The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you…help us in our weakness. Amen.
I’m the kind of person who gets dehydrated easily, and I have many stories of swooning from dehydration at various inconvenient times – in summer camp as a kid, in the car on road trips, here in our chapel in the middle of leading the service, on the trail out in the wilderness, you name it, I have fainted there, and caused great consternation and concern to lots of people in the process – my family especially, but even some of you. Don’t worry, it’s all been checked out, it’s just one of those things I have to watch carefully. I’m always trooping around with a bottle of water, and taking electrolytes, and so on and so forth, so if I ever suddenly drop and disappear behind the altar, just nudge me with some Gatorade and salt tablets, and I’ll be fine.
But it means that imagery of deserts and streams and drought all resonate strongly with me – thirst and water are very real to me. And there’s a lot of that in our scriptures, since they were written in a desert climate. I know in my body the taste of cold, clean water when you’re really thirsty; I know too the feeling of deep thirst and being parched and dizzy when you can’t get water fast enough. When Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well that he is the living water that alone can satisfy, I am right there with my bucket, ready to drink. And when Jeremiah tells us that when we turn away from God, we’re like shrubs in a parched desert, I know exactly what he means. Or that is, I know exactly what he means in terms of bodily thirst. I’m less good at the more symbolic thirst that the scriptures are really talking about. I find it terribly easy to get dehydrated in other ways – spiritually, mentally, emotionally. Because the world offers us so many other ways to try to nourish ourselves – and we can go along with those for a long ways before we realize how parched we are.
I think many of us are feeling pretty parched these days. I can feel it in our low energy voices and singing; I can see it in our faces; it’s obvious in how we answer the question, ‘How are you?’ Wearily we hear news of ending mask mandates and resuming normal life, and wonder, yeah, but until when? We make plans so tentatively still, not knowing whether summer will truly be different. We’re not sure yet what is safe and what isn’t, and it’s wearing on us.
That’s all understandable – all of it a response to the circumstances of living through these weird times. But I’ve heard more besides: Some of us feeling rattled by the stock market’s ups and downs. If we’re working, we’re working too much and we’re sick of Zoom meetings. If we’re not working or retired, we’re feeling feel isolated, and bored. We’re reading too much news and freaking out over it. And all of us are saddened at how many funerals we seem to be having at church. All of this is also understandable, all part of the package of these times. But this malaise can start to eat at us more and more deeply – and erode our hope. And it makes me wonder: Why are we working so much? Why should it matter how much our retirement accounts lost, really? Does our happiness really depend on geopolitics, or the next elections? What makes us think that there shouldn’t be funerals? Not that this all isn’t important – but that we let it get to us so deeply. Why do we find it so hard to live in the present and give thanks for what we have? Why are we so dehydrated? Where is the water that we need?
The prophet Jeremiah says: ‘Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength…they shall be like a shrub in the desert, in the parched places. Blessed are those who trust in the Lord…they shall be like a tree planted by water.’ His point is clear: not as a reward or punishment, but just a description of how things are. We put our trust in God, in the power and living water of God’s blessing – because all the stuff around us that we think is so permanent and try to hold onto is ephemeral, like chaff blowing in the wind. But we grab onto it anyway, don’t we.
Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, too, makes this point. The Beatitudes, we know, present a vision of God’s world that is completely different from the values of our secular world, where those who are poor and suffering are praised as blessed and even ‘happy.’ Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, however, goes further, offering not only blessings for the vulnerable, but woes for those of us who think we have it together. Woe to you who are rich, who are well-fed, who are laughing, who are praised by others. But blessed and happy are you if you have none of these things. This language would have made Jesus’ audience absolutely nuts. The word he uses in calling the poor ‘blessed’, the Greek word ‘makarios’, was the word that was used only to describe the wealthy and powerful of the day – because they believed that if you were wealthy and powerful and all people spoke well of you, then that was a sign that you were blessed by God. For Jesus to call the poor and hungry ‘makarios’ turned that kind of prosperity theology completely on its head. And instead, woe to you if all signs point to yes? What is he saying?? they must have thought, listening to him.
And indeed, what is he saying?? is our question too. Jeremiah wrote about it in 600 BCE; Luke wrote about it around 85 CE. We’re still struggling with it in 2022 CE. We carry that kind of prosperity thinking around with us more than we realize. When things go well for us, we might not consciously think, ‘I have all this because God rewarded me and I deserve it.’ But we might well think when things aren’t going well, where is God? …Now, I won’t ask for a show of hands. But I would bet that if I did, I’d see every hand here go up, if I asked, Have you ever felt or thought, how could God let this bad thing happen? Every one of us thinks this at some point, when things seem bad enough. But consider what the question implies: As if our belief in or trust in God depends on everything breaking our way. As if we expect there to be an implicit promise in the universe, that if God loves us, God will bless us with good things and make it all good for us. As if all that is merely circumstantial and ephemeral in our lives should, we believe, hold our weight when we lean on it hard. And then we’re yet again surprised when it won’t. We’re surprised how thirsty we still are.
One of the best books I read during my sabbatical is a profound one, called Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, by biblical theologian Walter Brueggemann. In the book, Brueggemann lays out in no uncertain terms the freedom that the God of the Exodus intends for us, freedom that is built into the practice of Sabbath. It’s there in the Ten Commandments that we set aside the Sabbath once a week, a day without work, a day designed only for rest. And yet we routinely break that commandment. ‘Sabbath,’ Brueggemann writes, ‘ is not about worship. It is about work stoppage. It is about withdrawal from the anxiety system of Pharaoh, the refusal to let one’s life be defined by production and consumption and the endless pursuit of private well-being.’ The refusal to be defined by production, consumption, the endless pursuit of private well-being – to be free from slavery to all that does not satisfy our thirst. Instead, Sabbath ‘provides time, space, energy and imagination’ for realizing that all the ephemeral things of this life: the producing, the acquiring, even the happiness, the feeling that everything is going great…none of that can satisfy. Sabbath is ‘an arena in which to recognize that we live by gift and not by possession’ – when we can embrace again our true identity as children of God. We stop, we disengage, and we realize again that God loves us.
This is one of the reasons I am trying now in my life to take Sabbath – not just as a good self-care and family time and such, though it is that too – but to unhook myself from the circumstances around me. To remind myself that my ultimate well-being, my identity, the abundant life Jesus promises me, is there in my status as a child of God. That no ups and downs in the pandemic, no ups and downs in my health or family’s health, no perfectly planned summer or totally canceled trip, can ultimately dictate who I am; no work done or left undone, no achievement or failure, defines me. That God is the one rock in whom I can trust, the true stream of living water that will satisfy my needs like no other. And on the Sabbath, I can drink from that well, and reorient to that well throughout the rest of my week.
That’s what all the spiritual disciplines we urge on you really are for: to re-ground and re-member who you are. Prayer, fasting, Sabbath, serving others, retreats – all of those pull us out of the rat race of unreality that we live in, deafen the siren calls of all the other things that claim to give us meaning, untangle our childish expectations of reward and punishment, and make us stop. Stop to hear again God’s love. Stop to know again who we truly are.
The season of Lent begins in just a few weeks. It’s not too soon now to start thinking of how you will mark the season, how you will stop, let go, hear God’s voice. Lent always gives the opportunity for that. PSA over.
Paul boldly proclaims the good news of the resurrection in his letter to the Corinthians. What we are told in the message of the cross and resurrection is that neither worldly glory nor even the finality of death are lasting; none of the stuff we clutter our lives with can truly matter. Ultimately, it is only God’s love that abides. And if we reach our roots down into that living stream, we will find there strength enough to last us through everything. Rather than trusting in all the clogged and faulty methods of our own devising, we can drink from running water and be refreshed, even in the midst of dry, dark times. It is said in Luke’s gospel that the people who gathered to hear Jesus as he spoke his words of blessing and woe crowded around him and tried to touch him, ‘for power came out from him and healed all of them.’ May we also so crowd around and reach for God and God’s healing love, and drink deep of the living water of the real stream. Amen.