Luther Alumni Magazine

On the power and mystery of water

Nancy K. Barry
Nancy K. Barry

Nancy K. Barry, professor of English and current Jones Professor in the Humanities, delivered this sermon during chapel in the Center for Faith and Life just five days after Luther student Bjorn Norderhaug went missing, and four days after his body was recovered from the Upper Iowa River. The Decorah area had also recently endured deluges of rain that caused flooding in many homes and businesses and on parts of the Luther campus.


On Monday in chapel we heard the story from a later book of Exodus, about the decision by Moses to lead the sons of Jacob out of Egypt in a “roundabout way.” Today’s scripture comes from Exodus Book 2, and takes us back in time to the story of Moses’s birth and abandonment by the river’s edge:

“Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.

“The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. ‘This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,’ she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?’ Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Yes.’ So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.’ So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses,* ‘because,’ she said, ‘I drew him out* of the water.’”  

It is not uncommon for the life of a great leader or prophet to begin with paradox. Moses was born at the time when the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrews. The Pharaoh was obsessed with his fear that the Hebrews would eventually overwhelm the Egyptian population, so he decided to order the murder of every male Hebrew infant. The mother of Moses conceived of a plan to save her son by abandoning him. She let the baby go by placing him in a vessel and setting him down among the reeds of the river to see if some stranger, someone more safe than his own mother, would rescue the child.

He was rescued, and not just by anyone, but by the Pharaoh’s own daughter. You have to give it to ancients—they may not have had cell phones, but they understood the power of irony. Moses, rescued and brought up by the same people who had instigated the reason he was deserted by his family in the first place.

This narrative of the lost-and-found Moses echoes another classical narrative about an infant abandoned by his parents. Oedipus, left on a mountaintop so that the terrible fate predicted for his life (that he would grow up to murder his father and marry his mother) might be forestalled. The Greeks too knew irony and loved to bite down hard upon it in their tragedies. At every turn in Oedipus’s life, whenever people hear the prophecy and resolve to prevent it, all they do is put themselves one step closer to the very thing they are trying to avoid. On Friday, when we rededicate the statue of Oedipus that graces the sidewalk along this building, you will notice he is—centuries later—still blind. In her 20th-century American novel Beloved, Toni Morrison describes a more violent version of this story. The mother, Sethe, doesn’t imagine she can spare her child from the cruel fate of slavery, so she kills the infant herself, only to find that the speechless, bodiless infant “Beloved” haunts her, as if to say, “You will not murder me; you cannot murder me.”

Pastor Mike [Blair] asked me to preach on this passage because I have often deep resonance in sacred texts about water, and since our series is called ”Chapel on the Move,” he wanted to hear whatever I had to say about a prophet who is abandoned in a basket by the river, and then rescued, in a very roundabout way. As it all turns out, Moses is given back to his own mother to suckle and raise, and then, because the Pharaoh’s daughter also wants the child, is actually raised in the very house that wanted him killed. Somewhere in the universe, some sacred voice is saying to the Pharaoh, just like it said to Oedipus: “Gotcha! You in your ancient and modern world, you may think you are way bigger than the universe, but no matter what efforts you take to make the universe bend to your will, there is another hand at work. Yahweh’s hand. God’s plan. Beloved’s tenacious will.”

This was the sermon I was writing on Sunday morning, trying to piece together something coherent to say about the uncanny discovery of one of our greatest prophets. Great man, almost killed, grows up to live in the household of the very people who wanted him doomed. Leads his nation out of slavery, encounters the very essence of the divine, and then is given by that same diety the sacred laws—the covenant—the commandments—by which they proclaim themselves to be a people of God. Good news for the people of God. You will be rescued and the children will be saved.

But then, at my writing desk, came the terrible news on Sunday afternoon—the worst possible news—and everything inside of me got pulled into a different kind of river, the one where the child is not saved, and the water brings not life, but incalculable loss.   

I recognized the chill that went through my body. I call it the “mid-current chill,” because when I was a child and learned to swim in the Delaware River, we would make a game of swimming across its narrow breadth near our cabin. But because our swimming route was 100 yards downstream from a small set of rapids, there was always a place, right in the center of the river, where the temperature of the water dropped 10 degrees in a second. The first time I felt that chill, it moved from my toes through my lungs and up into my throat so fast, I was frozen by it. So I turned and thought, “I’ll just go back.” But then realized I was dead center in the middle of something there was no fooling around with, and the only safe move was to keep going.

We all, during these past five days, have felt that jolt in a different way. A young man who could not be rescued from the water. Where is the prophecy in that? How could it happen that water—the thing that fills up as much as 65 percent of our bodies, and 71 percent of the earth’s surface—how can it happen that this most basic element could become, in the space of one short month, our nemesis? How did it happen that this life-giving water that is supposed to represent the rivers of Babylon, the fountain of our baptism, or maybe even the streams of Innisfree is now, all through August and September, bringing us nothing but grief? Whole basements washed away in minutes. Water that will not relent, spurting upward from crevices beneath our houses. Yesterday I went out very early into the damp fog and had to wipe droplets of watery spit from my arms, and could only yell out loud this frantic prayer: “Dear God, could you give us a break? Even when it’s not raining, it’s raining!”

In this story from the Hebrew Bible, water brings no harm to the child. God is in Moses, resting in the shallow basket; God is in his mother, who comes up with a desperate but intuitive plan to keep her son alive; God is in the Pharaoh’s daughter, who is drawn to the infant and wants the child so much she is willing to pay another woman, a Hebrew woman, to be his nursemaid. All of this, so Moses can grow up to become Moses—a prophet recognized by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as a man who saw God, heard the word of God, and survived to tell the tale of how others might build a covenant with one God.

Was Bjorn somehow not part of the tribe of Moses? Was his infant head not bathed in the waters of baptism, with all the elders promising to do all they could to keep him safe? Did the waters of grace not enter his soul and connect him to that everlasting stream that—so the scripture tells us—has neither beginning nor end? Of course not, we clamor, of course not. So why did the river not keep him safe?

That question, on most days, is the real river we cross. We want to believe there is divinity shaping our strokes. We believe that because one of the alternatives is the vision of Oedipus, a blind old man who learns too late that the gods, as omnipotent as they are small-minded, will get us in the end and prove us fools wandering the earth, wishing in vain that we are the ones in charge—the Pharaohs, the Kings, the smart ones who can solve every riddle on earth.

All of us, I think, are caught dead center in that question, that puzzle. We look back to the safe shores of faith narratives and the wisdom of prophets and think, surely someone has an answer for this puzzle. Bjorn may not have been Moses, but he was a young man—still his mother and father’s child—why, why was he not rescued? That was how I felt on Sunday night, caught like a swimmer in the place where the temperature drops 10 degrees in half a second, and our feet cannot touch bottom and all we can do is just keep breathing and kicking and moving our arms like fools and hoping against hope: the water will not kill me today, please God, let me not drown in this sorrow.

So I did the thing all writers do: I just kept writing. Itself, a lot like swimming. And because the words were doing their best to rescue me, very late last night, I realized: all of us are drowning in the same water that keeps us afloat. The water saves us and kills us, every breath we take.

By then, it was well past 1 a.m., and after I wrote that sentence, I stared at the computer for a long time, just repeating the line, saying it like a mantra, until finally I laughed out loud and said, “That doesn’t make any sense. Who do you think you are, some lunatic 21st-century Moses?” And then, I did what every postmodern person in the digital age does when she doesn’t know what to do—I clicked on a random email sent to me by a monstrous corporation trying to sell me something. It just so happened, this email was from TIAA-CREF, the mini stock market all the adults in this room are trusting in to make our retirement safe. The email came at me with five brightly colored boxes, promising me like some prophet that all I had to do was click on the right one to feel “safe” in my retirement years. Just the voice of Moses, promising me some covenant, click after click after click.

Do you know the only thing that is clicking here? Our hearts. Each one of us, and no one can know when or how or why they will stop when they do. To live in this world means we drown in the same water that keeps us alive—that is what it means to be human. We are made of nothing but water, and to be alive—to be deeply, drowningly alive—is to know that the water can swallow us up. I say this today not to fill us with despair or nihilism. We are not witless and we are not alone. That was the one steadfast rule my family never relented on when we swam in the river: never, ever, ever step foot in it alone. Whether you were eight, or 18, or 80—the river was a place for other people to be with you. That is not the answer to the riddle, but it can help us stay afloat in its mystery:

Fetch me water from the east. Fetch me water from the west. Fetch me water from the houses of our prophets. Fetch us water while we live. Fetch us water when we die. (Adapted from ”Water from the Houses of Our Fathers” by Pete Morgan.)