Matthew T. Phillips

Thirsting in a Flood (Exodus 17:1-7)

The Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost (A)
Heritage and Homecoming Sunday
Union Grove United Methodist Church
Hillsborough, North Carolina

1From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” 4So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Exodus 17:1-7 nrsv


Behold a broken world, we pray,
where want and war increase,
and grant us, Lord, in this our day,
the ancient dream of peace….

Bring, Lord, your better world to birth,
your kingdom, love’s domain,
where peace with God, and peace on earth,
and peace eternal reign.

Timothy Dudley-Smith, “Behold a Broken World”
United Methodist Hymnal, 426.

Flooded with hospitality?

When Rich and I talked about this service about a month ago, I asked lots of not terribly important questions: what is the lectionary scripture, what color stole should I bring, are there were going to be dumplings at lunch afterwards. Then we talked about what was happening at church and he told me about the success of renovations next door, about how much better the interns have been since I left, and he told me of a growing focus on hospitality. Hospitality? At first, that made about as much sense to me as Duke focusing on gothic architecture or A. L. Stanback focusing on teaching students. Hospitality is so much a part of what Union Grove is all about, and this church already does such a good job of welcoming people, that focusing on hospitality at first sounded redundant.

There is a lot of focus on hospitality around us. When I checked my e-mail one day last week, I had messages from Delta Airlines, US Airways, Independence Air, Hilton, and Choice Hotels all telling me that they wanted to welcome me on board or in their hotels. This happens every week, and a couple months ago Hilton even tried to convince me that my life depended on their hospitality: “Take me someplace that will renew my marriage,” the e-mail read, “take me to the Hilton” or something very similar; you’ll be glad to know I don’t keep these messages very long so I wasn’t able to check it to get the wording exactly right. Billboard after billboard on our way from Winston-Salem this morning advertised inexpensive places to rest and exciting things to do. Tourism is quickly becoming this state’s most important industry, and we call the vast, if loosely organized, system of hotels and entertainment the “hospitality industry.”

So much hospitality around… is there a good reason for us to focus on it here? Of course there is, because if the water’s salty, you can thirst in the middle of a flood.

Surely none of us has been able to avoid the tragic images of Louisiana, Mississippi, and now eastern Texas. In New Orleans especially, as levies break and inadequate storm walls are dwarfed by the power of the sea, water has flooded, been pushed back, and then flooded again the once-lively old city. News stories during the first weekend after Katrina chronicled the barbaric conditions and the violence that erupted as people reacted to hunger, darkness, and thirst. Over and over the story was told: in the middle of the worst flood event in our nation’s history, there was no water to drink. If water would come out of the faucet, which is still doesn’t in much of the city, then it had to be boiled before drinking. Canned food drives all over the country also collected bottled water in an effort to begin to quench the thirst of a whole region even as it stood on the brink of drowning.

The sad irony of sending water to New Orleans might have struck you too, but the reasons that was necessary were graphic and wrenching as we saw pictures of rescuers boating through floodwaters polluted by trash and cherished possessions; lost clothes, lost loves, lost dreams. If the water is salty and polluted, you can thirst in the middle of a flood.

If there is a flood of hospitality in this world, then it is at least a little salty and not the kind of welcome that people really need. Hospitality may roll easily off the tongues of hotel executives and advertisers, but when Union Grove says hospitality, it means something different. Not just providing a place for the community to meet, although that will no doubt continue to happen. Not just serving meals to people, although I’m sure we’ll keep doing that. Not just receiving visitors gladly, although no faithful church could fail in that area. Here hospitality means something far deeper. This is a place where a person may come to find a home in the fullest sense of that word: a place where the deepest needs of the heart and spirit are met: fellowship, love, a family in which to serve and to meet God.

Sharing the Wealth

Moses Drawing Water from the Rock (detail) (Tintoretto, 1577)In our scripture lesson, we find people thirsting without any sight of water, drinkable or otherwise. The Israelites, freshly freed from slavery, criticize their leader for not supplying water to them. Moses passes the buck, telling them they shouldn’t test the Lord. The people look at each other with eyebrows raised: “who’s testing the Lord? You brought us out here to the desert; where’s our water?” Moses appeals directly to God, who tells him to go ahead of the people and strike the rock at Horeb. God makes water come forth from the rock. Moses and the elders see this miracle, and then they must have had some new and very practical fears.

Many people felt the urge or even the need to help after Katrina struck, but so chaotic was the aftermath of that storm that victims reacted violently to medical evacuation helicopters and people bringing food and resources. Would you have wanted to be the first person to walk into the New Orleans convention center carrying a plat of water? The Bible is not interested in the miracle of the water from the rock and Horeb as a lesson in crowd control, but rather as a lesson of the faithfulness and power of God, so we don’t find out how the elders managed the crowd at this sought-after fountain. There’s no reason to suspect that it would have been orderly, however. The water was not coming from a convoy of tractor-trailers, which is tenuous enough when you haven’t had anything to drink in days, but rather from a rock in the middle of the desert. How long was this unlikely water supply going to last? Do you think people lined up quietly or rushed as soon as they heard the news to fill up with water and then perhaps came sneaking back to top off their thirst? Perhaps some of the elders suggested to Moses the wisdom of keeping the people away from the rock and somehow rationing the supply out to the tribes of Israel. But that doesn’t appear to be what happened. Somehow the people got the water God squeezed for them out of a rock in the desert.

Overrunning Hospitality

The mothers and fathers of this church began its life with great faith, to be sure. They met for a time as a loose fellowship group, but nearly 160 years ago they decided that they didn’t just want to enjoy each other’s fellowship, but in fact to constitute a church. That very decision was the first act of hospitality for this congregation: deciding to be more than a gathering of a few people, but rather to be a gathering in the name of Christ. This must have been the biggest group of people between Chapel Hill and Hillsborough at the time; an outpost of Orange County life. I’ll bet not even Friday afternoon bike riders made it out here in the 1850s. When they decided for us to be a church, they knew that meant welcoming new people, but we find ourselves in a time when there are far more people to welcome.

When I was here as an intern I talked some about the fact that nobody at Duke believed me when I talked about this church. Sociologists of the church tell us that a congregation the size of Union Grove with a history as an effective chapel to two or three families is supposed to be uncomfortable when it begins to attract new members by virtue of expansion in the neighboring community. Union Grove actually facilitated expansion by selling adjacent land and building a new building that could be a center of activity for the community. The sociologists go on to say that churches with the statistics of this one are not supposed to be interested in new programs, but rather in maintaining familiar worship and having the occasional pastoral visit. Union Grove conducts several small groups a week, Disciple Bible studies, prison outreach programs, fellowship meals, music programs, and supports and trains new ministers through its connection to Duke Divinity School, a service for which I am particularly grateful. Sociologists try to explain how churches function, and they give us lots of important information, but this church seems to have done an uncommonly good job of looking to scripture rather than sociologists to shape itself through its sixteen decades.

Davies Hall at Union Grove United Methodist ChurchThe elders of this church found something exciting—a special connection as a group of neighbors and friends—just as Moses and the elders of Israel saw the miracle of water coming from the rock. They didn’t look around and worry about what might happen if they shared the news; they made themselves a church and became a community for others. Ten years ago the leaders of this church found themselves holding 120 acres of land that they could have used as a buffer zone to maintain the status quo, but instead they chose to welcome people into this community that we all love and to create a place for all the people who make their way to Union Grove to live and worship. Faced with the exciting gift of a wonderful resource, this church has over and again and in more different ways than I could list recognized that these gifts come from God, and with God’s people they should be shared.

A community that uses the gospel to shape itself reads our epistle lesson today and sees not just pretty prose, but a mission statement:

1If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

Philippians 2:1-4 nrsv

Shaped that way, we are a truly Christian church: one which welcomes others and creates a place for them. Hospitality indeed. We find ourselves not overrun, but, if we welcome with faithful courage, graced with exactly the right number of people to hear the gospel and eat the food and share the love and raise the children and build the buildings and sing the songs and tell the stories of this church.

Whoever Comes

That’s wonderful, and it is hospitality.

So why on earth would we focus on hospitality? There are lots of people trying to offer hospitality out in the world, and we’ve been doing a pretty good job of it already. Because if the water’s salty, you can thirst in a flood. And a bottle of water, hospitable though it is, does not quench thirst. Only a hearty welcome to a place where living water runs clear really quenches thirst. Living water runs in this sanctuary.

Put another way, the gospel doesn’t tell us to be hospitable. It tells us to live lives of radical hospitality. The water we have, the clothes we have, the food we have, the friendships we all have: they are gifts from God, exactly as miraculous as water streaming out of a rock in the desert. And we cannot be content to offer them to whichever people in the crowd happen to see us clumped over here and wander by to see what’s happening. The gospel calls us to engage the people we meet and to tell them about this place.

For me, this is where the deal-making begins. This is where I begin to tell God that when I live my life as a generally good person, avoiding lying, cheating, stealing, when I am a charitable person, and when I don’t to anything hurtful, then I am providing a Christian example and people will, upon seeing that example, want to learn about my faith. This is where I tell God that people choose to worship with similar looking people. This is where I tell God that it’s really not acceptable for me to talk openly about religion or explain what’s important to me without clear permission.

In our gospel lesson today (Matthew 21:23-27) the chief priests and elders attempted to corner Jesus by asking him the source of his authority, knowing that if he answered “nobody in particular” then he would look weak and if he answered “God” then he would look crazy. Jesus quickly turned the tables on them and asked them a similarly cornering question. I have a hunch that, if I listen and challenge myself to hear God’s will, my deal-making is not at all impressive to God.

I have lots of ways to explain why my church and I are not hospitable, and they are all about me keeping my hospitality from being too radical, lest I find myself surrounded by new people with new needs that I do not know how to meet comfortably.

The Hard Way Out

One of the biggest theological themes of our faith for me, and one about which I have preached from this pulpit many times before, is the way that Jesus often seems to be offering the easy way out of life’s challenges by telling us we don’t have to follow rules when in fact he demands that we live lives of prayer and spiritual purpose that create far higher standards than the strictest laws. The uniting theme of hospitality has a similar edge. At first, I thought Union Grove had taken the easy way out because this is a quite hospitable place already. But, in fact, the radical hospitality to which the gospel calls us is a dramatic and difficult undertaking.

Santuary and Breezeway entrance at Union Grove United Methodist ChurchWhat might that level of hospitality look like here? Does it mean a more personal, lay-driven form of evangelism in the community that greets everyone who moves within a few miles of the church? Does it mean creating housing for working poor families that need to escape the trap of high rents in Chapel Hill in order to save up for a down payment on a home? Does it mean doing the theological task of dialogue about the faith with people that the church tends to treat as sinners? Does it mean creating a place for recreation that looks like God’s kingdom, bringing together kids of all different backgrounds to play soccer and baseball on the field out back?

The Israelites called out in the desert, like each one of us has at some point in our lives, for the most basic needs. For them it was water in a land that had none. For us, more often than not, it is for true hospitality in a world that typically offers a shallow imitation. Moses listened to God and struck a rock at Horeb, and out came the water they needed. Somehow we felt a tugging within ourselves and we came to this place or came back to this place, and we found here a fountain of fellowship and spirit and love. Moses turned around and told the people what had happened so that they all could quench their thirst, and so too must we turn to the tides of people who need the riches of this place.

The radical hospitality that the gospel demands of us is challenging in ways we are not well exercised to handle, but we have the mothers and fathers of this congregation who have shown us how to be church. We have the prayers and the occasional cherished presence of people for whom today is a homecoming. We have the blessings of the legacies of our saints, and a wealth of hope from energetic youth and a serendipitous location. It turns out the very riches that the world needs for us to share are the ones which make it possible for us to face the challenge of sharing.

God struck a rock in the desert and we got to drink. Our thirsts will not be fully quenched on this earth, but now we find ourselves stewards of a great gift: praise God from whom all blessings flow, and may God give us strength to humble ourselves even as Christ did so that we might share his improbable gifts with all God’s people, who say with me now: Amen.