Sunday, June 03, 2007

What God Does With Water

Today's Trinity Sunday, notoriously one of the toughest preaching days of the church year. I didn't preach this morning -- and the person who did gracefully sidestepped the Trinity altogether -- but I've done Trinity Sunday three other years. Here's the homily I preached on May 22, 2005. It seems especially appropriate during the search for Doug.

Beth was at church this morning; she said that yesterday's search in the mountains near Truckee didn't yield any results, but that the Forest Service people were great. "We can't do a search and rescue, because the Reno police haven't requested it. But there's no reason we can't do training exercises this weekend. Where would you like us to do training exercises?"

The readings for this homily are Genesis 1:1-2:4a and Matthew 28:16-20.


Today is Trinity Sunday. In this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus instructs his disciples to go out and baptize the nations. According to our prayer book, there are two essential elements of baptism. One is the three-part, trinitarian formula we just heard Jesus use: “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The other is water.

When we perform a baptism here in church, the priest prays over the water, and pours the water from a silver pitcher into the font, and then uses a seashell to pour the water, three times, over the head of the person being baptized. This is a lovely and highly symbolic ritual. But in an emergency -- if an unbaptized person is in immediate danger of dying -- anyone can perform a baptism. The ritual gets stripped away. All you need to do is pour water on the person being baptized and say, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In a real pinch, you can use spit, although clean water is always preferable.

Water and the Trinity, then, seem to go together. And that’s fitting, because water provides one of the most common analogies that people use to try to understand the Trinity. Water can exist in a number of states. It is the liquid flowing out of our kitchen taps, and the solid ice cubes in our freezers, and the vapor pushing its way out of our kettles to let us know it’s time for tea. Just as water occurs in three states, so does God: God is the majestic, transcendent author of creation, and the beloved Son who took human form to save us, and the Holy Spirit, that mysterious source of inspiration and renewal. God is all of these things at once, always and eternally. Trying to think about this too much tends to make our heads hurt, which is why we prefer to retreat into cozy domestic analogies about ice cubes and tea kettles. Analogies are a way of bringing God down to human size, of making God safe.

Roy Clements, a Baptist preacher from England, points out that when God freezes water, He makes unique snowflakes, no two alike. But when people freeze water, they produce identical ice cubes. God uses water to make oceans and clouds and rainbows and people; we’re mostly water ourselves. God shapes water into placid ponds and tsunamis, into hurricanes and gentle spring rains. In God’s hands, water assumes infinite variety, both nurturing life and destroying it. Humans, in contrast, like our water safe, contained, and predictable. We put it in tea kettles and baptismal fonts, in koi ponds and ornamental waterfalls, in sprinklers and super soakers. We confine it, channel it, control it. We seek to shape water, and God, to our own will.

And yet we also yearn for transcendent wildness, for glimpses of the God we heard about in this morning’s creation story from Genesis. I feel the presence of God most strongly when I’m walking on the beach, where a continent meets the immensity of the ocean. The ocean is far bigger and older and more powerful than I am, and I cannot contain or control or fully understand it. All I can do is worship. Authentic worship is a kind of beach-combing. We stand at the edge of what we know, facing the unknown. We exclaim at beautiful shells and sand-polished rocks; we search for messages in bottles; we pray that no storms will threaten our safety or sweep our loved ones out to sea. The ocean both inspires and terrifies.

When we baptize someone in church, we often forget that baptism is supposed to be a little terrifying, too. We sit in the safe, cozy sanctuary as the priest recites the familiar baptismal prayer: “We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” But having a little water trickled over your head isn’t much like dying or being buried, however indignantly some babies squawk at the procedure. Even in denominations that practice full-immersion baptism, the water is usually contained, domesticated. A swimming pool is bigger than a baptismal font, but it’s still not very terrifying. On Trinity Sunday, when we make our heads hurt by thinking about the immensity of God, how can we reclaim the mystery of baptism?

When I was a child, my family vacationed at Montauk, at the very eastern tip of the South Fork of Long Island. It was a popular spot with surfers and fisherman and divers, and it’s where I learned to swim in the ocean. One day when I was a young teenager, I ventured into deceptively calm-looking surf and found myself caught in a strong current, being pulled out to sea. A lifeguard swam out and struggled to bring me back to shore. Too young and clueless to think of the lifeguard’s danger, and oblivious to how easily I could have died, I was merely mortified at my own helplessness -- until I learned that my father, much stronger than I, and a very skillful swimmer, had been caught in the same current, and had also had to be rescued.

That day had begun sunny, but grew overcast. A little while after my father and I had been rescued, we saw helicopters flying back and forth over the water. When we went back to our hotel, a young man was standing on the deck, in tears, surrounded by onlookers. We learned that he had gone diving that morning, spear-fishing with a friend. When he came back up to the surface, his friend was nowhere to be seen. The rescue helicopters had, so far, not found him, and his chances of survival decreased with each hour he spent in the water.

The helicopters swept back and forth all the rest of the day, as the mood at the hotel grew increasingly somber. The surfers and friends who had gathered to comfort the young diver, who had begun by assuring him, “Don’t worry, man, he knows what he’s doing, and they’ll find him in a little while,” had now started to say, “Hey man, you know it’s how he would have wanted to go.” Night fell, and still we saw the search beams of the helicopters. We went to sleep in dread, and woke the next day to grim silence. There had been no news.

But mid-morning, a joyous shout went up. The diver was safe. The current that caught him had carried him past Montauk Point, through rip-tides and shark-infested waters, almost all the way to Block Island, fourteen miles to the east. And then the current had turned around and brought him to Orient Point, forty-one miles from Block Island, at the tip of the North Fork of Long Island. He had been in the water for twenty-four hours, and he had been carried at least fifty-five miles. Although he was hospitalized for exposure, he quickly recovered. His wetsuit helped him stay warm, but he also survived by keeping his wits and conserving his strength. Knowing that the current was too powerful for him to fight, he floated face-up, surrendering himself to the water. He jettisoned everything he didn’t need: his air tanks, his weight belt, everything but the spear-gun that would be his only defense if he encountered sharks. The current swept him through what must have seemed like an endless, very dark night, until in the morning it brought him, in dazzling sunlight, back to dry land and to the rejoicing of his friends.

I’m not recommending that we subject baptismal candidates to anything like this ordeal, but it’s certainly a sobering reminder of what death and rebirth really look like: of what baptism, behind all that comforting and familiar ritual, really means. It reminds us that when we enter fully into the Christian journey, we will not always be in control. The mystery we worship will sometimes carry us places we do not want to go. Helpless, we will be able only to surrender to the force that has claimed us. We may need to strip ourselves of possessions we once thought were essential; we will certainly need to keep our wits and conserve our strength.

But the mighty current that sweeps us out to sea is also the saving force that brings us back to dry land, to sunlight and friends and the cozy comfort of our kitchens, where water runs predictably through pipes. That diver’s journey carried him through deep water, yes, but surely the Trinity was there too. God the Father was the mighty ocean that both threatened and supported him; God the Spirit was the blessed air that kept life in his body; God the Son was the friends who wept for him, the rescue personnel who searched, the doctors and nurses who tended to him once he had been pulled from the water. God was all around him, everywhere.

And God is all around us, unpredictable, and undomesticated, and sometimes dangerous. It is human nature for us to retreat from our beach-combing at the first sign of heavy weather, to seek shelter and safety. But as we sit over cups of tea in our comfortable kitchens, let us always remember to give thanks, also, for the humbling, life-giving wildness of the ocean.


1 comment:

  1. It's off the subject, I know, but water is one of the raw materials for photosynthesis, the source of all of our food.


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