April 28, 2024 — Dr. Kristen Daley Mosier

posted in: Sermons 0

“Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

In August of 2019 a colleague reached out to me to ask if I might be interested in participating in a grant project on baptism and toxic water. In our first version of the proposal we said that we would look for five geographic locations impacted by toxic water, then engage clergy, nonprofits, and/or civic groups and schedule visits to those places—five places; such optimism. Flint, Michigan was, from the beginning, the defining location largely because the Water Crisis was a widely reported instance of environmental racism indisputably caused by bad decisions, bad behavior, and the literal flip of a switch.

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic narrowed down our project to one location—and even that proved challenging. Nevertheless, during the week following the November election, my colleague and I travelled out to Flint to meet with pastors, faith leaders, and anyone who would give us some time to ask about their experience of the Water Crisis.

Our primary question was simply, “how do congregations baptize in the midst of a water crisis, when the water is poisoned?” Those who were willing to share their stories with us revealed a remarkable image of perseverance, faith, outrage, and love made real.

We also learned that there were clear discrepancies when it came to the degree that communities were impacted. Churches located closer to the downtown core—many of whom were predominantly white congregations—experienced little disruption to their baptismal practices. Frequent water testing, better circulation through the pipeworks, and access to filtration systems meant that they could draw water for the font and feel assured that it was “safe.” However, when we spoke with pastors in neighborhoods further out, we heard stories of folks suspending baptisms, or working with a church in another town to host their baptisms.  

One pastor told us how on a Saturday in August 2015, they were hosting a church picnic on the grounds of their church building. Amidst the fellowship and sharing of a meal, he asked a deacon to go into the church building and start filling the baptistry—a process that normally took about two hours. This was to prepare for the next day’s scheduled baptisms of several persons. About an hour and forty-five minutes later, the deacon came outside and said to him, “Come see! You’ve got to see this.” Together they approached the baptistry which was full of “pitch black” water. They drained it and tested the other faucets in the church. The results were the same: after running water for quite a while, the water was only slightly less discolored.

That would have been 16 months after the municipal water was switched over to the Flint river, which is what caused the water crisis. And what’s truly frightening is that water contaminated by lead is more often not discolored. So, the water crisis began as a public health crisis—people were getting rashes, their hair fell out, kids would have seizures or behavioral problems. It hit neighborhoods unevenly, depending upon how the water circulated through the system, with marginalized communities faring the worst. All the while city officials denied there was an issue, stalled efforts to find solutions, and changed their messaging once it was undeniable.

Speaking with a black pastor in one of the harder-hit areas, six and a half years after the initial switch, he told us, “Nobody drinks the water here. Nobody will trust the water here … I mean nobody would think of drinking the water, you just don’t drink water anymore…”

Water is supposed to be a symbol for life—especially in our baptismal tradition. And here in Western WA we are surrounded by clear flowing rivers, lakes we can swim in, and the cool, deep blues of the Salish Sea. Yet, polluted waters exist everywhere in the shadows of commerce and industry. In fact, the Lower Duwamish Waterway is still deemed unsafe for fishing for anything other than the salmon that simply pass through.

“Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” What, indeed. . . .

In the first lesson for today we read the story of Philip getting sent by the Holy Spirit to a wilderness road in order to meet a court official from Ethiopia, a eunuch who serves the Queen.

In this passage, two things jumped out at me as I read through it this time. For one, the road the Ethiopian is traveling is in the wilderness. It is in the wilderness that he encounters Philip who teaches him about Jesus. It is in the wilderness that he sees water and desires to be baptized. In many ways, this is the reverse of Jesus’ experience, where he is baptized in the Jordan then (according to Mark’s gospel) immediately thrust out into the wilderness. In other words, baptism into Jesus Christ ushers us into imitation of him, yet the direction of our path as we follow Jesus often takes us away from the centers of power.

For the author of Luke-Acts, Jerusalem acts as a geographical and narrative center, with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus being the central pivot point. Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem during his earthly ministry. After the resurrection, the disciples are sent out further and further afield, taking the message of Jesus with them.

Related to this dynamic, the second thing that I noticed was that the road leads away from Jerusalem toward Gaza. The author specifically notes where the road goes, and (of course) it is a familiar place name for us today. To hear Gaza referenced in this passage brought to my mind current satellite images that flash across the news of lands made barren by bombs and bulldozers. While it’s hard to know where, exactly, Philip may have traveled with the Ethiopian official, what we do know is that the terrain has changed drastically in recent decades. We also know, where there is war, clean water is virtually nonexistent.

“Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 

This question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” is meant to be rhetorical, yet if we ask it seriously, it becomes apparent that there are many potential barriers to baptism at play in the world—including, or especially, toxic waters.

The church in Flint whose water came out black that day in August 2015 postponed baptisms for several months. When they did resume the practice, it took 80 jugs of bottled water to fill the basin.

When my colleague and I traveled out to Flint, we had already read some of the horrific stories of people getting sick and dying, of city and state government officials maligning the residents, and of the history of the river itself contaminated in many different ways. What we encountered when we went there was a community that acted out of their understanding of the gospel to love and serve the world. As one of the pastors put it, “we acted; we had to.” In and through their actions they encountered God which, in turn, further informed their understanding of the gospel.

It was in the going forth that even more of God’s love in and through Jesus Christ was revealed.

From the stories we heard and the conversations we were allowed into, what emerged was a reflection of deep abiding. The churches that responded by distributing water, caring for neighbors, setting up clinics, providing meals, knocking tirelessly on the doors of government leaders, and preaching hope to traumatized people, offer a picture of what it can look like to remain with God and stay together in the fight. Theirs is a story of deep abiding with Jesus Christ, remaining in the wellspring of the Holy Spirit, for the sake of the whole city.

The good news for us is that we don’t have to wait for a Water Crisis to go and do likewise. In this age of overlapping crises, we can participate in God’s work in the world. All it takes is listening to the Spirit who dwells within us, listening to the marginalized and those most harmed by systemic injustices, and finding others who are already engaged in the work.

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