September 3rd – Steve Jungkeit – with audio
Texts: Genesis 7: 11-20;
Matthew 14: 22-33
High Water Everywhere
Today I wish to talk about baptism, about remembering our baptism. We’ll get to that important ritual in a few minutes, but first, a story about songs and waters, blues and floods, baptism writ large.
As I’ve struggled to process the damage and destruction of Hurricane Harvey, it’s been an old blues song that’s been on constant repeat in my mind all week. It’s by Charley Patton, the greatest of all the Delta blues singers. It’s called “High Water Everywhere, Parts 1 and 2,” recorded in 1929. Patton chronicled the watery destruction caused by the Mississippi flood of 1927, when melting snow and rain caused that river to swell and break its levees. It broke first in Missouri, and then Arkansas. But the worst break was at Mound Landing, 18 miles north of Greenville, Mississippi, a break that flooded much of the Mississippi Delta. By the time it was over, sixteen and a half million acres of land were flooded in seven different states. 162,000 homes were destroyed as well as 41,000 other buildings, and 600,000 people were made homeless. Patton was there, and his song chronicles the sheer menace of the waters. In the first part of the song Patton keeps moving to towns on higher ground, only to find the waters have reached there as well: places like Vicksburg, Greenville, Leland, Rosedale – all flooded, all washed away. By the second part of the song, Patton exhibits a worn resignation as he witnesses the catastrophe. “Lord, the water is rollin,’ got up to my bed,” Charley sings. A little later, at the end of the song, he bears witness to the disaster, stating simply: “I couldn’t see nobody, an’ wasn’ no one to be foun.’” Charley knew a thing or two about liquid apocalypses. More than 70 years later, Bob Dylan recorded a song in tribute to Charley, also called “High Water Everywhere.” Dylan’s song channels Patton’s ghost seventy years later. “Things are breakin’ up out there,” Dylan growls, as if he was planted in 1927 during the Mississippi flood, or in 2005 during Katrina, or in 2017 during Harvey. “It’s High Water Everywhere,” he says.
Charley Patton’s songs have been my accompaniment this week as I’ve scrolled through story after story about Houston. Dylan’s song too has been on constant repeat as I’ve offered prayers for that city and wondered about how or if we might respond. Those songs, and the images circulating through various news outlets have me thinking anew about the meaning of water in Christian and Jewish thought, and whether the symbols of Christian faith, especially baptism, might have a particular resonance and relevance now, in the aftermath of so much destruction. And so let me put forth a thought that’s both provocative and challenging. For all of us who live in the 21st century, water is akin to our unconscious, that which we wish not to think about, that which we wish to banish to the recesses of our imagination, even as, from time to time, water surges forth into our public consciousness during storms or other crises. Water is our ecological unconscious. The more we banish it, the more forcefully it reasserts itself. The time has come to confront the power of water. The time has come to remember the significance of baptism.
Water, we learned this week, was a part of the cultural unconscious of Houston, as swamps, bayous and wetlands were paved over in the name of “development,” to make way for all those malls and parking lots. It was more or less forgotten or ignored, until the sky poured 50 inches of rain onto the city. Water was a part of the cultural unconscious of Flint, Michigan, polluted by industrial runoff until residents of that city started becoming sick. It was an afterthought, until it became a public health catastrophe. But let’s be honest – have you thought about Flint’s water supply lately? Water was a part of the cultural unconscious surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline, all but ignored until the Lakota tribe began raising the alarm about the danger to their water supply. Let’s be honest – have you thought about Standing Rock since the camp was sweeped clean? Water was, and is, a part of the cultural unconscious of New Orleans, until Katrina deluged the city and the levees failed. Let’s be honest – prior to this week, when was the last time you thought about Katrina? Still, there comes a time when water reasserts itself, forcing humanity to contend with its awesome and threatening and contaminating, and yes, also sustaining power. But then the floodwaters recede, rebuilding occurs, and the cultural unconscious takes over once again, until the next storm, the next flood, the next deluge.
This summer, our family experienced flooding on two different occasions in New Orleans, on two different Saturday afternoons. You can see evidence of the first of those on your bulletins this morning. That’s a picture taken from the front door of the house in which we were staying. We had been having lunch at a restaurant across town, and the skies opened up while we ate. It was a pleasant enough meal, but getting to the car afterward was like standing under a garden hose. We piled into our van, drenched, and began driving home, only to find our way blocked by floodwater everywhere we turned. After an hour or so of slow navigation, we got close to our house, only to find it surrounded by thigh deep water. And so we left our car about a block away, took off our shoes, and waded home. Several hours later, after the rain stopped, the pumps beneath the city caught up, and sucked the streets dry. Everyone came out of their houses, picked up the trash, shook their heads, and went on with life. The water was out of sight and out of mind, a piece of the cultural unconscious of the city once again. Until it happened again two weeks later, and we had to wade home all over again. As in each of our personal lives, try as we might, the unruly and unmanageable unconscious will assert itself from time to time. The violence and force of that assertion often depends upon how forcefully the unconscious has been repressed.
I wonder: how long will it be before we face 50 inches of rain here on the Connecticut Shoreline? Irene can shake us for a while, flood our homes, cut off the power, but no sooner do the lights go back on and the shore front building continues. Sandy can deliver a jolt, but then the event recedes and we quit giving water a whole lot of thought. In the years following those storms, we’ve hosted several public conversations about what it all portends, and a handful of folks show up. But how long do we have? You’ve seen the reports about how quickly the Arctic is melting. You’ve seen the reports about the disappearing ice shelves in the Antarctic. How long until we feel the effect of all that extra water here in Connecticut? Dylan said it best: things are breakin up out there. High water’s everywhere.
Water contains the power of life, but these days I’ve come to think that we need reminders of its ambiguity, of its terrible destructive powers in addition to its life giving powers, lest it recede into our unconscious yet again. Troubadours and bluesmen like Dylan and Patton aren’t the only ones who can help. They stand in a long line of seers and visionaries who have both celebrated and lamented the power of water throughout the years. In truth, they stand within a Scriptural tradition that we need to recall right now.
I’ve often reminded you of the ambiguity of water in biblical literature. Whenever water appears in the Bible, it is always the symbol not only of life, but of chaos. In the Bible too, water is akin to the unconscious – a potent force that it is all too easy to ignore, but that must be confronted if healing and wholeness are to occur, if life itself is to continue. In the Bible, the waters must always be confronted, not ignored, which is what the ritual of baptism means. We can think of God shaping the chaotic waters into something with form in the early verses of Genesis, one of the first acts of creation. We can think of Noah, the sole human being who is willing to confront the challenges of water in the early chapters of Genesis, thereafter saving himself and the animal species that he could. When the Hebrew slaves flee Egypt, they pass through the Red Sea, symbolizing the chaos of their captivity, while their pursuers eventually drown within that chaos. The Hebrews must walk through the waters if they are to achieve their freedom. When Jonah flees from the call of God, it is into the watery chaos that he is flung, where he undergoes a transformation in the belly of a beast. That pattern is replicated in the New Testament, when Jesus appears before his cousin John to be baptized. He’s pushed into the watery void, where he too experiences a transformation, one that begins his public ministry. Later, it’s Peter who sinks in the water as he undergoes the rigors of becoming a disciple. He sinks and splutters. Later, after the resurrection, when Peter first spots Jesus on the shore of Galilee, he leaps from a boat back into the water. It’s a rich and symbolic moment suggesting immersion into a formless and watery void as somehow necessary if one is to find new life. Again and again throughout the Bible, in addition to being a necessity for living, water is also that which humans would rather forget or ignore. But in story after story, characters within the Bible are asked to confront water as if it were a form of the unconscious, to submerge themselves in the waves and swells. Water is always the occasion of confrontation, contention, struggle, and transformation.
And so what does it all mean? To start, it means that faith isn’t just about being led beside still waters, as Psalm 23 has it. It has to do with getting wet. But more than that, I confess that it’s the images of Peter being immersed in water have come to have another connotation for me this week. As the images of Harvey’s destruction were broadcast, I began to wonder if Peter might be just the figure we need right now. I began to wonder if Peter was the person within our tradition who reminds us of the need to keep water at the forefront of our consciousness, leaping into the water, if you will, rather than remaining safely on shore, where the water can remain far from our conscious thoughts. I began to wonder if people of faith in the 21st century ought to be those who, like Peter, become immersed in water, in the challenges of water, in finding ways to live with and in water, rather than suppressing, forgetting, or ignoring the challenges of water. Like Peter, I wonder if we in the 21st century are called not to ignore the chaos of water, but to throw ourselves into it, metaphorically speaking, lest more and more people be cast into it in a far more literal way. How many people will need to lose their homes and their lives before we confront the challenges posed by water? How many of the poor and vulnerable will lose everything before we realize that this isn’t a problem for those poor folks down South, or on some Pacific Island, but is rather a global issue affecting all of humanity? What I began to wonder was whether this is what it means to remember our baptisms here in the 21st century.
Sitting on one of my shelves is a book of old photographs of river baptisms in the early 20th century, many of them taken at the very time Charley Patton was singing “High Water Everywhere,” at the very time that many people were still contending with the displacement caused by the Mississippi flood. Vast throngs of congregants crowd the banks of various riverways, many standing on bridges or even rafts in order to get a better view of the baptism ritual. In the center of each grainy photo stands a preacher, and with him a solitary individual, waiting to be immersed into the chaos. The paradox of their watery immersion can’t be lost on those individuals, for even as the waters embrace them in this moment of baptism as a source of life, those same waters had the power to sweep them away when the rains came. And yet down they go, into the void, in photograph after photograph. What were all those people gathered at those old American rivers doing when they descended into the watery void?
In part at least, I think all those gathered around those waters were visiting the source of life and the source of sorrow, all at once. I think they were confronting the terrible ambiguities of water, which somehow mirror the terrible ambiguities of the human heart. I think they were doing so with a tenacity and courage that we might do well to revisit just about now. I believe that all those river folk were somehow coming to terms with water, accruing a kind of wisdom that I suspect many of us have lost. And so in honor of all those old time immersion baptisms, in honor of Peter and the baptism he undergoes in the Sea of Galilee, in honor of Jesus in the River Jordan and Jonah in the Mediterranean, I would have us all remember our baptisms. I would have us remember the blessings and threats of water, rather than letting the waters recede back into our unconscious lives.
But I would have us remember our baptisms in honor of those who are suffering the effects of Hurricane Harvey as we speak. I would have us remember our baptisms in honor of those who suffered, and continue to suffer, the effects of Hurricane Katrina, or Sandy, or Matthew. I would have us remember our baptisms as a way of merging our faith tradition with a public consciousness about water that we desperately need right now. I appreciated reading a proposal this week about the need for a Green New Deal, which would create funding and jobs around levees, dams, locks, canals, pumps and drainage systems, as well as other mechanisms for living with water. Meanwhile, draft plans are being submitted for the construction of a border wall between the US and Mexico, a complacently stupid project that will solve nothing and help no one. A Green New Deal is a project that would actually help millions of people. It would be a public way of remembering the lessons of baptism.
But we need to do it too. We also need to remember our baptisms, our encounters with the waters. I don’t have a solution to climate change or encroaching water any more than anyone else. But I do think we have an obligation to remember our baptisms as more than just a private, arcane symbol. In this instance, in this moment, I believe it has to do with keeping issues surrounding water from receding back into the collective unconscious. Maybe that means creating a work team to help restore homes in flood damaged areas sometime this fall. Maybe that means that while we’re in a holding pattern, waiting for another refugee family to arrive, we inquire whether evacuees from East Texas and Louisiana need it during the clean up process – that was a need after Katrina, and it may emerge as a need now as well. We’ll see. And we need to keep learning about the ways rising tides and massive storms will affect the Northeast – including Old Lyme. Is that what it means to remember our baptisms here in the 21st century?
On the popular HBO series Game of Thrones, they’re fond of saying that winter is coming. I think they’ve got it all wrong. I’d prefer to say: Water is coming. As Charley Patton reminded us 90 years ago, as Bob Dylan reminded us 16 years ago, as Katrina reminded us 12 years ago, and as Harvey reminded us just a few days ago… it’s high water everywhere.
This is a call to us all to remember our baptisms.