Going down the river
Have you ever seen the year 2000 movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” In this movie, three men who had been convicted of economic crimes during the Depression escaped from their chain gang. Their goal ostensibly was to retrieve the loot from a robbery that one of them had lied to the others about having committed. Early in the movie, as the three men were in a forest arguing about how to proceed, they noticed that a whole LOT of white-robed men and women were walking through the forest around them. The white-robed people were softly singing “Down to the River to Pray,” and “Good Lord, show me the way.”
One of the men, whose name was Delmar O’Donnell, exclaimed, “It appears to be some kind of congregation!” Then he tore through the woods following the white-robed people. Sure enough, those people were going down the river to be baptized. Delmar plunged down into the river, cut to the front of the line, and got himself baptized. And as he came up out of the water and rejoined his fellow convicts, this is what he said:
“Well, that’s it, boys. I’ve been redeemed. The preacher done warshed away all my sins and transgressions. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlasting’s my reward…. The preacher said that all my sins is warshed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.”
When one of his colleagues said, “I thought you said you were innocent of those charges,” Delmar replied, “Well I was lyin’, and the preacher said that’s been warshed away, too. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now. Come on in, boys, the water’s fine.”
I thought of this movie scene and about going down the river when I read these words in our Old Testament lesson for today.
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned… Do not fear, for I am with you… I will gather you [up]…
These are powerful words, powerfully comforting words. Can you imagine how the Israelites must have felt when they heard these words during their six decades (three generations) of exile in Babylon in the sixth-century before Christ? Like Delmar O’Donnell, the Israelites knew that God had given them over to the consequences of their sin, sin that weighed heavily upon them in exile. But these people had a covenant with God, where God had promised that he would be with them, that they would be his “most favored nation.” Yet that nation was no more, seemingly. The people were exiled in Babylon, they were down the river, with plenty of time to reflect on just how and why the covenant with God had not protected them from their sin.
Here the prophet Isaiah digs deep into the Israelites’ history to share with them the message of God’s mercy. “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.” You might not see that redemption at present, but you WILL see. You might not see that redemption at present, but don’t you remember the OTHER times I redeemed you?”
“In case you don’t remember,” Isaiah told his people—channeling God—“let me remind you.” Do you remember when (just 800 years ago) when you were down the river from Egypt, I parted the waters of the Red Sea for you, then closed the river behind you to cut off your captors, who were in hot pursuit to return you to slavery? Do you remember when, some forty years later, when you were down the River Jordan, I led you through the waters, into the land that I had given you? Didn’t these incidents make an everlasting impression on you?
I talked to your ancestor Moses in a burning bush, yet my fire did not consume either Moses or that bush. Weren’t you paying attention? Are you ungrateful? Or are you asking, “What have you done for me lately?”
This last question—What have you done for me lately?”—is quite an ironic question for we Christians to think about. Our Old Testament lesson says that God will gather up “everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory…” Aren’t we Christians all called by God’s name, the name of God’s Son, God incarnate, God-here-with-us? Christ.
Our gospel lesson today shares John the Baptist’s testimony about Jesus, the Christ. John points out that we humans baptize people with water—a redeeming act, as Delmar O’Donnell’s witness to us affirms—yet Jesus baptizes us “with the Holy Spirit and [with] fire.” We see this distinction about baptism also in our New Testament lesson, which tells us how Samaria came to be baptized with both water and with the fire of the Holy Spirit.
A tiny little bit of history is in order here. You probably know, perhaps from Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable, that the Judeans and the Samaritans despised each other. But do you know WHY? At the time of the Babylonian exile, after Jerusalem fell, not every single person from Israel got sent into captivity. Those who were left behind—those who had colluded with the enemy—were in Samaria. And, because the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, the Samaritans began worshiping in a local temple at Shechem, those who hadn’t embraced pagan gods. When their Judean cousins returned from captivity, they were very distressed that the Samaritanns continued to worship in Shechem, and that Samaria’s land had gotten bigger, while Judea’s had shrunk. There was a falling out, a seemingly permanent family division, caused by the exile. AND YET, despised Samaritans or not, Peter and John went there and “sealed the deal” of the Samaritans’ baptism by praying the Holy Spirit into their lives.
By placing our Isaiah and Acts passages together, our lectionary reveals how Isaiah’s prophecy has already come true on two levels. First, we know that God did, indeed, gather up his chosen people from their captivity “in the east and in the west,” returning them to Israel. Our Acts lesson tells us, by the Samaritans’ becoming Christians, God reunited his people “from the north and from the south.” Second, though, haven’t we all come through the waters of baptism and the fire of Pentecost?
So much for history; you might be wondering what God has done for US, lately. Knowing how God has acted in Israel’s history, knowing how God has acted by becoming one-with-us in the flesh, how can we not return to our Old Testament lesson to find final comfort there? Can we not expect another level of Isaiah’s prophecy to become true?
Won’t we each, at the end of our lives, face the river Styx and the fire of death? Won’t we each be going down the river then? And do we not trust that God will bring all those who are called by his name“from the north and from the south, and from the west and from the east into the very same “heaven everlasting” that Delmar testified about? God tells us—assures us—“Do not fear, for I am with you.”
We all appear to be some kind of congregation today… shall we go down the river to pray? Good Lord, show me the way! Come on in folks; the water is fine.