MOSAICS: Introduction

This week’s devotion focuses on the waters of baptism, which unite us in a common faith and a shared story.

The River  |   The Riverkeeper

The River

By Rev. John W. Nupp

“Are We Yet Alive?”

John 1



What does your birth story say about who you are?

What does your baptism say about whose you are?

How do each of these stories define you?

What does your birth story say about who you are? My wife was born on April Fool’s Day.  When she was growing up, people would not believe it was her birthday. She endured practical jokes like sitting on tacks and getting her hair pulled.

We don’t have any control over the day we are born. In fact, we don’t get to choose much about the way life starts out for us – our families, our neighborhoods, our names, our gender or skin color or economic condition. For better or worse, we take our first breaths in this world and start crying! What will we make of this life we have been given?

Each one of us is so different, which is one thing that makes us all the same. We all share this mystery called “life.” Physical life has certain markers like nutrition and respiration; fancy ways of saying we all need to breathe and eat! But what about the life we share in Christ? I believe that our spiritual life has common markers similar to our physical characteristics. We will be looking at several examples of these markers, these signs of life given by God, in the coming weeks.

As we prepare for our time together at Annual Conference under the theme, “We are One:  Connected in Covenant,” we will come back again and again to the rivers of our baptism. The covenant of baptism binds us together in a common story, together with all our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, just as our birth stories say something unique about our identities. God reminds us of the common curses and blessings of being human, but gives us a sense of belonging to a common family.

When people set out to tell about the life of Jesus, some started with the story of his birth. You can read about this through Joseph’s point of view in Matthew’s gospel, or see the nativity through Mary’s eyes in the words of St. Luke. The earliest record, Mark, starts right in with the Baptism of our Lord, and this is where the Gospel writer John returns when he comes back again to retell the story of Jesus.  

We witness the Word of God walking along the banks of the River Jordan, surrounded by saints and sinners.  That prophet, John the Baptizer, points to him, witnesses about him, testifies that here is the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit! Certainly, it was important that Jesus was born, that he entered fully into this mess of sharing the human condition, with a name and a neighborhood, a family and a face. But here is some good news: Jesus is creating something new – a new creation, a new covenant!

Unlike our human birth, which plunges us into this river of life whether we like it or not, Jesus invites us into a new life. While the water baptism practiced by John was immersed in the repentance of sins and entrance into the covenant community of Moses, Jesus brings a new promise. Here comes one promising to pour out the gift of God’s very presence in the person of the Holy Spirit. To all who receive him, to all who believe in that Name, God grants power to become children; not children born of flesh and blood, not defined only by race or gender, status or skin-color, but defined by God because they are born of God. And not “they” but “we” – this is who we are, this is our life together in Christ. 


The Riverkeeper

RiverIn 2008, the Rev. Dottie Yunger, pastor of Solomons UMC, became the Anacostia Riverkeeper. It was her job to protect and be the eyes, ears, and voice of its watershed. Of the nearly 200 waterkeepers worldwide, she was the only Riverkeeper who was also a minister and was often called “Rev. Riverkeeper.” She believes that water is sacred and holy, a sign and symbol of the divine. She shares some thoughts on faith and the Anacostia River, which runs through Washington, D.C.

The Anacostia River: Fallen from Grace?

By Rev. Dottie Yunger

The Anacostia River is in desperate need of healing. “How has one river fallen so far from grace?” asked one community leader. The antiquated sewer system that pumps more than 2 billion gallons of raw sewage, mixed with polluted runoff, into the river each year is not just a shame, it’s a sin. African-American churches along the Anacostia used to baptize their members in the river. Nowadays, the river wouldn’t wash away anyone’s sins. My goal as Rev. Riverkeeper was an Anacostia that was not only “fishable” and “swimmable”—as required by the 1972 Clean Water Act—but also “baptizable.”

One particularly effective Bible study with congregations was based on various verses from Psalms that refer to water. These verses (for example, Psalms 1:3; 68:6-9; 107:33-35) tell the story of how water works in creation and the different forms water takes. It’s an amazing system. The cycle that water travels is as much God’s creation as is the water itself. Generally speaking, the Earth has an established amount of water that has been cycling through phases and providing life since it was first established. The water celebrated by the psalmists is the same water we have today—literally. The waters of baptisms and ritual cleansings we use today are all part of the same body of water used by the prophets and Jesus. We are part of this cycle; this cycle is part of us. Yet we know this cycle is out of balance. 

I tried to understand firsthand and in my own community today’s current environmental crisis and the role Christians play in addressing it. The Anacostia River runs through the nation’s Capitol and through the poorest neighborhoods in the city. The communities along its riverbanks bear the brunt of the negative health effects of toxic sites, polluted runoff, and trash. Long before being designated as one of the ten dirtiest rivers in America, the Anacostia used to be the site of baptisms for the African American churches along its banks. The healing powers of the river are long gone, and the river is in desperate need of healing of its own.

The water that flows in the Anacostia is part of the Earth’s water cycle. The bible study Sacred Waters from the National Council of Churches EcoJustice Working Group beautifully describes this water cycle:

The water cycle vividly demonstrates the interrelatedness and deep connections within God’s Creation. What affects the air affects the rivers. What affects the rivers affects the oceans. What happens upstream affects life downstream.

The good news is that we can help return the water cycle to its natural rhythm. We can allow water to be water, to be that for which God created it to be.

The Psalmists describe water as a gift, a gift to all of creation. Their verses tell the story of how water works in creation and the diversity of forms it takes. It is an amazing system, and the cycle water travels is as much a creation of God as the water itself. We are part of this cycle, and where we live is where we interact with the water cycle – this is called a watershed. A watershed is an area of land that the water as it drains into a body of water. This watershed is our home and home to God’s creatures. We are part of this cycle and this cycle is part of us, literally. Our bodies are 70 percent water, and 70 percent of that water comes from our local drinking source, in our case the Potomac River, into which the Anacostia River flows. What if we understand ourselves through our connection to our local water source, through our watershed boundaries, not our arbitrary political or jurisdictional boundaries? What if we identified as Potomac Riverians, or citizens of the Anacostia Watershed? Our identity came from whose we are, and what connects us, as opposed to what divides us?

In the Anacostia Watershed, polluted runoff is a serious threat, a sign that this watershed and this home are not well. With so much of the watershed hard pavement instead of grass or trees, water runs off the pavement, picking up sediment and chemicals and trash and carrying them into the Anacostia. The water picks up speed as it rolls off the pavement, too, and this erodes the riverbanks, banks that used to be lined with trees or wetlands or other natural buffers. Every year 2 billion gallons of polluted runoff carrying trash, sewage, and toxic chemicals enter the Anacostia River. Two–thirds of the brown bullhead catfish in the Anacostia have cancerous lesions or sores, and anyone who eats these catfish also ingest the toxins in their flesh. 

When people of faith understand polluted runoff as a social justice issue as well as an environmental issue, they understand the need for them to do their part. This is especially true where public health and environmental health intersect, particularly around issues of environmental justice, where people of color and low-income communities bear the disproportionate brunt of environmental issues. This is unfortunately all too apparent in the Anacostia Watershed, where your zip code can be the greatest proctor of your health, not your genetics or lifestyle. Those brown bullhead catfish with cancerous lesions? Those lesions or sores are from coming into contact with the contaminated riverbed, contaminated with toxins from decades of industrial activity along the river. Some of those toxins wash into the river with the rain, and from far upstream where the effects remain conveniently out of view.  The poet and farmer Wendell Berry reminds us with this golden rule – “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”

Lest anyone think only environmentalists have the luxury to care about brown bullhead catfish, a 2012 study of fishing within the Anacostia Watershed found that at least 17,000 people in its watershed consume its fish, despite government advisories not to do so. People who are eating these fish for subsistence reasons – to put food on the table for themselves and their families – need to worry more about the reality of needing dinner tonight than the possibility of maybe getting sick in the future. So, yes, houses of worship have a responsibility to control the pollution that comes off their parking lots, because they have a responsibility to care for God’s creation and a responsibility to care for their neighbor, maybe a neighbor who puts food on the table that has come out of the Anacostia River. 

The good news is that we can help return the water cycle to its natural rhythm. We can allow water to be water, to be that for which God created it to be.

Where can that spiritual and cultural transformation come from? From remembering that we are created in God’s and the Earth’s image. From that understanding, we can address the environmental issues that affect the Anacostia River in particular and creation in general. Advances in modern scientific and theological thinking will also help inform a new ecological ethic. In other words, we can follow the rules, the simple rules from John Wesley (Do no harm, Do good, Stay in love with God). Remember – they are called “simple” rules, not “easy” rules. We – and the Earth in whose image we are partly created – can afford nothing less. 

In 2012, D.C.’s Washington City Church of the Brethren installed a bright red 650-gallon cistern on its property. The cistern was installed by youth community workers who live along the river’s banks. Jointly organized by the church, the D.C. Department of the Environment, Anacostia Riverkeeper®, and Groundwork Anacostia, this project provides free rainwater to the Capitol Hill community, prevents thousands of gallons of storm water from entering the river as polluted runoff, and lowers the church’s water bill.

Once the cistern was installed, the church hosted a community celebration in which the cistern was christened and the water blessed. “We are blessed to share this water with our community,” I said, “and hope that the blessing spreads through our community.”

And with that, it began to rain.