Water is Wide (and
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost - Year A
Sunday, September 14, 2008
Let us pray: O God, you call us into relationship with you that is both challenging and full of wonder. May we accept the challenge and may we live in praise of the wonder. May these words offer both perspectives today. Amen.
I expect it is not much of a stretch at all for Yellowknifers and other North Slave dwellers to imagine what it is like to be caught on the wrong side of a large body of water. I actually haven’t gotten stuck on the Kakisa side of the Mackenzie River yet, but I’ve heard a number of stories from people who were. Some of them ended up flying home from Hay River, others waited it out, and stories of what it was like before the helicopter ferrying of groceries, with tales of dwindling stock and rising prices are a legend for Yellowknife dwellers of more than a few years.
So, I expect the story of the Hebrew people getting hemmed in on one side by Pharaoh’s army and on the other by the waters of the Red Sea can be experienced just a bit more viscerally.
Once again water comes to our attention as part of the scripture story. Just as water plays a crucial role for us, and perhaps even more so for those of us who are surrounded by water, and for whom the presence of large amounts of water can be both a blessing and a curse - although more of a blessing I would say, we also know of the importance of water for people in the stories of the bible. Think of how many significant events happen in and around water. Over the summer we followed a bit of the Jacob cycle as it is known - the part of the book of Genesis which tells the story of Jacob. Jacob’s life is punctuated by important happenings beside sources of water. He meets his future wives Leah and Rachel while stopped at a well. He wrestles with God at a ford of the Jabbok river - and in so doing encounters a significant moment in his spiritual and physical journey.
We also know the importance of water in other parts of our faith story. Jesus began his public ministry after being baptised in the river Jordan by his cousin John. There are other stories of Jesus and water - the legendary story about walking on water, another about calming stormy waters, and still another that involves hauling in a large catch of fish simply by changing sides in the boat. There is also the important story of Jesus at the well where a Samaritan woman helps Jesus to re-focus his own priorities and understandings.
Well, some of these stories focus on the danger that water can present to us. Others focus on the importance that water plays for us as a sustainer of life. Water is not only life giving it can be life changing - the physical act of cleansing is also a sign and symbol of getting a clean start in our life’s journey. Still other stories of water describe it as a barrier to be overcome - and in that overcoming we discover new things about ourselves and our relationships.
You don’t have to look far back at all to understand that water is still a crucial part of our existence as human beings. Short term we see the danger of water in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike in Texas, but even more tragically in the country of Haiti as it deals with the effects of three major storms, in a country much less equipped financially to deal with extensive flooding and damage. Longer term, we have heard of gatherings in the north, Fort Smith, Fort Simpson and Behchoko come readily to mind and I’m sure there were more, where the safety and availability of water supplies are the topic of much discussion and understandable concern. Anyone who has travelled south this past summer, and it seems that this was the year of driving south for many people I’ve encountered, has been witness to the cost and promise that bridging a water barrier will present to those of us who live north and east of the Mackenzie River.
In other words - water and its importance to our lives in so many ways - is not just limited to the physical. No, water is so important that it takes on mythical dimensions - as metaphor and symbol of our existence as human beings and our spiritual selves. Is it any wonder then that there should have been such excitement this summer about the discovery of water on Mars.
So, a somewhat straightforward story about being caught not quite between a rock and a hard place - but an angry army and a wet demise takes on much larger dimensions. The way through the water becomes a path to freedom - the water’s edge is a line that once crossed represents a break from the past oppression into a promised but still unknown and scary future. As we will hear in the weeks to come - it wasn’t a straightforward decision. Change is scary and even the hardship and oppression of Egypt was a better choice for some of the Hebrew people - at least they knew what to expect - even if it was dangerous and threatening.
And now a little aside for some of you who cannot get past the physical perspective. If it helps, here is one take on the events at the water’s edge that might help you come to terms with what happened. Apparently, to some bible scholars there is a bit of a transcription error. The Red Sea becomes the Reed Sea. People who live in a land of abundant water should know that reeds and such don’t usually grow in places of deep water. A Reed Sea is much less of a barrier than a Red Sea. Still, even a shallow body of water can present a problem. However, it’s also much easier to imagine a strong wind being able to shift a large amount of water if it is shallow - just ask the people of New Orleans and Houston about it.
So, if an explanation is important to you - that’s one that might do. For me, however it is not that important because the real power of the story lies in the deeper meaning - the mythical proportions that the situation reveals to us.
This is a story about God’s presence for oppressed people. People encountering this story have wondered how it could be that God would only be on the side of the Hebrew people. “Shouldn’t an all loving God also be on the side of the Egyptians?”, they ask. The answer of course is “yes”. But the other answer is that God chooses to be with the people who are oppressed. Liberation theologians in examining the biblical story called it a “preferential option for the poor”. They discerned that when faced with a decision about who should be helped - God would always side on the side of the poor, the ones who face oppression, the ones who are on the side opposite the rulers, oppressors and authorities. It so happens that our story comes from the perspective of the Hebrew people. They knew that God was on their side - because they were the ones experiencing oppression.
Does the story not continue the same way in the Christian scriptures? Jesus is always seen to side with the underdog, the marginalised, the overlooked, the so-called last and least. Even today’s story - where oppressed becomes oppressor - a servant burdened by debt - is freed only to become an oppressor himself, serves to underline the story that the way of God is one which rights injustice, one which seeks to level disparity between groups of people.
It’s an important message to remember in these days when we are having choices put before us in an election campaign. How do the promises we are being offered fit in the with plan that God has for God’s people? Which side are we on? Is a road to freedom one which benefits us at the expense of others, or is a road to freedom one which levels the gap among everyone. We all know that water finds its own level. Left undisturbed by wind and physical barrier it will form a flat and even surface.
And so, the mythical proportion of water gives us yet another metaphor for life - and relationship with God. The road to freedom is God’s road - barriers can be overcome, life sustaining and nourishing properties can be found, and clean starts can be made. God be with us in care and challenge - each in measure as needed. Amen