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Amazing lessons bubbled up during our church’s recent building project. We became more aware of the ancient intersection between theology and hydrology, the science dealing with the waters of the earth. Our parish discovered – or was discovered by – an opportunity to participate in a project of civic righteousness. More than anything, we learned how water is so deceptively complex. Please permit me to chronicle our journey.

“God’s gonna trouble the water” is the syncopated punctuation in the last line of an African-American spiritual’s rhythmic refrain. “Wade In the Water,” this tune’s title, is an expressive text, sung often at the time of baptism. What our little urban Lutheran parish first had to waddle through, however, was not the waters of salvation, troubled by the angel – as in the biblical story of Bethesda, where an angel stirred up a pool with healing water (John 5:4). Rather, our construction project plunged us into some deep trouble with ordinary water flowing into an aging urban sewage system.

Our plans for building a new sanctuary (fire destroyed the old one in 1995) soon met the reality of municipal regulations, construction contractors, aggressive financiers, and not a few unscrupulous charlatans who, we found, may belong to any of the groups above. There were not only external challenges; unanticipated trouble came also from within the congregation. The lessons we taught ourselves included how money can make people act funny, how group psychology matters as much as individual emotional expectations, how factions function, and how painful can be the process of change.

The Liquid of Life

Our biggest lesson was about that essential liquid of life, as ancient as creation itself. We knew that God spoke over the water and everything else he made, pronouncing it good. Yet this good thing became the spring of our trouble, and the primary culprit for our project’s budgetary overrun. How were we to know that our enviable high ground, five-acre plot of land with excellent drainage would turn the water regulators against us, and turn our neighbors’ fingers pointing toward us as the reason for their flooded backyards.

The claim concerning us was this: Laying a lot of new concrete would aggravate the drainage problems in the immediate area to the extent that we would have to build a water retention pond. After a year of unsuccessful proposals, the original engineer we hired was not retained – a euphemism for “fired!” Then, the water project was delayed, deferred, and referred, throwing behind the timetable for the entire building project. Homeowners adjacent to our property were given opportunity to weigh in. G.K. Chesterton describes this Christian dilemma: “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.”

Learning to negotiate the expectations of numerous government jurisdictions, building departments and water authorities is a sort of baptism itself; for us, it was more a baptism by fire, an overwhelming education without much salvation, except for the benefit we ultimately provided the community. God urges us in the Scriptures to honor civil authorities (Romans 13), for the way they keep things flowing and flushing and not flooding. When was the last time you sent a thank you note to your local water personnel for their efforts?

We believe our historically grounded Lutheran theology and confessions of faith have much to offer our multiethnic, urban area, with all of its attendant diversity, complexity and opportunity. Our commitment to our geographical neighborhood parallels the New Urbanist movement’s concern for building community and intergenerational dependency. See Philip Bess, “Civic Art and the City of God: Traditional Urban Design and Christian Evangelism.” God’s good news in Christ moves us to actually become the good news we strive to communicate to our community.

Beyond the Minimum

Our theological insights guided our biggest construction decision: to build beyond the minimum specifications in order to bring a benefit to our community’s seemingly unending drainage misery. We, the putative problem, became the tangible solution. We repaved a deteriorating public alleyway with an excellent concrete surface. Quite inadvertently, we thereby solved several of the pooling problems in some of the neighboring backyards – not recreational pools for swimming, but those suddenly formed by Dallas’ torrential rains.

The community got their drainage crisis solved. We got our church built. The governmental authorities were satisfied. What baptism calls believers to do is not stay in the water (inducing a certain sogginess of spirit) but to go out vigorously into the world, starting in Jerusalem (Acts 1:8), or right next door. Our water trouble gave us a chance to get to know our neighbors much better. G.K. Chesterton would be proud.

Maximal Promise

In building the new sanctuary, we learned just how much God does indeed care about tubs and toilets, and basins and drains, and dishwashers and saunas, and showers and pipes, as well as about rivers, and brooks, and creeks, and dams, and streams. He is the Lord of all water.

Today, the only fence on our property surrounds the new retention pond. This fence serves the needs of our parish and our neighbors. We hope it will stop any stray child from ever drowning in our oversized outdoor pond. Otherwise, our church property is wide open, symbolizing the incarnational intention of John 1:14 – our parish is in the neighborhood for good as a proximate presence of Jesus. Whether with good evangelism or good engineering, we serve the needs of our neighbors. Then from this community come new neighbors wading into our congregation through the place of initiation – the baptismal font. There is no fence or gate around this indoor pool. No building inspectors or planning department officials bar the way for those who want to “Wade In the Water.” Bring whatever problems life has laid on you, and you’ll find maximal promise at this pool.

Rev. John Nunes is currently an assistant professor of theology at Concordia University, River Forest (Chicago, Illinois). He serves also as pastor for Bethany Lutheran Church, Chicago. Additionally he provides consulting support to Wheat Ridge Ministries as a Staff Associate for Urban Ministry Research and to the Acton Institute think tank as a Research Fellow. The author of Voices from the City, Nunes writes and presents widely on topics related to urban mission, social theology and ministry among youth. He is a contributing scholar to Modern Reformation magazine and holds membership in the American Academy of Religion. Nunes serves on the national board of Lutherans For Life and the editorial board of the Acton Institute's Religion and Liberty . He has provided pastoral leadership for inner-city ministries in New York, Michigan and Texas. He has also taught for the State University of New York at Buffalo and within the Concordia University System. Currently John is pursuing a Ph.D. through the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He holds a BA from Concordia College, Ann Arbor, MI, a Master of Divinity from Concordia Seminary in St. Catharines, ON, Canada, and received an honorary doctorate in May 2004 from Concordia University, Ann Arbor.