And so she left that church and she walked on. But now she had this spark of desire in her, and she was determined. So she walked a few more blocks to where she knew there was another Catholic Church. This one was a bigger congregation, and so perhaps better prepared for the occasional weekday visitor. She walked in the door, and she walked up to the bowl of water at the entrance to the sanctuary, and she looked down. There was indeed water in it, but there was also a light green film floating on top of the water. Not exactly inviting. And so she left, starting to feel the old frustration and anger creep in. But she continued walking, until she came upon the last Catholic church in town. She walked up the steps, went to open the door, and found that it was locked.
All of a sudden, that fleeting moment of hopefulness she had feltquickly changed to anger once more. “God,” she thought, “I finally come around and want to talk to you again, and you aren’t giving me much encouragement. Do you even care??? Are you just messing with me???”
And then she felt it. Very light at first-- barely there-- the slightest sensation upon her skin-- a sprinkle of rain. Just a drop. And then another, and another. And then they started coming faster, and harder, and before she knew it, she was standing on the steps of the locked church, drenched with rain. She didn’t move. She didn’t make any attempt to get out of the rain. She just stood there, astonished. And then--she laughed. All she had wanted was the tiniest drop of hope and healing-- but that was not enough for God. God wanted to pour down love and healing like rain. To drench her with cleansing waters.
Last week, I opened up our sermon series on ancient sacred story, and I mentioned that sometimes, we need to re-read the most familiar stories of our faith with open minds and open hearts-- as if for the first time-- just in case the old narratives no longer hold meaningful or helpful truths for us in our postmodern world. The story of Noah and the flood is our tale for this morning.
The most common association people have with this story-- even if they are not Jews or Christians--is that it’s a story about an angry and vengeful God pouring down contempt and judgment upon a sinful world. Indeed, how many times, after some great big natural disaster, have we heard some preacher somewhere proclaim that the disaster was some kind of judgment from God for the sins of our nation, or some other nation? Even for those of us who don’t buy into that kind of theology, when we read this story, many of us still tend to imagine that angry, vengeful Old Testament God--whether we really believe in that kind of God or not. Which may lead some of us to dismiss the story all together. (Never mind any of the historical or scientific problems I could mention.) But is that the image of God that’s really presented in this text? What does the story actually say?
The story tells us that God sees the evil inclinations in the minds and hearts of humanity and it grieves God greatly. One translation says that God saw how the earth had been corrupted, “and it broke God’s heart.” This is not an image of an angry vengeful God. This is an image of a grieving parent who sees her children alienated and fractured. A creator who sees his creation not whole and unified as intended, but broken, and growing further and further away from the dream God had intended for the world. And it breaks God’s heart.
Walter Brueggeman is one of the most respected Old Testament scholars in contemporary biblical studies. And when it comes to this story, he argues for a different understanding than most of us are used to or might remember from our Sunday School classes. He writes that this story is not really meant to be understood as an historical account of a particularly large natural disaster, nor is it really a story about God’s judgment over the earth. Rather, he says, at the heart of this story is an observation of one of the most basic incongruities of life: that “on the one hand, God has called the world into being to be God’s faithful covenant partner. God has willed unity, harmony, and goodness. But on the other hand, so often, it doesn’t actually play out that way.” It’s a story that explores one of the primary questions of theological inquiry and human existence: if God made a good world, why is it so fractured? And how does God work in the world in order to restore creation to it’s essential goodness? Brueggeman goes on to suggest that it is that very fracture between creator and creation that is the premise and agenda behind the story, and that at it’s heart, this is not really a story about a flood, or a giant boat, but rather, it’s a story about how God makes it possible for change and new beginnings, even within a fractured world.
In this way of looking at the story, instead of an angry and vengeful God, we find a loving and caring God-- one who is grieved and heartbroken by evil and violence, and who seeks to renew creation and offer hope for new beginnings. And instead of seeing water as the source of destruction and judgment, in this reading of the story, water is the source of new life. Water is the source of healing, restoration, and new beginnings for a fractured world.
In nature, water gives life. Water is cleansing and nurturing. Even in the earliest days of humanity, with the most rudimentary understanding of nature and science, this would have been known and understood. But it also would have been understood, that when it comes to nature, there are often times when water is unpredictable-- when water contains a force and a power that is not easily harnessed or controlled. And so water is life-giving, nurturing, and cleansing. And it is also powerful, dangerous, and unpredictable. Not unlike God, don’t you think?
I think this is why water is such a powerful symbol--not just in the Christian faith--but across the spectrum of world religions. Water is a universal symbol for life, healing, and renewal. It’s why we use water in one of our must sacred sacraments--that of baptism. It’s why Jesus talks about “living water.” It’s why we sing about peace like a river and love like an ocean. It’s why the woman in our opening story tried to find her way back to God through the symbol of water.
But of course the problem she encountered was that she expected God’s living water to be cleansing and healing but what she didn’t account for was that God’s living water would also be unpredictable, and more powerful that she imagined. She expected God’s cleansing water to be nice and neat and clean-- easily contained in a bowl of holy water that she could simply dip her finger into. But God’s power is not so easily harnessed. And God’s healing is not so easily controlled. She got more than she bargained for in the best possible way. She got drenched in God’s love and cleansing waters.
Sometimes, I think that’s how it happens. When we least expect it, when we feel most parched and thirsty for God’s presence, hanging out at the very edge of frustration-- feeling utterly fractured and broken up-- that’s when it happens--we get drenched.
I don’t actually remember what happens next in this woman’s story, or even if there was any more to the story. It may have just ended there. And perhaps that would be appropriate. Because it gives us the opportunity to put ourselves in her place. To call to mind the fractures in our own lives: past hurts, recent scars, uncertain futures, guilt or shame, disappointment or regret--and to imagine letting God’s cleansing waters wash over us and wash away those things which fracture our lives. To imagine that water blessing us and healing us, because in this water is the power of life. In this water is the healing of God.
This sermon was followed by a time of healing prayer and blessing with water. Congregation members were invited come forward and be blessed, or to visit one of two prayer stations to dip their hands in a bowl of water as they prayed.