The Rains Came Down and the Floods Came Up

Where is God When There’s Four-Feet, Five Inches of Sewage Water?

Todd Brewer / 9.22.21

For my week at the beach, the forecast was idyllic. Except for Thursday — it would rain Thursday. One day’s disruption felt like a just penance for six sunny afternoons on sandy shores by the sea.

Weather predictions being what they are — educated guesses at most — Thursday’s precipitation turned into a wet Wednesday. The storm had sped up unexpectedly, and we rearranged our plans to accommodate the minor inconvenience.

Evening came, and I read reports of overflowing toilets in my neighborhood, so I texted a next-door neighbor to check on my basement. It was prone to slight overflow, and he volunteered to clear my drains of debris.

He sent back a video of two feet of water at his doorstep. The street had become a shallow lake, concealing the curb, the sidewalks, and front yards. As he sloshed toward my house, the grainy recording showed several feet of water in my basement. Four feet, five inches to be exact. The bed was floating on the ceiling.

Thursday was gorgeous, as it always is after a heavy storm, but the day would be spent sorting through Christmas ornaments, children’s toys, and spongy plywood. Our vacation was abruptly canceled.

I live on a hill. My neighborhood is known as “the heights.” A floodplain it is not. After Hurricane Sandy hit almost a decade ago, we saw an influx of nearby residents moving to higher ground. But this wasn’t a flood, and the water that drew lines on my basement walls wasn’t exactly distilled from ancient glaciers. It was sewage. You know, the “stuff” you flush down the toilet.

When the unthinkable happens, it is common to grasp for explanations that offer the comforts of blame and judgment. A tragedy cannot exist simply as a tragedy. The pain of the moment must find consolation somewhere. Identifying not simply a reason for suffering, but an instigator, a transgressor, redirects sadness to anger. It was the water company’s poor infrastructure maintenance, those neighbors down the street blocked the storm drain, or the irresponsible city planners.

As I sifted through my feces-soaked belongings, the anger I felt beneath the surface was mostly drowned out by sadness and anxiety. Decades-old family photos were unrecognizable. The bright colors of a cherished quilt were bleeding. And with every item discarded, my panic about what would come next grew. We were renting this house and, for various reasons, it wasn’t a certainty that the damage would be fixed. Our landlord had threatened to demolish the place several times before over the mere possibility of termites. A flooded basement might be a good excuse to beckon the bulldozer.

But alongside the blame game, the sympathy and aid from neighbors abounded. A friend came to help clear the debris for hours. Another bought us the solace of Shake Shack. Still another friend offered for us to sublet their entire house; they would move to the basement. Within hours, we were given the names of four real estate agents. I can’t tell you how many times I was told, “If you need anything, please let me know.”

Sometimes people can surprise you. One person’s obvious need — through no fault of their own — often draws out of others a wellspring of compassion. The shock of a situation can beg the question, “What if it was me?” This imaginative query unites people according to a shared vulnerability.

Later in the day, physically and emotionally exhausted from the cleanup, I walked upstairs to find a package that had arrived just hours before the storm hit. I opened the box and couldn’t help but burst out laughing: it was a red shirt I had ordered several weeks prior. This was no ordinary red shirt. It was a custom print novelty shirt with the faces of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli — theologians of the Protestant Reformation who I greatly admire. Above and below their faces reads (in German), “Everyone is talking about the weather. We’re not.”

The irony was not lost on me. On the same day that thousands of dollars of my personal property were ruined by an entirely unexpected flood, this shirt arrived at my doorstep, as if mailed by God himself. Perhaps it was. My home was taken away by the weather. My belongings were destroyed by the weather. The weather was certainly something that could not be ignored or easily omitted from conversation. Talking about anything else but the weather felt like a denial of reality. 

But the shirt was right.

Though the weather was an impossibly significant disruption in my day-to-day life (to say nothing about how unsettling it was for my five-year-old), life has little to do with the things that change at the drop of a hat. In an instant, political winds change, fashions come and go, and one day’s news cycle gives way to the next. It may be sunny today and snowy tomorrow, but the most important things are far less variable. Friendship and family are not altered by cloud cover. People still get married when it rains — it might even be good luck.

The point of the shirt and its harsh (yet refreshing) reminder is that permanence reflects value. Variability and reliability go hand-in-hand. Hang your hat on the wrong thing and your wellbeing is unstable. Invest your worth in a job and you lose more than a job when it comes time to stand in the unemployment line. Make your children the center of your life and their departure to college will be more than disorienting. As Jesus once said, “the foolish man builds his house upon the sand.” Because that which is timeless deserves our time.

Amid the swirling storms of life, God — more than anyone or anything else — remains faithfully the same regardless of circumstance. We don’t have to interrogate the ups and downs of our life to perceive the vague fingerprints of God. God made himself known in the person of Jesus. He was the unambiguous intersection of time and eternity, revealing the mysterious fact that God actually loves his people.

After my day of shoveling mud from where it shouldn’t have been, almost everything that could have gone right has. The car was saved from being totaled. We found a new house in a matter of days. The insurance actually accepted our claim. But it would be a mistake to infer these as signs of God’s favor anymore than calamity as a sign of God’s wrath. God might send rain upon the just and the unjust alike, but a flood is not a sign of his displeasure. God doesn’t change like the weather. His mercy and grace remain forever — come hell or high water.