Keawala’i Congregational Church
United Church of Christ (USA)
“Inu ā kena: Drink”
I knew him as Toshi. We were roommates during my first year in seminary. He had recently arrived from Japan. I had just arrived from Hawai‘i. The year was 1975.
I enrolled in the Masters program at seminary. He enrolled in the Doctoral program and was planning to become an Old Testament scholar. His proficiency in the English language was sufficient and although I knew it would still be a challenge to his learning, I also knew that he already had studied Hebrew and Aramaic.
We became fast friends. There were changes in both of our lives in the years that followed. I eventually moved off-campus. Toshi got married and eventually he and his wife had a baby boy.
But at least for the first year, we spent time together. He practiced Japanese acupuncture and I became a patient on a couple of occasions. He also practiced Zen meditation. He became my teacher. I became his student.
I appreciated the time we had because I learned so much from him. My father was Japanese and so I carry within me the bloodline of my father’s parents and ancestors.
Although my cultural identity was more deeply rooted in being Hawaiian I began late in life to seek some understanding of the side of me that was Japanese. While living in California I became active as a student intern in several Japanese American congregations – one a United Methodist Church and the other a United Church of Christ. I became active in the Northern California Japanese Christian Church Federation and found myself involved in several Presbyterian congregations that were Japanese American.
It was during this time that I took an interest in “things Japanese” – anything from art and music to dance and religion to culture and tradition. The Japanese word gaman is generally translated to mean “patience and perseverance.”
I was already familiar with its meaning so when news analysts were attempting to understand the Japanese response to the March 11th earthquake and tsunami, they attributed the “resilence, civility, lack of looting and the ability of the Japanese to help each other” (Wikipedia) to gaman. It has been said that gaman means to do one’s best in times of distress and to maintain self-control and discipline.
Showing gaman is seen as a sign of maturity and strength. Well, it would seem that such signs of maturity and strength were lacking in the people whom Moses led through the waters of the Red Sea on a journey to the land God had promised them.
Our reading from The Book of Exodus this morning takes us through the Sinai Peninsula to an encampment at Rephidim. It is there that the people quarrel with Moses. They are thirsty for water. Their complaint turns into an accusation when they say to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3)
This is not the first time that Moses had heard the people complain nor would it be the last. Only the week before they complained not only against Moses but against his brother Aaron. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:3)
They want to know if God is with them on the journey. “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7) In despair and in fear for his life, Moses asks God what he should do. What follows in the story is a pattern found in other biblical stories – the people name their need, the leader prays to God, God gives instructions, the leader obeys.
In this instance Moses strikes the rock on which God stands and water comes forth to satisfy the people. Sadly this will not be the last time that the people complain about their long journey to the promised land.
I supposed we could say that the people had every right to complain. They were thirsty. But they were also afraid not only for themselves but for their children and animals and what it has taken for them to embark on “this hopeful but deeply risky undertaking.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, Bartlett & Taylor, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2010, page 79)
What troubles Moses is not their quarrel with him but their lack of trust in God. The Hebrew word (rib) for their complaint is translated as a “quarrel” with Moses. Moses responds to the people by interpreting their “quarrel” with him as a “test” (Hebrew nasa) not of himself but of God.
So it is that the place names given to the location of their exchange is called Massah or the “place of testing” and Meribah, the “place of quarreling” (Exodus 17:7) - “as a reminder that the people had not trusted God to care for them.” (Seasons of the Spirit, Congregational Life, Lent/Easter, RCL Year A March 13 to June 12, 2011, Wood Lake Publishing Inc. Kelowna, BC, Canada, 2010, page 46) It may be unfair to say it may have helped if the people showed some signs of strength and maturity – some gaman – patience and perseverance.
If there is a lesson to be learned from the response of the Japanese people to the horrific earthquake and catastrophic tsunami it is this: that it is possible for one to endure through adversity. As people of faith we would do well to rely on our faith and trust that God is always with us. But we would do well to also rely upon one another for it will be through our care for one another that we will be able to see the face of God and to know that God’s dwelling place is not restricted to any one place or location; that God is with us through the relationships we share with one another.
Like those who were with Moses that day long ago, we may feel that we sometimes wander in the wilderness, thirsting for water that gives life. Yet we believe that God provides for our needs and helps us to help each other. (Op.cit.)
That is something that becomes quickly apparent in our reading from The Gospel According to John. When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well and asked for a drink of water, he was thirsty. The woman was there to draw water for herself. Jesus offers her water that is meant to satisfy a spiritual thirst, not a physical thirst.
Water has the power to destroy. But it also has the power to restore and to heal those whose lives have been broken. Like the Samaritan woman at the well we too will inu ā kena – we too will drink of the water that gives life.
In the midst of the groaning of the earth and the roar of the ocean, we listen for God’s voice. In the silence of snow falling and whisper of the wind, we listen for God’s voice.
We may quarrel among ourselves and wonder – “Where is God?” We may put God to the test and decide God has failed miserably. Yet, God remains. We are called to listen for God’s voice and not to harden our hearts. (Psalm 95:7-8)
The psalmist writes of a longing for God in a time of profound distress. In times such as these, it is our longing.
calls to deep
at the thunder of your cataracts, (O God);
all your waves and your billows have gone over me.
day the Lord commands steadfast love,
and at night the Lord’s song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.
say to God, my rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?”
Why must I walk about mournfully . . .
as with a deadly wound in my body,
while (others) say to me continually,
‘Where is your God?’
are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
in God; for I shall again praise God,
my help and my God.
(From portions of Psalm 42:7-11)
May God strengthen and sustain us that we may be a people of gaman, a people of patience and perseverance in the midst of adversity. May we find God not only in the highest heavens or in the depths of the sea but in the hand of another lifting us up to places we cannot imagine. May we find God in the kindness and compassion of family and friends; of neighbors and strangers.
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