April 30, 2023, Cobleskill United Methodist Church, Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
Psalm 23; Mark 1:4-12
Fourth Sunday of Easter
23 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
So John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And the whole Judean region and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him and were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the strap of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove upon him. 11 And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
We’re in the midst of a series on creation and each week we’re focusing on a different element of the natural world. And there’s nothing like a cold, wet morning to talk about water, right?
Too much, not enough, dry ground, rising creeks. Water makes for good conversation. Depending on the context, water has the capacity to put us at great peace as we look out over a lake on a breezy day, and yet water also has the power to make us awestruck when it comes in torrents of rain. Water represents life in all its tranquility and also in all its fury. It is essential to every landscape. It is a constant presence in every season in which our own stories are set.
And this is why water is a powerful symbol of life in our scripture, too. From the waters at creation to the parting of the Red Sea to the Samaritan woman encountering Jesus at the well to the waters of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan river. Water is probably the most common “character” in the Bible you’ve never paid much attention to.
It takes a supporting role in many stories and yet it’s important to understand water as a pivotal element whose absence would change the meaning and impact of dozens of our sacred scriptures.
Can you imagine Jesus gaining the same kind of respect and trust from his disciples if he had been standing on dry ground outside of their boat? Can you imagine how unexciting it would have been for a dove to bring back a branch of green leaves if the ark had been sitting on dry ground all along? Can you imagine what might have brought Jesus and the Samaritan woman together if it wasn’t a common desire for a drink of water at the well? Can you imagine John the Baptist standing in a desert putting dust over the top of Jesus’ head to baptize him? Water makes these sacred stories come alive with new meaning.
It's mysterious, and yet simple. Universal and yet overwhelming. Sometimes it’s dangerous, other times it’s cleansing; always it’s life-giving. It’s all of these things because God created it that way. It goes where it wants. It is outside of human control. And yet humans cannot live without it.
Anyone who’s seen Frozen 2 knows another key fact about water. Water has memory. There is the same amount of water on this earth as there was when it was created. The water that flows down our Cobleskill Creek is the same water that might eventually rain on the African savannah, or fill the fountains in Europe, water the rice paddies in Japan, or have splashed the face of Jesus himself in the Jordan. Water connects us across generations and geography.
I get probably more excited than an average person every time I drive to Oneonta and pass through the gap between the two tall mountains on either side of Route 7 and Interstate 88 right at the county line between Schoharie and Otsego Counties. This high spot is not just any hill along the road, it’s actually the divide between two huge watersheds. A drop of water dropped on the Schoharie County side of the incline would eventually make its way down hill to the Schoharie Creek, then to the Mohawk, and eventually into the Hudson and the Atlantic at New York City. A drop of water dropped on the Otsego County side of the hill would move in a totally different direction, finding the waters of the Susquehanna which would eventually dump into the Atlantic at the Chesapeake Bay way down in Virginia. Two expansive water systems, ending up in the same place, but taking very different routes and yet the divide between them just a hill you’ve probably passed over a hundred times without realizing. Go a little ways south to Summit and you’ll find a drop of water dropped on the south side of those hills will flow into a third, distinct water way, the Delaware River Watershed which empties into the Atlantic via the Delaware Bay.
When I think about the ways water is woven into our sacred stories and cuts paths across the landscapes where we carry out our daily lives, I am struck by a sense of wisdom that God put into water and the watersheds that we might learn if we pay attention.
The first bit of wisdom is this: What if watersheds could teach us something about belonging? Water may be universal and shared across the entire globe, but there’s a reason county and state lines were often made based on watersheds. Our own United Methodist Annual Conference lines in this region used to follow watershed lines. A watershed is the ecosystem around you that shares the same water. It gives us something in common with the animals and plants around us. It creates a natural neighborhood. When Jesus says to love our neighbors as ourselves, sometimes all we need to do is look around at the natural neighborhood God has given us. When the wider world feels too big, start small. Pick up trash that falls along the creek beds and ditches. Help the earth worms that get caught on the sidewalks after the rain. Instead of tending a yard of green grass, learn about native plants that grow well within our local area. Chances are, they are already acclimated to this region and won’t need fertilizer or extra watering to grow well. If we let it, our natural neighborhood, our watershed, will teach us about where we belong and how to be a good neighbor.
The second bit of watershed wisdom is this: Water works in many different ways to bring life. When water flows out of our faucets we understand its uses and benefits. We all know what a tall drink of water does for our own body’s health or what a warm bath run in the tub does for a dirty child. But have you ever driven on Interstate 88 in the early morning in the other direction and as you dipped down toward the crossing of the Schoharie Creek, you saw the entire valley there filled with mist? This is part of the watershed, too, it’s just airborne at the moment you see it. When fog blankets a landscape, it helps keep moisture in the soil. And the beautiful thing is, as that fog eventually lifts, it moves with the wind, traveling sometimes to other watersheds where it might bring water and hydration to a new place across a different hill. Does solid water have a job in the watershed? When the temperatures plummet in the winter the water freezes: in the creeks, in the ground, even in the trees. Everything comes to a standstill, but this too is an important role for water in the watershed. As the water comes to a standstill, life is resting and renewing. Preparing to be ready for a re-creation when the thaw comes.
Water, Mist, Ice. Three forms of the same life-giving element. This is a wise and helpful way of understanding how one element can bring life to the watershed in three different ways. This is also a great way to understand God in our midst. Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer; Father, Son and Holy Spirit; God in three forms moves in our lives bringing life and renewal and motivation in many different and beautiful ways.
Finally, one more lesson from the watershed: The very same water that flows through our creeks and streams at one moment can be life-giving and at another moment it can also be destructive. Creeks that babble are also creeks that rise. Rain drops that put us to sleep can also make for leaky roofs. We see the dichotomy of water throughout the Bible. Sometimes, as the Psalmist says, there are still waters and God is leading us beside them. Other times, Jesus is asking us to step out of a boat into the storm. This is life. There will be still waters. There will be storms. Yet in every case, God is right beside us, helping us to find some meaning in it all. For example, I’ve heard the stories of Hurricane Irene’s fury in these valleys more than a decade ago. How the water grew and grew out of its creek banks and brought so much destruction and loss with it. And yet, even in the midst of that natural disaster, did God leave? No. God was in the water as it rose. And God showed up the next morning as neighbors checked on each other. God was in the strangers who came from far away to clean out basements and help rebuild lives. And still yet, God showed up in the fertility of the soil that was left in better shape than before by the influx of nutrients carried in and left by the flood waters. Our lives are like this, too. Still water and storms alike, this is the nature of life. God is always, somehow finding ways to bring healing and hope even when the waters get rough.
Water is a gift from God. It binds us together in a neighborhood with the natural world around us, it teaches us about the nature of God as it transforms into different life-giving forms, and it reminds us that life ebbs and flows in ways that are not always predictable. And yet, God is always there. In the storms, by the still water, in the floods, and in the fog. As you go out today, let the rain hit you in a new way. Those drops are one small, yet beautiful way of God telling you that you are part of something precious. A wise and wonderful neighborhood choreographed by the artistry of God’s water. Appreciate it. Respect it. Let it restore you in the name of our triune God who is and was and always will be Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
Blessing by Jan L. Richardson
May your life be a river. May you flow with the purpose of the One who created and called you, who directs your course and turns you ever toward home.
May your way shimmer with the light of Christ who goes with you who bears you up
who calls you by name.
May you move with the grace of the Spirit who brooded over the face of the waters at the beginning and who will gather you in at the end.
Grace and Peace,