Sermons

A Bottom-of-the-Barrel Faith; Rev. Dee Ledger, December 12, 2021

“With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”  I don’t know much about wells, or drawing water, for that matter.  I’ve mostly had town or city water in my lifetime, except while camping or roughing it.  But drawing water from a well on a regular basis for daily needs sounds like a lot of work: time you walk there, then let down your bucket, fill it, hoist it back to your shoulders, and carry it home by whatever means at hand.  I happily turn on my faucet at will these days so the idea of carrying water for miles is only something that my privileged heart only sees in commercials or mailings for pleading charities.  So I don’t know much about wells, building them, maintaining them, or fetching water from them.

But I do know something about barrels and scraping them.  For nearly 2000 years, barrels were one of the most convenient forms for shipping goods in bulk.  They hold a lot; they are extremely durable, and they can roll.  Plus they make nifty storage planters or unique coffee tables if you come upon a relic at a good price.  They are one of the oldest shipping containers.  Imagine an Amazon employee rolling a barrel or two to your doorstep.  Did you know that in 350 BC folks were already using watertight, barrel-shaped wooden containers that were able to withstand stress and could be rolled and stacked?  If you could afford a barrel to ship your goods, you were most fortunate.  If you could receive a barrel, you were most fortunate.  Back then, all kinds of bulk goods, from nails to gold coins to whiskey, were stored in them.[1]

Now imagine a drought.  Do you know what happens in a drought?  Plants shrivel up and refuse to grow.  Riverbeds and ponds start to resemble a cracked, barren moonscape, and neighborly people begin to wring their hands and bicker with one another over the lack of available water, daily resources, and the higher cost of goods, whether conveyed in a barrel or not.  Often, famine strikes.

But first a story– In the days of the prophet Elijah, when King Ahab ruled over Israel in Samaria, there was a terrible drought.  Now King Ahab was an evil king; he was so evil that the Bible makes a point of it by saying, “Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.” (1 Kings 16:30).  That is saying a lot—more evil than any predecessor—wow.  King Ahab was also married to Jezebel and she’s ruthless.  She leads both her husband and the people of Israel astray.  She’s the princess daughter of a Phoenician king and her marriage to Ahab was a political alliance between two kingdoms, which isn’t all that unusual in Biblical times.  But, Jezebel tries to impose her pagan faith on not only her husband, but on her new home, Samaria.  She worships Baal, the storm god—and a god who was associated with infant sacrifice and other gruesome rituals.  So it is a major problem when Ahab sets up a temple to this pagan deity in the midst of the Samarian capital.  It is the flagrant imposition of a foreign faith on an unwilling people who already had a faith of their own.

Now, flash forward to the drought.  The prophet, Elijah, challenges King Ahab by stating that if it is going to rain, if the drought is going to end, then it will do so by his word, which meant the word of the one true God of the Israelites…not Baal, the storm God.  And there is some serious mockery here because Elijah basically tells the king that his mighty “storm god” is a fake.  They are, after all, in a drought.

Elijah, having incurred royal wrath, flees for his life in the middle of a dust bowl and God sends him to the last person on earth that he thinks will be able to help him.  God sends him to a poor widow from the same hometown as the wicked Queen Jezebel.  And presumably, this poor widow worships very differently from Elijah and, on a practical note, has nothing in her cupboards but a handful of grain and a little oil. When Elijah knocks on the widow’s hut, she not only tells him that she has nothing prepared, but she’s so incredibly depressed and discouraged at living her life that she’s making one final meal for her son and herself before going off to die.  Elijah, the prophet, looks at the desperation of the woman and the desperation of the place, and then does a daring thing—he asks the woman to feed him first.

Now, this is either the epitome of self-centered behavior, or the man is marching to the beat of a different drum.  And the widow too; how else to explain her choice?  She heard not the drum of desperation, but the drum of faith.  Not the drumbeat of scarcity, but the drumbeat of sufficiency.  Not the drum of disaster impending, but the music of hope ascending.  Kate Huey writes, “When there is nothing left, and you’re totally empty, [then] there’s room for all sorts of grace to move in, and grow.”[2]

And when grace was invited in and took root, that little bit of grain and that little bit of cooking oil did not run out; they runneth over.

Rufus Watson was a native Texan and the son of former slaves.  As James Hopkins relates, Rufus lived to be 99 years old.  In his lifetime, Rufus pitched baseball in the Negro Professional leagues; he served his country in the military, and he witnessed  lynchings.  Here’s what Rufus told his friend, Jim, about God.  Rufus said that if his own life was not witness enough, this story about Elijah shows that God meets people at the bottom of the barrel.  Rufus said, “That’s where God meets us, at the bottom of the barrel.  God meets us when we’ve gone so low that all we can do is look up.”[3]

Our God meets people at the bottom of the barrel.  In the middle of a drought, as a fugitive on the run from his government, Elijah is sent to an unlikely place, to unlikely people who have unlikely resources, and he is told by God to rely on God’s unlikely choices.  But if you’ve never been to the bottom of the barrel, you might never learn to rely on what you find there.

Have you ever had to rely on somebody who wasn’t your first choice, or your best choice, but the very last person you would suspect would be able to help?  Have you ever had to choose to follow not Plan A, not Plan B, and not even Plan C, but Plan Z, which is just after Plan Why???

Friends, I could tell you that our coming Jesus was often compared to Elijah.  I could tell you that this Hebrew scripture story about this poor Phoenician widow and her subsequently ill son that Elijah will heal has a couple of parallels with another story our gospel about a marginalized Phoenician woman with an ill daughter that Jesus heals.  We could draw a comparison between the miraculous replenishment of grain and oil in the midst of a drought, and the multiplication of loaves and fish on a hillside in Galilee.

But this story is important in its own right.  Not because of what it shows us about Elijah who trusted God’s word and a poor, sad widow, or even about Jesus, who did similar kinds of things with food and with people on the margins of society.  More importantly, this story shows us about God’s power to take little things: a little faith, a little bit of grain and oil, meager resources at best, and use them for the good of God’s people, in ways that we often fail to comprehend, even when they are unfolding before our very eyes.  The widow and her son were stretched to share what they had, not for themselves first and foremost, but for God first and foremost.  And they were an unlikely choice, a starving kid and his vulnerable mother living in enemy territory, in the middle of a famine.  They weren’t even in the mood to share.  Remember, Mom was on the verge of despair without a Prozac in sight.

And still, they did what they could.  One commentator has said that the difference between this widow and the wicked Queen Jezebel is not their ethnicity or their religious beliefs, which were most likely the same; the difference is in their levels of compassion.  The impoverished pagan showed more compassion for the foreign stranger in her midst, than the rich, vengeful queen who presumably had it all and needed nothing more.

And what of us?  Is God asking you and I to look for God in unlikely places and in unlikely people?  Are we being asked to poke around at the bottom of the barrel, to reach deeper for a faith that makes no sense under present circumstances?  We tend to look at those resources and people around us and then measure and judge them according to their adequacy or usefulness to our lives.  That doesn’t take faith.  That is analytical.

We tend to ask, “how useful is this person to me?”  Thinking like this tends to turn people into objects.  What if, instead, we asked, “How is God revealing Godself in this person or situation?  What if we instead asked, “To what unlikely place or unlikely person is God sending me?”

The contemporary folk singer, Amos Lee, released a song, in 2005, called “Bottom of the Barrel.”  He sings about how our perspective toward life can save us.  Of course, he doesn’t exactly say it that way.  He observes “the world is so much meaner when your heart is hard.”  But he chooses to sing something different.  He sings:  I keep on livin’/to keep from cryin’./ I keep on dreamin’,/ to keep from dyin’./ I keep on trying,/ I ain’t gonna stop. / Get right down to the bottom of the barrel and float back on top.[4]

Friends, if it seems as if you are scraping around at the bottom of your personal barrel, if it seems as if the world is closing in on you fast and you can’t imagine finding any kind sustenance in enemy territory, re-evaluate where you are and what you are trying to carry in these times.  Consider whether you are spending the majority of your time looking down at what you can hold in your hands, or whether you are looking up at what God can release with others. Find a way to float in that barrel by remembering that God’s provision is always greater and more remarkable than our interpretation of God’s provision.[5]

Finally, remember this: one of the leading Jewish theologians, Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote:

God does not need those who praise him when in a state of euphoria. He needs those who are in love with him when in distress…. This is the task: in the darkest night to be certain of the dawn, certain of the power to turn a curse into a blessing, agony into a song. To know the monster’s rage and, in spite of it, proclaim to its face (even a monster will be transfigured into an angel); to go through hell and to continue to trust in the goodness of God – this is the challenge and the way.[6]

Friends, in these Advent days, may God grant us a bottom-of-barrel kind of faith that we might appreciate Jesus when he comes.   May we extend our reach, so that when he comes, we will draw easily with joy a healing from his well, an unlimited and excellent supply.  We will “roll out the barrel” and our interrogators will suspect that we’ve had a little too much, and we will shake our heads with laughter and they will all gasp and marvel why.

Amen.

 

 

[1] See https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Barrel

[2] Kate Huey, www.ucc.org/worship/Samuel/june-06-2010-tenth-sunday.html

[3] qtd. in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3.  David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) p 103.

[4] Amos Lee, “Bottom of the Barrel,” from the album, Amos Lee, 2005. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ICAImToCstI

[5] Variation of quote adapted from Jeremiah Day: “The longer I live, the more faith I have in Providence, and the less faith in my interpretation of Providence.”

[6] Heschel, A Passion for Truth [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973], 300-301.