Easter 6, Year C
Readings: (Acts 16:9–15); Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22—22:5; John 5:1–9
Babies at a young age instinctively hold their breaths and swim if placed in a pool. Eyes open, they paddle away. No fear, apparently. Then something happens, and that instinct seems to fade away a few months later. Many people are terrified of water. And for good reason. Unsinkable ships and giant drill rigs can become victims of the waves. A creek becomes a deadly playground when it is swollen by spring melt. A river swells up to flood fields and towns and cities along its path.
Bible stories about water are mixed. Or it can be the source of fear, merciless.. Think of that Egyptian army trying to get across the Red Sea, chasing fleeing slaves. Or Paul’s experience with storms on the Mediterranean. The whole ship he was on was wrecked, and Paul and the crew were rescued by local people after a terrifying experience. It can also be the source of healing, and we hear that in our readings today.
There are many new reasons to be concerned about water that have nothing to do waves or swollen streams. The things we are doing to our water, fresh and salt, and the creatures who live there–these should be giving us all pause. But that’s for another day.
Our bible stories today, though, remind us of the goodness of water. It’s hard for many Canadians, I think, to relate to people living in drier lands. We assume that over the rise and down the other side there will be another creek or river, and another and another. Water, water, everywhere. It’s different in dry places. Water is so much more precious.
Friends who have worked in the Australian outback tell about the difference spring rains can make. Land that was dusty and alive with only the toughest grasses and shrubs is suddenly verdant. A river bed fills up and people go fishing. Where did the fish come from? Flowers, birds, instant marshes appear–a complete change of scene. Then it gradually dries down and goes back to dust.
Cities were difficult in bible times, in the sense of having secure access to water. Leaders wanted their communities on hills, so invaders had to fight up slopes and defenders could stand on walls and shoot arrows down at them. But hilltops are not where rivers run. Jerusalem had that huge strategic advantage: a spring that emerged up on the plateau and ran constantly, enough for everyone. A priceless gift.
So it’s no surprise that in John’s vision the city of God, besides light without smoky lamps, twelve kinds of fruit to eat and leaves of the trees, for healing has rivers running down its streets. Paradise back again at the end of the bible, but in a city this time instead of a garden. What if we could show those first century sisters and brothers our city, where clean water comes out of a tap in every home, where lights overhead make it possible to go about after dark, where caregivers stand ready ’round the clock to look after us, and where twelve kinds of fruit are available at the green grocers in every season? Would they think they had gone to heaven? Perhaps.
So what about water as a symbol for us, a symbol healing? Do these old stories still work? We use water, fresh, drinkable water, to wash our cars, carry away our waste. Water running down our streets just means a pipe had broken underground. There are wait times for health care in our world, but not thirty-eight years. So maybe the theme of healing is not such a big one for us, in this part of the world, anyway.
But some of us have suffered for decades and can’t seem to find healing, even with all the resources dedicated to health care in our society. I’m talking about hard-to-treat ailments, and also injuries to our souls. We can’t seem to get well, to get over something, to move on from pain or grief or insult.
People sometimes go to great lengths for healing in our world. Operations, medications, treatments, therapies, counselling–they can take up a great deal of one’s life. The man in today’s gospel story had been waiting four decades to get to the healing waters of the pool. The woman with the flow of blood had “suffered...for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse...,” according to Mark (Mk. 5:25b-26) The more things change, the more they stay the same for some people. And so far, we’re only talking about individuals, not societies divided by bitter memories or oppressive leadership.
Other things ail us, of course. Theo Fleury played professional hockey for many years with the Flames, the Avalanche, the Rangers and the Blackhawks. He is five foot six, too small to be any good, people thought. Then he scored over a thousand points in his fourteen year NHL career. He made a lot of money but was addicted to drugs and alcohol, so his money vanished as fast as he could make it. He refers to himself as a “raging alcoholic lunatic” in those days. He wrote a book in 2009, the year he retired from hockey, and disclosed years of suffering: a coach had abused him as a young man. After the book came out, people began to write him disclosing their abuse, or offering support, thousands of letters. How does a person heal from this kind of experience? Can the frozen water of a hockey rink give a person freedom in their soul? Mr. Fleury will be here next week, beginning a walk from the monument behind the church dedicated to victims of child abuse. Mr. Fleury calls his walk the Victor Walk. It’s a long and complicated path to go from victim to victor, to quell the little voice of fear within, the paralysing shame, the raging anger, the emptiness.
The people of Neskantaga First Nation, on a beautiful northern Ontario lake know all about this kind of pain. They are the latest First Nation to undergo an epidemic of suicides and attempts. There are only a few hundred people in Neskantaga, so it has gotten too much to bear. Even the people who are well are getting overwhelmed.
Canada has some healing to do as a nation, in other words. There has been too much pain, too much denial, too much shame. The waters that took those early coureurs de bois up into the north woods and brought all those furs out now need to carry bales of understanding, canoe loads of compassion upstream and downstream. The seas that brought non-native people here now need to rise up and bear away centuries of racial superiority, ignorance and discrimination.
The United Church of Canada has taken some great paddle strokes in the right direction after generations of being part of the problem. United Church people–First Nations and dominant culture people–are working hard together to bring Canada to a new place of peace. Sometimes the waters of healing are salty. They fall from the cheeks of elders revisiting terrible childhood memories. They gather in the eyes of listeners, hearing for the first time about innocence crushed, families torn apart, cultures ground down by imperialism and religious triumphalism. Sometimes the waters of healing are joyous, as survivors and authorities scatter tobacco as an offering on lakes of grace.
Healing like this is powerful. It is all around you. It is flows freely from the Holy Mystery, like an unending spring. We don’t need to be afraid of the water. We are meant for it, instinctively. The question we all have is whether we want the healing more, or the old familiar pain: the old grudge, the old resentment, the old bitterness. We can do very much even carrying these things around with us. Sometimes the anger is our fuel. But the offer is there to get off the portage, where we have to carry everything on our backs, all the weight, and get into the canoe, where the water does the work. And with a bit of luck, we will dump somewhere, in fast water probably, and all those weights we don’t need and don’t want will sink to the bottom of Love’s stream to rejoin Mother Earth, and we will be lighter, freer, restored.
Healing could happen in worship. It might take some other kind of spiritual canoe trip. It might be a solo expedition for you, or it might require a guide. A New Zealand priest working to end apartheid in South Africa was severely injured by a parcel bomb. Michael Lapsley gets by now with sight in one eye, partial hearing, and mechanical hands. Apartheid is gone, but his work continues in something he calls the Institute for the Healing of Memories. He brings together victims of genocide and other atrocities, sometimes with their attackers, to work on the deepest kind of healing. The healing of memories.
We don’t have to be a community of people who have all been healed, all shed their burdens of pain to invite others to the waters of healing here. Nor do we have to take others’ burdens on us. It doesn’t work that way. We can simply be aware of our needs, and what has helped us over the years. Let this place be like a pool, a spring, a river of hope for ourselves, and many others who need to drink and splash and paddle the waters of healing.