September 23, 2023 – 17
Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Dr. Seth E. Weeldreyer, First Presbyterian Church
of Kalamazoo

Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 1:27-2:18

I want to live a holy, joyful life. As we often affirm before passing the peace, sometimes that feels hard in a broken and fearful world. Maybe as scary as walking in a desert wilderness with no water in sight.

Our recent Camino pilgrimage didn’t traverse barren desert. At least, not in landscape around us, lush compared with other parts of Spain. We journeyed in stages – as long as 15 miles, short as under 8. First day we started with 5 miles incessant ascent gaining serious elevation. Next day the same downhill … very little ever flat. Challenging. Joint-aching. Foot-blistering. And though not scorching heat, our sweaty bodies kept yearning for water – or coffee, tea, Coke, wine, whatever we carried in bottles or acquired in cafes where we sat to rest. Good news is: along stages of our journey, most of the time there were many ways to slake our thirst. At the least, every village, town, city had some kind of spigot like those on our bulletin to fill our bottles – some fancy, even elegant, in a pleasant center square, some basic, rustic, more in the middle of nowhere. Watch for the sign: “agua potable.” And each night, as we’d reflect and pray together, I’d repeat: hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. As we put our legs vertical up a wall or tuck them under dinner table … drink water! Because, you see, I know it’s true for me and others, that if we don’t drink enough water one day, the next we’ll be tired, crabby, complaining. As group leader, I kind of have a vested interest in people drinking a lot of water! Don’t want to end up like Moses! To be fair, our merry band left any stones picked up with the piles of others on kilometer markers or other little cairns. And we all did quite well … after those first couple of days, when my name may have been whispered with a few curse words.

Beyond a tiny glimpse of what Ancient Hebrews faced in a desert, maybe we also sensed deeper emotional struggle, life questions, spiritual orientation they shared or yearned for. On our way to Santiago, or each day to the next casa for the night, like the Hebrews we ever journeyed between hope / promise and unrealized fullness God desires for us. In truth, friends, maybe it’s like we feel today, whatever the condition and direction in which God gathers us here where our journeys meet, all of us wanting to live a holy, joyful life. Striding through ordinary dreams, plans, stages of progress as young adults, into retirement, or another desired transition. Shuffling amid health concerns—unknown diagnosis, imminent surgery, incessant rehab. Stumbling through rocky relationships or loss of someone beloved ligaments strained, skin scraped, heart blistered. Between promise and life fulfilled, maybe we’re pacing confined, impatient, like going in circles—same walls or scenery—yearning to go free somewhere new, do something meaningful. Limping from past hurts, arthritic aches or stiff limbs from twisting to fit social boxes, confined spaces not big enough, even in places like church. Tending fresh scrapes and cuts from words said, ever wanting vitality to run unburdened, even skip with abandon.

Yeah, as they wandered in the Sinai desert wilderness I bet ancient Hebrews wanted to live a holy, joyful life. And it seemed hard amid all the brokenness they left behind, barrenness all around, the fearful world inside. Hearts hardening, looking for a sign: “agua potable.” Wondering: Is God with us or not? Strike the rock, God tells Moses. The monolith that manifests their greatest fear of lifelessness. Frustration, sadness, anger, anxiety—emotions stuffed down so long, sediment of life experience compressed into granite hearts. Strike the rock, God tells Moses, right there with jagged bits we so often avoid or try to smooth out. Strike the rock, the looming cliff that narrows ahead into a deep crevasse of uncertainty, making us unable to see where the road ahead leads. As we yearn to make it to the promised land of holy, joyful life, friends, I wonder what’s the hardness within us, among us this day scraping our skin, looming, overshadowing our journey, maybe with a precarious bit that threatens to fall off and crush us? You want water in the wilderness, a trickle of hope, a stream of purpose, a fountain of joy, flowing from an ocean-sized aquifer of Divine Love, strike the rock, God told Moses … and us, on our Camino journey.

You see, I made a devotional booklet based on Christine Valters Paintner’s Soul of a Pilgrim. I’d read, edited repeatedly those words, yet in tender moments they touched my heart anew, as the Spirit speaks afresh whenever we’re ready to hear. God calls us to a landscape where we discover passion and vitality we never knew we could feel. Freedom we’ve never known as we move toward our fears rather than run away. We stay present to hard discomfort, grow resilient, heal wounds, embrace vulnerable places. Paintner laments pressure to always feel happy. Life is filled with ambiguity, contradiction—happy, sad, joyful, sorrowful. As we center in the Sacred, God leads our Exodus beyond familiar bounds into richness of life that awaits as we embrace wholeness of who we are. Joyful anticipation becomes deep peace amidst life’s messiness, uncertainty, tenderness. We see what’s most true. There and then in present-moment small experiences, in places of absolute vulnerability we meet a wider and wilder God.[i]

We yearn to live holy, joyful lives, for water in our wilderness on our way there.

Strike the Rock, God says. And so, Paul wrote to early followers of Jesus in Philippi. He writes from prison—a wilderness of suffering, uncertain he’ll ever be free again. He writes to people in their own wilderness of internal conflict among them, amid society often hostile to their fledgling faith. I imagine they’re tired, a bit crabby, complaining, testing God like the Ancient Hebrews in how they test one another. Hear what the Spirit may say. {read Philippians}

Paul wants to live a holy, joyful life. Make my joy complete in you by the holiness of Christ. That’s the basic point. And as the Philippians bickered and complained, Paul’s appeal strikes deeper than “just be nice.” To live good news we share, he urges, face fears – that caused them to lash out at one another, and how they got skewered by culture. If there’s any encouragement in Christ … (“and there is!” his grammar implies). Not a speculative question, it’s rhetorical affirmation. Like he’s saying: Loving consolation – hydrate! Compassion, sympathy – hydrate! Sharing in the Spirit – hydrate! Fill your bottles with this grace in life together. More than selfish interests and conceit, serve others humbly. And so, the same mind, same love, same motive and purpose and orientation will reign among us all as it did in Christ.

You see, friends, we know the truth of the Exodus, on the Camino, in our daily lives. The way to a holy, joyful life isn’t expecting eradication of all struggle, pain, suffering. That’s not real. Inevitably, we’ll face and feel those moments. When it seems hard to find water in the wilderness, trust that mind and heart of Christ. And like the Samaritan woman at the well with Jesus, we’ll find a wellspring of eternal life gushing up within and among us. Care for one another, Paul urges, united as the loving presence and power of Christ. And even amid all the uncertainty, strength of hope, peace, joy will flow like a fountain in simple acts of daily kindness, tending and caring, courageous acts of witness, ordinary actions stirring wonder, passion and compassion, fresh awakenings of the Spirit.

Something like a most memorable day on the Camino, several years ago. On my own, it was a longer day, beautiful and challenging, as ever. I rested on a bench by a bridge over a river. A gaggle of little girls in white dresses came from the street, down the bank to frolic with joy in the river below. I ate fruit and nuts, maybe meat and cheese, but didn’t fill my water bottles, thinking I had enough to make it to my casa for the night. The afternoon got hot and I misjudged my tiredness. Yeah, starting to feel opposite the energy of those little girls, I sat on a shaded bank beside the narrow dusty road. I gulped my last drops, thought I’d rest a bit. That’s when she came along with her bottle mostly full. I must have looked horrible. She saw me and immediately offered to share water – poured out about half of hers. Friends, by the time I shuffled and stumbled in to crash on the bed and guzzle, I’ve rarely been more grateful for a fountain of grace that welled up and flowed through her.

At our best, so it can be around here. No need to whack any rocks with a stick. All we do is pull the little lever on a water cooler. It all begins with how we drink on our own—fill our own bottles to have a bit to share.  I filled mine, sipped as I sat at my desk, lit a candle, and opened my heart to this prayer.

When our future appears bleak, the way ahead terrifying; night dark and long, thoughts battling, feeling abandoned. When our bodies are in pain, limbs stiff; when distress drowns our spirits, or we dread loss of a beloved or our own life, Jesus says, ‘I know, and I am with you.’ Christ of Gethsemane and Golgotha, you promise we don’t suffer alone. Christ of the opened tomb, may your Resurrection light be our hope, as we walk our path with you, through shadowed valleys into the fullness of life you bring.[ii]

At our late summer staff gathering, we shared how we feel cared for or not. It’s getting tender, even teary as the one speaking shares something about always needing to measure up, not feeling good enough, then shifts a hand, reaching, but knocks over a full cup of coffee all over the table, clothes, deck. And in spontaneous unison several say: You are loved!

Each Tuesday at noon, Shawn brings a pitcher of water with small cups to the Library. As we’re getting settled and while we noodle hard and hopeful readings, several of us get up to fill a cup, to calm a cough, to wet a whistle, as we open hearts to one another and how the Spirit may move among us.

For funeral receptions or luncheons, Jo and her companions fill a container with ice water, and huge bowl with the secret recipe Presbyterian Women punch. As much as refreshing bodily thirst or lubricating conversation, it’s really about providing comfort, of course—Love in a time of loss. At home in God.

And so, we open a kitchen faucet, and then push buttons to make coffee for all whom God gathers on Sunday morning or Wednesday night. Even better yet, a few weeks ago we savored delights pulling a much bigger lever on our new church slushy machine—apple cider or coffee flavor. Yeah, I bet the Hebrews wish Moses had concocted one of those in the hot desert!

God tells Moses to the strike the rock—the landscape façade in front and all around them, and the hearts hardened by the broken and fearful world inside them. We’re all on our way, dear friends, between hope in the resurrection promise of our faith that new life awaits and that unrealized fullness God desires for us. Holy, joyful lives. It can be hard, feeling lost in barren desert wilderness for us or others we know and meet. If there is any encouragement in Christ … and there is! Love, compassion, sympathy more than selfishness welling, bubbling up among us. Feel it. Fill the water bottles of hearts with it—here toady and however, whenever we share life together in Christ. Then be ready to share it with anyone we may meet resting on a bank in the shade with their own water bottles run dry. And peace like a river, joy like fountain, love like an ocean will flow  ….

Thanks be to God. Amen.




[i] Abridged from Christine Valters Paintner, The Soul of a Pilgrim (Notre Dame, Indiana: Sorin Books, 2015) 85-91.

[ii] Abridged from Elaine Gisbourne, “A prayer for the dark night” in In the Gift of this New Day compiled by Neil Paynter (Glasgow, Scotland: Wild Goose Publications, 2015), 30.