January 30th brought heavy rain to our area. I went to my favorite woods the following day and was surprised how quickly the branches had filled. The beginning of the spring-fed stream was barely affected, but two seasonal tributaries were brimming full.
At its deepest point the streambed is about four feet below the bank. Most of the time a few inches of water slowly meanders toward the Ocmulgee River. That day, however, a rushing flow was testing the upper boundaries.
Water from the spring squeezes through cracked limestone and is crystal clear. But runoff from the tributaries was a caramel tone, tainted by clay in nearby fields. The discoloration caused me to think about a Stonewall Jackson song that Jolly Charlie Hill played on WCEH Radio during my childhood.
The chorus comes to mind every now and then, usually for no particular reason. This time, however, the lyrics fit the setting. “I washed my hands in muddy water, washed my hands but they didn’t come clean. Tried to do like Daddy told me, but I must have washed my hands in a muddy stream.”
Jackson’s lyrics tell of a young fellow whose wayward father encourages him to stay out of trouble. The boy doesn’t listen. He robs a man, goes to jail, then escapes. While running from the law, he laments not following his father’s advice.
Out of my dozen or so regular readers, I can’t think of anyone who would commit a crime that would land them in jail. But most of us at some point have washed our hands in muddy water.
Maybe it didn’t seem all that muddy, more of a caramel like the stream, somewhat appealing in a peculiar way. Deception can be intriguing. At other times we aren’t concerned that the water is tinted because good company is all around us. If it’s clean enough for others, we figure it’s okay for us.
As we grow accustomed to washing our hands in muddy water, it becomes tempting to wade in. The shallow edge seems safe enough. We plan to avoid deep holes and currents that might sweep us to unintended places. But as we get used to stained water, it seductively beckons us farther from shore.
Even muddy water, though, can be used by God. 2 Kings 5 tells how Elisha facilitated a miracle in an unexpected manner. Naaman, army commander for the King of Aram, was a powerful man but plagued by leprosy. Elisha sent him a message to dip himself seven times in the Jordan River and he would be healed.
Naaman was insulted, saying the rivers in his own country were better than those of Israel. His servants, however, convinced him to do as Elisha had instructed. He did and instantly his health was restored.
Our intentions should never be to wash in muddy water on a spiritual level. Yet even with the darkest of stains, God can still use us.
Washing our hands in muddy water is not just about what we do. It’s also what’s left undone. In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus says that when we minister to the least of these we minister to him, and when we fail to help others, we fail to help him.
It’s hard sometimes to know how much to give or do, but God makes it clear he expects us to assist those in need. If the situation is uncertain and prayer doesn’t bring clarity, there’s no doubt it’s best to err on the side of compassion and generosity. There’s no record of God ever complaining that someone did too much.
Romans 3:23 says, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” So we’ve all washed our hands in muddy water at some point. It’s just different streams and blends of mud, some more obvious than others. God, however, can wash away all stains. And he wants to. The refrain of an ancient hymn says it well: “Whiter than snow, yes whiter than snow, now wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”
While walking along the branch an old song came to mind, and I dwelled for a while on these failings of mine. But then a hymn from long ago, reminded me how to be whiter than snow.
I never should have washed my hands in a muddy stream, but my faith is in The One who makes me clean.