I have a weekly appointment at a place where the parking lot looks right onto Pine Creek. I am usually early enough (surprise, surprise!) to take a minute or two to look at the creek rolling by. In the car I can't hear it, but I can see the water splashing, and it is remarkably calming.
Plenty of places in Pittsburgh and the surrounding area offer this feature--after all, we have three rivers and over 400 bridges, many of those bridges (but not all) over various flowing bodies of water.
Of course, the water splashing by is not always calming. Sometimes the water splashing by is a flood, causing significant damage, including loss of property and even loss of life. So the sound of water is itself morally neutral--obviously it depends on the context, on what is going on. And the passages from Luke and Matthew have the sound of water splashing, and context that causes questions about its meaning.
Pontius Pilate is the representative of the Romans, who has to keep the peace in Jerusalem during the potentially violent time during the week of Passover. Jews from all over the world are there for this key festival in the life of their faith tradition, and many more people there all at once has caused Rome to send in more security, since that many more people need a reminder that no matter how many more of them are in their holy city, they are still not in charge. The religious leaders, who prefer there not be a rebellion, bring Jesus to Pilate, because they are likely spooked by the crowd proclaiming Jesus King, and Jesus has been challenging their authority. Pilate doesn't see the problem: "‘You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him" (Luke 23:14). A raucous crowd gathers, with clear opinions on what ought to happen to Jesus, and Pilate suddenly has concerns other than guilt or innocence, including, we can surmise, his own job security. So he lands on a solution. "So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’" (Matthew 27:24).
Pilate claims his own innocence, and "washes his hands" of any responsibility. Here the sound of water splashing has mixed meanings. Pilate tries to absolve himself, even as he allows bad results for Jesus, with revenge or harsh justice the motivation of the crowd. And yet his "washing his hands" does not actually absolve him, as it leads to results he had the power to stop. In the end, of course, God vindicates Jesus, and in grace and mercy God makes all things right for everyone involved, we can certainly conclude. But Pilate's attempts to get in the clear only work at a very superficial level, if at all.
It is rarely possible to entirely "wash our hands" of anything. We may try to. We claim non-involvement, and sometimes we really have little power over what happens. Sometimes we are not given the opportunity to have an impact, even when we want to. We certainly need to pray for God's guidance about when to get involved, and when to back away, and how God's will best can come about. But "washing our hands" is not likely God's option for us, even as we want it to be.
GOSPEL Luke 23:1-16
1 Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate.
2 They began to accuse him, saying, ‘We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.’ 3 Then Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ He answered, ‘You say so.’ 4 Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, ‘I find no basis for an accusation against this man.’ 5 But they were insistent and said, ‘He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.’
6 When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean.
7 And when he learned that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him off to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. 8 When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign. 9 He questioned him at some length, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. 11 Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate. 12 That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.
13 Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, 14 and said to them, ‘You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. 15 Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. 16 I will therefore have him flogged and release him.’
GOSPEL Matthew 27:15-26
15 Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. 16 At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. 17 So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, ‘Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?’ 18 For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over.
19 While he was sitting on the judgement seat, his wife sent word to him, ‘Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.’ 20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. 21 The governor again said to them, ‘Which of the two do you want me to release for you?’ And they said, ‘Barabbas.’ 22 Pilate said to them, ‘Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?’ All of them said, ‘Let him be crucified!’ 23 Then he asked, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Let him be crucified!’
24 So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’ 25 Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’ 26 So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.