Wet and thirsty

Weeks ago, when Sandy was just a boy’s or a girl’s name, we made plans. A few of us got together and we put dozens of ideas on large sheets of newsprint. Everything about water. We talked about art projects, how to put a fountain in the sanctuary, about field trips and river clean-ups, about music and movies, about the countless ways we encounter water daily and about water in scripture, about thirst and floods and baptism, and how good it tastes - a cup of cold, fresh water. And then we went to work and made plans for water:360, plans that would allow us to tap into the topic and the reality of water in as many ways as we could imagine – geographical, biological, political, physical, spiritual, musical and wet. And we made worship plans – one Sunday around baptism, and another around the simple hospitality of offering a thirsty stranger a cup of water, and two more Sundays around the deadly threats of too much and too little water, around flood and desert, around drowning and thirsting. With the joy of explorers who stumble upon one beautiful find after another, we discovered psalms and scriptures for each of the Sundays.

Weeks ago, we thought that today we would reflect on thirst, on parched throats and dry deserts.

Some wandered in desert wastes,
they found no way to a city where they might dwell.
They were hungry and thirsty,
their spirits languished within them.

That was weeks ago, long before Sandy became a byword for destruction; long before the wind and the tide pushed a wall of water against the coast in New Jersey and New York; long before the largest storm on record covered nearly a third of the United States; long before more than 80 people drowned in this country alone and countless others lost their homes and businesses to flood, wind, and fire, and the power went out for millions.

We made plans, and then life happened. You know how it goes. And all that, of course, a week before an election that will only confirm how divided we are in this country and how we have lost our center in every sense of the word. I feel like I just need to sit for a moment and breathe, do you know what I mean? To hit the pause button and just sit for a few minutes and hum, “Be still my soul, for God is on your side…” and remember who I am and where I belong.

Some wandered in desert wastes,
they found no way to a city where they might dwell.
They were hungry and thirsty,
their spirits languished within them.

The desert wastes are not just dry landscapes out there where the dust longs for days of gentle rain and the return of flowers, grass, and trees. The desert wastes are inner landscapes; parched souls and languished spirits also long for refreshing and renewing showers of mercy.

It is a rather bitter irony that flooding – very much a problem of too much water in one place all at once – results in a shortage of water. We know this; it’s only been two years since we lived through a flood and one of our two water treatment plants went underwater. The lovely, old Omohundro plant had to produce at full capacity for weeks without interruption, leading the City Paper to call it “savior to a city at the same time wet and thirsty.”[1] Wet and thirsty. Water, water everywhere, but not enough for thoughtless consumption; in the aftermath of the flood we learned to focus on essentials.

Chris Bonanos lives in Chelsea, a Manhattan neighborhood, and on Tuesday morning he wrote about the odd reality of a flooded city running out of water,

It’s not the elevators or the climate control that makes a tall building unlivable in a blackout. Any building taller than six stories requires one thing to support ordinary life, and that’s a big pump. Water has to get up to the rooftop tank to be gravity-fed to the apartments below. Once the pump dies, the tank begins to empty, and you and your neighbors can share only its finite supply. (In my building, we had one overnight’s worth — about twelve hours. Newer buildings have backup generators for the pump, but ours did not.) After the tank has drained, the taps go dry, and toilets will flush only if one pours a bucket of water into them. When the buckets run out, an apartment gets pretty ripe pretty fast. The situation activates a set of moral questions: Should you be selfish, and bathe as soon as the power fails? Or selfless, and rigorously conserve? Fill buckets, a bathtub, a Brita pitcher? How obligated are you to live amid your own filth? If we all use too much, we invoke the tragedy of the commons, or at least the irritant of the commons. I tried to be a good citizen when I awoke on Tuesday morning, limiting myself to a 90-second shower, surrounded by pails and pots to catch the wastewater. That gave us three toilet flushes’ worth, enough to carry us through a day. Did we consume less than our share? More? We may have been bad neighbors, or good. We’ll never know.[2]

Chris and his family may never know if they consumed more or less than their share, but I believe they were good neighbors, because they didn’t just take as much as they could without a thought about their neighbors’ needs. The blackout only brought to the fore questions we all must answer in a world that’s getting smaller, hotter, and more crowded every day: how do we share life with each other and with future generations on this planet? Will we make sure all people have access to clean, potable water or will we watch water flow up the hill to go to the highest bidder?

Disasters like Sandy or like the 2010 flood here in Nashville are terrible tragedies, but they also have the potential to make us wiser. For a moment, the mayor, the governor, and the president ignored the fact that the campaign never ends and they have worked together to help our cities up after they’d been knocked down. For a moment, we are realizing how strong we are together and what we could accomplish if we just stopped soundbiting and started listening to each other. For a moment, in the midst of disaster, we are given a flickering glimpse of possibility, a flash of a vision of a better way.

When hurricane Isabel hit the East coast in 2003, our family lived maybe ten feet above sea level in a small community next to the Chesapeake Bay. The wind had done a lot of damage, the power was out, and the storm surge was about nine feet. For a few long hours, our house sat on a tiny island. Ten days later, when we gathered in the sanctuary for worship again for the first time after the storm, I talked about the glimpse of possibility we had been given.

“Nothing builds community like a disaster, it seems,” I said. Many of us decry the fact that people don’t sit on their front porches anymore, but that hasn’t kept us from staying in the house ourselves most of the time. Many of us complain that we don’t know our neighbors anymore, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we make an effort to introduce ourselves to people who have moved into our neighborhood. All it took was a good-size storm, and things changed. For several days, the neighborhood kitchen and dining room was Billy and Penny’s driveway, and every morning we could hear Billy calling, “coffee’s ready!” It’s amazing what you can do with a gas grill! All across the Peninsula, strangers with chain saws knocked on doors to offer their help, and it turned out they lived only three houses down the street. People emptied their thawing freezers and there were block parties everywhere. It was a feast of rich food, a feast of neighbors sharing casseroles, lasagnes, chicken and burgers, generators, washing machines and cell phones. Neighbors opened their homes to neighbors to let them live with them, or to let them enjoy a hot meal and take a long hot shower.

“The power is still out in some areas,” I said, “but we have discovered the power of sharing, the power that builds and strengthens community.” Of course there were also those who burglarized the 7/11 on the corner as soon as the lights went out. “What we learned, though,” I said, “and what I hope we will remember in the days ahead when we will withdraw again to our TV’s and our computers, when we will take it for granted again that the water in the shower is hot and the beer in the refrigerator cold—what I hope we will remember is that living together is a beautiful thing, that solidarity between people is stronger than a hurricane.

For a moment, in the midst of disaster, we are given a flickering glimpse of possibility, a flash of a vision of a better way. It’s like gentle rain falling on parched land.

When disaster strikes, or when we’re drained by the relentless shallowness of so much that passes for public discourse these days, it is easy for despair to creep in, and to be weighed down by the “shroud that is cast over” us. But Isaiah sings of a banquet for all peoples, prepared by God. Isaiah sings of a banquet where God destroys the shroud – the fear, the worries, the little deaths that get in the way of the abundant life God wills. Isaiah sings of a banquet and John of a city where death is no more. This is where we come from as followers of the risen Christ, and this is where we’re headed.

In the midst of the desert wastes where we find no way to a city where we might dwell, God puts our feet on a path of hope, the way of Christ. Our prophets declare that all of creation is headed toward unending communion with God, and we take it to heart. We point our feet toward the city where Christ rules and God is at home among us.

And the vision of God’s city shapes our hope and our work. Trusting the promise of God, we each add our little strength to each other’s little strength. Even the smallest gesture of kindness matters in the big picture, and every small act of love becomes part of the city of redemption. Gently wiping a tear from a crying neighbor’s face is not only kind and tender, it is holy. It proclaims the faithfulness of God who will wipe away the tears from all faces.

[1] http://nashvillecitypaper.com/content/2010-flood/omohundro-shrine-water-god

[2] http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2012/11/16-sad-crazy-and-uplifting-stories-from-sandy.html