In the bible, water often represents the primeval chaos itself, full of all of the dark, dangerous forces that threaten the very order of creation. Think about the dark waters that cover the face of creation with chaos, think about the story of Noah, the story of Jonah and the whale, the story of the disciples out on the lake in the storm, tossed about on the waves …
Do you feel those watery, chaotic forces in the world, in our lives? Can you put yourself in the place of the victims of hurricane Katrina, or of any of our most recent floods, perched on roofs while noxious and muddy waters lap menacingly at their feet? Can you picture the scenes from the movie The Impossible, where the parents on vacation in Thailand are separated from their children and swept away in the powerful tsunami that suddenly engulfs their vacation paradise? Feel your own body ripped away from the grasp of loved ones, whirled over and under floating debris, your own lungs gasping for air, your own arms and legs flailing for something to hold onto.
When we cry, “I’m drowning in work,” “I’m drowning in diapers,” “I’m drowning in debt,” “I’m drowning in addiction,” "I'm drowning in despair," we are calling forth these potent images of chaos, suffocation, and lack of hope that will lead to our destruction. How often I have prayed with the psalmist, “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me” (Psalm 69).
The story of Noah's Ark, that our children will perform for us after the 10:30 service on March 12, doesn't shy away from the real horrors of drowning. But it also places God with us in the midst of our chaos.
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
Rainbows are a fitting sign of a covenant with a Creator who is inextricably intertwined and immanently present in the world, yet always just beyond our grasp and our vision. Like love itself, rainbows are ephemeral things. If we try to catch them, they turn to damp mist in our hands, and if we try to point them out to others, they slide away behind a sunbeam. God promises Noah to love and to sustain the world for all eternity, tenderly reaching out in life-giving mercy, softly enveloping all the creatures of the earth, seas, and sky. So involved is God within the world that the rainbow will appear in every cloud and before every storm, not merely for our benefit, but as a constant thought, a whispered “remember” to an ever-present and observant God.
The God who speaks in the rainbow is the same loving, merciful God that we Christians see in Jesus Christ. The shining rainbows that magically appear before our eyes are like the nail marks and spear marks in the flesh of the risen Christ—painful wounds and gashes of love and mercy bleeding light into the sky from the heart of a faithful and self-limiting God. The rainbow reminds us that we have a God who, out of love for Creation, emptied himself to become a slave, suffering and even dying for the world that he has made. It reminds us that we have a God who could become flesh and walk into the wilderness of our world to feel hunger and thirst and fear and to be tempted by Evil. It reminds us that we have a God willing go so far as to die as a condemned criminal on a Cross. It reminds us of the hope of resurrection, the promise of new life in Christ—the promise discovered as we rise from the waters of baptism.
Think about the Ark story and imagine all of the floundering animals and humans being swept away into the vast, churning waters. Now, imagine Jesus in the water, too, swimming and gasping with the effort of pulling them one by one onto a big lifesaving ring and hauling them to a dry patch of earth. Over and over again, totally absorbed in his endless task, Jesus goes back for one more elephant, one more man, one more baby, as his strength ebbs and his chest heaves. Imagine yourself in the water, drowning, paddling, gasping for breath as you dodge floating trees and pieces of houses. Feel Jesus grab you as you both go down for an instant, thinking that all is lost, until you come up again for air. Suddenly you find yourself on solid ground—safe and alive. But as you look around for Jesus, he is gone … He has returned with determination into the flood waters to save one more drowning victim. Take a moment to thank Jesus for lifting you up out of the flood into new life. What will you do now? How can you help him to save others?
With preschool children: Preschool children love this story about animals and rainbows. Don’t worry about traumatizing them with the flood; young children will find the reassurance that they need in the rescue and the rainbow. Using a children’s bible, tell them the story and invite them to paint or color a big rainbow on a large sheet of paper. Put the rainbow up in their room over their bed or on their door. Tell them that when they see the rainbow, they will know that God has made a promise to them that God will always love them and take care of them. Tell them the story of their baptism, when the water and oil marked them as part of Jesus’ family forever.
With elementary school children: Help them make a “rainbow bracelet.” Prepare the bracelet by putting one strand of thread or yarn of each rainbow color (or those that you can find … ) in each of three groups and tying them at one end with a simple knot. Hold the ends for the child while he braids it and you talk about the Noah’s Ark story. Invite the children to wear their bracelets this month in order to remind themselves that Jesus loves them and promises to be with them always – no matter how they mess up. Tell them the story of their baptism, when they went “under the water with Jesus,” and received a sign like the rainbow on their foreheads—the cross of chrism (oil) that marked them as Christ’s own forever. (This idea comes from Carolyn C. Brown, “Worshiping with Children,” found at http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/01/year-b-first-sinday-in-lent-february-22.html.)
With teens: On one of those Sundays this month when your teen can’t come to church because of sports, a sleepover, too much homework, etc. tell them instead that they can “trade church” for watching a video on the computer! Talk with them about the “Ark Encounter” in Northern Kentucky and all of the furor that it has caused in the media. Invite them to “Google” it and see what they can learn. Then tell them that you would like to show them a different lesson from the Noah’s Ark story. Ask them to watch Maya Angelou talk about rainbows at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/30/maya-angelou-oprah-rainbow_n_5413544.html. When you get back from church, or at supper, ask them what they think about what she said. Review the details of the Noah story. Ask them how Jesus might be asking them to “be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.”