In 2015, Presbyterian Women/Horizon Association published a study, Come to the Waters, based upon the theme of water in the Bible. Our congregation decided to complete the study over a nine-week period, and each Sunday I preached on the same text which the class was studying. This was the fourth sermon, preached on July 5, 2015.
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine, whom I’m going to call Lucy, was suddenly and unexpectedly widowed. She and her husband were only around age 50, looking forward to their son’s graduation from high school and some new freedoms for themselves, when her husband was suddenly struck down, becoming deathly ill with no forewarning at all. He was gone four days later.
I know that many of you have been in that place.
Instead of the security and comfort of a long marriage, my friend Lucy was on her own – surrounded by others, of course, who rushed in to provide assistance, to create a beautiful memorial service, and to deliver enough plants and food that she could have opened a couple of stores – but basically on her own for what lay ahead:
The terrible, debilitating grief that follows the loss of a beloved spouse and, even moreso, the sudden loss of such a beloved companion. The grief of her son, their only child, and his own life challenges, now without a dad to guide him. The financial concerns that always follow a death – we don’t talk about that too often, do we? — but there are funeral expenses, and bills to pay, and questions loom large about life insurance and lost health insurance and one income where once there were two.
I know that many of you have been in that place, too.
For Lucy, the challenges of widowhood were exacerbated by the recent deaths of both of her parents, and her own recent decision to leave a stable job for a business of her own. So often there are other factors – extended family issues, young children or aging parents, geographical distances.
I know that many of you have faced those as well.
And when these things happen, don’t you feel like the Israelite people, facing the high waters of the Jordan River? Have you ever wondered where God might have gone, and how it is that you came to be deposited on the banks of a river racing with high waters?
Our story today, our Biblical story, is actually an unfamiliar one to many of us. We know that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, and that God charged Moses to lead them out of Egypt, into freedom, and toward a promised land. There was a crossing in that earlier story as well – remember the crossing of the Red Sea? With the Egyptians hot on their trail, the Israelites were fleeing for their very lives, when, so the story has it, God parted the waters of the Red Sea so that they might pass to safety, and then God let the waters reconnect into one sea, in which the Egyptian army got stuck and drowned.
That adventure was followed by forty years – yes, forty YEARS of wandering in the desert, in which the Israelites learned to be a community of God. And now, as we join the story this morning, the Israelites stand on the banks of the Jordan River, with the land promised to them on the other side. Moses has died, and Joshua has become their new leader.
Isn’t this a bit like some of our own stories? We stand between one life and another, between an old life and a new, and we hesitate. To get from the old to the new looks too uncertain, too downright dangerous. We want to turn around and go right back to where we came from!
How many people have wanted to start something new, but been incapacitated by fear of the waters that lie between them and a different life? Where is the solid ground on which to walk? Who will help?
This space in between, this threshold space, is called a liminal space. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan spiritual writer, tells us that a liminal space “ . . . is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer.”
That’s where the Israelites found themselves on the banks of the Jordan, with the desert behind them and the river in front of them. That’s where my friend Lucy found herself, with married life behind her and an untried life without her husband ahead of her. That’s where we find ourselves in our church community, with what we know and love behind us, and an uncertain future ahead of us.
So what happens to the Israelites? God tells Joshua, their new leader, that the priests carrying the ark of the covenant, the huge chest containing the scrolls of the law, are to walk straight into the river – and that then the waters of the river will part. Dry ground will appear, and the people will be able to cross over.
I want you to imagine this scene for a moment. Imagine all of these people crowded along the banks of the river. The waters are high and moving fast. Even the young and strong among them wonder how they will cross – what about the little ones, and the elderly? Won’t they all be washed away? The people look back, hopefully, at the desert. Maybe they could find a way to make do there. Maybe the past would somehow come to life again. Maybe they don’t have to leave behind what they know.
And then they discover, through the words and deeds of God, that they can go forward.
In practical terms, they can go forward because dry ground appears. Solid, safe ground – right in front of them, in the middle of the river.
For my friend Lucy, dry ground has begun to appear in the last several months. Her friends have stuck with her. Her business has begun to grow, and her financial future is a bit more assured. She’s not there yet, but it’s possible that she’ll make it. But had she stayed in the past, hiding out in her house and refusing to step into the waters of change, into the liminal space between the old and the new, she would be nowhere right now.
What about us, in this congregation? Can we see the dry ground lying ahead of us, beyond the liminal space in which we find ourselves? Or are we so unwilling to look beyond the tried and true that we cannot imagine stepping out? Can we imagine that the waters of fear and frustration will part for us? What if the dry ground means we have to do things completely differently? What if the dry ground lies in other communities, in other congregations, among other people?
And what is most important about that dry ground? What does this passage tell us it means?
It means, as Joshua says to the Israelites, that “the living God is among you.” The living God is among you!
Yes — we are called to remember the past. Our memories contain the teachings that tell us who we are: God’s beloved people. Our memories of the past tell us how we were formed into community. From the past come stories and rituals which identify us
But we are not only our pasts. We are not only the community of before. The stories and rituals of the past are not the only stories and rituals. God is with us in the present as well, and God leads us unto the future.
The Israelites became a community in the desert, where God fed them and led them onward. But look at how all of that changes in this passage! The Israelites were formed to be a community not for the past, but for the future. The laws and the rituals and the stories of their lives in the desert were intended to be used in a new land, under new leadership, in the future – not housed in a museum in the desert.
I am sure that nearly everyone in this sanctuary this morning has experienced a terrible grief, much as my friend Lucy has. And hasn’t it also been your experience that at first, and often for a long time, your memories are excruciatingly painful? You can hardly bear to think about what was, after it no longer is. Every reminder of the person or place you have lost is heart-rending, and you just want to run, as fast as you can, back to that past.
But gradually, with time and in the presence of God, those memories fold themselves into new lives. They become teachings and rituals for the future. You don’t leave them behind – indeed, you don’t leave them behind in glass casings in a museum – but you open yourself to allow them to be transformed into the foundation of something new.
The laws – the Ten Commandments – which the Israelites learned in their wandering days in the desert, and carried triumphantly into their new city of Jerusalem – those are still the foundation of Jewish and Christian life, even today. But we understand them for our time and our world – they are not stored in a photo album for us to look at on occasion, but they are part of a living, forward-moving tradition.
My friend’s past life with her husband is alive and part of who she is now. She doesn’t forget him, or their life together, not for a minute – but she isn’t mired in the past. That life, that relationship, is being transformed into a future for her and for their son, a future of courage and determination, and even — joy.
What about our lives here, in this community? Do we stay on the desert side of the Jordan, looking furtively backward for God to take us back through time, back to what once was? Are we too afraid of the waters of change, of crossing the liminal space of uncertainty to something new?
Or do we know that God will make dry land for us? Do we know that God will part the waters that threaten to sweep us away and bring us new life – perhaps in a new place? Do we know that with God-given courage and determination, we can cross any waters and find joy in new lives?
God is a living God, my friends, and God is among us. Go forth, and be of good courage! Go forth, and know that the God of the past is the God of the future! And know, as the poet Andrew King proclaims, 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.”
Image: Green River, Utah