Think if you will about water….. so ordinary, so powerful, so necessary. Life-giving, but potentially life-threatening. An element we cannot live without, should not take for granted, and ought to respect. People walk miles to get water, dig deeper and deeper wells to access it, and find refreshment and fun playing in it. Water shapes the landscapes and impacts weather. We drink it. We bathe in it. You have to wonder if there is a more versatile compound in all creation. Living here in a desert, we are always aware of the need for this essential resource and the ever-perpetual threat of drought.
Water… it’s an image that runs throughout the scriptures. In the Old Testament, beginning with the very act of creation, the voice of God is over the primordial waters; as “a mighty wind … sweeping over the waters”, even as God’s voice called forth light over the darkness that covered the face of these waters in Genesis. God’s voice is powerful, calling forth creation. From the beginning, water has been a part of God’s plan of creation. Just as we need water to live, water is a reminder that we need God too, which is why the psalmist says in Ps 42:1, “As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God”.
Water…it has the power to brings life and with it, hope. The prophet Isaiah shares the message: “Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow”.
Water… it is a reminder of God’s loving provision. When Hagar was sent into the wilderness to perish with her son Ishmael, God provided water for survival. When the Israelites were wandering in the desert wilderness, God provided water from the rock. When the Hebrew people entered the Promised Land, they crossed the Jordan River into a land surrounded by bodies of water; the Red Sea, the Mediterranean and rivers that would make the land fertile and productive. In the perpetual cycles of drought, God always and eventually provided rain to water the land, which would bring forth food for the people’s provision.
Water… it has the power to heal, as can be seen from the stories of Naaman – the Syrian cured from his leprosy in the waters of Jordan and the annual miracles at pool at Bethesda in Jerusalem. Water has the power to purify, to provide deliverance. The Israelites were fleeing Egypt, God parted the waters to allow them pass through. Water has the power of liberation.
Yet water can also be a terrifying thing. Anyone caught out at sea in a storm knows the frightening power of water. Water can destroy life as well as give it. Floods and storms are a constant reality in our world, just as they were in biblical times. Water was used by the hand of God to rain down terrible destruction on the earth in the great flood. The waters that parted for the Israelites, gathered to destroy Pharoah’s army. So, water… it also has the power to bring about death.
The prophet Isaiah was familiar with the different images of water, as were the people to whom he preached. In this morning’s scripture, he calls upon them to visualize the images of waters in their history as a remembrance of God’s redeeming power to save, both literally and metaphorically. Isaiah is speaking to a people in exile, far from home. This passage opens with him speaking words of comfort to these people as they were returning from their deportation. They needed the reminder that God is their redeemer, and God will lead them through the water and through the fire; that God will not allow them to be harmed. That God would give up anything, anyone, for them because they are precious to God. They have suffered so much, and God’s desire for them is healing and restoration. God will gather up the remnant, for God made them, and God loves them.
God tells his listeners - and us - in verse one, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are Mine.” We have no fear of judgment because we are redeemed--our salvation is secure--so it stands to reason with eternity secure, we should have no fear of tomorrow. God is in control. He is our Redeemer who loves us. Our standing is rooted in relationship; we are His. Isaiah reminds us that God is also the One who “formed” us out of nothing, and this word implies painstaking care. God has called us by name, which indicates He has a specific plan and place for us. We are His cherished, rightful possession, and He is our present help in any danger.
When we pass through trials (and note the scriptures say “when, not if”), through waters of difficulty and fires of oppression as we read in verse two, but we can do so without fear. We know God is with us. An anonymous source tells us: “Hope is holding out your hand in the dark”. We live by hope in God’s divine provision. We need not fear what nature or nations may do to us. Sometimes the Lord calms the storm…sometimes He lets the storm rage and calms us.
And finally, let us not forget that water is the means by which we are baptized into the covenant with God; with Father, Son and Holy Spirit. John the Baptist used those same waters as a sign of repentance and spiritual cleansing. Water is a sign of the healing powers of God, to remove the stain of our sins from us and restore our souls. It is the sign of a new beginning in our relationship with God.
Baptism and beginnings: it’s both a wonderful and terrifying image. John the Baptizer was not a gentle man. He warned those gathering near him to bear fruit, to show inward transformation, before coming forward to be baptized. The purification by God can be painful, because it strips away the parts of us that do not bear fruit for God. But, as Jesus is declared God’s Beloved, so we also are God’s Beloved children, when we come forward to become the people God has intended us to be: to turn back to God, to live into the Holy Spirit, to become wheat that is free from chaff, fruit worth of repentance.
So today, as we remember the baptism of Jesus, let us remember our own baptism, knowing as we walk through the chaotic tempests of life, we are beloved, and we are protected by God. Do not fear, for God is with you. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Holy One, Your presence is always with us, but at times we do not perceive it. Sometimes the waters are overwhelming, even when it is good for us to pass through. Sometimes the fire burns too hot, and fear envelopes us. Remind us of Your loving presence. Holy One, be gentle with us. Help us to grow in our trust of You. Help us to let go of our fears that hold us back: loving others, accepting others, and finding that You are at work beyond what we can see, beyond what we know. Help us to trust that questions can remain unanswered. Help us to accept that all things are changing, but You are at work around us, working for good. Help us to understand that we will not know everything now, but that You are always with us, and that knowledge is so wonderful for us. Help us to trust in You. Amen.