In the beginning of Genesis 6, the world is an unspeakably violent place. Every human heart is inclined to “only evil all the time!” So much so that the Lord grieves and regrets creating the world in the first place, and decides to start over.
There are myriad flood stories in ancient religious texts the world over: Middle East, Far East, even Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, basically every ancient culture has their own flood story but they don’t all have this: a God who grieves. The God of the Hebrews is grieved with the violent, evil state of the world. Cut to the heart. And so God resolves to blot it out, wash the world away, flush it.
He calls on the one righteous man left, Noah, whose name means comfort. He is our only comfort in this tale of global catastrophe and woe. God calls him to preserve a remnant of God’s good creation by building an ark, a gigantic boat.
It’s big enough to house and protect a representative few who, on behalf of the whole world, will offer themselves to be fruitful and multiply.
Once it’s built, the rains come. The dome above the earth, abating the waters of creation, opens up like a celestial water balloon shot with a bow and arrow, and for 40 days and nights the earth is flooded. After the rain, the earth remains flooded for another hundred and fifty days until Noah opens the hatch in the side of the ark and desperately dispatches a dove in search of signs of something solid. Finally the dove returns with signs of land and new life. God makes a covenant then with Noah and all creation never to flood the earth again. The dome is closed back up. It’s like a suspended sentence, which God vows to suspend eternally.
Again, nearly every ancient culture has their own version of a flood narrative. This one is the only one with a God who grieves, not just over violence and sin, though. This God also grieves having sent the flood. In the end, it didn’t work. God realizes that meeting violence with violence or disobedience with destruction only begets grief.
Besides, within just a few verses, Noah, our comfort, plants a vineyard and he and his family are quickly drunk with the wine of the world, forgetting God, and following every inclination of their fallen human hearts. They were supposed to restore the face of the earth, but right when they have another chance to do the right thing, they deny it.
But, does God blot them out? Does God draw back an arrow to pierce the firmament once again, to flood the world? “No. Never again,” says the Lord. “I’ve hung up my bow for ever. I’ll try something else.”
Generations later God chooses another old man, like Noah. His name is Abraham, and he’s chosen along with his wife Sarah. He’s a righteous man. Not sinless, but faithful! God chooses to set them apart and make their family into a small nation, and makes a covenant with them not to flood the world but to bless it. In the midst of a violent and sinsick world, God’s Word is kept, and keeps this newly chosen people going.
Eventually they become a great nation, but they find themselves enslaved by an evil Pharaoh. They cry out to God amid wave after wave of oppression. God hears their cry, and resolves to lead them out. How? Through the sea. No flood this time, and no ark either. This time, as they escape they find themselves at the edge of the waters of the Red Sea, and by the hand of God the waters part. The people, God’s people, walk across dry land.
Once the Hebrews cross, Pharaoh’s army pursues them. In this water story it’s not the whole world but Pharaoh’s army that is blotted out, washed away, flushed. God’s people are preserved and again God makes with them a covenant. In fact, the promises and requirements of that covenant are written down and placed in… an ark. The ark of the covenant.
From there the people wander, not just for 40 days and 40 nights but 40 years, and then some! Generations later, at the end of this wilderness journey, when it is finally time for them to cross over into the land they have been promised, once again they come up to the edge of the waters, the Jordan River.
When they go to cross the river God instructs the priests to wade into the water while carrying the ark of the covenant with them. When they do the waters part once again. As long as the ark is in the water, the people are able to once again walk across on dry land. And so they journey on into the land they have been promised. There, even when their faithfulness fails, God’s love remains steadfast.
In the fullness of time, generations later, God sends Jesus, and after a different kind of 40 days and 40 nights, Jesus emerges from the wilderness and comes to the edge of the waters. Again, it’s the Jordan River. With the emergence of Jesus comes a turning point in the saga of God and water in salvation history. This story is different from the other ones.
To this point God has always been the one who parts the waters and provides the ark and the dry land for safe passage. God has been the one who keeps the chosen ones out of the water, keeps them dry. Not Jesus. Jesus, who has the power and authority to calm storms and walk on water, here God chooses not to stay dry. Instead he enters the flood.
With Jesus’ baptism God is doing a new thing. Jesus doesn’t walk on dry land or float down the Jordan in an ark. He doesn’t identify solely with God’s chosen people. He doesn’t stay dry. He gets wet. He lowers himself into the flood that flows thick with the lives of the lost. He has come not just for Israel but for Pharaoh and his armies too, for Noah’s neighbors, the ones that didn’t make it on the ark.
God promised never again to flood the earth. Instead, God has chosen to be immersed with the earth, to enter as the God’s best and willingly dive head first into our worst.
As Jesus reemerges from the waters the skies open up not with rain but with a dove. The Spirit of God descends with a voice “this is my son, the beloved, in whom ye shall find true comfort.”
From there Jesus goes to yet another body of water, the Sea of Galilee where he finds some fishermen. Among them is one named Simon which means “listen” only Simon’s a terrible listener so later Jesus names him Peter which means “Rock.”
There on the shore Jesus commandeer’s Peter’s boat, and from this little ark in this big sea the Word of God goes forth from the Lord’s lips like a bowshot to pierce the hearts of those on the shore. After he’s finished he looks at Peter and says “Put out into the deep,” and Peter does.
“Cast out your nets for a catch,” the Lord commands. “Sir, look,” says Peter, “I know its morning time but we’ve been out here all night and haven’t caught a thing. The sea’s empty, but… if you say so, I’ll let down the nets one more time.”
As soon as he does, the water starts to flutter with the flapping and floundering of all these lost fish who have been found by the nets which by their own power had caught nothing but are now filled. The nets begin to break and the boat is about to sink when Peter falls to his knees and says, “Go away from me, Lord! I’m no Noah. I am a sinful man.”
The Lord responds “Do not be afraid. I know you’re no Noah. You’re Rocky. From now on, we fish for people. So Peter and the others pull their boats to shore, leave everything, and follow him.
Peter was never really Jesus’ favorite. Their relationship was always a little, well, rocky. Once Jesus called Peter the devil, but another time Jesus said “on you, Peter, on this rock I will build my church.” Like I said… rocky.
But on the night in which he gave himself up for us, when Jesus was being buffeted by the worst that humanity has to offer, Peter has a chance to do the right thing. He denies it. He denies even knowing Jesus, three times!
Right as he does so for the third time, Jesus looks at him. Their eyes meet, and that… that’s the last time they see each other. That’s their last moment together before Jesus is crucified. Peter runs out and the Bible says he wept bitterly.
It’s a few days later. The disciples are stunned. Peter pipes up. “I’m going fishin’.” The others come too. They hike down to the sea and Peter puts out into the deep. Hours later, he’s caught nothing.
Just then, he hears a voice from the shore. “Let down your nets on the other side.” Peter does and immediately the water starts to flutter with the flapping and floundering of scores and scores of fish.
“It is the Lord” someone says. It is the Lord. Peter stands up, naked as Adam (which was apparently a very normal way to fish) and he immediately covers himself (also like Adam!). He leaps off the boat into the water. His coverings are weighing him down as he struggles to keep his eyes on Jesus and swim to shore. When he reaches dry land, he is soaked and cold.
The Lord welcomes him by the fire, and together they break bread as the other disciples bring in more fish than can be counted from the bottom of the flooded sea.
50 days later it’s the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit comes and makes quite a stir. Peter and dozens of others are lit up with the fire of the Spirit to the point that some people think they might just be lit! Who pipes up? Peter. This time, he’s not rocky. He’s a rock.
“People,” Peter says, “Listen. These folks are not drunk with the wine of the world. It’s only 9 o’clock in the morning! No. Listen to what has happened. Hear the Good News,” and then Peter preaches the first Christian sermon.
It was a good one! A little long, but it did the trick.
The congregation is cut to the heart, and they say to Peter, “So what are we supposed to do now that we have heard this?” and Peter says, “Repent. And be baptized… Enter the water, not to perish, but to enter into the death and resurrection of the Risen Lord Jesus Christ.
This water… This is the water in which your life has been saved, and your sin is blotted out, washed away, flushed. When you enter this water you will be welcomed there and drawn to the far shore by Christ. You will be incorporated into Christ’s body, the church where you will be fed by Christ himself.
It was his first sermon, but it wasn’t his last. In fact, some of what he preached made it into the Bible. He got so convinced of this Good News that he later wrote that Christ is not just a new Noah, not just a new Ark, but the one who in death went and preached, proclaimed the good news to the imprisoned spirits, the lost souls from long ago in the days of Noah. This water that Jesus entered in death, it’s the water where he goes fishing for people, even the lost ones.
There are plenty of flood narratives, plenty of stories out there, and plenty of gods. This one is different. This one grieves with us, even as he grieves us. This one lives with us even as we try to live without him. This one died for us, even as we deny his death and our own. This God fishes for us, and pulls us up out of the deep, out of the wet and miry clay, and sets our feet upon a rock, on the shore, and feeds us the bread of life, and keeps a promise, and gives us message to proclaim.
This One, even though he was hung on a cross, nevertheless has hung up his bow and promised that he will save his people. And, according to Peter, we are all his people… even the lost souls in the watery days of Noah. Even you. Even me. All of this is offered to us without price. Thanks be to God.