March 15, 2020 – Focused, Calm, Safe, & Strong

Texts: Exodus 17:1-7Romans 5:1-11John 4:5-42


This has been a trying, tiring, unexpected week, and I don’t know what to do.

This is my first Sunday wearing these vestments, and while I have been here in Romney for a few weeks now, today is my first Sunday as the fully official pastor here, as what we Presbyterians call a Minister of the Word and Sacrament, or a Teaching Elder.

My ordination and installation service yesterday was planned as a big, celebratory moment. One person, worried that my family would no longer be coming, some because of routine illness, some because of concerns about public health, called it my “wedding to this church,” and there is some wedding imagery. For one thing, I had to say “I do” several times.

I spent Friday working with the session to decide whether or not to proceed with the ordination service yesterday, ultimately cancelling the dinner, and wondering if we should be here today.

It’s tricky, not least because of the nature taking any sort of preventative action. If that action is successful, it will seem like it was unnecessary; something that our leaders, including Governor Justice, are very aware of in making decisions like the one to close the schools. If he had waited until that choice was obvious, it would have been too late to really help.

It’s a concern that has been raised by those who have called to close church doors and cancel in-person worship in cities and towns across this country, including the last three churches I’ve had significant relationships with, my home church growing up, Westminster in Charlottesville, the church where I served as an intern and in which Katherine and I were married, Trinity, and the church where I worked in administration until about a month ago, St. Stephen’s United Methodist are all closed today. As of 8pm last night, 24 churches in our Presbytery, including Slanesville, Keyser, and Piedmont had cancelled worship today.

People are frightened, and few, if any, among us really know where the line between appropriate concern and precaution and panic lies. I wish I knew. I wish I had better answers to my questions.

Ours is a faith full people questioning. Jacob wrestled with God, earning the name “Israel” which means “struggled with God.” Shortly before the crucifixion, Jesus prayed that God would “take this cup away.” The book of Psalms is full of people questioning and praising God in the same moment.

Reverend Allison Becker, a PC(USA) minister serving a congregation in Scotland, had this to say:

“We are called to be focused, calm, safe and strong.

“Focused: We will be focused on Christ our savior, who is surprised by nothing and present with us in questions and with those who are struggling. We will be focused on continuing our ministry, serving and helping our community and one another unwaveringly even, and especially, as we adjust to do things differently. We will be focused LONG-TERM as well, not just short term. We will not cease ministry, even if we do ministry differently. Rather than focusing on these changes, we need to keep our FOCUS in the right place

“Calm: Most important in any crisis. If we stay calm, well informed and make decisions based on good information we will keep a crisis from becoming a catastrophe. If, however, we respond out of fear or rumor, or even reject out of our own foolishness the good advice we are given we not only put ourselves at risk but put others at risk too. Keeping calm is a choice to not give in to fear or into anxiety. It is a choice to be mature and wise in our thinking, to make decisions out of an informed mind and a peaceful heart.

“Safe: Most importantly to continually make choices to keep ourselves and others safe. This is the unchanging decision to always wash our hands, to keep social distancing, to always disinfect door handles, counter tops et cetera. To keep this up two and three months from now. To always stay home if we are unwell or have had contact with someone who is unwell. To encourage others positively around us to do the same.

“Strong: To keep strong in our love, care and compassion towards others. To think outward, not to turn inward. To organize and be sure your neighbor has what he/she needs from the shops if they fall ill. To make sure we take what we need, but not to stockpile. To know that our neighbor being healthy is just as important as ourselves staying well. Because she is loved by Jesus. To keep consistent in our love of our neighbor as unto Christ. And as we do so we will come through this as a church and as a community strong, not in tatters. With strong seams, knitted together in love. As always, we will care for the bereaved, celebrate with those who come through healthy, and supporte others to keep focused, calm, safe and strong.”

I’m grateful that Rev. Becker shared these words in an online group to which we both belong, and I’m thankful she allowed me to pass them on to you. They have helped to center me over the past 24 hours or so, and helped me to refine my thoughts on our text from Exodus.

All week, but especially toward the end of the week, as schools started to close and community events around the country started to be cancelled, I’ve felt like there was a connection between our moment and the Israelites at Rephidim.

The Israelites have been travelling from crisis to crisis. If you look back over the chapters preceding this, you’ll see this: first, they are being chased into the sea by Pharaoh’s army. God, through Moses, parts the sea, and then un-parts it before Pharaoh’s army can complete the crossing. The Israelites sing a song of celebration, but, according to the Midrash, the angels do not join in, because Pharaoh’s army were also children of God.

The Israelites come to an oasis with contaminated water, and God, through Moses, cleans the well. They come to the Desert of Sin, in the south of the Sinai peninsula, and run out of food. God provides them with manna, bread from heaven that is good for only one day—so there can be no stockpiling. God provides enough. Not all we want, not all we think we need, but enough. Stockpiling comes from a mindset of scarcity that creates scarcity.

And now, when we come to our story for today, even as the manna continues to appear every morning to feed the community, they are, once again, running out of water.

And so they go to Moses, the one who has led them in to, out of, and through every crisis so far. And, on one reading of this text, they are treated profoundly unfairly.

Their need for water is already established—they’ve already come across a tainted well that God made clean. God knows they need water, God knows they are running out, but, unlike the manna, it’s not appearing every day…and we can go far longer without food than we can without water. The standard survival rule is threes: Three weeks without food, three days without water. Why, then, do they need to ask for water?

Why does Moses complain about them coming to him for water as if they were children asking for toys? Especially when God does respond and gives them water?

This is the reading of the text I found myself stuck on. This is the reading that Rev. Becker’s words helped break me out of.

The Israelites were not focused, calm, safe, or strong. They were quarrelsome, even riotous.

They asked to go back to slavery. They were ready to sacrifice their future to avoid some present discomfort.

They blamed Moses. Moses was even afraid that they would kill him.

This is not a focused, calm, safe, or strong community. This is a community in a panic, a community that is breaking down with individuals looking out only for themselves. A community with no trust in their leadership.

And still, they weren’t completely wrong. They needed water, though perhaps not as desperately as they thought, and their actions, quarreling and rioting, increased that need. And, ultimately, Moses did not know what to do.

Moses is as in the dark as the rest of them, but Moses trusts in God. Moses trusts that water will appear when it’s needed, if not before. Moses believes that the path will be made clear when it needs to be clear. Moses approaches God, not in fear, not in anger, ok, maybe with a little frustration, but that frustration is pointed away from God and toward the people. Moses does not demand God’s help, but asks for God’s help.

Moses remains focused, calm, safe, and strong, and God shows Moses the path to the next source of water, a source provided by God, through Moses.

God did not speak to the people directly, did not cause a well to appear in their midst, but acted through Moses striking the staff against the rock because the people needed water, and they needed, again, to see that they could trust in God, and they could trust on Moses.

There is a lot of information floating around, not all of it is accurate or useful.  I am listening to everyone I can, I am monitoring the decisions in our local community, in our Presbytery, in our state, and in Virginia, and even DC, though I know our circumstances are different than those in DC or Northern Virginia. I am listening to our session. I am praying. And somewhere, in the midst of all of that, is the wisdom of God. And so, as we seek it together, let us remain focused on God, focused on our love of neighbor. Let us remain calm, making decisions not from fear, or from overconfidence. Let us remain safe, caring for ourselves, caring for our neighbors, even when that care may mean keeping some distance. Let us remain strong. Strong in our love of Christ, strong in our ministry, whatever shape that ministry may take, strong in our love for this community. Strong in our faith that even as we might not know all that we wish, we will know enough in the right time.