Sermon preached January 13, 2013

Texts: Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Water. We often greet the day with water in different kinds of ways. We get up in the morning and take a shower with water. We use water to brush our teeth. I like to drink a little water at the beginning of the day, and I particularly like to run some water through ground coffee beans to make coffee in the morning.
It is our good fortune to live where we do, because water here is plentiful. We live on the shores of the lake that holds more fresh water than any other body of water in the world. We live in a state that is “The Land of Ten Thousand Lakes.” In such a place it is easy to forget how precious a resource water is on planet earth. Should we be asking about how many people earth’s water resources can sustain, particularly as changing climate patterns seem to be linked to increasing droughts? We are asking how we can combine economic growth needed to meaningful employment with care for our water resources.
Water is precious to we human beings and to the planet we inhabit. My focus today is not there. My focus today is on water as an important symbolic resource. On this Sunday when we tell the story of Jesus’ baptism, I want to explore with you water as a complex, multivalent symbol. “Multivalent” is just a fancy way of saying that something has many meanings. I want to explore three of them.
We in the church use water for baptism. It is an initiation rite in the church, a welcoming ritual. When I think about baptismal waters, I think of waters that heal, waters that cleanse, waters that soothe. When I baptize a child, knowing that the water will be sitting up on the altar for some part of the worship service, I run it just as hot as I can get it so that the waters feel warm, comforting, and soothing to the child being baptize. By the way, I do that for adults as well!
As I think about the waters of baptism, I think about God’s love represented in those waters. God’s love is as plentiful as water in the land of ten thousand lakes. God’s love is as life sustaining as water. God’s love surrounds us and permeates us. Baptism is a joyous celebration of the love of God which is always there for us, even before we are aware of that love. With baptism, we affirm that God claims us, just as God claimed Jesus at his baptism. “You are mine, you are beloved.” In God’s love we find rest for our souls. In God’s love there is healing and forgiveness. God’s love provides opportunities for new beginnings, new births. In the baptismal prayer we recall Jesus, nurtured in the water of a womb and baptized by John.
The waters of baptism provide a word of welcome to the community of faith, as well. It is the way the church has of saying, “God loves you, and we do too. We are glad that you are here.”
When I think about the symbol of water here it is warm, calm waters I imagine. Yet we know water is not always warm, and quite often the opposite of calm. Water can even be terrifying, waves crashing, waters roiling. We see it when the fierce winds blow the waters of Lake Superior. The Lake can be a dangerous place. I was in high school when the Edmund Fitzgerald sank, and heard Gordon Lightfoot sing the song when he was in concert here about a year later. Our chapel is dedicated to three brothers, three of Gene and Betty Halverson’s sons who lost their lives when the waves of the lake came crashing into the canal. Though I was in elementary school, I remember that too – a cautionary tale about respecting the power of wind and water.
We witnessed another destructive side of water this past June as torrential rains fell and streets were washed out and basements flooded.
Such images are the symbolic backdrop for Isaiah 43. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” Waters can overwhelm. They can be terrifying and dangerous.
Life can be stormy and frightening, even terrifying. The newspaper has recently run some stories about teenage girls running away from home only to get caught up in the horrors of sex trafficking. The stories sadden, and make us ask what kind of world do we live in. In our own lives, there are the small storms of disappointment and discouragement. There are the larger terrors of significant illness, grief and loss. Many of us have walked that road together, and you are walking that road with my family in the wake of Julie’s mom’s death and funeral. We all experience some of the storms of life, some of the terror of life. Author and therapist Michael Eigen writes, “one never recovers from being human” (Contact with the Depths, frontpiece). It is his way of saying we all know life’s difficulties, storms, small terrors.
When we think about water as a symbol in this way, God’s promise to us is not that we will avoid being human. God’s promise to us is that God will be with us. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” The promise goes on. “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…. Do not fear, for I am with you.” (Isaiah 43)
When I consider water as a symbol for the storms of life, the occasional terrors of being human, and consider God’s promise to be with me, to be with us, I am especially heartened, because the reality of our lives is that sometimes we need to go through some roiled waters to get to a better place, as the Israelites had to cross the Jordan on their way to the promised land. Sometimes in our lives we need to “use the pain as a stimulus to grow bigger than the pain,” in the words of Michael Eigen (Faith and Transformation, 109). Sometimes we have put ourselves in a difficult place and the only way out is through some of that difficulty. We hurt someone, and have to admit our fault and seek forgiveness. That can be terrifying, yet it is only through the storm that we will find a better place. God promises to be with us through those troubling waters. We get enmeshed in a pattern of behavior that is life-stultifying, even life-crushing and the only way out is to confront the pain. God promises to be with us – when you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.
Between a warm, calm pool of water and crashing waves that terrify us and threaten to overwhelm, there are those rapids that we love to ride, whitewater that we are thrilled to navigate. There is something in that understanding of water as a symbol that speaks to our life of faith. Life with God, the journey with Jesus is an adventure, sometimes a whitewater adventure. The life with God, the journey with Jesus is movement and dance. In one of his poems, T. S. Eliot writes, “Except for the point, the still/point,/There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” (“Burnt Norton” in Four Quartets, 15-16) There is that still point where we encounter the God whose love in Jesus surrounds and embraces us in the quiet waters of baptism, and then there is the dance with God, the whitewater adventure. With God, we can never be sure just where we will be going. With Jesus, we will be surprised by joy.
I have been the pastor here for seven and a half years. Most of you know that I grew up in Duluth, as did my wife Julie, but had not lived here for over twenty years when we moved back in 2005. During those years we visited because we had family here, but had not thought a lot about moving back permanently.
When I was appointed as the pastor here, I was glad to be back, but being in Duluth was not something that I had long sought. Some who are from Duluth spend a lot of time considering how they can make it back. That wasn’t me, mostly because I knew that in the United Methodist appointment system, where I would serve as pastor was not just up to me. No point in spending a lot of energy pining for a place one may never get to.
So we just found our way back to Duluth – and it has been a wonderful adventure, not always easy, but wonderful. Four years ago, my father died, and we were here. Two years ago, a close cousin my mom’s died, and we were here. Last year my grandma died, and we were here. January 5, Julie’s mother died, and we were here. Hard stuff, but what a serendipity that we have been here. I look out and remember many whose lives I have had the privilege of celebrating as we also marked their deaths. I feel an enormous sense of gratitude for so many delightful people it has been my joy to know. I look out and see people who seven and a half years ago were strangers, and who have now so enriched our lives. Thank you. This summer, First United Methodist and Chester Park United Methodist churches merged, and Chester Park was the place my mom was confirmed and where my parents were married, and where I went early in my candidacy process to visit with a pastor there to find out about ordained ministry. I am so glad I have been here for this.
With joy in my heart, I say to myself, “what a ride!” This has been an adventure. I have been around awhile in ordained ministry, even serving for seven years as a district superintendent in this denomination. I have seen pastors in the eighth year of their ministry think that maybe they have done all they could do, that maybe the adventure and thrill are gone. That’s not where I am at. I feel like these past years have gone by quickly and that there is so much more we can do together. I can’t wait to see where God might be leading us next, where the rapids of the Spirit are flowing, where the dance is going.
Water. In the calm warm waters of baptism, we are embraced by God’s love and welcomed by the Jesus community. When the waters of life become rough and terrifying, God is with us so we will not be ultimately overwhelmed. Following Jesus takes us flowing along the whitewaters of the Spirit. What a ride! Splash! Amen.