In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
Trouble the Waters: Luke 3:1-22
(A note before you begin reading: I am deeply indebted to many journalists and scholars who have written about both the mill in Canton and the lead in Flint. After the sermon, I will link to the articles that proved to be invaluable research. Take a minute and read them. It is worth your time. ~Pastor Chrissy)
I didn't watch the news very much when I was a kid. I mean, I was a kid. I wasn't their key demographic. I spent most of my screen time on cartoons. Even in the midst of the G.I. Joe and My Little Pony episodes that captured my attention, one news story managed to slide it's way into my attention span. Maybe it's because school kids were on the screen or maybe because what I was looking at just seemed so gross. Either way, I have a very clear memory of a bunch of young people standing on the steps of a courthouse holding a jar of water. The jar itself was pretty unremarkable. It looked like the ones the kids helped me bless today. Except, instead of holding clean, clear water, it's water was the color of black coffee or molasses. The people who brought the water to the courthouse kept holding it up and saying, "If you think it's so clean, you drink some of it. Here, drink it." It was pretty obvious to me that nobody wanted to drink that water.
It turns out that the report I was seeing was a news story about the Pigeon River, a river that was once so polluted that, according to one article I read, the state of North Carolina said that it's water was best only to be used for waste disposal. In the early 1980's, a century long issue had finally come to a head. I imagine that this story is familiar to many of you who know Maine's own history of industry and the environment. A paper company in North Carolina had put a lot of pollution into the river. The people downstream in Tennessee told stories of scores of cancer deaths, mutated fish, and horrid smells that ruined their quality of life. The people in the town where the mill is located, a town in the mountains were good work was hard to come by, relied on the mill for jobs. The mill was very clear that to afford to follow more strict health regulations, they would have to cut about half of their workforce, which would be about 1000 jobs.
It became a dirty fight, pitting a lot of middle class and low-income people against each other, each side certain that the only way to protect their own community's livelihood was to force their neighbors to live in conditions that they found intolerable. Eventually, though, the paper mill was forced to follow appropriate health regulations. People were surprised that the river became healthier very quickly, with boating access restored to most of the river by the late 1990's, followed by successful reintroductions of native fish, mussel, and snail species. While there are still lingering issues across the border, all sides seem to agree that the river is in much better shape than 30 years ago. The mill's new owners seem to be working hard to both provide jobs and not make people sick downstream. I probably still wouldn't eat fish from this river, but the river doesn't look like molasses now. This river has certainly been troubled water.
I've been thinking a lot about that brown water from 25 years ago this week as I see the reporting about the drinking water in Flint, Michigan. Nobody wants to drink that brown water in Flint, either. Leaders in Flint, a city that has struggled financially since the car plants began to close in the 1980's and 1990's, decided to change water sources for their residents in hopes that the new system would save the city money. They thought they had three years to prepare their existing, outdated water infrastructure. During that time, they thought they could still use their old water source, water purchased from Detroit, until the new water pipeline was built. But, Detroit cut them off early. As an emergency measure, the city began to pull water from the Flint River while they waited for the pipeline from Lake Huron to be finished. The new source, the Flint River, was dirtier than their old source, the water that had already been treated in Detroit. Flint's system could not effectively treat the river water. Also, the city wasn't using an anti-corrosive treatment in the water even though that is required by federal law. The water began to corrode the city's water pipes, leaching all kinds of particulates into peoples' drinking water and turning the water brown.
People are particularly concerned about lead leached from the pipes. Researchers have found lead levels as high as 13,000 ppb. Water with 5,000 ppb of lead can be classified as toxic waste. That's right. Some people in Flint had water flowing into their homes that could have been classified as toxic waste. After more than a year with the corrosive water supply, Flint has finally changed back to their original water source. But, the damage may have already been done. Lead isn't really safe in drinking water at any level, and, even with the less corrosive water from Detroit, the pipes are still leaching lead. National guard troops are handing out clean drinking water to people. The city has begun distributing water filters, filters that are probably something like many of us have in our own homes because of arsenic in our wells. They are also taking blood samples from children to see have many of the city's most vulnerable people may now have elevated lead levels. People, especially the 40% of the city who are under the poverty level who have less access to clean water, are worried about their families and want the people responsible for such a public health disaster to be held accountable. One mother says that she prays this prayer for her daughter every night: "Lord, keep her safe from the lead, keep her mind strong, keep her body strong.” The water in Flint is troubled water indeed.
Scholar C. Michael Hawn reminds us that water is an important symbol throughout scripture. Water is often a symbol of God's power, like when Amos and Isaiah describe God's justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. It may also appear as force of nature against which God helps you struggle, like in today's reading from Isaiah where God will protect God's people from the most powerful forces nature can muster, including the current of a mighty river. In all the ways that water can show up in scripture, the appearance of the Jordan River in particular is especially important. It is often understood as vital, holy boundary line. After 40 years in the wilderness, the Israelites would cross over the Jordan into the promised land. Tradition holds that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, though the Gospel of Luke doesn't actually name where Jesus was baptized. It makes sense that other Gospels would report that Jesus was baptized there. In the Bible, the Jordan River was both a culmination of a trial with God and a beginning point for a new journey into the promised land. The Jordan River was water troubled by God, disturbed by Holy Spirit, filled with holy potential.
The description of Jesus' baptism in Luke is minimal. Many scholars note that Luke seems to think the things around the baptism are more important than the baptism itself. That's fair. The other occurrences are pretty impressive. First, we have John the Baptist describing the working of the soon-coming Messiah. Then, after the baptism, heaven opened up and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in bodily form like a dove. And, Jesus heard this voice say, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." Like his ancestors before him who saw entering the water as a turning point in their story, Jesus' baptism was a turning point in his. We already know that he was blessed from the earlier stories of his infancy and childhood. Now, as an adult, we see the event that empowered him to follow his calling to love God and love people. He stepped into the river to be baptized, and stepped out as one specially anointed by God. Something changed in the water. God troubled the waters.
Just a few months before the March on Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke a few miles from Flint, in the city of Detroit. During that speech/sermon, Dr. King first uttered what has become a very familiar phrase in American history, "I have a dream this afternoon." He spoke of God's justice rolling down like a mighty, unstoppable river. When he was asked what people could do to support justice efforts in the South, he told people that to support justice in the South, they needed to work on getting rid of injustice in Detroit. He said that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. I can't help but think the troubled waters of Cocke County, Tennessee and Flint, Michigan are signs of injustice. I can't help but be appalled the injustice of neighbors, constrained by economic uncertainty, feeling like they have to work against one another's best interest and of citizens who trusted their leaders to make safe decisions for them, but instead got stuck with people more concerned about money than making sure the decisions they made were healthy and safe.
These waters are troubled... troubled by greed, fear, and lack of concern for the poor. It seems like what we need some of God's waters of justice and righteousness to clean up this mess. We who follow Christ know that the water can change you. So do the people of Flint. It changed Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. She went from simply being a pediatrician in the city to being one of the most outspoken advocates for the children of Flint. She knew what was right and did it. She went public with her findings that the water in the city was unsafe. She continued to advocate for her patients even with the state denounced her work. I don't think she imagined that she would have to fight the city government to help the people of the city. But, the water changed her. She wasn't willing to ignore what her research showed in order to appease the people in power. Her bravery and commitment has helped countless people. I pray that all of us, when we see such troubled water, will be willing to be changed by it as Christ was and as Mona was. God's rivers of justice are flowing. I pray that we find the courage to help them roll along
Pastor Chrissy consulted these sources while writing this sermon:
About the Bible passage: Fred Craddock, John Hayes, Carl Holladay, and Gene Tucker, Preaching the New Common Lectionary: Year C, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1985).
C. Michael Hawn's article about the meaning of the hymn, "Wade in the Water":
The text of Dr. King's 1963 speech in Detroit:
About the Pigeon River:
A 1989 LA Times article about the conflict over the Pigeon River:
A very thorough history of the issues from this Nashville Scene article from 1996: http://www.nashvillescene.com/nashville/dark-waters/Content?oid=1180764
A History of the Pigeon river from North Carolina Wildlife:
An article about the more recent article conflict from 2012:
Good information about how toxic Flint's water really is:
Some background on the drinking water disaster, including the prayer that one mom's prays each night:
More background on how this problem started:
An article that talks about the work of Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.