Faith in the Water

Faith in the Water

This is a sermon delivered by Sinai and Synapses Fellow Ashlynn Stillwell at Wesley United Methodist Church in Urbana, IL on April 15, 2018.

Good morning. I’m really honored to be here with you this morning. Thank you to the Wesley Green Team for the invitation to speak on this Climate Change Sunday.

Jesus walks on water

We heard in the scripture reading this morning a story that is likely quite familiar: Jesus walking on the water, or “walking on the sea”, in this case the Sea of Galilee. Three of the four gospels have this story of Jesus walking on the sea, but it’s only in the Gospel According to Matthew where Peter has a prominent role in the story.

To set the context, Jesus and his disciples have just learned the news of the execution of John the Baptist, and Jesus has withdrawn to be alone in a boat. But a crowd has followed him, so Jesus and his disciples spend the day talking to the crowd on the shore, curing the sick, and feeding the multitude with five loaves of bread and two fish. I’d certainly call that an exhausting day for Jesus, emotionally, mentally, and physically.

Jesus has his disciples go into the boat, and he goes up a mountain by himself to pray. But a strong wind is against the boat and by evening, the disciples are far away from the shore. That’s when Jesus comes walking on the sea. And the disciples are rightfully terrified, thinking Jesus is a ghost. But when Jesus identifies himself, all is well.

That’s when Peter enters Matthew’s telling of the story. Peter seeks more. Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And so Jesus commands Peter to come, and Peter, too, walks on the water. But this is choppy water and there are lots of waves and a strong wind, and Peter gets scared and starts to sink, crying out, “Lord, save me!” And I have to imagine Jesus almost laughing at Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Troubled waters in our lives

I like this story because I think there’s a Peter in all of us. When things don’t go to plan, we get scared, terrified even. But with seeing a sign of hope, Jesus walking on the sea, we perhaps get overconfident. We want to get out of the boat, but we still get scared and cry, “Lord, save me!”

We can all reflect on the strong wind and troubled waters in this gospel story. But today is Climate Change Sunday at Wesley, so I invite you to instead think of the strong wind and troubled waters in our modern life. We see the unpredictability of strong wind and troubled waters through human impacts on the earth and climate change.

Climate change has unfortunately become a highly political issue, but the science of climate change is clear. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that “human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems”. 1IPCC. Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report Summary for Policymakers.

Climate change is real. Humans are a big part of the problem. And the impacts of climate change are most pronounced on water. The atmosphere and oceans are warmer, snow and ice are melting, sea levels are rising. We see more extreme weather events – more droughts, more floods, more heat waves, and more extreme cold.

These climate change impacts on water are most important because water is life. Water sustains life. And the amount of water on the globe is the same amount of water there has always been. Water evaporates from the oceans, falls to the surface as precipitation, runs off into rivers and lakes or infiltrates into the soil as groundwater, supports human life and plant and animal life, and evaporates again, moving along in the hydrologic cycle.

Only a small fraction of that water is freshwater in a form suitable for supporting human life. And the number of people living on the planet has gone up dramatically. We are some 7.6 billion people living on this planet, sharing the same amount of water we’ve always had. Only, in reality, we’re not all sharing the water. An estimated 844 million people worldwide lack access to a basic source of drinking water 2World Health Organization. Drinking-water. Of that huge number, an estimated 842,000 people – most of them children under the age of 5 – die each year from waterborne disease 3World Health Organization. Sanitation. As a mom, this hurts my heart. The reason for a lot of this waterborne disease is because 2.3 billion people worldwide lack access to basic sanitation. That’s nearly one-third of the world’s population. Imagine a day without access to a toilet and you’ll begin to see what life is like for a large percentage of the world. These are the people affected by climate change the most.

We, as people of faith in particular, are called to not only care about the impacts of climate change, but also to act and to care for the earth, God’s creation. In addition to my job as an engineering professor – my day job, if you will – I serve as the Chair of the Board of Directors of Faith in Place. Faith in Place is a non-profit organization that brings together people of diverse faiths across Illinois to care for our common home. Faith in Place is a diverse people of many different faiths: we are Christian, Sikh, Baha’i, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and many other faiths. But we are all faithful people caring for the earth. Faith in Place works through different offices – one here in Champaign-Urbana – to support Green Teams in houses of worship and to educate people on earth care in action.

The work of Faith in Place falls into four program areas: energy and climate, sustainable food and land use, water preservation, and (through our partner organization the Faith in Place Action Fund) advocacy. It’s been amazing to see faith in action through each one of these programs. So, to just give you a picture of what happened at Faith in Place in 2017: Faith in Place has helped 4 houses of worship install solar panels on their facilities. We have helped congregationally supported agriculture farms and gardens at houses of worship to grow 209,000 pounds of healthy local food, with a large fraction of that going to alleviate hunger in local communities, much like our garden here at Wesley. Faith in Place has helped install 5 rain gardens on houses of worship and distributed over 834 rain barrels to help prevent combined sewer overflows in Chicago.

Faith in Place has also played a key role in the legislation of the Future Energy Jobs Act here in Illinois. Implementation of the Future Energy Jobs Act creates 2,000 clean energy jobs for foster care alumni and returning citizens. Through these clean energy jobs, Faith in Place is working to connect the dots between environmental justice and social justice, helping houses of worship take advantage of incentives to install solar panels while putting people to work, aiming to reduce recidivism rates.

As I reflected on putting faith into action, I recalled a Texas country song I heard recently called “Faith in the Water” (and, full disclosure, that’s where the title of my sermon came from). When my family and I lived in Austin, Texas, before we moved here, I developed a deep love for Texas country music. “Faith in the Water” is a song by The Texas Red Dirt Choir, which includes several Texas country artists like Roger Creager, Josh Abbott, Pat Green, and many others. The production of “Faith in the Water” was a fundraising effort for the Rebuild Texas Fund to help communities rebuild after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Hydrologically speaking, Hurricane Harvey was a really big event, labeled as a one in 500-1000 year event. Words like “unprecedented”, “catastrophic”, and “biblical” were used in the news coverage of Hurricane Harvey. Hurricane Harvey is right up there with Hurricane Katrina among the costliest extreme weather events on record. After making landfall, Hurricane Harvey dumped over 40 inches of rain – almost 4 feet of rain – in 4 days in areas of east Texas, including Houston. That’s almost the annual average rainfall for Houston, arriving in just 4 days. Flooding from Harvey was extensive, causing 107 deaths and an estimated $125 billion in damage.

It was that extreme event, of Hurricane Harvey, that motivated the production of the song “Faith in the Water.” Many of the lyrics have strong Christian overtones, representing faith in action. Here’s one of the verses and the chorus:

He said, “I can’t walk on water, but I can drive my boat and reach out to a stranger who’s trying to stay afloat.”

I drove down from Fort Worth when I saw it on the news. Some things you gotta think about, and some things you just do.

When there’s faith in water and love in these streets.

Hope on the faces of the people I meet.

There’s a resurrection coming for the world to see.

There’s faith in the water, and love in these streets. 

The response to Hurricane Harvey was truly amazing. People in personal boats, rescuing strangers from rising waters. Help with food, supplies, and bottled water. And once the waters receded, even more people replacing water-damaged drywall and helping rebuild Texas communities.

That response is faith in action.

Living our faith through water

As we face more extreme weather in response to climate change, we as people of God and followers of Christ are called to make these connections between environmental justice and social justice. To care for the earth and to care for “the least of these.” And while we’re a lot like Peter – terrified, eager, and unsure – we can put our faith into action.

I can’t walk on water, but I can drive my boat.

I can’t get rid of fossil fuels, but I can carpool and ride my bike to work.

I can’t clean contaminated rivers, but I can use rain barrels and rain gardens to prevent stormwater runoff.

I can’t prevent fertilizer runoff, but I can eat local fruits and vegetables.

I can’t eliminate carbon emissions, but I can adjust my thermostat.

I can’t recharge depleted aquifers, but I can stop watering my lawn.

I can’t fix industrial agriculture, but I can eat less meat and waste less food.

I can’t enact a national climate policy, but I can make my voice heard to members of Congress and the General Assembly.

I can’t walk on water, but I can drive my boat.

There is faith in the water, and love in these streets.




1 IPCC. Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report Summary for Policymakers.
2 World Health Organization. Drinking-water.
3 World Health Organization. Sanitation.


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