Sunday, June 9, 2024

Sermon: "The Poetry of Water", Psalm 65 (June 9, 2024)

You may not remember this about me, but I don’t especially like preaching on the psalms. It’s not because I don’t like them; I think that the Psalms are a beautiful showcase of the depth of humanity’s emotions. But the same thing that makes them beautiful to read is what makes them difficult to preach – they’re poetry. A poem can be challenging enough to understand when it’s in your native tongue, but it gets exponentially more difficult when it’s in an unfamiliar ancient language. The goal of poetry isn’t the same as prose: it isn’t to tell a story, but to convey an emotion or a deeper truth. It uses sentence fragments, metaphor, double-entendre, and ambiguity – all very advanced linguistic concepts – to accomplish this. The fact that poetry purposely uses language in an imprecise and subjective way makes it extremely difficult to translate. Many of the words used in the psalms have multiple meanings, or meanings that don’t make sense to us in the context we find them.

But that’s exactly what makes the psalms necessary and worth tackling. They remind us that God is beyond our perfect comprehension and that many religious truths can’t be learned through catechism. They have to be explored, engaged, compared, interpreted, turned over, wrestled with, and finally, we need to sit in silence with them. Understanding requires more than just reading; it requires listening to the meaning behind the words, the Truth (with a big “T”) beyond what we literally read on the page that God is communicating.

In this way, even silence is praise, as this particular translation puts it, because our silence honors God by demonstrating a readiness to listen and learn. As we discovered last week, humans have a tendency not only to talk too much, but to talk primarily about OURSELVES: OUR concerns, OUR desires, OUR opinions. Listening is critical to remembering that we’re just one part of a larger picture and figuring out our particular role within that picture. I imagine that’s partly why this psalm only mentions humanity using vague pronouns, and only in the first 4 ½ verses – the psalmist realizes that we’re just not what’s important here and reminds us that it just might be time to sit back and listen.

But there’s a problem. Listening doesn’t always equate to comprehension. Like poetry, God is complex, multifaceted, and (to be honest) often confusing, so we need some sort of intermediary to help us make that leap to fuller understanding. We need something that can translate the message that we hear into wisdom that we comprehend.

Unfortunately, we won’t always have a sermon or study group on hand to do that interpretation for us. But there IS something that, as the psalmist realized, humans almost always WILL have access to: water. It regularly falls from the sky “on the righteous and unrighteous alike,” as Matthew 5:45 says, and it covers over 70% of the planet. As for us, we’re fortunate enough to live in a place where we can turn on any faucet and expect clean water to come gushing out instantly. All of humanity is well-acquainted with water in one way or another; there’s a shared knowledge of its importance and value to life on earth. But what would happen if, instead of thinking about its practical value, we were to think about water more poetically? What might we be able to learn?

This psalm begins as an ode to God, but quickly pivots to a discussion of water. One explanation for this might be that agriculture (and by extension, water) was hugely important to ancient biblical communities, and it was…but that’s thinking practically. Psalms are poetry. So perhaps the reason this psalm of praise spends so much time talking about water is because the writer believes that our knowledge and experience of water, combined together with the psalm’s poetry, can help us to understand something deeper about God.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that something as ordinary as water is a pathway to a better understanding of God. After all, this is originally a scriptural concept: Genesis says that water was somehow with God in the time before creation, telling us that “The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters,”[1] and both the First[2] and New[3] Testaments use the language of “Living Water” to describe God. It makes a degree of sense, then, that the more we can learn from water, the better we should be able to understand God. So, as we read this passage, take the time to listen, and remember that it’s not always about us, let’s take a moment to try and put into words a few of the more poetic lessons that water seems to be teaching us about God through this psalm:

In this psalm, we learn that, like water, there is nothing so dirty that God can’t make it clean. In verses 2 and 3, the psalm tells us that all living things come to the river of God’s mercy, and when our wrongdoings become too much for us, God washes away our sins. It doesn’t matter what we’ve thought, what we’ve said, or what we’ve done; it doesn’t matter how worn out our souls feel; it doesn’t matter if the filth of our sin seems to have become ingrained within us. All we need to do is come to the water, let it cover us, and we will be washed clean – that is a divine promise.

In this psalm, we learn that, like water, God is more abundant than we imagine God could possibly be. Water is a precious commodity, but if we’re willing to share, there is plenty to go around, and then some. It falls generously to the ground as rain; it swells the banks of rivers; it floods reservoirs and lakes and valleys. And verse 9 describes God in the exact same way – “You visit the earth and make it overflow.” This psalm assures us that if we come to God, we are welcomed into God’s house and not just filled, but filled FULL – completely satisfied. We don’t have to keep God to ourselves, because there is more than enough to go around.

In this psalm, we learn that, like water, God can be both powerful and gentle. Anyone who’s ever been caught in a storm on the ocean knows how powerful water can be. But anyone who’s ever been out sailing on a beautiful, calm day also knows how *gentle* that exact same body of water can be. There is a time and place for both. Verse 6 describes God as being “dressed in raw power,” “establishing the mountains by [God’s] strength,” but in the very next moment, verse 7 depicts God using this power to calm the seas, its waves, and the nations. God values gentleness just as much as strength – like water, God is not either/or, but both/and.

In this psalm, we learn that, like water, God softens that which is rigid and unyielding. Verse 10 tells us that when rain showers “drench the earth’s furrows,” the dry earth is softened, and its ridges leveled. The water permeates the hard, coarse layers of dirt until they become soft and malleable. Even the sharpest of rocks can become smooth over time thanks to the patient work of a running stream. But water never makes things MORE hard, MORE sharp, MORE rough. Much of Christianity today has doubled down on the demands of its theology, insisting on firmer doctrine, harsher discipline, louder condemnation. But if we paid attention to water, we’d learn that this isn’t the kind of effect that God has in the world – in fact, it’s the exact opposite.

In this psalm, we learn that, like water, God provides sustenance that the world can’t live without. Verse 10 proclaims that the rain “blesses” the ground, enabling plants to grow out of it. Verse 11 describes paths overflowing with rich food as a result. And verse 12 says that “even the desert pastures drip with it, and the hills are dressed in pure joy.” None of this joy, this bounty, this blessing, would be possible without the water’s nourishment of the land. In the same way, WE rely on God’s sustenance, God’s awesome deeds of mercy and righteousness done on our behalf for our salvation. We could work hard, believe and say and do all the “right” things, plant the seeds for a good life in the rich soil of faith with plenty of sunlight from correct teachings, but without the water of God’s salvation, it would all be for naught.

These are just some of the things that we can learn from water in this psalm. None of it is necessarily spelled out in its words…but if we’re willing to dwell quietly with its poetry, if we humbly embrace the metaphor and listen for understanding instead of just knowledge, then we have the opportunity to discover the sorts of things that can’t be learned through instruction or study. When we stop thinking of ourselves and what we assume we already know, we can start to consider what lies beyond all that…and trust me, there’s plenty out there. We’ve barely scratched the surface.

I invite you to experiment with this kind of quiet contemplation of nature’s poetry this week. In what other ways is God like water? What other realizations might occur to you as you dwell in the company of a river, or a lake, or a garden, or a forest, or a mountain? Just like us, nature is a window of insight into the creator that made it – but too often, we forget this and take it for granted. When we praise God with our silence, we make room for the rest of creation to reflect God loudly through its mere existence. So, for once, let’s assume the posture of students, instead of teachers or masters. And maybe, when we’re finally able to see God through the lens of nature, we can glean a new, deeper understanding that has never been ours before. May it be so. Amen.


[1] Genesis 1:2.
[2] Jeremiah 2:13, 17:13, Zechariah 14:8-9.
[3] John 4:14, 7:38.

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