Water in the Desert

18 Feb, 2024

By the Rev’d Hilary Willett

Season: First Sunday of Lent

Readings: Genesis 9:8-17 | 1 Peter 3:18-22 | Mark 1:9-15

Today we had a baptism! A baptism is perhaps an unusual thing to have at the beginning of Lent, which is traditionally a season of penitence and self-examination. Baptism, in contrast, is a time of celebration. A time when we rejoice at the presence of a new member of the church. However, if there were ever a time to have a baptism in Lent, I have to say that it works pretty well in the first week. There is a lot of water in our readings today. We have God’s promise to Noah, after flooding the earth with water. We have Peter interpreting Noah’s experiences with water as a kind of earlier version of baptism. Then, we have the gospel, where Mark highlights the baptism of Jesus. As I say, this is perhaps the most perfect week in Lent to have a baptism – good job, parents!

And if this were not enough, water in the Bible is a fun subject for me. My mum used to say it was like I was born for the water. My dad used to call me a water rat. Swimming was my main sport at school; I even competed for a bit. I hope you can tell by my muscles. I particularly enjoyed backstroke. Apparently, I am quite comfortable racing fast towards a goal, with no real idea of where I’m going. This personality trait has served me quite well in sermon writing, I must say. Where is this sermon going? Who knows! But we sure are gonna get there!

The point is, I enjoy talking about water. Water can just mean so many things, which I find fascinating. Today, we have seen water as a baptismal sign of God’s love, extended towards us as infants, before we even thought to love God back. In Noah’s story, water was a little more frightening, a destructive force that tore through the world. But actually, water is present in a healing way in Noah’s story, too, as a rainbow. Rainbows only occur because the sun shines through water in the air, refracting light into beautiful colours. In Noah’s story, water was terrifying and healing, a sign of chaos and promise. Peter interprets the waters as a kind of baptism, which is maybe a bit of a stretch, but it is an interesting idea.[i] The earth was made new after Noah’s flood. Perhaps Peter is thinking of that newness. And then, in Mark, water is used to baptise Christ and becomes yet another sign. A sign of Christ participating in human rituals to encounter God, a sign of God’s favour, and a sign of the new realm that God is starting.[ii] Water means a lot, in just these readings.

And if we venture out even more broadly into the Bible, water takes on even more meaning. In the Ancient Near East (where Jesus lived), the ocean was often a symbol of true chaos.[iii] The sea is untameable. Human beings cannot control it and are often at its mercy. The sea is described as a metaphor for God’s justice, deeper than the deepest waters (Ps 36:6). Water is described as a source of life. We are encouraged to drink from the waters of life so that we will never thirst again (John 4:10-14). Water is described as a source of wisdom; for instance, in Psalm 1, we are told that a person who reflects on the word of God “day and night” “is like a tree planted by streams of water” (Ps 1:2-3). And water is often a strong metaphor for the Holy Spirit, the person of God who heals and sustains (Isa 44:3; John 7:37-39; 1 Cor 12:13). Water is a complicated, often contradictory symbol. Water is beautiful and terrifying, destructive and the bringer of new life.

And I can’t help but notice that in our own context, water, is important too. We are an island people. We drive a couple of hours from anywhere in Aotearoa, and we are by a beach. Here, we drive for two minutes. There is the ocean, the “moana”, immediately out these windows. We are connected to water here. We are connected to others by water here. Our neighbours in the Pacific, all residents in the vast Moana, are connected to us by water. Some of these connections are difficult. We are connected by our concerns for the climate by water. Our worries about increasing water temperatures, which threaten the lives of animals and our neighbours, threaten our lives. But some of those connections are wonderful. We are fed by the water and the abundant life in the ocean; we swim together and enjoy the water together. The water is very much a part of who we are as people. Anglican Archbishop Winston Halapua, in Tikanga Pasifika, described the ocean, the moana, as a “gift” and a “source of life”.[iv]

Water flows through our context, through the Bible, through our readings, and through today by celebrating a baptism.

But perhaps my favourite association with water, particularly during Lent, is that water is a source of healing (John 5:1-15). Lent is a time where we remember Jesus’ forty days in the desert, for his time of extreme self-examination. Jesus’ time in the desert reflects the Israelites’ forty years in the desert, a fate brought about by Israel’s lack of trust in God. In this season, we, too, are invited into this self-reflection, preparing ourselves for Easter. I don’t know about you, but for me, the desert doesn’t exactly conjure up images of water. Rather, the desert is the one place on earth where water is decidedly not.

So why focus on water? Lent is not about water. Lent is about the desert, the wilderness, fasting. While we aren’t actually told what happens physically here, although I suspect Jesus took water with him, spiritually, Jesus walks away from the waters of baptism into the dry, barren wild.

Or does he?

When Jesus is baptised, our readings say that the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus. But it actually goes further. Not only does the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus like a dove, but it also descends into him like water. It is only then that Jesus goes into the desert. Spiritually speaking, Jesus takes water with him. The water is in him.

Not only this, but, with the help of the Holy Spirit in him, Jesus heals. Where the Israelites failed to trust God, Jesus trusted God. Jesus embodies his people’s experiences and overcomes the temptation to live in fear. He brings waters of healing into the desert, restoring his history and opening up a way to walk through the most dry and barren place. And in so doing, Jesus doesn’t just heal his people. He heals all people. He makes a way in the desert for all people to follow.

We all have wildernesses. They look different for each of us. For some, it is convenience. Some struggle to make ends meet. Some of us are exhausted, we have no time and are burning out. Some of us are in deep sorrow and despair. Some of us feel crushed by the people around us. Some of us mourn. Some feel terror at the state of the world. Some of us are lonely. We all have wildernesses that seem very far from the waters of life and healing.

But God has sent the Holy Spirit to us. We walk the same path as Christ. We take water with us. Water that heals us. Water that heals others. As we remember the Holy Spirit with us and in us by celebrating a new member’s baptism, let us also remember in this Lenten season that we are not alone in the wilderness. We take God with us. It isn’t always easy to remember when the wilderness looms large. We don’t always get to decide the manner of healing or how healing happens. Sometimes, it may not be physical. Sometimes, God sits with us in pain. And perhaps it has been a while since we encountered this God. Trust can be hard in the middle of suffering, in the dry, parched places of our soul. And yet, this is what Lent reminds us to do. To trust. To bring water with us. To let God heal. To bring healing to others.


[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, “1 Peter 3:18-22: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, vol. Year B, Volume 2 (Louisville: Westminister John Knox, 2008), 114.

[ii] Stanley P. Saunders, “Mark 1:9-15: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, vol. Year B, Volume 2 (Louisville: Westminister John Knox, 2008), 125–27.

[iii] Justin Dillehay, “The Chaos Is No Match for the Cosmos,” The Gospel Coalition, January 14, 2019,

[iv] Anglican Alliance, “A Pacific Prayer for the Moana – Archbishop Emeritus Winston Halapua,” YouTube, September 19, 2021.

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