Welcome again to our second week looking for Water of Life together. Just a reminder that if last week’s talk and guide on baptism intrigued you, you can contact Angel@reservoirchurch.org for interest on the upcoming info sessions about kids baptism and dedication and me – firstname.lastname@example.org for interest in or questions about adult baptism.
Now this week, we look for help in the things that threaten and overwhelm us. Water may hydrate, cleanse, refresh, and restore us. But water can also flood and drown and destroy. In the scriptures, springs, wells, rivers, give life. But large bodies of water – they are associated with chaos and terror. In fact, the very first line of the whole Bible evokes old myths of the watery, chaotic depths from which God first created life.
This week, in our sermon and in our guide, we look at how God can meet us when we or those we love are overwhelmed, facing danger, threat, or stress.
After all, we are watching a tyrant’s violent war play out in Ukraine. It’s happening far from us. There’s little we can do, but still, we are bearing witness. And it’s heartbreaking, it’s frightening, and it is enraging to watch.
This is on top of our season of interruption, chaos, division, and loss we’ve been in due to the global pandemic and more.
And that on top of movements to expose racial violence, gender and sexual violence, violence toward LGBTQ kids and youth. Movements for critical, long overdue change, but movements that stir and expose trauma and trouble as they do so.
And on top of that, we have our own personal lives – some thriving and happy, others not so much. Some of us are facing overwhelming trauma and suffering ourselves. And even those of us who aren’t bear witness to it in others near and far, again and again.
What do we do? In threat and stress, what is the Water of Life way of faith, hope, and love? How do we find God? How do we find anchors, peace, companionship in the overwhelm?
That’s what we explore this week. Let’s read today’s passage.
John 6:16-21 (New Revised Standard Version)
16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea,
17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.
18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing.
19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified.
20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.”
21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.
What is going on here?
The storm we get. The Sea of Galilee is really a huge lake, not a sea, and some of these guys were professional fishermen, but still…I remember once as a teenager being in a canoe at dusk in the middle of a lake much smaller than this one. And the skies darkened as a sudden storm swept in and we heard a crack of thunder. I have never in my life paddled as hard as I did then to get off that lake before lightning hit. Storms are terrifying.
But then there’s Jesus, walking on the sea.
What in the world is this? Three out of the four gospels have a story of Jesus walking on water. They’re kind of famous. But what in the world do they mean?
Truthfully, we don’t know.
A little aside here. Many Chrisitians are quite confident they can tell you exactly what different Bible passages mean, not just for them, but for everyone, for all time. They hold to what they consider a common sense or literal interpretation and think those are always correct. Or they think what their pastor or favorite Christian author or their slice of the Chrisitan tradition has taught and assume that must be right.
Me, I love knowing that different people have wrestled with these biblical texts and come away with some different ideas of what to think about them and what to do with them. I think it’s beautiful to engage a tradition and a set of holy texts that are rich and deep enough that there’s always more to learn, always more to think about, even argue about.
This is in keeping with this church’s core value of humility – that when it comes to Jesus and the scriptures and how to love God with our whole being and love our neighbor as ourselves, we are always learners, not experts.
We are disciples – students – of the way of Jesus, not masters.
So, when it comes to these walking on water texts, there are lots of readings here too.
Some people think Jesus – through his divine powers – suspended the laws of nature for himself and walked across the top of the water, either to comfort and help his struggling friends or perhaps to prove that he was God in the flesh.
Some people think these texts have like an epic, legendary quality to them. There are stories of sea walking in the tales of a number of great leaders, including Alexander the Great, and Xerxes, king of Persia. In the time of Christ, apocalyptic literature that used symbols to capture deep truth, was very popular. Maybe this is that kind of story.
Some people even think the disciples were half mistaken. I mean John says they were just about back on land when they saw Jesus. Maybe with the darkness and fog of the storm, Jesus was walking to them along the shore, and they thought he was out on the sea.
I have my own guesses and wonderings about what might have happened in this history behind this account, but it’s really not the point of the sermon, so I’ll keep my own wonderings about this to myself today, like Jesus’ own momma, pondering them in my heart.
Here’s the takeaway, though, for us. No matter what historically happened behind this memory of the disciples, John describes this as what’s called a theophany. A theophany is an appearance of the divine. It’s something so beautiful, so moving that in the eye of the beholder, they believe that they are experiencing God.
It’s not about science. It’s not about trying to prove God’s presence. We can’t do that one way or the other.
And it may not even be about what God is doing any differently. Often a theophany is about us seeing or sensing differently, about a deeper seeing, a deeper understanding, a deeper attention to what’s true and real, that God has been there all along, but just now we are catching it.
John gives us a number of clues that for the disciples this was a theophany, an awareness of God with them. One is Jesus’ words. When they’re like: who or what is this coming to us? Jesus says: It is I. Literally in Greek, he says, “I am.” Which is one translation of the Hebrew, personal name for the divine, Yahweh: I am that I am. In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am” again and again. In me, Jesus is saying, you are experiencing what God is like.
And there’s the whole presence over the waters. Again and again, John tells and retells parts of the creation story from Genesis, the first book of the Bible. And Genesis starts with the spirit of God moving, flying across the surface of earth’s primordial waters, bringing order and beauty out of chaos. Just like Jesus is here.
John knows, Jesus knows that when we’re terrified, when we face the chaos and stress of threats and suffering, we need theophany. We need to know in a deeper way that God is here with us – water of life over the overwhelming water we fear will overtake us.
I’ve had my moments when it seemed like life would overtake me. Abuse, trauma, loss, fears. Like you all, some hard moments in recent times too.
But as I prepared for today, two things came to mind.
One, I didn’t really feel like talking about myself more today.
And two, I thought of people I know and respect throughout this community whose losses and traumas have been immense and who have found ways through them, are finding ways through them still.
And I wanted to learn from their stories, and share what I learned with you. So I reached out to eight people in our community who I knew had faced the overwhelming waters of loss and chaos and asked them, what gave you hope? Or what gave you peace? Or how did you keep the faith or just keep going?
I told them I’d keep them anonymous for today but that I’d share some of what I learned from their stories.
Let me tell you first, friends, that in this community, you are surrounded by amazing people – amazingly courageous, resilient, faithful people, what the Bible calls a great cloud of witnesses.
These people I reached out to, they have faced untimely deaths, unjust imprisonment. They’ve lived through divorce, abuse, cancer, loss of children, loss of homeland. So when I talk about things learned while facing overwhelming stress and threat, these folks know the real deal.
And they all responded to me with honest, vulnerable, wise reflection. I’m so grateful for each of them. They honor us with their stories. And I’m honored again to share this community with them, and with each of you.
The first thing I learned was that no one thing gets us through. I can’t mesh these eight stories into one. Every experience was different. Each person has our own pains and our own ways of getting through it.
But there are some themes I heard. I’d asked each person:
What gave you hope? What gave you peace? Or just what kept you going? What helped you keep the faith?
And what was interesting was that people didn’t have much to say about hope and peace, especially not about peace. None of them, not one, talked about a deep peace in the middle of suffering. One person told me explicitly that he had no peace in his worst moments. Another told me there was no belief that gave them hope or peace. None.
I wondered in asking about peace in particular, if I was asking the wrong question. Sometimes peace while overwhelmed just comes to us, but often it doesn’t. Sometimes, when we’re overwhelmed, we’ve got to just fight to hang on when peace can’t be found.
If you’re overwhelmed and you don’t have peace, that might be just fine. It’ll come back to you someday, but sometimes we just can’t find it. We’ve got to struggle through without for a bit.
But when it came to faith, people had a lot to say. I mean, a lot.
Some people talked about explicit faith in God.
One person talked about memorial stones ancient Israelites laid down as they made it through hard times, thinking: they didn’t die. They lived and learned to thrive, and I can too. Remembering was powerful to other people too, remembering markers in their lives when they were sure God was good to them, helping them remember that surely they would know that again in the future.
Another person told me they took solace that God was not the source of their problems. She said:
God wasn’t teaching me a lesson. God didn’t want to hurt me. God is on my side, seeing me through.
Another person wrote to me about her mother’s lessons of faith she carried. She wrote:
My mother taught me at a very young age to listen to God’s whisper. So I have learned that even when I am crying out loud when I have experienced loss, I have to be careful to listen to what God is whispering. It has been a challenge for me because my pain and outcry sometimes is so loud that I can not even feel myself. But what listening to God’s whisper has taught me is God is listening, and that and only that has given me hope even in the midst of it all.
For some, their own faith was hard to hold onto, but others showed up with faith for them, just when they were running out.
One friend talked about phone calls from his brother telling him to hang on, coming just when he had run out of hope. Another person talked about friends and mentors at church and people that believed in her and loved her when she didn’t have faith, love, and belief for herself.
And then there was one more kind of experience I heard again and again, which I’m calling a kind of faith too.
One person found my questions about hope, peace, even faith challenging. He wrote to me,
There is a certain estrangement that I felt from God, mainly because I felt cursed. And it would have been hard to convince me intellectually that I’m loved when I had lost so much. And that seemed unjust and cruel, something God might have stopped any time he might have wanted to.
More conventional faith in God sometimes falls out of reach when we’re suffering.
This person let their faith fall apart where he needed to, figuring parts of it would return, as I think parts have. But they said, I did keep going, didn’t I? I had friends that loved me, and that gave me meaning. I didn’t think God loved me, but strangely I was still determined to try to love others as Jesus did, as Jesus taught. That seemed like a path forward to the life I needed. And I found myself again and again grateful for all the small things, grateful for the lights in the darkness, so to speak.
Even as his faith failed, the person that faith had formed him into carried him. He knew his life, others’ lives still deeply mattered and were worth investing in.
This hope, this conviction that no matter what, we still matter. Others still matter, this world matters. Life still matters. I call this faith too. Because it’s something that matters so much to God, for us to know God matters, but also that this world matters, others matter, we matter.
To hold onto that is its own kind of deep, strengthening faith.
What I heard from all my friends, though their experiences may be different than mine, matches the worst of what’s carried me in all my worst troubles.
That in all that is overwhelming, we can still know three things.
That God is here too. God is always here.
That we matter to God. And
There is always a way forward.
God is here.
I matter to God.
There is always a way forward.
This is what we learn from theophanies. Whether it’s Jesus walking on the waters, or a brother calling us right when we’d run out of hope, or a pastor we’ve never met visiting us in prison, or the memories of Bible stories and childhood faith, when God appears to us, it’s not always to change our feelings. It’s certainly not God trying to make some point to impress us. It’s God again assuring us that God is here, that we matter, and that there is a good way forward for us today, wherever we are.
This is my prayer for each of you who’s overwhelmed, for everyone you love who is overwhelmed, and for every Ukrainian resident today who suffers the loss and terror of war, that we will know God is here, that we matter, and there is a way forward for us today.
We’re going to close with a short prayer practice we’ll encourage throughout the week in the guide, but before we do that, one other invitation for you.
If you’re not overwhelmed right now, or even if you are overwhelmed by parts of life, but you’re not in trauma, put out a stroller.
War makes refugees. As has been true in Palestine, Afghanistan, Sudan, Yemen, Iraq, today Ukraine, millions have fled their homelands seeking safety. And throughout Eastern Europe, we’ve seen these pictures of moms leaving strollers at railway stations, so Ukranian moms who’ve been carrying their children for days, for miles, could place them down safely upon arrival.
It’s a beautiful gesture of love and solidarity and hospitality, which is what everyone suffering pain and loss needs.
Not advice, not being saved or fixed. But hospitality – making space for their body and their story, and a little loving help and solidarity, being with them and making it just a little easier to bear.
Anytime you know someone personally suffering loss, anytime you hear about it around the world, put out a stroller. Or however that metaphor applies to you.
And then when it’s your time, sit with God in it, knowing God sees, God hears, God knows how big this is to you, and God is glad to be with you in it.
This is a form or journalling we invite you too this week each day, to think of anything that causes you stress, any loss or pain and to call it to mind, knowing God is with you, and to ask God how it is that God pays attention to you, how it is that God empathizes with you and is present with you.
Let’s try that now for a moment.
We’ll hear a bit of the music Matt has written for the season, and I invite you to close your eyes, take a deep breath, and call to mind something that causes you stress or pain.