“The Water Is Wide”

“Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.” I felt the timeliness and truth of these words in my gut as we read them together this past week during our Wednesday night prayer. Yes, indeed, this is how I feel right now. The waters of sadness and worry are up to my neck. My feet are slipping, grasping for footholds of structure, stability and sanity in this deep, persistent mire of a global pandemic. I’m almost overcome and I’m tired of fighting, every hour of every day, to keep my head above the flood.

Our ancestors in faith who told the story of a great flood knew, from their daily experiences, that their ability to influence and control nature was limited. They were viscerally aware that the same forces that gave them life also threatened to destroy them. In contrast, in recent centuries, humankind has attempted to exert almost total control over this planet. And, ironically, our thirst for power has led us to a place of knowing, again, how powerless we actually are. Our exploitation of the earth has awakened her destructive side in ways that are truly frightening. Western skies fill with ash and the glow of flame. Storms and floods grow more frequent and intense. A microscopic virus now brings all of humanity to sharp awareness of our mortality, with its capacity to spread a capricious and deadly illness. More and more people are in need, and on the move, and desperate.

The story of the flood, found in Genesis, and the flood story of the Potawatomi people both fault humanity for this disaster. The creation story tells us that we are made in God’s own image, that we bear with the privilege and responsibility of being partners with God, of sharing in God’s power of creation. And, yet, we always have, and always will, struggle to live up to our image, to be true to our deeper selves. The authors of Genesis make the point about human responsibility for the flood with subtle elegance that only comes across in the Hebrew. Human corruption corrupts the earth. And the word for this corruption in Hebrew is the same word that describes  the destruction brought by the flood.[1] (Genesis 6:11-13)

We are living the story of the flood, living in a self-inflicted state of disaster. The waters of destruction and chaos have risen to our necks. All our efforts to control those waters are failing. The dams are breaking. The waves threaten to sweep us away. And yet, we still have choices. Oil pipelines, like Line 3, encapsulate the decisions before us. If we say “yes” a million barrels of tar sands oil per day and “yes” to additional carbon emissions greater than those of the whole state of Minnesota, then the deathly flood will overcome us all. If we say no to further expansion of fossil fuels, then we are taking a first step toward finding a radically new way to live together on this planet. We have choices. We can stop subduing and dominating. We can yield and accept our limits. We can learn to respect the fact that we are not the master of the waters, the creatures, the skies, or the green and growing things.

Original Man is not at the center of the Potawatomi flood story. He is not calling the shots or saving the day. He is the first to fail in the attempt to dive down and find land. He is then an observer and a learner as other animals also search. And, with all the creatures, he is the recipient of the sacrificial gifts of Muskrat and Turtle that allow the earth to thrive again.

 I’ve spent this week listening to indigenous water walkers like Grandmother Josephine Mandamin. At a later point in the video that we watched together this morning, she speaks about the sovereignty of native nations. It seems those of us steeped in white culture think of sovereignty as autonomy, as the ability to do as we please without being under anyone else’s control. Here’s what Mandamin has to say about these matters:

Our sovereignty is taken away by the white society because we cannot do what we are supposed to be doing. . . . We have to start doing our work that we have been given by Creator. . . . We as Anishanabe people have to live the way we used to live. We have to take care of the animals. We have to take care of mother earth. We have to take care of our sovereign duties, which is to take care of everything that is there. . . . [We have to] look to the four colors of man to work together in order to be of one heart, one mind. . . . We’re all connected with water. We’re all united with water. [2]

Another water walker, Sharon Day, lives in the Twin Cities. She walked the full length of the Mississippi with a bucket of water drawn from the headwaters of the river.  She says:

All of my life, I have spent resisting something. [I was] born an Ojibwe woman, [and] I’m a two-spirit, lesbian woman. And so all my life I’ve spent resisting racism, resisting oppression to indigenous people, sexism, homophobia and the wars. The thing that I learned on the walk is that the walk is about moving toward something, moving toward love and healing. And I believe that everybody that walked with us felt that.[3]

What I am learning from the voices of these women is that indigenous sovereignty is not a matter of having control over the land and waters. It is about the role Creator has given native people—to care for creation, and to show others how to extend that same care. We live in a culture that erases indigenous people and relegates them to the past. And yet, honoring indigenous sovereignty is the only path forward for any of us. Our collective survival, as humans, depends on acknowledging their unique responsibility in the present, as people called to unite and lead us in this time of crisis.

The character of God in the Hebrew story of the flood is fascinating. God is full of strong emotions—grief, regret and profound ambivalence. God feels that creation is a failure, a mistake, something that needs to be destroyed. And yet, God cannot not follow through fully with this intention. God choose to save a remnant of this deeply flawed world—two of each kind of every living thing, along with one human family. In the aftermath of the destruction, God’s creative instincts are again awakened. It is not an accident that God dries up the waters of the flood with ruach, the same spirit-wind that hovered over the waters of the earth in the beginning, in the first act of creation.

In the long run, of course, the flood doesn’t change human behavior, or human nature. We continue to struggle with our shadow side, our tendencies  toward violence, and corruption, our thirst for dominance. However, the storyteller imagines that God is changed. I might argue that what really happens is that the storyteller’s view of God shifts. Kathryn Schifferdecker, professor of Hebrew Bible at Luther Seminary observes that after the flood:

God decides to commit Godself to this broken, corrupt, and sinful world. God’s mercy wins the day, and this story becomes a prime example for the exilic prophet Isaiah of God’s lovingkindness and faithfulness. . . . And finally, [when human sin and corruption] have become so great that they threaten to overwhelm the world again, it is God [in God’s self] who enters into the waters—into the waters of a woman’s womb, into the waters of the Jordan, to show once and for all that God is passionately committed to God’s creation.[4]

 “At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me. With your faithful help rescue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters. Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth over me.” In our time of prayer with this Psalm last Wednesday, we noted that there’s an implied trust on the part of the Psalmist. We can be confident that God is with us as the floodwaters rise, because God is a God of abundant steadfast and creative love. The Psalmist describes watching for God’s answer, God’s help, God’s deliverance: “My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.” I also imagine that God is waiting for us, keeping vigil for that moment when we will stop, and listen, and awaken. In the end, what comes out of the great flood is a covenant, sealed with a rainbow sign. This covenant promise is made between all members of creation and God. We are in this together. We can live through this flood and build a new world. We can begin again, to live with mutual care, to live as people of peace.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3780

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=395&v=vV5zD2GrAAg&feature=emb_logo

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=147&v=cBZd9hZQEso&feature=emb_logo

[4] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3780