great-grandson of Cain[6]—you remember Cain, the one who killed his brother, both of them sons of Adam and Eve. Lamech bragged about getting revenge on anyone who hurts him—“If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”[7] That’s right: Avenged Sevenfold is a progressive metal band and a reference from the Bible.

If you’re keeping score on how many times you are hurt, the one you’re hurting is really yourself. If you’re having trouble giving mercy to someone else, as Jesus’s parable suggests, then have you really accepted mercy for yourself? Have you understood your own need for mercy? You’re not perfect, and God loves you anyway.

Now, this needs to be said: forgiveness and mercy are not about remaining in an abusive situation. Jesus doesn’t say: forgive your abuser so they can go right on abusing you as much as they want. Jesus doesn’t tell anyone to offer forgiveness and stay trapped in a cycle of violence.

Mercy is meant to interrupt the cycle of violence. If you’re the one forgiving someone who has abused you, mercy may look like departing from a relationship that cannot be repaired. No one’s rejoicing over destruction and violence. Liberation can be messy and painful work.

Just like water can be life-giving and dangerous. Enjoying a refreshing swim or washing your face with water every morning—these things aren’t disrespectful toward people who have drowned. Paul worded it well when he said what we often recall at funerals: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.”[8]

Touch the water in the baptismal font, tracing the sign of the cross on your own forehead: whether you are living or dying, you belong to God.


Pastor Cheryl


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