April 14, 2017

Water in the Desert


Text: Ezekiel 37:2: “He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.”

You might well think that the title of this sermon would have been better suited for the lessons a couple of weeks ago. It was last week that we heard the story of Moses and the people of Israel dying of thirst in the wilderness, and Moses drawing water from a rock by striking it with his staff.

And then there was the story of Jesus, and the Samaritan woman, and the conversation they have about water as they sit talking by a well.

Sort of interesting that after hearing those lessons two weeks ago, we’ve had so much rain. Even those poor desiccated people out in California have finally gotten some rain. This spring seems to hold a great deal of promise.

This week’s readings don’t at first glance seem to have much to do with water. But they do have a lot to do with dry places. They do have a lot to do with the things in our lives that need the watering of hope.

Ezekiel is called to the thankless task of being a prophet among people who have given up. They have lost their home, lost their sense of themselves; they have even lost their sense of connection with God.

They live far from the land of Israel, a place that many of them think they will never get back to. They are refugees among a hostile people, and they are hated. Their hope is as good as dead.

Ezekiel has been called by God to make them people of hope again. More than that, he has been called to get them to rise up, shake off their despair, and find their way back to where they belong—back to Israel, back to their home, back to the purpose and promise of being covenant people.

But he is losing his own hope. No matter what he tries, they are not listening. He pleads, he threatens, he scolds, he begs, and still they sit in the desert of despair.

That desert is the setting of Ezekiel’s vision of the valley. What he sees is the death, the desiccation, of people living without the water of hope. And into that place of death comes the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, to bring even the bones of the dead back to breath and life.

We understand that image, but we experience it as a metaphor. What is not at all a metaphor for any of us who have stood at the grave is the despair of Mary and Martha over the death of their brother.

The depth of their loss is made absolutely clear by the gospel writer. Their pain is deep, and it is the most personal sort of pain any of us can feel. It is the pain of grief.

Jesus enters into that pain with them. He enters as a friend, as a man who has lost one of his own closest friends. He enters as a person who walks alongside family members who face the unbearable task of bringing someone they love to the grave. He enters into the desert of their despair.

In just the same way that in Ezekiel’s vision the Holy Spirit breathes life into the valley of dry bones, Jesus brings life into the tomb of Lazarus. And this time it is no metaphor, it is no vision; it is a man, dead, and then alive.

We’ve had almost a week of rain. But I would guess that if you spend even a minute or two thinking about it in prayer, there are dry places in your soul.

There are places where your hope has just about run out, where your doubts have dried you out like dust. There are corners you don’t look into anymore, because you know what you’re likely to find there are the shadowed recesses of despair.

Each one of us is carrying around a desert somewhere, a dry place that is lifeless and where no green shoots grow anymore. It is the place of our dry bones; it is the tomb of the hopes we may once have had, but now we mourn as though they were dead.

And that is the place where God wishes to meet us. Those are the places where we need the living water Jesus told that Samaritan woman about.

But to bring that water into our deserts, we first have to risk going there ourselves. Like Ezekiel going to the valley, like Mary and Martha going to their brother’s tomb, we have to go, in our attention, in our prayer, to those dry places—because only then will God come there with us, and bringing the water of hope back to our desert.

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