Water and Memory

A sermon preached by the Rev’d Jered Weber-Johnson for Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, MN on January 16th, 2022: Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

This morning we hear again the story of how Jesus transformed water into wine. This is a sermon in which we will remember the water.

There was a much debated experiment in the 1980s, published in Nature magazine that purported to have discovered that water could retain the memory of the properties of some substances dissolved in that water even after several random dilutions and even to the point that no molecules of the original substance actually remained in the water. The now largely debunked idea caused quite a stir and continues to hold some sway in pseudo science as a part of why homeopathic remedies work. It is called water memory. I bring it up now not to either disparage or promote it, but because the very idea that water holds within it some kind of memory is captivating, and even poetic. 

In his beautiful novella, author Norman Maclean describes his father’s fascination with the gospel of John, our gospel for this morning. As they sit at the edge of the river at the end of a day of fly fishing, Norman notices his father reading a book in Greek, and sees that it is John’s evangel, and it is opened to the prologue wherein we hear that in the beginning was the Word, a passage itself which recalls to mind an earlier scripture, the book of Genesis, where the Spirit, at the beginning of creation, brooded over the waters. Sitting in the ancient canyon, Maclean recalls too his father’s tutelage on the scientific account of the origins of the the cosmos, how the very stones around them are billions of years old, bearing indelible marks of the earliest raindrops to have ever fallen on the primordial mud, fossils that tell an ancient story from the beginning of time, memories of the first waters to have blessed these lands. In his perhaps best known passage of either book or movie, Maclean evokes these memories, and the thought that all his life has been touched by water. He says, 

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.”

We too, this morning, are haunted by water. Only a week ago we gathered in this space to baptize young Theo. And in that service, in all observances of the rite of baptism, each of us is and was being invited into the experience of remembering our own baptisms. Here we are, a week later. Do you still remember? When that water poured over you, it marked you as well, indelibly, as we say in the rite, as Christ’s own forever. Do you remember?

Last week we heard the story, from another gospel of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan. This morning we are presented with the story of the Wedding in Cana of Galilee as told through the gospel of John, as Jesus changes water into wine. Water, some 120-180 gallons of it, if you’re keeping track at home, was poured into these vessels, these jars used for holy rites of washing and purification. We can’t read this passage only a week later and not recall Jesus’ baptism – without remembering Theo’s and our own. And, remembering our baptisms, whether a week later or after years gone by, is a call to remember something deeper than the event itself or how it made us feel – it is to remember something essential, something about our truest identity and purpose.

In her poignant and at turns achingly beautiful talk, “The Site of Memory”, author Toni Morrison says:

“You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place…And a rush of imagination is our ‘flooding.… like water, I remember where I was before I was straightened out.”

Such a remembering is liberating and life-giving. Morrison is, as you know, committed through poetry and essay and fiction, to the work of remembering more fully the experience of the many voiceless and nameless ones whose histories and stories were erased. For Morrison, the work of remembering, the work of reclaiming and piecing together by memory and imagination the full identity of the African diaspora, is also the liberating work of reclaiming her own identity. The prophet Isaiah this morning reminds a people who have experienced captivity and exile in Babylon that their story is fuller than the grief they have experienced, more than the tragedies they have endured. By the power of God, he writes,

You shall no more be termed Forsaken,

and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;

but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her.

Let us not forget, before the world’s demands straightened us out, before we were shaped by griefs too painful to utter, before loss dammed up our flow and greed siphoned off our waters, before racism and sexism and homophobia polluted our tributaries – we were at one in the deep, with God, whose very Spirit brooded over us, delighted in us as a mother over her children, knew us at the very core of our being, and named us Beloved. 

As we gathered last week at the font, and as we heard again the words of the Thanksgiving over the Water, with tears in our eyes, we were reminded that these waters are waters of liberation, that just as God led the people of Israel to freedom through the Red Sea, so by baptism we are released – we are given life and freedom to be who God created us to be. 

As the words of Amos made famous by the Rev’d Dr. Martin Luther King whom we will remember this weekend says, God bids us to ‘let justice roll down like a river and righteousness like an ever flowing stream’. God’s waters flow in and through us bringing release. Such a memory might evoke feelings of gratitude and delight, even joy, as we come back to ourselves, our truest selves.

One might wonder what was the purpose of the first miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. Was it a mere parlor trick? As Jesus’ mother urged him to act, was she concerned about the host saving face, about the dishonor that might be imputed upon such a one who would be so careless as to let the wine run out before the party was over? Whatever was at play, we know the end result – release, delight, and joy. As we hear the steward exclaim to the bridegroom, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” The host is spared from shame, and the guests are given something in which to delight, an exquisite vintage to bring joy to all!

It was almost as if the water, here in the presence of the Word, remembered what it was intended for. As 17th century Anglican priest and poet Richard Crashaw writes, the water “saw her God and blush’d.” Those waters, stored up in jars were being held with another purpose in mind, to purify and to make clean. Like so much of our religious life, that water, contained as it was, had too limited a vision, and too small a scope, than that for which God had intended and destined it to be. When it was poured out, in the presence of the very Word of God, in the presence of Jesus, it was transformed into delight, and joy, and release. If our memory serves, this is what the waters of baptism do for us as well, they release us to become fully who we were meant to be, and empower us to come fully to life. Don’t ask yourself what the world needs” says the great Howard Thurman, “Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

There is grace in this, in being released and poured out. Indeed that is how grace works, like water, it must flow onward in order to be a gift not only to us but through us for others. As Stephanie Spellers is reminding us in this season after the Epiphany, the church is always being cracked open, and we with it. 

And like Jesus, we are being poured out as a blessing for the world. Let us be like the water, remembering who and whose we are, a source of release to those held captive, a source of delight to those who are in pain and joy for those in mourning. 

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