God’s gonna trouble the water.

I love the ambiguity of this African American spiritual lyric – so simple, but so evocative, so layered in Scriptural meaning! Wade in the Water refers to both the Israelites escape from Egypt and the end times – promising a future freedom. (Robert Waltz and David Engle (2007), The Traditional Ballad Index: An Annotated Bibliography of the Folk Songs of the English-Speaking World.) Wade in the Water also evokes baptism – our theme for today.

But the specific Scriptural reference for God’s gonna trouble the water is the story in John, chapter 5, of Jesus healing a man with a physical disability on the Sabbath. It was the day of the week that got him into trouble. This man had waited many years by a pool in Jerusalem believed to have healing powers, and in a verse contemporary translations only include as a footnote (as it is not found in the earliest Greek texts) the King James Version says, in beautiful King James English, “an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.”

So God’s gonna trouble the water is, in fact, a promise of healing – of vitality and new life – rather than a reference to the ‘trial and tribulation’ kind of troubles.

But to use the word in the usual sense, we are well aware, as human beings, that we are in deep trouble – that we are in a world of deep trouble. The first thing I did on New Year’s Day (and I realise this was a rather down way to start a new year) was to read an ABC article about potential conflicts that may occur in our world in 2024. “Five hotspots to watch” it was subtitled: Myanmar, Mali, Lebanon (as we are seeing at the moment), Pakistan and Sri Lanka. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Project there are 56 violent conflicts taking place in the world right now – the most since WW2. As International Relations expert Paul Poast explains, “We are not in a world war right now, but we are in a world of war.”

It is not only geopolitical forces getting us into deep water, but our very human capacity, from the dawn of creation, to hurt one other on a domestic level as well. (You will be glad to know that my second act on New Years Day was to turn to Aron and tell him I loved him. A much better way to start the year!)

We, as Shakespeare says, are up against a sea of troubles. And our two readings this morning concur.

“In the beginning when God [began to create] the heavens and the earth,” Genesis says, “the earth was a formless void” ((tohu va-vohu in Hebrew) “and darkness covered the face of the deep” – the watery abyss (tehom). This is also the language – very intentionally – that the writer of Mark uses, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”, and draw on similar imagery – the formless mass of people coming from “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” to be immersed in the deep, the waters of the Jordan, confessing their sins.

But this is the extraordinary part. This is the good news. Where is God in all of this? Is God as far from all this chaos and contamination as God can be? No! The spirit of God, Genesis says, (ruach), was there brooding over the waters. God does not abandon God’s creation. And this is how Jesus appears, in Mark, wading into the waters that are represent our sins.  God does not abandon us.

Author Debie Thomas writes, “Jesus’s first public act was an act of radical solidarity. An act of stepping into intimate, inextricable, “shameful” relationship with sinful humanity. Instead of holding himself apart, instead of protecting his own purity, Jesus stepped into the same water we stand in, and wedded his reputation and his destiny to ours.”

I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth telling. (It comes from the best TV show ever.) It’s told by Leo to Josh, in The West Wing, when Josh’s mental health is suffering:

“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by, “Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”

The beginning of the good news for us and our world – the story of Christmas we have just celebrated – is that God does not stand on high and throw down prescriptions or prayers, but God, in Jesus, gets down into the messy dirty chaotic depths of our lives because God will not abandon us.

God’s gonna trouble the waters.

When I hear that phrase, I also hear a threat – or promise – that God is engaged in confronting the power of sin in our world. In this sense the spirit of God brooding over the waters is an act of confrontation with evil – claiming this formless watery abyss with all its potential as God’s own.  And Jesus coming to be baptised by John is also an act of confrontation – a rejection of “the totality of the Jewish-Roman social construction of reality”, an unjust society maintained by unjust institutions through which power is unjustly ordered, and a declaration – a proclamation – in the words of the prophets, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

Borrowing the concept of redemption as the discharge of social obligation, H Waetjen writes, “[Jesus baptism] is a genuine act of repentance. As such it ends his participation in the structures and values of society. It concludes his involvement in the moral order into which he was born.” It anticipates Jesus’ proclamation of the good news, verse 15, “The kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.” It anticipates Jesus final confrontation with evil in his death – and his ultimate victory.

There is a story about a military leader (sometimes it is Emperor Charlemagne or the Knights Templar or Ivan the Great of Russia) who, when he and his troops came to be baptised, held their swords and their sword arms out of the water, to symbolise that – yes – they were surrendering everything to the way of the Lord, everything except their vocations as soldiers. 

The story is apocryphal, but it makes a powerful point about how we regard – how we disregard – the significance of our baptisms. Baptism is a radical identification, as it was for Jesus, with the troubles of our world. And it is a radical repentance, a declaration that we are prepared to reject the forms that injustice takes in world. And finally, it is a radical adoption into relationship with God.

God’s gonna trouble the water. Can we also hear that promise of healing and new life?

In Genesis the spirit of God troubles the water, like a bird it sweeps, hovers, broods over the water to bring about new life.

Fourth century church father, Ephrem the Syrian, picked up on this image of a brooding bird when he wrote of Genesis 1:2: “[The Holy Spirit] warmed the waters with a kind of vital warmth, even bringing them to a boil through intense heat in order to make them fertile. The action of a hen is similar. It sits on its eggs, making them fertile through the warmth of incubation.”

Ephrem sees our Genesis passage, God’s troubling of the waters, as a promise of what God does in Jesus’ baptism in Mark. Ephrem writes, “Here, then, the Holy Spirit foreshadows the sacrament of holy baptism, prefiguring its arrival, so that the waters made fertile by the hovering of that same divine Spirit might give birth to the children of God.”

God is gonna trouble the water to give us birth – to give us new life – to give us new relationship as God’s children.

While we were in the US in September Aron and I caught up with a friend from Japan and I am reminded, thinking about this, of his story of coming to faith, how becoming a Christian for him, as a Japanese man, was a release from social obligations that had bound him, the possibility of new, respectful, but new ways of engaging with others.

I am reminded too of Melissa Lipsett, the CEO of Baptist World Aid, who preached for us in December. After the service we went out for lunch and she was talking about her childhood, which was difficult, how she had run away to the navy and there encountered a navy chaplain who told her good news about a God who loved her – about a new relationship she could have as a child of God.

Are there things that come to mind for you, new life, new freedom, new connection you have found as a child of God?

There’s another meaning to Wade in the Water. It is believed Harriet Tubman who made thirteen trips to Southern USA and helped free more than 70 people, used this song, an existing spiritual, to warn them to get off the trail – to wade in the water so they could not be tracked by dogs and by those who had enslaved them. Wading in the water was the path to new life.

Jesus, the Living Word of God, calls us to follow him through the deep waters of radical identification with the troubles of world, through the deep waters of troubling the powers of injustice in our world and God troubles the waters and tears the heavens apart to claim us as God’s own. Let us continue to go down into the waters, to wade in the waters, to walk the path of life.

Benediction – Brazilian Catholic Archbishop Dom Helder Camara

Go down

into the plans of God.

Go down

deep as you may.

Fear not

for your fragility

under that weight

of water.

Fear not

for life or limb

sharks attack savagely.

Fear not the power

of treacherous currents under the sea.

Simply, do not be afraid.

Let go. You will be led

like a child whose mother

holds to her bosom

and against all comers is their shelter.