Raging Waters & Dry Land
A Meditation on Joshua 3: 7 – 17
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church November 5, 2017
Have you ever noticed how much God delights in playing with water?
- Separating waters above from waters below at creation
- Rolling back the waters of the Reed Sea so that the Hebrew people could run across to freedom’s shore
- Making water burst out of a rock for Moses and his parched people
- Heaping up the waters once again at the Jordan River, as we heard read today
- Giving Jonah a private prayer chapel in the belly of a fish (which isn’t exactly playing with water, but too good to omit)
- Jesus, changing ordinary water into finest wine
- Or taking a short cut walk across the top of the water to reach the disciples
- Or drinking from an enemy’s well
- Or washing tired, dirty feet
- And inviting each of us to play in the waters, too, the baptismal waters – puddles and pools, rivers and fonts.
God delights in playing with water. Rolling back flowing waters seems to be a particular favorite, as that is one that God does twice. Each time God heaps up the water – at the Reed Sea and at the Jordan – God celebrates a promise kept. The first crossing and the first promise: freedom from slavery. The second crossing and the second promise: land and a home. Contained within each individual promise is the very powerful assurance of God’s constant and unfailing presence.
If slavery in Egypt was heartbreaking, entering into the wilderness, was mind-blowing. As the Hebrew people often reminded Moses, at least they knew what to expect in Egypt. Every day in the wilderness was an adventure. We talk about how they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, but shouldn’t we instead say that they pilgrimaged for 40 years? The people were on a generational prayer walk, a labyrinth-like journey, which began and ended with water. They could not get lost: a pillar of fire and a cloud were all the navigation system they needed. They could rely on God to bring them home. And God did as God had promised.
We cannot neglect the difficulties of this story: the Promised Land already belonged to others, and so we have to brace ourselves to hear that God’s people will be “blessed conquerors.” Of course, they will also be conquered…and round and round we go…and if God created all people, whose side is God on anyway? And why do there have to be “sides”?
As one commentator I read, reminds us, respecting that a land belongs to others and is not ours for the taking is a very modern concept. We can look to the land beneath our own feet to recognize that truth. So we struggle with stories such as these, aware that the joy of the Hebrew people is not everyone’s joy. And that struggle leads us to wrestle with the “God of the Old Testament”…We can’t close our eyes and plug our ears. The psalms are filled with pleas for God to obliterate enemies. So the “God of the Old Testament” gets name tags which ready, “Hello, My Name is Vengeful.” Or “Hello, My Name is Angry.”
What I find particularly troubling is that we separate the God of the Old Testament from the God of the New, as if they are two separate entities. Old Testament: Bad Cop and New Testament: Good Cop. Each reduced to a single faceted being. The God who flooded the earth is also the God who made clothes for Adam & Eve when they were embarrassed about being naked. The God who turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt is also the God who sweated it out in a furnace sauna with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. (Even though God really didn’t need to sweat out any impurities.) The God who supposedly led armies into battle is also the God who spoke to Samuel in the night. If God doesn’t define us by the worst things we have ever done, by our truly bad days, why do we use that criteria for God?
God is complex and mysterious in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament. God laughs and God weeps. God is compassionate and angry. God appears to take sides and God appears to embrace all of creation. God is truly beyond our comprehension…throughout scripture. But we do see a defining shift when we encounter Jesus. An intentional defining shift.
They say you can’t step in the same river twice. The symbol of God’s presence, the covenant chest, was carried into the Jordan River, causing that river to slam on the brakes and stop flowing so that God’s people could enter into Canaan. In the presence of this miracle, the people had to keep a prescribed, reverential distance. Fast forward. The symbol of God’s presence, Jesus, God made flesh, waded into the Jordan River to meet John the Baptizer. In the presence of this miracle, the river flowed on. The people gathered around. God had drawn near in a form which we could experience, a form which we could comprehend. A form which we could recognize. Instead of a holy icon, a holy embodiment.
Jesus’ humanity does not diminish his mystery. If anything, it only enhances it.
God promised freedom, and God delivered on that promise, and continues to deliver.
God promised a home, and God kept God’s word to the Hebrew people and to us.
And through it all, God promises to never leave us orphaned.
Before the people entered the Jordan River, God told Joshua to carry the symbol of God’s presence into that river. As the people walked past, with a wall of water on side, and an empty river bed on the other, they were given a visual reminder that in the midst of change, God would never leave them or forsake them. Just as it had been exhilarating and frightening to leave Egypt behind, there must have been both anticipation and apprehension about finally arriving home. There might also have been the temptation to believe that the pilgrimage was over.
It was far from over. A pilgrimage of faith has no end. It takes each of us into wildernesses which we had hoped we would never have to experience. Wildernesses of grief, of uncertainty. Wildernesses of doubt or despair. The wilderness of physical suffering or mental anguish. The wilderness of loneliness. But those pilgrimages also lead us into oases beyond our imaginings. Waters of friendship and family. The comforting resting place of a faith community. Even today, as we remember the community of saints who have gone before us, we give thanks for their stories. We remember their struggles, the times their faith was challenged. The hope to which they held fast, and their presence in our lives.
It sometimes feels like wandering, but with God on the journey, it is pilgrimage.
Where are your feet carrying you? As you journey, claim God’s promises of freedom, homecoming and presence.
What freedom do you need today? It took 40 years of pilgrimage for the Hebrew people to be fully freed from their slavery experience, but they were freed. What entangles you and how might you be freed from it? How might this community help you in your journey towards freedom? Does work enslave you? Addictions? Resentments? Anger? The drive to be perfect? The fear of failure? In Christ, God rolls back the waters, so that we might cross over and leave our captors behind us.
The promise of freedom. The promise of home. Physical shelter, yes, but much more than that. To be home is to belong somewhere, and that is a basic human longing. To be home with yourself is to be at peace with God and neighbor. How are you yearning for home today, and how might God, in community, answer your prayer? How might we roll back the waters for one another, that we each might find our way home to God? When the priests carrying the ark of the covenant, or covenant chest, offered their service to the community, it “was not, writes Ralph W. Klein[i] at an altar, but in a potentially dangerous stream, and their standing there with the ark was for the sake of their sisters and brothers who passed over. We often get the clearest picture of God when sisters and brothers in the faith hang in there for us, seeing our welfare as their own highest good. The universal priesthood of all believers not only gives us direct access to God, but it provides opportunity for each of us to serve one another.” When are you called to step into the water first, for someone else’s sake?
The God of raging waters is the God who rolls back those same waters, revealing the dry land that leads to freedom, the dry land that leads to home. As the prophet Isaiah said, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; (43:2) The God who delights in water, takes special joy in offering us living water, the river of life; God’s very presence on this pilgrim journey.
In closing, a poem by Andy King, and published on his blog, “A Poetic Kind of Place.[ii]”
INTO THE RIVER
(Joshua 3: 7-17)
Take the covenant with you into the river –
the boundary river, the risky river between
future and past, between fear and hope,
whose swirling depths can dislodge your feet –
take the covenant with you into the river –
the river that is all that is out of control,
restless and relentless and gnawing its banks,
whose wild floods can drown field and home –
take the covenant with you into the river –
chilling and destructive, peaceful and refreshing,
the river that is world, full of mystery and song,
whose waters can bless like renewal of life –
take the covenant with you into all of your rivers –
let it rest on your shoulders when you take
your steps, let it remind you of a promise,
let it remind of God’s presence,
that you do not cross the boundaries alone,
that you are not abandoned in the raging floods,
that in the depths that would knock you
off your careful feet, God’s love is anchor
to hold and to guide, and waters of danger
shall not overwhelm, and waters of chaos
may bring newness of life, and out of the noise
of rushing waters may rise a beautiful song.
Take the covenant with you.
Watch even the river become
servant of love.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[ii] King, Andy. A Poetic Kind of Place. https://earth2earth.wordpress.com/2014/10/26/poem-for-the-sunday-lectionary-pentecost-21/