Sunday, March 11, 2007
3rd Sunday in Lent: Bottomless: A Sermon on Isaiah 55:1-11
Nota bene: I owe the good Mad Cows a debt of gratitude for this sermon; that may mean I've stolen from her, I'm not sure. It's always dangerous to hear someone else's stuff before mine's finished!
I finished this at 1:30 AM old time, 2:30 AM new time. Remind me, dear readers, not to do that again. I forgot the stuff for coffee hour, I forgot the printed directions to the Retirement Village for their afternoon service... I need a nap. Right now.
March 11, 2007
I grew up on the water—really, in the water. My mother claimed to have spent the entire summer the year I was two jumping, fully clothed, into swimming pools, the ocean, just about every body of water we encountered, because, apparently, if I could see it, I was in it.
I grew up at the Jersey shore, so my first experiences of water involved the ocean, which was too cold for the normal, average swimmer until July. However I, known in my family as a polar bear, went in, occasionally, as early as late May. The water drew me like a magnet. I loved its grey-blue steeliness on stormy days, I loved its blue-green clarity at the height of the summer. I loved the way it thrilled me as I walked deeper and deeper into it, and I even loved the way it picked me up and threw me around. I loved the great breakers on which I learned to body surf. I loved the surprise of sandbars—fleeting islands that arose and disintegrated in a few hours, allowing me to go farther and farther from shore, and to play a dangerous game of trying to predict when they would disappear.
In the water I had my deepest experiences of play and fantasy. I was a mermaid, I was Peter Pan and Wendy flying. In the water I felt free, I felt whole, I felt. When I read Kurt Vonnegut in high school, I immediately fell in love with him, thanks to a tiny confessional statement he makes in the preface to one of his books: “In the water, I am beautiful.” I know exactly what he means.
In the water I had my first experience of eternity. I was held in its vastness—I knew I was immersed in the very same water that extended across the ocean, wrapped around the planet. Even though I could still place my feet on the bottom, feel the sand in my toes, I understood it to be, truly, bottomless. It held me up. It buoyed me. I was suspended like a child in a great womb. I was also held in something that contained fearsome power. The ocean could feel womblike, but it could also smash me to the ground, grind me into the sand. And it could drown me. I learned at age nine (when I was pulled out by an undertow and had to be rescued by an off-duty cop who happened to be at the beach with his kids) that the water was stronger than I was, that I went into the ocean both to my delight and at my peril.
All these associations I have with water have one thing in common. They are all the experiences of someone who has not been dying of thirst. That may seem like a strange thing to say, but think about it. Our bodies, like the planet, are made up of more water than anything else. Our need for water is absolute. We can go a month, some of us more than a month without food, but just a few days without water and we become dehydrated, our systems begin to fail, and we begin the process of dying. We need water, but it’s not simply a matter of joy and beauty and play and delight: it’s also a matter of life and death.
Our passage this morning begins with the invitation: “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.” Those of us whose experiences of thirst have to do with how it feels to play hard at a game of basketball, or to climb the Cornell hills to our classes or dorms or cars, even how it feels to have a stomach bug that won’t permit us to take in the fluids we need, probably don’t have the appreciation of thirst that the original hearers of these words had. If you live in a largely desert climate you come to have a great appreciation—no, a reverence for water; it is a commodity, literally, more precious than gold. I know we have people in this community whose vocation is to work for solutions to what is now a grave international crisis, in which one in five people around the world do not have access to potable water, now, today. For the prophet to say, “Everyone who thirsts…” is a little invocation of the life and death nature of our need for water, spoken to people who understand that need very, very well.
Isaiah was speaking to a community that had begun the arduous process of putting their lives back together after a long and heartbreaking catastrophe. When the Babylonian empire invaded Judah, it destroyed the magnificent Temple built by Solomon. It also engaged in a policy known as “decapitation.” By means of imprisonment or exile or both, the people were separated from their leaders—political, religious, and royal. All were sent off into Babylon for a period that lasted about forty years. An entire generation of the children of Israel arose without the Temple, their most sacred place; without religious leaders to hold the stories of the tradition in safekeeping; without the monarchy, who had been believed to be God’s anointed on earth, the true shepherds of God’s people. Imagine their sense of disorientation, their sense of complete and utter loss. Imagine what it was like, both for those who had been taken away and for those who were left behind. Psalm 137 conveys just a taste of the exile’s anguish:
By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down
and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? ~ Psalm 137:1-4
And then, it was over—in a way. Trading one occupying empire for another—Persia for Babylon—the people were offered an opportunity to go home, to begin to reconstruct their lives in their homeland. They built another temple, though one so modest by comparison that many wept in disappointment upon seeing it for the first time. They tried the complicated process of making themselves at home in a place that no longer felt like home, either to the newest generation who never knew it, or to those who remembered things as they used to be and were embittered by what they saw. It is to this population—these people caught between exile and true homecoming—that Isaiah speaks the words of our passage this morning.
Isaiah is speaking to people who no longer know what or where home is. He is speaking to people whose longing for that home is so acute that he uses that loaded word, “thirst,” to describe it. Come, says God. Come, all you who are thirsty. Come to the water. And Isaiah’s God then proceeds to offer a vision of what that water would taste like… and the taste is very, very good. The water God offers is both water that will fill that life-and-death need and that will satisfy and delight, give joy and gladness. I am reminded of the woman at the well, who wonders at Jesus’ description of “living water,” this stuff that seems just too good to be true, and who finally says, “Give it to me. I’ll take it.” Yet, one gets the sense that the people are hesitating, that they are not prepared to take God up on this delicious offer. There is some barrier.
When they were in exile the people lost touch with their religious traditions. It stands to reason. They were strangers in a strange land, surrounded by alien gods and practices; and with no spiritual home, they made do. Perhaps they practiced the local religion, tried their best to blend in. Perhaps they felt so devastated at their loss they turned their backs on their faith entirely. They would not be the first nor the last people to react that way to catastrophe.
Almost 20 years ago I was in graduate school pursuing an MA in pastoral ministry, and I had a field placement as a chaplain at a rehabilitation hospital in Boston. I visited one woman—I’ll call her Mrs. White. She was a very pretty, older woman—by which I mean, she was probably about as old as I am now. She was recovering from surgery on her knee. “Hello, Mrs. White,” I said, in my cheeriest chaplain voice. “How are you today?” “Fine, thank you,” she replied. She was very soft-spoken, with fair skin and dark hair and lovely blue eyes. “My name is Pat, and I’m the chaplain. I was wondering if you’d like to talk today.” Mrs. White smiled at me. “No, thank you, I don’t think so. I don’t believe in God any more.”
You know, for the life of me, I never expected anyone to say that. It’s probably a sign of how young and clueless I was. I think I must have stammered something idiotic, something along the lines of, “Really?” Mrs. White explained. “Three years ago, in the middle of the night, a police officer came to my door to tell my husband and me that our 19 year old son had been killed by a drunk driver. I decided then and there that, if God could let that happen to us, I had no use for him anymore.”
At age 28 I had a hard time grasping Mrs. White’s story. I was shocked, and I was upset, and I spent the next several days visiting her room, apologizing for bothering her, and fretting to my supervisor that I just couldn’t let her go. I wanted so badly to fix it, to help Mrs. White to see that God did love her, despite the appalling and unacceptable thing that had happened to her son, to her life. I wish I knew then what I know now: that I didn’t need to worry about Mrs. White, or at least that I didn’t need to feel responsible for her. Because the truth is this: God’s offer of bottomless and soul-quenching love is open, it’s unconditional, it’s ongoing, and God is prepared to wait for the Mrs. Whites of the world. Even though the prophet says, “Seek the Lord while God may be found,” it’s also clear that that offer stands open to the broken-hearted, the outcast, the sinner, the wayfarer, whoever they are, whatever their condition.
There may well have been many Mrs. Whites among God’s people in exile. They may well have said, “Our Temple, God’s home on earth, destroyed? Our homes lost? Our families lost? Our leaders lost our national identity, lost? Thank you, that’s enough pain for one life. We are done with God, who has let us down so horribly. We have no more use for such a deity.” But God was not done with the children of Israel, any more than God is done with the Mrs. Whites of the world, all the hurting, sad people for whom life has robbed them of a sense of being at home in the world. God is not done with us, we who have suffered terrible losses, we who have lost a parent, a child, a marriage, a cherished relationship, a dream. God is not done with us, though at times we may have felt like we were done with God. God says, Come.
Our need for God, for the living water, is absolute. We can go forever and a day without the substances and trinkets and things we think we need desperately, but just a few moments without God and we become depleted, our souls begin to falter, and we begin the process of dying. We need God, and it’s not simply a matter of joy and beauty and play and delight: it’s a matter of life and death.
And so God says, come. You who are so thirsty you are fainting for the lack of my presence, come. You who forget what delight is, come. You who forget what play is, what joy is, come. You who are spending your lives on things that do not give you true satisfaction, come, come to me, come to the living water. Dip your cupped hands, drink a long time. Taste the stone, the leaves, the fire of my love. Feel it fall cold into your parched body, waking your bones. Hear them, deep inside you, whispering, oh what is that beautiful thing that just happened? You who long to be held, in the vast, bottomless eternity of my love, come. Come. Amen.
Photo courtesy of richbrenner and Flickr.