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Many years ago I was in the Negev desert in the Middle East. Serious desert. Biblical desert. In summer. Beautiful. Austere. Scorching. In fact, the word “Negev” means parched. That’s right – in a part of the world where there a lot of deserts and it’s hot and dry most of the time. This place stands out enough to be named Parched. It is so hot, and so dry, that you feel a slight prickling or tickling along your skin all the time, like a single strand of hair drawn along your skin – that is the sensation of water endlessly evaporating from your body. It is so hot and so dry that the ancient Essene people build elaborate conduits down from the hills to their desert settlement by the Dead Sea. At every entrance they built sacred pools, so that they could ritually cleanse themselves at every returning to their home. Imagine what that feels like – or maybe we don’t have to imagine circumstances where every day drains you dry, literally, and then you come home, and you are immersed, head to toe, in cool, clean, clear water. No wonder this evolved into the ritual of baptism. What greater union of body and spirit in an experience of utter renewal, rebirth, could be possible?
We might think all that has no possible relevance to us, here, now. But we are living in extraordinary times, living through plagues, natural disasters, societal turmoil, shocking betrayal and crisis in the highest ranks of leadership. This is so extreme, let’s just admit it, I know we UU’s don’t generally go this direction, but there comes a point when we have to concede this; it is actually biblical. Some Exodus. Some Deuteronomy. Some Book of Esther. Some Psalms. I could keep going, but this is only a homily, so I’ll stop and summarize. This is biblical-level stuff right here in our modern, Western nation. And we find ourselves in a wilderness, a desert, or as my colleague the Rev. Jacqui Lewis calls it, a very hot mess. We are moving through this wilderness-desert, unprepared, uncertain, with the hope of a better future that depends on our finding our way through this, our vision of a better future ahead if we can find our way. And there are clear answers about when or how we will cease our wandering and find our way with purpose and direction.
Now here’s my first point – that’s not new. Sometimes we’ve been more comfortable or less afraid or less anguished. We may not always have felt uncertainties and urgencies as fiercely as we feel them now, but the truth is that life has never come with guarantees, and it clearly isn’t changing those terms now. Living is – and always has been – an act of faith. The choices we make in our living are expressions of our faith – which is not just what we believe in but what we commit to. Faith is not always a feeling, sometimes, especially when we are wandering in the desert. It is an act of will, a commitment, the kind of commitment that can change everything. In time.
Deserts can look different across the world, but whatever their nature – sandy or rocky or hard-baked earth, rocky or smooth, holding scrub or cactus or nothing at all, whatever you find there we all know it won’t be water. Which makes deep wells, and rare oases, the most precious treasures of the desert.
Back when a certain people were wandering in the wilderness-desert for 40 years seeking their promised land, when they finally came right up to the edge of that land, do you know what they found? A river. A river that was the boundary between all they could not seem to overcome and all they yearned for. The River Jordan. The same long, twisting river that, many centuries later, would be the famous setting for the baptismal rebirth of Jesus by John the Baptist. Always the Jordan River has been seen as a sacred current flowing with life and promise and transcendence.
The thing is, even filled with all that promise and possibility, fording that river was not a no-brainer. These were people who had been wandering in the desert for 40 years. Before that Egypt. Before that, Mesopotamia. They knew wells. They know oases. They knew all the ways to conserve their water, to parse it out, to move themselves, their families, their livestock and supplies across sand or scrub or baked earth. They did not know how to bring a nation of people across a river, just like they hadn’t been expecting to cross the Red Sea of all things so many years earlier. And this river didn’t just magically melt away like the Red Sea had. But, always, the only way forward is forward. Think. Improvise. Experiment. Risk. Learn. Grow. They looked at that river, they studied it and thought about it and explored it, searching out the shallowest spots, and figuring out options and modifying those options. They saw their opportunity when the spring floodsurge diminished. They led with their faith, literally. The priests carried the Ark of the Covenant across to show the way. And following their faith, the people pushed themselves into that river. They carried their children, they carried their elders, they coaxed and prodded and pushed their livestock, they floated what they could on woven stick rafts, they searched out the shallowest spots, sent good trusted people first to find the way, forded that river, crossed it – and their trials were not over. Again – life – never any guarantees. But they had done it, they kept the faith, they walked out of that burning, draining life, felt the cool water rise around them, like nothing they had ever known. Each of them alone would never had made it, but together they held onto each other, immersed themselves in that life-giving water, and found their way to the other side and to new life.
I think – I hope – this is where we are on many levels – as a world, as a nation, as a faith, and as a church. We are poised at a powerful river bank with a difficult landscape around and behind us, abundant possibility just before us. But it is an abundant possibility that we have never navigated, filled with challenge, and stepping forward into it is big. We can feel the power of the current pulling at us. Invigorating. And intimidating.
But we have to know – it’s time to move from the wells, and the oases, into the river, to follow what our faith shows us is possible and strike out for the future on the other side. We need more than deep wells to sustain us, deep wells that keep us tied to where we have been rather than where we can go, deep wells that are not even available to everyone. We need the river that flows and adapts, different shapes and paths according to the contours and challenges it finds. It moves underground, it dashes down a mountain, it floods and recedes, always moving forward, it cuts through the desert, it defines a new land.
We want that promise, waiting on the other side of this hard running current, the promise that is for everyone, the promise we make each other, the promise that is ours to keep, the promise of abundant life and opportunity for all people, and for generations to come. So we must step forward into this time, this river of powerful unknowns and possibilities. And as we step forward into the river, we can also learn from the river, be like the river, flowing and adapting, finding our way, around or between, over or under, through. The past is not prologue, this bleak wilderness is not our future, even scattered as we are now in the affliction of this pandemic, we are not alone, we are holding each other, we are caring for each other, we are united and committed. We know we are all standing together at the bank of the river. And with everything in us and among us we are stepping forward. We will help each other forward, we will coax and prod and push ourselves and our people forward. We will cross the river. We will learn from the river. We will become like the river; we will be a river-church flowing and adapting, finding our way. We will make a new way for a new day. Amen.