‘From a means of death to a means of life’

Column by Mary Lee Talbot.

“If you want a crash course on the story of water in the Bible, pretend you are invited to be the chaplain at Chautauqua for Water Week,” said the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor at the beginning of her sermon at the Tuesday morning Devotional Hour.

She continued, “List all the stories you remember about water. Once you have the obvious contenders, leave a lot of space at the end of the list for the stories that keep floating up to the surface. Choose five, because that is all you get. Until I made that list, I never realized that the story about the baby in the bulrushes was not in the common lectionary.”

Taylor’s title was “The Water Baby,” and her text was Exodus 2:1-10.

“He was a fine baby; his mother saw that he was tov, good, the same as what God saw in creation,” she said. “His mother hid him, and when he got too big, she made an ark for him, a basket with tar, and put him in this floating bassinet. His sister watched to see who would find him. The odds were pretty good it would be a woman, because they had to wash the clothes — unlike now.”

The person who found him was a princess who was not there to work; she brought other women to do that. She ordered a maid to go get the baby, and she had pity on him. He was clearly circumcised, a Hebrew baby, and she knew that Pharaoh had ordered them to be put to death.

“But she was as self-governed as Pharaoh; she did not ask permission of anyone to keep him,” Taylor said. “A young girl offered to find a woman to nurse him and without thinking, the princess said yes. So his mother got paid to raise the future savior of his people.”

God, Taylor said, was absent or never named in the story.

“Only the baby, Moses, has a name. There are five players here, and only four are people. The mother, the sister, the princess and the maid are the people. The fifth is the water. I never gave much thought to that before,” she said. “If we look at the little book of Scripture and the big book of nature together, the river is more than a prop. It comes down from Eden, from the deep, from the time before time. In the big book, it is from a cloud in the Milky Way, from comets hitting the earth, from the steam of cooling magma. But no matter if we read with the religious language of the little book or the scientific language of the big book, the DNA of the river carries the beginning, the creation, that time before time that started in a star.”

Taylor said there were four great river systems of the ancient world: the Nile, the Tigris-Euphrates, the Indus and the Yellow rivers.  They were the freshwater highways of the ancient world. Whoever controlled them controlled life, and it was no wonder that the pharaohs were thought to be kin to the gods. Their power was secure as long as the water flowed.

“In Egypt, the flooding of the Nile was so predictable that they named their three seasons after it,” she said. “There was the inundation season, the growing season and the harvest season — each 120 days. The river is navigable both ways with the current running north and the wind blowing to the south. The flooding flushes the salts from the irrigation system.”

The pharaohs needed a large underclass to build and maintain their water system; the first dam was built in 2900 BCE at Memphis.

The pharaohs had to keep an eye on the birthrate of the underclass so they did not drink up too much of the precious resource. Taylor quoted Steven Solomon in Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization to show that in every population that succeeds in harnessing water, its people will grow, and then consumption of the water will increase, leading to its depletion. The decline of those civilizations came because they could not keep up with their water success.

“If there was too much water, the crops wash away. If there was too little water, the crops turn brown. Pharaoh could not control the source of water 1,000 miles away in Ethiopia and Burundi,” she said. “If you look from space, you see this green artery in the desert. There is a great bloom at the end where the delta forms. As you follow it back to the source, it gets smaller and thinner.

“This baby was born to be anonymous. He was a warning about population and water success. The huge underclass of immigrants was needed to keep the economy going, but they threatened the powers that be, which stepped in to restore order. This baby should never have lived. While the mother and sister clung to each other, the princess could have looked away. That did not happen.

“The mother and sister did everything so the tov baby would live. The sister kept an eye on him and suffered his cries, where the day before, she would have picked him up so that anyone would find him. The maid of the royal house acted on the orders of the princess, who named him Moses. The river is redeemed from a means of death to a means of life because of four women.

“Pharaoh did not control them. The most powerful have no power over the rain, or love, or the banks of rivers. There was no divine intervention to defeat Pharaoh. There was a river, four women and a baby acting according to their natures. Maybe that is all God needs to act, the power within creation not over it. These five actors were happy to accept help. That is essential to bring life from death over and over and over again.”

The Rev. George Wirth, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, Ga., presided. John Daniel Patterson and Gyongyi Szalontai from The International Order of the King’s Daughters and Sons Chautauqua Scholarship Program read scripture. Dan is from Frankfort, Ky., and will attend the University of Kentucky in the fall to study chemistry. Gyongi is from Transcarpathia, Ukraine, and read in her native language, Hungarian. She graduated from college in 2010 with degrees in English and Hungarian.

Jared Jacobsen, organist and worship and sacred music coordinator, led the Motet Choir in “Jesu, the Very Thought of Thee.” The text was from a poem by Bernard of Clairvaux, and the music by Richard Proulx.