As a sometime surfer I was saddened last week to hear of the drowning death of a young father of two at the huge break down the coast called Maverick’s. I have had my own scary experiences with the power of the surf, the first of which came many years ago in Mexico. I was there around Christmas, at a spot on the Pacific Coast near the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, where the winter swell broke sharply on a steep beach. We got there in the evening and all night long we listened to the booming of the waves pounding on the shore. The next day a group of us walked up the beach to a place in the shelter of some rocks where we could wade in up to our waists and paddle around a little bit.
But I was twenty-four and in excellent shape and I decided that wading and bobbing up and down in the tide pools was not my idea of water sports. So as we were making our way back to camp I announced that I was going for a real swim, and ran into the surf. Getting out past the breakers was easy. I timed things right and dove under a couple smaller waves as they came in and soon I was floating on my back, riding happily up and down on the swell as it rolled in toward the beach.
Getting back in was another matter. There was a pretty strong offshore current and I had to stroke hard to swim closer to the beach. In my exertion I forgot to account for the really big waves and I got into the impact zone just in time to get swallowed up by a set of six- to nine-foot swells. The first one tumbled me like socks in a clothes dryer, grinding my hip down painfully into the sandy bottom. When the pressure finally let me go I fought to the surface and managed to fill my lungs with air just in time for another wave to crash on top of me, knocking me down and around once more. Eventually I found the bottom and staggered to shore, where my girlfriend helped me up onto the beach. For the next year or so, I regularly dreamt of huge waves looming on the horizon.
Of course, there is no comparison between what I experienced, or even the death of a young sportsman in the pursuit of the ultimate ride, and the devastation wrought on Northeast Japan by the earthquake and tsunami that struck there over a week ago. Seeing the nightmarish images of cars, boats and houses being swept along by the surging wave, or the satellite pictures of whole sections of settled coastline turned into faint smudges like dust on a chalkboard, it makes sense why water is a favored image in the Bible for chaos, annihilation, and death.
In the first chapter of Genesis, the Spirit of God hovers over the great abyss of water and then, at a word, light awakes, the water is pushed back and penned within limits, and a space is opened for life. But in the worldview of the Bible the creation is not final or absolute, but must continually be renewed by God. And there are moments when it seems like the forces of chaos and destruction have been let loose, and the good world is in danger of being unmade. And so Psalm 18 can cry out helplessly, “The breakers of death rolled over me, and the torrents of oblivion made me afraid.”
John’s gospel tells us about Nicodemus, a learned and important man, who comes to see Jesus in the night. He is drawn to Jesus because he and others have heard his teaching and seen his works of power, and they recognize that God is with this man. Nicodemus wants to make literal sense of what Jesus teaches and to be able to apply its practical lessons to his religion. He is greatly interested in what can and can’t be done. But what Jesus is interested in is something else entirely, something that comes, metaphorically speaking, “from above.” Jesus is talking about new life in the Spirit of God, a life that comes through him, but is for the whole world. And this life is characterized by the freedom of the Spirit, which is not limited by human knowledge or capability.
“No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit." When we hear these words, we are again at the moment of creation. Not literally traveling backward in time, but in the sense of returning to the deepest level of being, to the very source of existence, where the world is breathed into being by God. At this moment our own lives are a mystery to us, but this strangeness is not a threat but a promise, the hope of life that is never destroyed but is given up only to be clothed in yet more life, in a process that goes on and on, into eternity.
There is nothing we can do to take hold of this promise but leap into the unknown. We can only launch off in faith into the wind that comes from who knows where and blows where it chooses. To experience re-creation means we have to be ready to let go again and again of the old life, the old rules, that have outlasted their time and their truth. As Paul writes to the Romans, it is God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” The message of the Gospel is that we can trust this God. In fact there is nothing else we can trust, except Jesus, the one who descended from heaven as a witness to the love and the life of the Father, and the Spirit that bears us onward into that radiance.
Jesus’ words about water and the Spirit also take us back to our own moment of re-creation in baptism. Baptism is a symbolic drowning, our joining with Christ in his own descent into the abyss of chaos and death. But it is also the sacrament of rebirth in the Spirit, and as we rise with Christ out of the womb of the font, the watery grave is transformed into the well of life.
All of these sounds wonderful, but after a week like the last one, you can’t help but question if it is enough. It is sobering to realize the power of nature in an earthquake that could move Japan’s main island of Honshu eight feet east in an instant. We aren’t sure we want to live in a world as wild as that, and as free. And yet, it does not minimize the horror and sorrow of what the Japanese, and the Haitians, and so many other peoples in our world are experiencing, to say that somehow life goes on. Somehow the fact that there is no knowledge we can acquire and no rules we can follow to tame that kind of chaos only illustrates how good the world is most of the time, how the greater fabric of life does not unravel. It may stretch and even tear, but it holds, and it heals,
Only God is enough to heal some wounds; sometimes only God’s great compassion and patient, inexorable love is enough. Events like these, even at a distance, help us to remember that. And so we pray to be recreated from above, to be reborn continually in the Spirit, so that our vision may be made clear enough to see and our faith be made strong enough to know that God does give life to the dead, and does call things into existence out of nothingness. By this grace may we ride the wild winds and waves with fearlessness and hope, even the ones that are far too big for us to handle.