The inspiration for the theme of the Holy Week services lies somewhere in January when Harmen and me decided to take an unsealed on our way from Oyen to Corrowa across the border in NSW. For a couple of hours we bumped along a road full of potholes, throwing up billowing clouds of dust behind us, through empty, desolate, hot and drought stricken country.
Looking out on that dry country, with streams reduced to a trickle or dried out entirely, I suddenly, deeper than ever before understood what water, streams of life giving water, meant. And I could nearly hear the sound of water rushing in the creeks, smell the rain drenching the fields and bringing forth new green shoots within hours, and imagine what water tanks flowing over providing new life and hope for the future would mean for all those farmers that hadnt seen rain for a long time.
The Bible is full of the imagery of water, probably because it is a book that was written in an environment very much like the one we traveled through last summer on our holidays: An environment where there is life in abundance wherever there is water and desert and wilderness where there isnt. A place where human survival hinges completely on water and depends on it for survival and where suffering is often spoken about in terms of drought, of thirst, of lack of that life giving substance called water.
It is with those and similar thoughts I turned to the Easter story, to discover that the imagery of water helped me see aspects of the story I had never seen before.
One of the things that stood out most for me when rereading the story from that perspective was a man with a water jar. I dont know if you ever noticed him before, but he appears in the story of the preparation for the last supper, and disappears again seemingly without any greater significance than leading the disciples to the upper room where the last supper is held. Why I wondered does this man appear with his water jar and what is his role in the story (apart from providing the disciples with a route from A to B?). I believe there is very little in biblical stories that is there by accident, on the contrary: after years of studying them I have come to the conclusion that they have all been thoroughly thought through and carefully laid out and that there is hardly anything that wasnt put in there with some reason or meaning behind it.
So why does a man with a water jar suddenly appear in the story, only for a brief moment, with a role that would make it hard not to notice he is there?
Where else I wondered does water or do water jars appear? And suddenly a whole plethora of biblical stories started tumbling over in my mind, the wedding in Kana, the woman at the well, Jesus calling himself a source of life giving water, passages from the prophets, the story of the exodus and the journey through the desert of Israel for ever seeking water, on their way to the promised Land where there would be plenty of it, stories featuring the old patriarchs in Genesis and their never ending involvement with wells and streams, all the way back to the beginning where God calls the world into existence out of the chaos of the primordial waters covering the face of the earth.
Could it be that this man had something to do with all of that? Could he be a signal, for us, the readers of the text, to be alert and start looking for connections here?
Once I started to look, I discovered there was virtually no end to connections, references and helpful directions for interpretation coming from those watery stories and it was then I decided they would form the back drop and guiding principle for our reflection on Jesus journey to cross and resurrection this week. To follow, like the disciples, the man with the water jar and see where he would lead us.
So what does the entry into Jerusalem have to do with water? When I tried to imagine what it would have been like, I saw Jesus, on the back of a colt, with the palm waving crowds parting before him like the waters of the Red Sea parted before Moses and his people with Pharao in hot pursuit. And I realized that, days before the Passover, with the population of Jerusalem swelled from a mere 50.000 to up to 300.000 for the festival it would probably have been that story which would have been on every Jews mind. Luke, in the way he gives this story shape, more than the other gospels, stays away from the picture of Jesus as a meek king riding an ass, on the contrary, in his portrayal Jesus is more like a general confiscating a mount that has been reserved especially for him. It could have been a donkey, but Luke does not identify it as such leaving the possibility open that it was a horse Jesus was riding on. He pictures a Jesus who is in charge and confident, expecting the homage of the crowds and convinced that it is what is due to him. When some of the Pharisees protest he tells them that if his disciples would not shout hosanna the stones along the road would.
A triumphal entry in an atmosphere of expectant optimism I imagine. And atmosphere of excitement and unity of purpose with victory on the horizon. Jesus was taking charge, the future was theirs, it would only be a matter of days and the Roman Occupation would be history!
Just after World War II there was a similar atmosphere of excitement and purpose around the world and in the Church. There would be an end to war through treaties and pacts between the nations, the Church would be one and would draw in people from all the nations to its vision of unity and the service of Christ. The Christian Church was buoyant with confidence and hope and expecting a glorious future, followed, in the seventies and eighties by a Church that teemed with life, with Sunday schools overflowing and vibrant fellowship flourishing with purpose full commitment in every corner of it.
For most of you those were the days, the days of triumph when victory was near and faith confident and vibrant and full of life. Cheering Jesus on his way the feeling was that Kingdom was within reach, waiting to take shape in eager hearts and action.
To end up where we are now: an aging Church, with a diminishing membership, and some telling us that within 20 years we will see the demise of Christianity as we have known it, filling us with feelings of dread and insecurity. What will happen to us?
At the end of the day, after all the cheering and waving of palms is done, when Jesus looks at Jerusalem from a distance he weeps because he sees the destruction coming, the end of what he and his friends have known as a brilliant, beautiful city, full of life, full of promise and future.
I wonder about Jesus, what range of feelings he went through on that day. If he was as human as we profess he was I imagine it was a complicated mixture of hope, fear, and uncertainty, of resignation and rebellion, of acceptance and protest. I imagine he had an inkling of what was coming, but probably, at that stage, no clear picture of what shape it would take. Between the crowds cheering and the confidence he rides through, parting the waters like Moses did centuries ago, and the prospect of being persecuted and perhaps even killed, his mind and spirit must have been in turmoil.
Nevertheless he rides on, heading confidently for the waters of destruction and death he can see on the horizon, without hesitation but weeping for the looming destruction of what was known and dear to him.
It may not be that far from how some of us might feel, faced with climate change, international terrorism, and the decline of a Church that has been a precious part of our lives for a long time.
God knows (and I mean that quite literally) where we are going!
The testimony of both the gospel and the story of the Exodus is that God does know. That whatever we face and however deep the waters of death and destruction are we have to journey through, he holds on and leads those who put their trust in him to the other side. That however much we may think that we may have come to the end of the road, and cant see any light at the end of the tunnel, God makes new and unexpected openings where we thought there was no future.
This is an ongoing process in scripture. After Israel has negotiated the Red Sea, there is 40 years of wilderness experience waiting for them until they go through the waters of death once again before they come to the promised Land. After death Jesus is raised to a new and different journey with new and unexpected twists and turns. A journey we are part of, a journey that has gone and will go, as the many journeys of people of faith before us, through the depths, through the wilderness, as well as through times of triumph and achievement for the fulfillment of Gods promises.
According to the gospel Jesus enters the last part of his journey with confidence, with trust, but also with the very human emotions of uncertainty, sadness and fear for what lies ahead. He will sweat blood before long in the garden of Gethsemane!
We dont know what lies ahead. The days of triumphal hope and expectancy are behind us and we dont know where the journey will take us next.
However, if these stories are anything to go on, and I think they are, because they are fundamental to our faith, through the fear and uncertainty we may feel there should also be the confidence and expectation that God will pull us through and that he will continue to bring life out of death and begin new and unexpected things as he has done before.
I am sure the disciples could never have imagined something like the Church coming about as a result Jesus suffering and death. They would have thought kicking out the Romans was probably the most they could hope for. And yet. 2000 years later here we are in a worldwide movement that has brought light and life to millions.
If we look at it from that perspective the future could once again be something to look forward to with excitement and expectation, eagerly looking forward to the new things God will do. Things we cant yet conceive, things completely outside what we can now imagine, waiting for us on the other side. And not let fear rule us and hold us back from moving forward into Gods future, but empty ourselves like Jesus did and be prepared to live towards his future, trusting that it will be better than we, in our limited understanding can hope or see.