[Preached in Spanish at the Spanish service at All Saints Church, Pasadena, CA, on August 25, 2013]
My friends in Jesus Christ:
In the middle of summer, when the San Gabriel Mountains are very dry and the weather is hot, it is a relief to encounter this passage from the book of Isaiah: “You will be like a well watered garden, like a spring, whose waters never fail.” This is one of a long list of promises from God in this passage. It is in a part of the book of the prophet Isaiah that is called Third Isaiah. It could not have been written by the prophet Isaiah himself because it describes events that happened four centuries after his life. It refers to major events in the history of Israel: The time in which the Jews were captured by the Babylonians and the temple was destroyed, and then the time in which they were allowed to return to Jerusalem and the temple was restored.
That is why we hear this series of promises. The writers of Third Isaiah want to show that God restores life, that God has not made empty promises in the covenant with Israel. After about sixty years of captivity and slavery, the Israelites were allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple and replant their fields. This is why the passage says, “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”
I want to focus on one specific promise. God promises water in the desert. The prophet writes, “You will be like a well watered garden, like a spring, whose waters never fail.” What a powerful promise to those who live in hot, dry climates and deserts. Have you seen the beautiful garden and fountains behind this church? If you have not seen them, I invite you to walk there today. They imitate the fountains designed by Muslims in Southern Spain hundreds of years ago. The waterways are very narrow to conserve water, and yet they bring sufficient water to dry places. The gardens are very lush as a result.
The writer of Third Isaiah is comparing the grace of God, the goodness of God, to water in the desert. This water makes us like a well watered garden. When we are watered by God, we are fruitful, beautiful, and a source of comfort and well-being to others as well as ourselves.
I read about an amazing engineering feat in Peru that illustrates perfectly this miracle of water in the desert. The capital city of Lima is in the coastal desert of Peru. The area gets approximately half an inch of water per year. That is not nearly enough for all the citizens of Lima, and what little water they have is contaminated. It is not potable. And so the poor get diseases from the contaminated water.
However, they have 98% humidity in the air. And so, engineers figured out a way to get water from heaven. They built a billboard that captures the air’s humidity, condenses it, purifies it, and turns it into clean and safe drinking water. One billboard water collector produces almost ten thousand liters of water in three months. It provides enough water for hundreds of families in Lima. All they did was to tap into the water that was already there. The water is always there if we pay attention and tap into it.
This is what the writer of this passage from Isaiah is tapping into. The relief that we need from God is always there. God promises it, and God delivers it. God does not make empty promises.
But notice that there are conditions attached to these promises. Usually, we say that God’s grace and mercy cannot be earned. Grace and mercy and healing are the free gifts of God. But in this passage, the writer says that we will be the well watered garden IF we do the things that God has asked us to do. And what does the prophet says God wants us to do?
“If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the LORD.”
If we do these things. If.
Are the gifts of God conditional? Do we have to respect the Sabbath before God gives us water in the desert? I don’t believe so. But I do believe that we have to respect the Sabbath and give glory and honor in God in order to NOTICE the water of God falling upon our dry deserts. Think of those people in Peru, desperate for safe drinking water. The water was up in the heavens the whole time. All they had to do was to reach up and grab it.
The same is true for the elaborate waterways that Muslims built in the gardens in South Spain. They knew that God provided the water, but they needed to capture the water and funnel it toward hungry plants.
When we are experiencing difficult periods in our lives, when we are troubled by worries, illness, financial problems, trouble at home, trouble at school, these periods feel like deserts. We can feel very lonely. We are thirsty for help. We are thirsty for some sign that God—or anyone—is going to help us. These times are troubling and even frightening. And it may seem that God makes empty promises. Why pray? Why read the Bible? Why go to church? God isn’t helping me. It is a very natural reaction when we have been faithful to God, and yet we still feel as if we are wandering in the desert in our lives.
I am sure that God does not make promises in vain. I believe that the waters of God, the waters that we need to be a well watered garden, are always in the heavens, and we need to be like those brilliant engineers in Peru. We need to find ways to reach up to the heavens and grab that water. This grace is free and always available, but as the writer of Isaiah says, we have to respect the Sabbath and give honor and glory to God to notice and capture what God is sending to us.
Coming to this sanctuary every Sunday to worship God with others is one way of being well watered by God. The words, the music, the prayers, the Eucharist, the simple presence of others are all ways in which the waters of God fall upon us. Private prayer and actions of charity toward others are also important ways. But when our spirituality is private, we do not experience the support and affirmation of others. When our spirituality is private, we cannot ourselves be as great a source of support and affirmation to others. A small trickle of water on its own cannot water a garden. But many small trickles of water gathered into a fountain can water a lush garden, no matter how hot and dry the deserts of our lives are.
I’d like to illustrate this point, and I need everyone’s participation to do it. We are going to make a rainstorm by tapping fingers on our hands. (Act out a rainstorm.)
When we tap only one finger, we barely notice the rain. When we tap two fingers, we notice a little more. But when everyone is participating, and we contribute three fingers, we have a rainstorm that can revive the driest of gardens. It takes all of us in community to make the grace of God obvious in our midst. I am not saying that we cannot tap into God on our own. I certainly hope that you do pray to God and feel the presence of God in your private prayer life. But in community, in a sanctuary dedicated to the worship of God, we are able to make a rainstorm. And we become well watered gardens fed by the prayers and worship of others. We are fed by the faith and trust that others have in God, even when we ourselves are tired or overwhelmed.
Like the woman in the Gospel who was crippled for eighteen years, we may have to wait for a long time. Imagine how long she prayed for healing! Imagine how dry that prayer must have felt at times. And yet, then the healing rain shower of Jesus walks by and says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”
There is a beautiful video on the Internet of these villagers in Peru who now draw water from a faucet at the bottom of a billboard. They come together at this billboard with containers and draw water for drinking and cooking. They are laughing and rejoicing. They are planning on building these billboard water collectors elsewhere. They too are amazed at the sudden reversal of their fortune. I believe that they have realized that the grace of God was always there. They just needed to gather together to tap into it. May we also gather regularly as a community to tap into the grace of God. Amen.