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Wading in the Water by Rev. Dr. Jerusha Matsen Neal, Assistant Professor of Homiletics, Duke Divinity School

(The opening worship service began with a moment of silence for Manuel “Tortuguita” Páez Terán. Manuel had been protesting the construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center – nicknamed “Cop City” – when they were killed by police in the Weelaunee Forest. When they were shot, Manuel’s hands were raised.)

Ezekiel is a hard book to read. Even the hopeful chapters are haunted. Resurrections rattle with bones. It is a book about knowing the value of land and sanctuary and home. And losing it. About places stolen, and then destroyed. Babylon had environmental tactics for keeping the territories it defeated in line. Trees cut down. Villages burned. Soil salted. Laying waste to land is particularly effective urban warfare – and often the cruelest way to break a people’s spirit. Ezekiel’s people had witnessed that cruelty, but to the frustration of many readers, the prophet speaks relatively little about Babylon. Nothing like the verbal take-down of empire we hope for. We want him to hold the oppressors accountable. And instead, he speaks again and again of the sin of God’s people and, to my own profound discomfort, the sovereignty of God.

It’s a hard book to read.

Ezekiel can sound like some televangelist parody, blaming hurricanes on Mardi Gras – pinning the fault for climate catastrophe and forced dislocation on those least responsible. And we could just write him off. Except that his prophecy doesn’t come from some mauve-upholstered couch in a climate-controlled television studio. It comes from the banks of an irrigation ditch
called the Chebar canal – an actual ditch dug by exiles to grow food those exiles would never eat. A ditch dug to fund imperial temples that stood largely empty all year until Babylon’s annual military festival, when the Emperor reclaimed his role as conqueror of all creation. Exiles were regularly marched through the capitol during these massive military parades – their flesh providing stripped, bound counter-testimony to the empire’s faith in its own civilized, civilizing benevolence.

So, don’t let Ezekiel 47 fool you. This lovely vision of a temple built with mandala-like symmetry, this river – clear and miraculous – growing deeper as it flows from God’s altar, restoring all that has been taken away…the poisoned soil, the famine, the sores of the body, and the scars of the heart … This is not the only river in Ezekiel. There is also the river of Ezekiel’s opening chapters: an engineered canal hundreds of miles from Judah’s hills, commissioned by an empire adept at using agricultural technology to centralize its power. It was dug by exiles who had lost family and home…whose questions about the character and commitments of God roared in their ears. It’s on the banks of the Chebar that Ezekiel receives his vision of the tree-lined river described in our scripture today. We see him wading in waters of healing while the muck of Babylon sucks at his heels.

So. Here is my question: What good is Ezekiel’s vision of wholeness and holiness when the world is being laid waste? More to the point: what good does it do to enter a comfortable sanctuary filled with light and order and harmony at a conference about climate justice – and hear of a God who can restore all that has been taken away?

It’s a deadly serious question for people of faith who care about creation. We know how religion has been co-opted for complacency. We know how spiritual platitudes of some future glory have lulled entire communities – even entire nations – to sleep.

How is this passage anything more than a naïve fantasy, filling bellies with false hope? God will restore, Ezekiel tells us. His vision echoing the stories of Israelite faith… trees of life, rivers of promise, temples like tabernacles, where God dwells with creation rather than conquering it. It’s beautiful. I don’t deny it.

But what good is any of it when the world is coming undone?

For three years, my family and I lived and taught at Davuilevu Theological College – the oldest pastoral training school in the Fiji Islands. When we left, the President of the Fijian Methodist Church gave us this charge: when you return to your people, tell them climate change is real. He was deadly serious – and we knew why. We had seen the bleached coral and the eroding shorelines. We had prayed with ministers who poured out communion wine on the sand in front of their sanctuaries to keep the tides from rising. We had heard the howls of Cyclone Winston – the strongest cyclone to ever to make landfall in the southern hemisphere. I had been teaching Systematic Theology the spring that Winston hit, and the class had just heard of a massacre of faithful church goers that had taken place the year before in a far-off city called Charleston…inside a different Methodist Church. We’d looked at the photographs of those murdered, and we’d spoken of the crisis that evil raises for anyone who believes in a God that is both good and powerful. Theologians have a word for that. At some point, I had written the word “theodicy” on the board.

The week after the Cyclone hit, there was a knock at our door. A student who rarely spoke in class stood outside; his eyes averted. He hadn’t heard anything yet from his village or his family. He spoke in a low voice, with something between grief and fury. “I have a question” he said to me, “…about theodicy.”

I panicked. I dodged. I assigned blame to globalizing greed and contemporary empires. I spoke of melting icecaps and warming oceans…as if science could soothe his ache. I pointed to proposals from COP 20, COP 21, COP 22 – (that’s as far as the numbers went at the time) – anything, anywhere that sounded like hope.

But the student sat unimpressed. He had seen Western decisionmakers try to fix things before. He wasn’t placing his faith in the civilized, civilizing benevolence of the Global North. Nor was he placing his fate in their duplicity. He was wading in bigger questions. Who was this God we worshipped – and who were we when the places that shape us wash away?

These are the questions that someone who has loved land and lost it knows to ask. And, for those with ears to hear, these are the questions that Ezekiel asks in our passage today. The text is no opiate. It’s resistance literature – refusing the empire’s credo with three very basic pieces of information.

First and foremost, Ezekiel 47 tells us, who we are not. We are not immortal or invincible. And we are certainly not God only wise. The text is unabashedly theocentric. There are no builders of that visionary temple – there are no diggers of that river. God’s altar is holy all by itself, and the water that flows from that altar needs no engineer to deepen or widen its impact. God is God, and we are not. That is Ezekiel’s message. Which, if you’ve felt the careless cruelty of empire, is more than a Sunday School platitude…or a theology of resignation. It’s a theology of defiance.

Nebuchadnezzar II had a royal title that asserted his authority, (and this is a direct quote), “to wield a just scepter over all populated regions and make humanity thrive.” (1) And to that colonizing claim, Ezekiel 47 protests: No mortal has such power – and there is no thriving under the scepter of anyone who thinks otherwise.

Amitav Ghosh’s The Nutmeg’s Curse includes a scathing indictment of colonial legacies in Western conservation movements – and he includes this disturbing quote from the director of Survival International – an advocacy group for the rights of indigenous people. The director states that over decades of confrontations with governments and corporations about their abuse of tribal people’s rights, “none have been as duplicitous as big conservation NGOs.” (2) Not because of their work for conservation. Because of their hubris – a kind of mechanistic universalizing approach to climate justice that ignores the communities most impacted. For Samoan theologian Faafetai Aiava, such an approach to creation’s devastation tries to “solve a problem with same level of consciousness that created it.” (3)

What does the work of climate advocacy look like for those who know they are not gods? Most certainly, such work would require commitments to prayer and lament – and to urgent, materially consequential repentance. There are treasures of creation that have been destroyed and are being destroyed that no human technology, no global accord, no conference workshop will be able to undo. And we have a God to whom we answer. This is not a mess that we will be able tweak or tap-dance our way out of. We are limited, mortal beings. Not gods.

A year before the COVID epidemic, Jonathan Franzen wrote an article entitled, “What if We Stopped Pretending?” in which he argued that to adequately prepare for the climate catastrophes that are coming, we need to stop believing that we can avoid them. (4) Franzen is not a person of faith, but he sounds positively Ezekiel-like in his analysis. His point is not that we should be passive in the face of a traumatic future. His point is that we should be working harder than ever with different priorities…growing trust and accountability in our politics, amplifying voices previously excluded from decision-making processes, strengthening support
networks to receive climate refugee communities. For Franzen, the limits of our capacity are not cause for resignation – they are the reason we build relationships.

Which brings us to the second basic piece of information that Ezekiel 47 has for us. It does not only tell us who we are not. It tells us who we are. We are, in a word, creatures – which means that we have been created to be dependent on and connected to the world God made. Ezekiel 40-48 can seem like a dissociative, golden-hazed dream – but there is a detailed practicality to it. It envisions the healing of salinized soil and new fresh-water sources. In these waters, fish of all kinds swim. Ezekiel sees the spreading of nets and the careful preservation of salt marsh. He sees trees that sprout with healing leaves, producing fruit as regular sources of food. The river that flows from God’s glory swarms with abundance – a reference to the “swarming waters” of Genesis 1. It connects land, tree, field, and sea with the altar of the God’s worship – and it connects all of that… to Ezekiel.

What does it mean to live woven into creation – leaning on it, listening to it, learning from it? For Ezekiel it means wading into relationship with a river he cannot cross. This priest-in training, turned ditch-digging prophet, has spent decades of his life in service of an empire that tames, rations, controls, and leverages the flow of water. And now he is the one being carried.
Up to his chin in an ancient creation story. Remembering what it means to live wet in the world, remembering who he is. Dripping counter-testimony to the empire’s univocal echo chamber.

Such remembering has material consequence – economic, political, ecological consequence. When artist Cannupa Hanska Luger learned that the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, where he had grown up, was under threat from the Dakota Access Pipeline, he collaborated with Rory Wakemup to create a performance to remind protesters – and the militarized law enforcement officers that opposed them – who they were. Filmed from above, the protesters lifted rectangles of wood covered with reflective mylar over their heads and moved in a spiral, creating a dancing water serpent that looked for all the world like the Missouri river they were protecting. (5)

The image shone – though one might wonder what practical good it did. Today, despite court ordered environmental impact reports that were never completed – that pipeline runs. For Luger, part of the answer to that question lies the reflective quality of that mylar. Those silver, wooden rectangles were not only intended as visual props to help the community enact its fully submerged intimacy with the earth. They were also mirrored shields that could be held up to those to those who displaced the community with rubber bullets and riot gear – so they could see themselves. The mirrors could show them who they had become… and where they were standing in this fight.

The book of Ezekiel doesn’t end with trees of healing. It ends with the reallocation of land, giving extra honor to smaller, less influential tribes. It ends with limits being placed on the land grabs of ruling officials. It ends with economic resources and legal standing granted to foreigners, immigrants, aliens. I don’t actually think Western, white, middle-class readers,
readers like me, snub Ezekiel 47 because his pretty language obscures real-world problems. I think we avoid Ezekiel 47 because it implicates us in real-world problems we would rather not face. It is scriptural mirror that shows us where we are standing in this story.

What is the insulation that protects us?
In what riot gear have we put our trust?
Whose land are we standing on?
And whose histories have we silenced in the echo-chambers of our worship?

A conference on climate justice has no business dismissing Ezekiel as naïve – or uncomfortably changing the subject when communities stripped of their land want to have a serious conversation about “theodicy.” This prophet knows who he is not, who he is, and where he stands – and now, he wants to know where God is standing.

There is a moment in the book of Ezekiel that breaks my heart. It’s the book’s very last line. Throughout the entire final nine chapters of the book, Ezekiel has been fully present in this vision. He walks the halls of the temple, he sees the city and its borders, he wades in the water of the river. And then the moment comes to reveal the name of that city…. Ezekiel 48:35. “And the name of the city is…”. And we are expecting it to be… “The Lord is Here.” But it doesn’t say that. It says, “The name of the city is: The Lord is There.” And just like that, we remember that Ezekiel is still standing on the banks of that ugly canal. He has been speaking a far-off promise – about a world that is not yet, and a world that may never be. He has no delusions about where he is. He has always known. He is here. And the Lord is …there. The name aches with protest.

Tracy K. Smith’s poem “Wade in the Water,” holds a similar ache. She describes that familiar African American Spiritual as a “blood-deep song,” haunted by hope, but also… terror. The words speak of a Red Sea crossing – but were used by enslaved fugitives as code to “wade in water” when slave-catcher dogs were on their trails.

The song “dragged us to those banks,” she writes, “and cast us in….O Woods – O Dogs – O Tree– O Gun – O Girl, run – O Miraculous Many gone.” (6) … The unvoiced question swirls like rivermud. Where were you God? Where was the troubling of the waters you promised? What good are the waters of ancient story or the songs of future liberation…if God is not here? If God’s holy trouble never touches down in the Missouri, or the Cyclone, or the endangered forest of the Weelaunee?

O Miraculous Many,… so many… too many…. gone.

And then, a whisper comes – like the beating of wings – or the turn of a wheel within a wheel. What if the name of the city Ezekiel saw is not a promise of what will be – but a reflective mirror, speaking what is? What if the city is a sermon and its name a blessing spoken by the city itself, rebounding over a broken world? “The Name of God’s City is…The Lord is There.” Not here, bathed in golden haze. But there, Ezekiel, with you – standing on the banks of the Chebar. Muck sucking at Divine heels. There. Creeping through Georgia’s marshes with fugitives, held-breath, scarred back and frantic heart. There. In the Cyclone’s flood. Ankle-deep in rising tides as ancestral graves wash away. There. Dancing in circles, mylar rectangle pressed to the sky. There. Weeping in a Weelaunee shelter, knees pressed into bloody ground, torn between grief and fury.

Here. Wading in water. Even now.

Smith ends her poem with an unresolved question, addressed to God:
“Is this love the trouble You promised?”

That’s a question only God can answer.

But Ezekiel’s unresolved question is addressed to us:
What does such Love require?

“Wading in Water” will be included in Jerusha Matsen Neal’s forthcoming book, Holy Ground: Climate Change, Preaching, and the Apocalypse of Place (Baylor University Press, Fall 2024).


(1) VAB 4 112 (Nbk 12=Zyl III, 5) I 13-17; quoted in Leo Perdue and Warren Carter, Israel and Exile: A Postcolonial
History of Israel and Early Judaism (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).
(2) Amitav Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021),
(3) Faafetai Aiava, “Talking God in a Divided House,” paper presentation at Iliff School of Theology, Denver, CO,
October 22, 2021.
(4) Jonathan Franzen, “What if We Stopped Pretending?” The New Yorker, September 8, 2019,
(5) Cannupa Hanska Luger, “The Mirror Shield Project,” https://www.cannupahanska.com/socialengagement/
(6) Tracy K. Smith, “Wade in the Water,” in Wade in the Water (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2018), 15-16