Gospel: John 12:1-8
1st Reading: Isaiah 43:16-21
2nd Reading: Philippians 3:4b-14
I once took a trip with Judith Puhlman down to see her grandson Nicholas in Salem in the State Hospital. On the way down, we crossed many bridges and Judith reminisced about when she was a little girl and these bridges had not yet been built. You had to plan your trips around ferry schedules.
We are so fortunate to live in a state with so much water. It means that crops and plants for landscaping can grow here. But I forget sometimes how water can become a barrier—how floods have devastated places like Vernonia and Tillamook. Water is both a life-giving force and also something unpredictable and scary that can take life away.
The ancient world was all too familiar with the unpredictability of water. Of course water is necessary for life. As the Israelites traveled in the wilderness they must have worried about whether they would have the water they needed to quench their thirst. When I was a little girl, when I heard about the wilderness, I always pictured a forest from the Pacific Northwest. That was the wilderness I was familiar with. Water would have been no trouble at all! But now I know, it was actually a desert—a barren, dry place.
As the Israelites approached the Red Sea, they must have been terrified—backed into a corner. The water was a barrier and they were stuck. Of course we know the story that Moses raised his staff and God parted the waters and brought them through on dry land. The water had done its saving work. But then the water did the destructive work it is also capable of and drowned the Egyptian army.
The Disciples would have also been familiar with the paradox of water. Several of them made their living from the water. They were fishermen. They depended on the water. Yet they also knew that if a storm came up, it only took a moment to lose your boat and lose your life.
I think our faith is a little bit like water. We need it for life. We need our faith to help us understand our life. We need our faith to help us make decisions, to help us love and act with compassion, to feed our soul, and to help us share life with others.
Yet faith is also dangerous in a way. Our faith challenges us. It asks us to give something up. There are times we lose something because of our faith. Sometimes we lose relationships with friends and family that don’t understand. We are asked to give up time in our week and money in our wallet. We are asked to give up our sense that we can do it all—that we can save ourselves or be good enough for God. We are asked not to just live off the water a little bit at a time, but to dive into the river and let ourselves drown in it, to let go of ourselves and let it overtake us.
In the Old Testament reading, the people have a memory of the sea and water and what happened there. They are so thankful that God brought them through, they forgot that moment wasn’t the point. The point was a relationship with God. The point was new life. That was just the beginning of their trip to a land of plenty and safety. They want just enough water to get them through the desert and just enough to drown their enemies, but not enough to drown their old life and give them a new one. They want to praise God for what God did in the past, but they aren’t ready to see how God might give them a new life.
Paul is trying to show the Philippians what it means to have new life. He has experienced drowning, himself. He was doing everything right. Yet he couldn’t have been further from knowing God’s love. He got so stuck in following the rules that he didn’t live in relationship with God or God’s people in a way that gave life to him or to them. He had only dipped his little toe in the water.
Paul is talking about this past way of looking at how to serve God and then the whole story flips. He falls in. If you remember, Paul had a conversion experience on the road, where he experienced blindness. At that moment the old Paul was drowned. He died—not literally, but figuratively. Everything in his life changed after that. He got a name change from Saul to Paul. The Christians he had persecuted, whose family members he killed, accepted him and forgave him and took him under their wing. He lost everything—his status, his religion, his friends, his job. And he gained everything when he learned about God’s grace and love. He started over, dripping wet.
He never forgot about the past. It was the story that made his conversion so amazing. But it didn’t haunt him. He didn’t get stuck there. He used it to show that no one was outside the love of God. No one was beyond forgiveness. Knowing that, he could move forward in the new-found freedom. Paul goes into the water—willingly or not—and he rises from it to move forward in his life of faith. This is death and resurrection in this life and he goes on fearless, because he knows for sure that nothing can separate him from the love of God.
Mary has also gone through death and resurrection. Her brother Lazarus had died. She must have felt that she would drown in all those tears. Her friend Jesus, though late to come and help, had raised him from the dead. She must have been so confused—so sad, then so happy, now so sad again because she knows that Jesus will soon be killed. She lets herself go. She doesn’t over think her farewell. She doesn’t care what anyone thinks. She doesn’t care who sees. She is completely in the moment. There is no past. There is no future. There is only this moment that she shares with Jesus. Maybe she doesn’t even notice the other people in the room. She goes toward the water—that which gives life and that which claims life and takes it away. She goes toward the chaos. She doesn’t avoid the situation. She has to say goodbye. She has to express her devotion. She has been fed with the life-giving water of Jesus and she goes toward that water just as it is beginning to churn and the waves are picking up. She is heading into dangerous territory as she spends time with a wanted man. She’s got no life-jacket. She’s got no armor to protect her. She goes vulnerable and open—her hair down, her tears pouring out, no money left in the world.
And this is a fitting response because this is what God has done for us. God doesn’t dwell on the past. God doesn’t hold our past against us. God doesn’t let a little water scare him. In fact, God goes straight for the scariest and ugliest we can be and says, “I love you. Come home.” God exposes just how dangerous the water can be. We know God can tame it—we’ve recently seen Jesus walking on the water. This time Jesus chooses to drown in it, to let it overtake him to show that he can take all we can possibly dish out and still love us, still gather us all in, still give us life. And Jesus shows us that the water is nothing to be afraid of. We can let it overtake us, too, because whether we live or die, we belong to God.
I wonder if we can let go of our fear of the past and all our baggage, to let a new thing happen. I wonder if we can let the past be drowned so that we can move into hope. I wonder if we can live in the moment of now to experience God with us in this moment.
Today, I invite you go on with worship in a different way. Forget you ever said any of these words in worship before. Forget the rules and the catechism you had to memorize in Confirmation. Forget you’ve ever sat in that pew or been in this church. Let all that history be drowned. Instead, experience the new thing that God is doing this moment. I invite you to be in this moment, as if experiencing God’s love and grace for the first time. I invite you to rise through the waters with Jesus and hear him say to you for the first time, “I love you.” And let that love help you shed your old life, let go of the past, and move forward in relationship with God and God’s people with hope.