A sermon preached at southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
Save me, O God. Save me, O God, for the water has come up to my neck. (I sang this refrain throughout the sermon, using Marty Haugen’s arrangement of the Psalm.
Last week’s psalm was a straightforward hymn of praise. This psalm serves as a reminder that sometimes it’s hard to voice praise because the water is up to our necks and we’re afraid to open our mouths in case we should drown.
This is not the only psalm to use imagery of drowning, of deep water, of floods.
And as we talk about these images as metaphoric language, we remember there are people still recovering from devastating floods in the parts of our own country and around the world. There are people who have lost loved ones to drowning. And so we don’t use the imagery without awareness of its painful truth.
Water can be dangerous.
When our kids were little, a friend’s son drowned when she went in the house to answer the phone for a few minutes. The only water in their backyard was a few inches in a bucket. Water can be dangerous.
Water is also beautiful. I love being on the ocean, with an endless horizon before me.
I love being at the lake, with the sounds of birds and speed boats, water lapping at the shore.
I love being by a river, knowing it is the force of the water that makes the stones and rocks so smooth, as it follows its path to the sea.
Water is essential for life, human and otherwise. Here in Boise, we have clean water we can drink straight from the tap. In other parts of our country, like Flint, Michigan, and parts of Louisiana, the water out of their taps is unsafe to drink. Access to clean water helps with health, flourishing, and for too many people around the world, their water is not clean.
Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
May we work for a world where the water that is safe for all people, and all creation, to drink. May we not stop working until all have access to the water we take for granted.
And it can be a fine line between having the time of your life in the water and then feeling like you’ve gotten in too deep and are quickly in trouble.
I was a lifeguard for a church camp in the gulf of Mexico one summer in college.
And we’d stand out on the fourth sand bar and watch the kids as they swam, bobbed, and played in the water. Keeping a good count of the kids while waves were cresting over their heads was exhausting work. And when the current would take them past where we were swimming, they’d be told to get out of the water and walk back to our area, which is easier than swimming against the current.
There were also sharks in the waters where we were swimming, which is a danger the psalmist doesn’t mention. Neither did the camp directors when they hired me, come to think of it. And stingrays and sunburns. Looking back on it, I can’t believe I thought I was qualified for that job, or that any parents thought I was qualified or able to keep their kids safe. Everyone survived and I had a great summer.
It’s apt that water would be such a good metaphor for the troubles of life because water is also a good idiom for when things are going well—smooth sailing and right as rain, among others. I love sailing and paddle boarding (once I figure out how to stand up on the board). I loved building sand castles with my kids.
Life, like water, is both amazing and joyful, and potentially terrifying and deadly.
And the psalmists sing through it all. Whether it’s a beautiful day to sail and the sky is clear, or whether a storm is coming in and the waters are rising, God is present with us through it all, and even as the water is rising, we raise our voice, asking for God’s deliverance.
Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
We don’t believe a faithful life means you’ll avoid the storms. We believe that in a faithful life, we seek God, and trust God’s presence in all the moments— in the times of good, calm water, and in the times when the water is up to our neck.
The psalmist goes on to cry:
But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord.
At an acceptable time, O God,
in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me.
Even as the bottom is dropping out of their life, the psalmist trusts God is listening to his cries. And trusts that the acceptable time will arrive before the water has swallowed him whole.
At the end of the psalm, beyond the verses we heard this morning, the psalmist returns to praise:
I will praise the name of God with a song;
I will magnify God with thanksgiving…
Let heaven and earth praise God, the seas and everything that moves in them.
For God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah….
The psalmists remind us that praise is our default setting.
Water imagery also takes us to baptism. The imagery of baptism is all about water. In baptism, we claim we live by dying to the world and living to Christ. We think of the Hebrew people being delivered from slavery in Egypt by crossing the Red Sea, which would then swallow up the Egyptian army that was chasing them. In baptism, we think of Jesus, being baptized by John in the Jordan, going under the water, and emerging to the voice of God from heaven, calling out divine love and joy.
In baptism we acknowledge the fine line between joy and danger, life and death, that the psalmist notes. While baptism is a safe sacrament, the imagery of it would have us singing this song.
Save me, O God, for the water has come up to my neck.
Author Annie Dillard reminds us of the power in baptism, the power of claiming our place in God’s story:
“It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” (from Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper & Row, 1982)
When we join a life in faith, we acknowledge the beauty and joy of life are companions to the fears and dangers, and in it all, God is at work to save. In it all, God is calling us into the waters of life, where God is our sure companion, and our constant deliverer.