Within a few hundred yards of the rapids of the Grand River, the cavernous convention center was changed into a sanctuary worthy of any cathedral. Below a processional cross was the fountain and pool of water that had been carried to Michigan from many states. As the service began, children and their parents came up the aisles and played, "joyfully, in equality and safety" in the flowing water.
The images of happy, excited children were projected, so all in attendance could share their joy and smile as the tiny feet of at least one baby were splashed into water.
"Its nice," one child said. Another: "it's cool…"
And so the Sunday afternoon festival service at the 27th General Synod of the United Church of Christ began, with stirring music provided by the orchestra of the Cathedral of Hope UCC of Dallas, Texas. After a moment of silence and verses from the first chapter of Genesis, the spiritual "Wade in the Water" summoned delegates, visitors, and UCC members from across Michigan to worship together.
The litany and songs were reminders of the biblical story — from the turbulent waters of creation to the healing and redemptive river of Revelation — all flowing together into a call to immerse ourselves in mission, service and, above all, in God's love. The scripture lessons retold the stories of Jonah, the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch and the promise of healing in the vision of John.
All of that provided the setting and context for the sermon from the Rev. John H. Thomas, general minister and president of the church. Thomas stirred, entertained and inspired. With a self-deprecating smile, he alluded to the earlier preaching of the Rev. Otis Moss III, who had played with the omnipresent UCC symbol of the comma. "I checked my punctuation," Thomas said.
Weaving the biblical texts together with remarkable skill, Thomas pointed to contemporary equivalents of persons who seek to escape God's call, and who have courage enough to share the good news with foreigners who "aren't even family men," and then "immerse themselves in the waters of baptism" with folk on life's journey "no matter who they are."
Thomas reflected on the road where Philip befriended the Ethiopian, the road to Gaza, "embattled and embargoed Gaza. Could any ancient place be more contemporary," he asked. He concluded by pointing to the promise of John's vision, the water of a river that becomes the unending symbol of redemption.
In one sense, Thomas's moving sermon was also a prelude. Without a pause, the service moved back to the pool and on to a reaffirmation of baptism. That, in turn, led to the commissioning of new missionaries who will serve in Africa, Japan, Hungary and Latin America.
Several thousand left the modern cathedral singing, and rejoicing in the "many colors that tell God's love to recall." They returned to their homes not only with the unforgettable melody of "De Colores," but with stunning reminders of how important water is to the Christian faith.