Thin Places: Water
For most of my life, I’ve lived near a large body of water. That’s not counting Wachusett or the Quabbin, either.
You might not think of water when you think of Mississippi, but my house was 7 minutes from the Gulf. When I lived in Florida, our house was only two touchdowns away from Palma Sola Bay which fed into the Gulf.
I love the water. I have a number of meaningful memories involving the beach or a boat. I also have a few memories of powerfully moving experiences, too. Like the time I sat on a boat and took in the deep blues that my disposable camera couldn’t. Or the time I sat under the stars with two friends as we listened to the waves crashing in front of us. Or the time I stared off the side of a cruise ship into an abyss that was greater than my mind could even conceive. Or one of those memories I now hold most dear, when I sat on the shore of the Red Sea, my father and I both staring off, wondering if we prayed hard enough, if we might be able to part those waves. I don’t know if he was thinking that, but I was. And the picture I snapped of him sure looks like he was.
These moments, like those variations you might have, stirred a reverence and awe in us, an unmistakable sense of God-with-us.
This morning we continue our theme of “Thin Places,” which you’ll remember, is a reference to those moments or places like I’ve just described, when the distance between heaven and earth dwindles, or as some have put it: when the veil between heaven and earth becomes thin. A thin place is that moment when God’s presence is unmistakable.
Last week, it was mountain summits; this week, let’s look at water as a thin place.
From our reading today, but all throughout our Christian Scriptures, we see examples of water as a thin place.
Start at the beginning in the poetry of creation — the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. I already mentioned it but the Red Sea was daunting for the people of God, and yet God parted the waters for them to walk on dry land.
While wandering in the wilderness, God provided water from a rock.
We read about people looking to be healed with water from leprosy or blindness.
In the life of Jesus, we see a number of ways that water was significant; when he spoke to the woman at the well about offering living water, or when he turned water to wine, or when he calmed the storm and the waves, or when he walked on water.
In our reading today, John the Baptist is coming out of the wilderness to a body of water to baptize people. Scholars, Jewish and Christian, point to purity rituals of baptism in that day, but this particular reference to baptism foreshadowed something more. That the Christ was coming, offering a new Way. In a month or so, we’ll remember the baptism of Jesus himself, when the heavens opened, and a voice said, “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased.” After which, a dove descended in that famous trinitarian image of Divine Voice as the Parent, the Son in the water, and the Spirit as a dove.
A thin place if ever there was one.
Right there in the water.
The waters of baptism.
Which might be a good image for us.
Something about water speaks to thin places, where the divide between heaven and earth diminishes, the veil between God and humanity thins; when, like states of matter, something changes, like a mist when the weather changes — and God’s presence is palpable.
Maybe it’s because the earth is 71% water and our bodies are 60% water, but it is essential to us on an atomic and primal level. Water, being such an essential building block of life, becomes then, a conduit between the sacred and the ordinary. It can set the stage for moments of transcendence, when the fog lifts and we can see more clearly, the glimpses of divinity in our midst — or mist.
Or put another way, sometimes through the most common and ordinary pieces of our lives, our world, our surroundings, God will speak to us. Sometimes it’s because of their mundanity that the holy is able to jump out to us from time to time. Sometimes that fog lifts and we suddenly see the complexity of even the most common things like water and waves and ice and snowflakes and fog and steam and breath.
Two of the most sacred elements of our worship as Baptists is communion and baptism. Communion, while not water per se, offers a similar concept to Jesus’ comment about living water. We drink the cup as a symbol of life; that just as we drink to stay hydrated and alive, we drink of the richness and abundance of Christ’s life that we might experience the richness of Christ’s life in our own.
And in baptism, we wade into the water, immersing ourselves in it — the definition of the Greek word for baptism, to immerse or submerge.
We wade into the water, ordinary, common, in our case, chilly water, not because it is magical or holy on its own, but because the divine grace of God is present in the thinness of such a moment, in the ordinariness of something that doesn’t seem that different than a bath if you stripped away the liturgy, yet in the ritual, we experience God’s presence, palpable and real, buried with Christ in baptism, and raised to walk in newness of life.
This Advent, I’m not trying to preach kooky fantastical powers of mountains and water. But as we go through the faithful retelling of this story, the coming of the Christ among us, it is worth it for us to notice some of the signposts along the way. What is the scenery all around us? What points the Way to the coming Christ then, and even now, when we can find glimpses of Christ’s presence 2000 years later, not in flashes of glory but in the ordinary — a mountain, a glass of water, a difficult circumstance, a sunrise on the beach.
We have this season of Advent before us to prepare. We know when Christmas will be; we have that date down. At Christmas we will remember, and we will celebrate, that God came to us not in something extraordinary, but in something as ordinary as a body that everybody has.
So, we spend Advent in preparation, as practice, for what will come our way when we least expect it, those daily or life challenges when we will need to remind ourselves that God is with us always, everywhere, even and especially in the most common and ordinary spheres of our world — like a human body, or even a body of water.
Sermon preached at First Baptist of Worcester, MA on December 8, 2019.
Matthew 3:1–12; Isaiah 11:1–10