Murky Waters

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.


But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”

Our story starts with water, or lack there of. The congregation of the Israelites wandered in the desert and there was uncertainty over water. God tells Moses to strike the rock, and the Lord sends forth water. Voila we have hydrofracking. I was going to say that this was the first example, but I thought back to the Genesis creation account and decided I was in error.

I used to live in North Carolina and worshiped with Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship. It was there that I really came to understand and appreciate the lectionary. For those of you who aren’t familiar, the lectionary is a collection of scripture readings that follows the Christian year. There are three years, A, B, C and then the cycle repeats. One of the things I find interesting is that it how it connects us in time. In preparing for today I read an old sermon based on today’s lectionary texts and my name popped up and I realized that today is 6 years, or two lectionary cycles, since my leaving North Carolina and starting my service term with Mennonite Central Committee. Isaac Villegas spoke that day and he drew a parallel with MCC service and these texts saying, “All of us are called to jump into the same murky waters; to stop grasping at the future we want to make for ourselves, and let the current of our baptismal waters lead us further into the life that is truly life, an unimaginable life.”

We still have problems with water, in the west we have been plagued by droughts. For those of you who were at Open Ground a few months ago I told some stories about water and Bangladesh where there are myriad problems with water. Many of the problems come from not enough water or too much water. There is too little good drinking water, but during the monsoon season; much flooding. Bangladesh sits on the silt runoff from the Himalayas so it’s very flat, one misplaced road and there will be acres of standing water. In the cities it’s very common for the streets to be flooded and rickshawalas pull their passengers through water that comes up to the center of their wheels.

One of the ways they deal with the too much water is with open sewers. Sometimes there would an effort to cover them up, but manholes covers would go missing for want of scrap metal, or concrete blocks would be moved for some incomprehensible reason. I think officially these sewers were just for rainwater but let’s just say that Bangladesh has never been accused of following rules too closely. These were but one of many perils in navigating the streets of Dhaka. One evening I was walking trying to find a restaurant, and more interested in the street signs than my footing and I found myself falling into one of these open sewers.

Was this the murky waters Isaac was talking about?

I was fortunate it wasn’t that deep and it only had a few inches of water in it so I was able to clean up without too much trouble. I heard stories of complete immersion when the road was flooded.

Exercise was very important to my mental health in Bangladesh and I mostly got that by running through the rice patty and villages around where I lived. Over the next few weeks though I realized that the fall had done something to my knee. I started swimming instead. In the town I lived in there was a “5 star hotel” and it had an 8 lane 25 Meter lap pool. Sounds great, but the pool had no filtration or water treatment and was always some shade of green. At least once a week they would drain the pool, all 200,000 gallons of it and fill it back up. Officially it was twice a week, but it didn’t seem like that always happened. The first day after draining it was reasonably clear, you could see the end of the swimming lane, but after two days you could barely see the bottom of the pool.

Were these the murky waters Isaac was talking about?

At a certain point I decided that maybe this was a solvable problem and actually had a conversation once with the manager of the hotel. We chatted for a while over tea and I suggested that it wouldn’t be too challenging to add a filtration system; the existing inlets and outlets that were being used to drain and fill the pool could be adapted to a system that filter the water. This would saving time, water and energy. He informed me that there was a plan to replace the entire pool. “There was a plan” You heard that a lot in Bangladesh. There were a lot of plans, and when I left Bangladesh they were still draining and filling that pool. I would not be surprised if it were still the case today. I think those sorts of conversations were the murky waters. The times when there is uncertainty in action and understanding. There is a reality that we may perceive differently, a desire for change but what that change is and the destination it leads to are all very murky.


Closer to home, I actually read this week that in the midst of the droughts in California people have taking to painting their lawns. That’s actually a thing. Maybe you are familiar with this but I wasn’t. Jim Power, who runs a lawn-paint supply company called LawnLift, has seen sales triple. “It has become more socially acceptable to paint your lawn,” he says, “especially as it’s become more socially shameful to water it.

In the last six years, one of the larger themes of my life is the question of sustainability and resilience. Currently I’m working on a MS in Sustainable Engineering, and I’m learning to think of these things through a framework that takes into account social, technological, economic, environmental and political issues. From a faith perspective, I can add to that the idea of creation care and I wonder if maybe a better solution would to embrace a changing reality and switch to a different ground cover. I was discussing this with a classmate Ryan, who lives in Arizona, and he made the observation that in his neighborhood, everyone has embraced the desert landscaping ideal, with the exception of one house, which installed half an acre of astroturf.

Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you[, chief priests and elders.] For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

This is one more passage where Jesus seems to critique the establishment. And yet when I say establishment, this is only partially true. These were the religious leaders in a political climate where they had limited power. The judgment of the second son is seems to be that words are not followed by action. As outside observers we know who did the will of the father, but I don’t see any indication in the text that the father did. This second son may have been given credit for another’s work. Jesus in linking this son to the chief priests and elders insinuates that they have said they will do the work of the Lord, yet have not gone and worked the vineyard. I think part of the reason Jesus was so hard on these “respectable individuals” is because of their pride, they have rationalized the status quo and called it just: When the time for change came, were not able to walk that path. On the other hand there was a lack of respectability to that of tax collectors and prostitutes are relatively public. What you get and there’s no aspect pretension, they heard and changed. I’m afraid too often my life is on the wrong side of these passages. I think it’s all too easy to hide behind the facade respectability. Our texts today call me to humility, to confess this delusion.

The theologian Stanley Hauerwas makes the observation that throughout Matthew’s gospel, the Gentiles often understand Jesus better than his own people do: As Christians, our task is like that of the chief priests and Pharisees: to be able to recognize ourselves in the parables.

The phrase at the beginning our Exodus passage is fascinating, “From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed…” First because Sin is a proper noun, I had to look it up but apparently this refers to Sin, the god of the moon in Mesopotamian Mythology. Second is the term congregation of the Israelites. I generally think of congregation in the religious sense, but in the sense that it is a gathering or collection of people, animals, or things, it could refer to just as easily to birds, plates, or data points. Today, we present are a congregation. Over the last few weeks I’ve had a couple of interesting questions about the nature of the church. How do you answer the question of what is the nature of church? There are many layers and ways of answering this question.

There is this physical space, a building where we are gathering. Yet the church is also the congregation that meets inside. At this level, membership is often used to decide pragmatic issues like economics and logistics. Rossmere is part of the Lancaster Conference and Mennonite Church USA that are geographical bodies and help shape some of our ideological alignment. The Mennonites are part of the Anabaptist tradition and that gives a historical connection with a radical tradition that has valued nonviolence, simplicity and justice. Today our texts are from the lectionary, and that helps make us part of the international church, since many use the lectionary to center their worship. But ultimately Christians are part of the body of Christ. The congregation we participate in creates and makes a structure and space and we are shaped by that choosing.

[into the…]

Todd will soon officially take on the role of pastor at Rossmere Mennonite. We’ve had some conversations over the last year about to prepare ourselves, but the waters are murky. We will continue to need to answer the questions of who are we? Do “we have a plan”? How will we change for the future? Do are we identify ourselves with prostitutes and tax collectors or chief priests?

I’m going to close with a thought Isaac made 6 years ago. “All of us are called to jump into the same murky waters; to stop grasping at the future we want to make for ourselves, and let the current of our baptismal waters lead us further into the life that is truly life, an unimaginable life. [A]t our baptism we let go of our plans for our lives and opened ourselves to the Spirit’s leading. And the rest of our time on earth is how we live into those mysterious waters. As Paul says, we are working out our salvation with fear and trembling.”

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