by Joan L. Beck
Cornelsen Director of Spiritual Formation and Pastor to the Community
The jug of oil did not fail
You are the river of life that never runs dry, that never runs dry. Amen.
The veteran I know best is a man from Portland, Oregon, named Charlie. He described his war experience and its aftermath to a government office when he was applying for benefits. He wrote, “My situation when I was in Vietnam was that I was on a small gunship compound in the Central Highlands at the height of the war. The whole time I was in Vietnam we were surrounded by enemy soldiers who were plotting to kill us. I had a sense that they could see us but we could not see them. They regularly attacked us…. Repeatedly when I was in Vietnam I would become so terrified that I would freeze up. This is not something I did on purpose but something that happened to me.
“So my understanding now is that when I would freeze up I imprinted the traumatic situation that I was in, in such a way that this traumatic imprint became for me a permanent way of seeing and experiencing the world…. I am still very frozen up inside. A large central part of my soul is missing. This really scares me! What if I die and part of my soul is still missing?.... I sit on top of the frozenness and I have a small supply of energy and a short leash…. I can only function briefly, maybe for an hour or less, and then I collapse emotionally into the frozenness. At this point I need to just sit down or lie down and wait for a new supply of energy. I wait a long time.”
Because of Veteran’s Day, I think of Charlie when I consider Elijah and the widow woman from today’s text. All are overwhelmed, without sufficient resources for coping. Charlie suffers from war-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as well as schizophrenia. Elijah is on his way to burnout as he represents the LORD of Israel, the God who is enforcing a major drought against the rain god Baal. We know that a biblical widow is by definition poor, but this one is so poor that she and her boy are ready to die from starvation.
All of them are in extreme circumstances—yet maybe not so far from us. I have heard again and again from you that this time in the semester is “out of control.” There are materials to read, papers to write, tests to take, jobs to do, piles of work not to mention relationships to tend. How many of us are overwhelmed, with strained or insufficient resources for coping? Years ago, a young seminarian who felt herself to be on the verge of a breakdown told me she had discovered that, “Despair is absolute. It doesn’t matter whether you have a serious reason to despair or a trivial one. If you feel despair, you feel it!”
How odd of God to send a prophet who is under so much stress to a widow who is desperate enough to die. It seems as though Negative One plus Negative One must equal Negative Two (or maybe Negative Ten, since misery loves company).
But the prophet has been given one thing that turns the equation around—Something has been said to him—He has heard the promise of God. God has commanded a widow to feed him, that’s what he has heard, and when he meets the widow in question, he trusts the promise of God even though she actually has nothing to feed him with.
And the widow has been given something else that turns the equation around—something she acts on—She is given faith to trust the promise of God. When the prophet shares the preposterous promise of God that the meal and the oil will not be used up, and says to make him a little cake right away, and then to make one for herself and her son, she goes and does what he says!
Two vulnerable people thrown together by God’s word of promise, and they give each other life. Take one part prophet’s promise from God, add one part widow’s flour and oil, knead together, bake, and sustain both prophet, housewife and her household for a year or two, day by day, like manna.
If we take many ordinary, vulnerable people thrown together by God’s word of promise, will we give each other life? I dare say that the word of God’s promise is just as potent now as it was when Elijah and the widow met in Zarephath. More potent, tied not merely to flour and oil in one time of drought, but to the Body and Blood given on cross for our salvation in every time of overwhelm, sin, and death. Ephesians tells us that by this promise and “power at work within us, [God] is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” (Eph 3:20) Abundantly far more. Than all we can ask or imagine. This is why we have been given to one another: The words of promise we are given to speak, the humble necessities of life we share, result in life for one another!
God tells the widow, by Elijah, that the meal and oil will hold until the rain comes. God tells you, by voices like mine, that God’s call for you will see you through this semester and in every time after. God tells others, by voices like yours, that God will never leave them or forsake them. And God gives faith to cling to these promises and to organize our lives around them.
It’s what Luther said about water: It’s just water, rain water, stream or pond or well water, tap water, clear or muddy. Entirely prosaic. But when God’s promise is added “with and alongside the water, and faith trusts this word of God in the water”: then it becomes “a baptism, a grace-filled water of life and a ‘bath of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.’” (Small Catechism)
Life, clear or muddy, is more than ordinary life when God’s Word walks in and faith trusts this Word of God in it. As Charlie, my veteran friend, wrote to me, “Recently my understanding of God’s grace has expanded. My basic understanding of God’s grace comes from Paul Tillich: ‘Accept that you are accepted even though you are unacceptable.’ That is really, really, helpful! I would be totally lost without that! My other understanding of grace comes from a Sikh saying: ‘When you know that God knows everything there is to know about you and still loves you, then you are free.’” Charlie continues, “Knowing we are known and loved—that brings unspeakable comfort to me.”
Elijah, the widow, her son, Charlie, you, I, and so many others count on it:
As the Lord our God lives,
the cup of salvation will never be emptied,
the body of Christ will not fail,
and the river of life will never run dry.
according to the word of the Lord that God spoke by Jesus Christ.
1 Kings 17:8-16