A NOTE FROM REV. MIRANDA… This isn’t a sermon about coronavirus. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing! Instead, it’s an invitation to reflect on our accountability to God’s Creation, as we enact it through our relationship with our church grounds. There’s an invitation here into some shared wondering that may help us look towards a future beyond the current public health crisis. Eventually spring will turn into summer; eventually we’ll be able to gather freely again; eventually we’ll be able to joyfully undertake shared work and song and prayer. Walk with me in that faith, friends. – Rev. Miranda+
“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10)
Living water. It’s a beautiful phrase. It had a concrete meaning as well as a spiritual meaning. Living water, for the Biblical texts, meant water that moves. Running water in a stream or river, but also water falling as rain or bubbling up as a spring.
People living in an arid environment – as the people of the Bible largely did – were dependent for much of the time on still, stale water in cisterns and wells. For them, the attraction of living water would have been obvious. People have long understood that moving water is cleaner and clearer and tastes better. It doesn’t just slake thirst and allow life to continue, but offers beauty, delight, and satisfaction.
Jesus is speaking metaphorically rather than ecologically, here. He is drawing a contrast between physical and spiritual realities, as John’s Jesus often does. The “living water” he offers this unnamed woman isn’t literal water, any more than the new birth he described to Nicodemus in last week’s Gospel is a literal second birth. Instead it’s a way of describing an inner state of being tapped in to something that sustains and refreshes you deeply – irrespective of physical circumstances. He’s offering this woman that kind of deep connectedness with the Divine, with grace, with Love. “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to the life of the Age.”
The Gospels are some of the least ecological texts in the Bible.They don’t say much about our relationship with the land and the whole created order. That’s somewhat unusual – pretty much anywhere you look in the Old Testament, you trip over ecological texts. (For just one example, consider our psalm today. It was chosen for the lectionary because it alludes to the Exodus story; but it also speaks about how all Creation belongs to God and how we humans are part of that divine created order, God’s sheep living in God’s pasture.) There are some significant creation-focused texts elsewhere in the New Testament as well – including later in Paul’s letter to the Romans; we’ll get to that this summer!
We don’t necessarily notice the strong ecological themes in the Bible because generations of Protestant Christianity have taught us to think about faith as a matter between humans and God. But for the Old Testament, right relationship with God and neighbor and land are all inextricably linked. Justice and righteousness in society cannot be accomplished without a just and righteous relationship with the land – including sharing the produce of the land fairly, treating the land with respect and care by letting it rest and renew itself, and so on.
This year, St Dunstan’s is part of a program called ChurchLands.It’s a pilot program inviting Episcopal churches and church leaders to explore and discern ways to reconnect faith and land in their parish context. It is specifically for churches that have land holdings of some sort – inviting us to reflect on how we might integrate our relationship with our land into our shared life as a community of faith.
Our land is not especially well integrated right now. I wouldn’t be surprised if many newer members don’t even know about it. So let me tell you about it! St. Dunstan’s sits on about seven acres, in total. It was once part of the territory of the Ho-Chunk people. The U.S. government seized it after the Blackhawk War, and sold it off in parcels to settler farmers. In the late 1850s, the Heim brothers, immigrants from Bavaria, bought this land & built the farmhouse that still stands. It changed hands over the course of a century & eventually was given to the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee, which then gave it to a mission congregation who wanted to start a new church on the west side of Madison. And here we are.
The church building sits near the northeastern corner of the lot. Behind the farmhouse and the Parish Center, our grounds continue down to Old Middleton Road, with about three acres of woodland, mostly black walnut with some oak trees and pines. That’s the part that it’s easy for us to forget about; to just have, year after year, without any real sense of purpose or engagement. Now and then we walk through it, or wander down to pick a few black raspberries. But mostly – even for me – it’s out of sight, out of mind.
Three acres of woods – and a couple more acres if you count the grassy area around the church, the Pine Island out front, and so on – it’s not a lot. There are folks in the ChurchLands program who are trying to figure out what to do with ten acres, or more. But it’s here, and it’s ours; and we have named ourselves, from the earliest years of this parish, as a church that cares about God’s creation. So the ChurchLands program offers a great opportunity to wonder together about our grounds.
The structure of the program itself is pretty simple. Two of us attended a retreat in Michigan in late January, where we and other program participants dug deep into some foundational values and questions. There will be a second, concluding retreat in December. In between, there are monthly online meetings for learning and check-in. Meanwhile, we’re supposed do… something, here. Some kind of project or initiative. I’ll come back to that in a moment.
On that retreat back in January, we did a lot of Bible study – looking at some familiar and unfamiliar stories through the lens of human relationship with the land. One was the story told in Genesis chapters 41 and 47. Joseph – great-grandson of the patriarch Abraham – is in Egypt, in jail. (It’s a long story!) Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, has a strange and troubling dream. Joseph has a knack for interpreting dreams – and someone mentions that to Pharaoh, so Joseph is called to the throne room. And he interprets Pharaoh’s dream as a message from God: The seven fat cows in your dream mean there will be seven good years of harvest. The seven lean and ugly cows in your dream, who eat up the fat cows, mean that after the seven good years, there will be seven years of famine, that will devour all the surplus from the good years. Joseph goes on to suggest that for the next seven years, one-fifth of each year’s harvest should be gathered and stored as a reserve against the famine; and that Pharaoh should fin somebody discerning and wise to put in charge of that endeavor.
(Let me say here that Joseph is right up there with King David on the list of people that your children’s Bible called a righteous hero favored by God – but whose story turns out to be a lot more complicated than that when you actually read it.)
Naturally Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge, and it all happens just as the dreams predicted: seven years of bounteous harvests – and then, the famine begins. And Joseph shares the stored food among the people of the land so that everyone survives, as God intended in sending the dream.
Hah… no. That’s not what happens. Joseph makes people buy the food. First with money, until they run out of money. Genesis 47:14: “Joseph collected all the money to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, in exchange for the grain that they bought; and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house.” Now, THAT is Employee of the Month. Then, when people are out of money, Joseph gives them food in exchange for their livestock, their flocks and herds. All of that ends up as Pharaoh’s property too – and incidentally, it’s Joseph’s family that has the job of tending all those animals.
And the next step is inevitable – the people come to Joseph and say, “Buy us and our land in exchange for food. We with our land will become slaves to Pharaoh; just give us grain, so that we may live and not die.’… So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh… As for the people, he made slaves of them from one end of Egypt to the other.” (Genesis 47:19-21)
I think this is an interesting story for us to dwell with, because it’s a story about preparing for ecological crisis. Joseph and Pharaoh receive an insight from God – and they decide to use this privileged knowledge, and the power they already have, to further consolidate wealth and power, and to take away people’s freedom and livelihoods.
We face impending ecological crisis today. There’s no secret about it, no mysterious dreams to interpret; many, many people are sounding the alarm. And there are absolutely people of wealth and power today who plan to use the years ahead just as Joseph and Pharaoh did.
How can we face our frightening future with a commitment to building relationships and sharing strategies and resources, instead of hardening social lines and deepening inequalities? How can we resist the quarreling and division that comes with scarcity and fear, as we see in the Exodus lesson today?
Those are great big questions. The invitation of the ChurchLands program is to dwell with questions like that as we discern how to live more fully into our values on this land, our four-plus acres of woods and grass. The work is motivated by a conviction that reconnecting with Creation, with land, in very local, small-scale ways DOES matter, IS a step towards our hopes in the face of these frightening larger realities.
This week I read about a beautiful example – at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Maryland. Like St. Dunstan’s, St. Luke’s had about four acres of woodland behind their church. Unlike our site, their woods back up to a creek, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. The land had been originally intended for a larger sanctuary, back when folks thought churches would keep growing forever. But a few years ago, the church began to envision another way to reclaim the land as sacred space. With help from a couple of grants, they undertook a project to turn those four acres back into wetlands, including restoring a stream that had been buried when the area was developed.
The project wasn’t driven by a naive desire to return the land to its original condition, but by current need. Climate change is raising sea levels and causing more frequent extreme weather. Along the Maryland coast, flooding is becoming more common, with seawater breaching sea walls to flood parking lots, roads, homes and businesses. In 1960, four such events were recorded; in 2017, 63.
The marshland restored by St. Luke’s Church helps absorb extra water. Avery Davis Lamb writes, “By restoring their land to serve its intended purpose, the church created a climate sanctuary: absorbing higher tides, filtering polluted stormwater from extreme rain events, [as well as] hosting displaced [wildlife] and drawing carbon out of the air.” St. Luke’s itself sits high enough to avoid flooding, but their wetland restoration project serves their neighbors by absorbing water their houses cannot.
The restored stream flows gently down the property towards the creek, surrounded by wet-loving native plants. Living water.
St. Luke’s solution is obviously not our solution. But there are things we can learn. The people of St. Luke’s studied their land and how it fit into local systems. They paid attention to how climate change was harming their neighbors and neighborhood. They found non-church agencies to help them learn, fund, and do. And they held fast to their conviction that a restored landscape can manifest justice, wholeness, and holiness.
At our initial retreat in January, we were invited to set goals. Carrie’s goal was to understand better what’s growing on our grounds, and how we might get to know those resources, as way to be in touch with the land and engage with it. My goal was just to get people together. Specifically, I wrote down an intention to gather at least at least 5 to 8 people, at least 3 times, between February and August, to bounce ideas around and come up with one or two specific things to do or try.
It’s hard for me to come before you without a project, a plan; to have this be so open-ended. But in my nine years here, we have had lots of ideas for our grounds; what we’ve lacked has been follow-through. So I believe God means for me to come to this with my mind and hands open, and wait for ideas and directions to emerge and gather energy from among us.
I invite you to consider whether you’d like to be part of those conversations – and/or part of the work, once we’re working on something. Even if you don’t feel called to that, maybe you have a connection or idea to offer. Please do! This is wide open! As Sharon Bloodgood used to say, it’s easier to tame a wild idea than to spruce up a dull one.
Jesus uses the image of living water, this ecological image, because it is so evocative and so important in his context. Living, running, fresh, clear, satisfying water… Deeply meaningful, deeply attractive, to a desert people.
What can we think of that’s not only life-sustaining but also delightful and satisfying for us? A strawberry still warm from the sun; the intoxicating scent of basil fresh from the garden; the color and detail of a flower in bloom; the smell of the earth just after a rainfall. What if things like these aren’t mere physical pleasures, but ways to tap into something that sustains and refreshes us deeply – means of connectedness with grace, with love, with the Divine? What could a landscape of justice, wholeness, and holiness look like here? Let’s wonder together.
Read about St. Luke’s, Annapolis, and other examples here: