Mark 4:35–41

I hold in my hand a glass of water. I want to talk with you this
morning about the significance of this simple but very important
substance contained in this glass. But don’t worry – this isn’t going
to be a science lesson, for I am concerned here not about what water is,
but what water means.

Water! In biblical times, water was even more valued by people in
Palestine than in most other parts of the ancient world, precisely
because of its scarcity. Access to adequate sources of water determined
the sites of early settlements in the Near East. Palestine, in spite of
its description in Deuteronomy 8 as “a good land, a land of brooks of
water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills,”
has always been hampered by scant rainfall, frequent droughts, and
inadequate water supply.

It is easy to see, then, why water is mentioned more frequently in
Scripture than any other natural resource. It was recognized by the
writers in the early Hebrew Scriptures as essential to the life of
humankind, of flocks and of plant life. Indeed, water was sacred, as
exemplified in its use in ritual and worship. Hebrew laws found in the
Old Testament codes were common-sense provisions for sanitation, as well
as for religious rites. Water had a cosmic significance in the
Scriptures, a favorite symbol as the source of all life, as well as its
sanctification.

For example, Jesus says to the woman at the well in John 4, “…those
who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The
water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up
to eternal life.” And in the last chapter of the Bible, chapter 22 of
the book of Revelation, the Spirit and the risen Lord say, “Come. Let
everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes, take the water of
life as a gift.”

The liturgy for baptism of the Book of Common Prayer (p. 306)
summarizes the life-giving significance of water in the words spoken by
the celebrant when the baptismal water is blessed:

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy
Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the
children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of
promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was
anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us… We
thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with
Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we
are reborn by the Holy Spirit.

But water has another significance in the Scriptures, a darker more
ominous meaning. You see, water is also a symbol in the Bible of
instability, of the fleeting quality of life, of the capricious nature
of nature. The “waters” covering the face of the earth, the seas, are
the primary scriptural symbol for chaos. It is in the deep recesses of
the waters that the dark and mysterious forces of evil dwell. In the
very first verses of the book of Genesis we find:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And the
earth was a formless void; darkness covered the face of the deep, while
a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

That is to say, God created ex nihilo—out of nothing—to be sure,
but God also created order out of chaos, reflected in the primal symbol
of water. In the ancient mind, a chief indicator of divine power was
the ability of the deity to subdue the waters. (Psalm 89, 106 and Isaiah
51
) When God caused order to come out of chaos in the beginnings of the
world, God’s ability to hold back the ferocious and evil power of the
waters was evidence that the Lord God indeed was the Most High God, the
creator of the world.

It is to this God that the Psalmist cries out to in Psalm 69: “Save me,
O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the deep mire,
where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood
sweeps over me…my prayer is to you, O Lord. 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.”

It is that same prayer, no doubt, that thousands of persons living
along the Gulf Coast of this country have been praying for a week. As
the storm surge of water have engulfed their communities, caused by the
winds of Hurricane Katrina, many people have been crying out to do what
God has been expected to do since the beginning of Genesis: Stay the
waters, O God! Stretch out your hand over the waters and contain them,
for the forces of chaos in those waters threaten your created order, and
threaten to destroy us.” But now, in the aftermath of its destruction,
many people of faith and of no faith are shaking their heads and asking
the question, “Where was God when this happened? Did God abandon us to
the waters? Where is God now? And most of all, “Did God cause
this?”

The answer to the last question is an emphatic “No,” both from a
natural and a biblical/theological point of view. Scientifically, it is
difficult to call the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina as a
“natural disaster.” The hurricane itself is a natural phenomenon, of
course, occurring every season with some frequency in that part of the
country. But the effects of that natural storm on the population were
made more ruinous because of some very “unnatural,” man-made causes and
irresponsible planning. Much of New Orleans was built below sea level
between a large lake, the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.
Over time, given severe storms that naturally occur, the waters will do
what water does – fill in the low-lying land. The city had been
protected to some extent from flooding by the wetlands between the city
and Gulf, which served as a buffer to absorb and lower some of the
hurricane’s force. But these wetlands have been disappearing at the
rate of about 25 square miles a year to make way for shopping malls,
condos and roads. Moreover, the man-made levees and dams constructed to
protect the city and “control” the waters have the effect of depriving
the wetlands from the sediments and nutrients that would naturally
replenish its life. And it is now being reported that some of the
federal funds that could have been used to shore up flood control
measures and strengthen the levees were used instead to construct roads
and bridges to reach the floating gambling casinos.

But there is more. When Katrina left the Florida coast, it was
classified as just a “tropical storm” – not even a hurricane. The
reason that it picked up enormous power in the Gulf, experts think, is
because the waters of the Gulf were two degrees warmer than normal. By
the time it reached the Gulf coast, it was a category four hurricane.
There is a clear global scientific consensus that global warming is due
to human causes, especially the accelerated use of fossil fuels such as
oil and gasoline. One effect of global warming is that storms such as
hurricanes will increase in their frequency, intensity and destructive
effects because of warmer waters and rising sea levels.

So, it doesn’t take a scientist to realize that much is
“unnatural” about this supposed “act of God.” Failure of leadership and
human greed bear much of the brunt of responsibility for this disaster,
not the much-feared “waters.”

It is also difficult to blame this storm on God from a Biblical and
theological point of view. Early in the book of Genesis, after the
world has been nearly destroyed by the flood caused by 40 days of rain,
God told Noah “never again!” Never, God promised, would he allow the
known world to be destroyed again by a flood, and the rainbow was to be
the visible sign of that promise. God’s covenant with Noah still stands
to today; the Lord’s righteous anger will never be used to unleash the
waters to destroy the earth. God did not promise to relax the laws of
nature to suit our wishes, but neither would he cause the dark forces of
water to destroy the earth.

In the New Testament, Jesus repeatedly had to remind his disciples
that God does not cause the pain, illnesses and suffering of people, but
rather God had the power to turn natural suffering into an opportunity
for unexpected healing, wholeness and new possibilities for life. In
today’s gospel lesson in the 4th chapter of Mark, Jesus is in a boat
with his disciples. They are in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, in
the feared deep waters with all of its possibilities for
life-threatening danger. It is also in the middle of the night. And to
make matters worse, a terrible storm comes upon them. It shouldn’t be
hard to picture yourself in that boat with the disciples, for chances
are you’ve been there before: adrift in an unknown place, every attempt
to see a way through is clouded by darkness, afraid for your life, with
a storm threatening to sink you into the depths of despair. Yes, you
have been there, and you’ve probably experienced the same lonely and
abandoned feeling the disciples had when they noticed something that
caused their jaws to drop: Jesus is sleeping.

“Do you not care that we are perishing?” they asked him. Or, in
other words, “Why aren’t you helping us, saving us? Lord, why don’t you
do something? We’re dying here, and you are asleep on the job! Do you
not care?”

That is the same cry of suffering people throughout the ages, and it
is the cry we make this week. Jesus answered in two ways. First, he
righted himself and simply said, “Peace! Be still!” The Scriptures say
clearly that he addressed the wind and the sea in this way, but could it
be possible that he was also addressing the disciples indirectly with
these words? Did he not want them also to be calmed just as he had been
at peace throughout this storm? His words here recall the words of the
Psalmist, “Be still…and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) “Peace!
Be still…” At those words, the raging storm calmed, and not just the
one on the waters, but the one in their hearts.

Second, Jesus addresses the disciples directly, saying, “Why are you
afraid? Have you still no faith?” With this, Jesus turned their focus
away from the storm out there, away from him as the recipient of their
anger and fear, and redirected the focus back on them. In effect, he is
saying to them, “What about you? Why don’t you do something? Don’t you
know that if you did not let fear overwhelm you, if you stopped blaming,
if you stopped trying to place the responsibility for fixing this on me
alone, if you called up the faith that is already within you, then you,
too, can overcome any storm!”

It is at this point that the gospel of Mark records that the
disciples “feared a great fear,” a more literal translation of the the
Greek than the more usual “filled with great awe” translation in many
modern versions. They were afraid of the storm, of course, but
apparently they became even more afraid after the storm was calmed, when
Jesus challenged them to take their faith seriously and do something.
They suffered from the fear of taking personal responsibility, the fear
that results from becoming disturbingly aware that God entrusts much of
the care for this world on us, squarely upon our shoulders. And that is
where we are today in the aftermath of Katrina.

You and I are worshipping this morning in the great space of the
cathedral called the “nave.” The nave is the main body of a church
between the entrance (the “narthex”) and the area behind the altar rail
called the “sanctuary.” The word “nave” comes from the Latin word navis
meaning a “ship,” and you will recognize that we derive the word “navy”
from that root term. In the Early Church, the image of the ship became
a common symbol for the church and its mission in the world. It
signified the journey of life toward salvation, and the bringing of the
good news of Christ throughout the world. Architecturally, churches
were encouraged to be built with the image of the ship in mind, with the
roof of the church resembling the inside of an inverted hull. If you
looked up, you will see the intentionality of the roof design of this
great gothic cathedral; its ribbed narrow ceiling is to remind you that
you are in a ship, looking up at the ship’s bottom.

You and I are on a ship. We sit in the nave; we’re in the Navy now.
Our mission is to be with Jesus and those disciples on the boat as they
calm the turbulent seas of our world. We’re in the Navy now! We are on
a gospel ship to bring the good news of God’s love and concern
everywhere, and to bring hope to a needy world. We’re in the Navy now!
We’re going to respond to our Katrina-battered brothers and sisters in
need right now with our time, our money and our resources. We’re in the
Navy now! It’s up to us now to get the job done of righting the wrongs
that caused this devastation, because God recruited us, sends us, and
directs us to do something in the face of this storm. We’re in the Navy
now!

Do you want to be on Jesus’ ship? Then get on board! Amen.