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Out of the Water

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

September 3, 2017
Exodus 1:8-2:10

A Reading from Exodus

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.

The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

It has been a week of water, and today is no different. Last Sunday, we did not gather together in person, out of deference to the furthest reaches of Harvey bending their way through Austin. At the time, of course, we only had the faintest hints of the devastation that the storm would bring to our neighbors to the south and east, particularly in Houston, where the images from this past week have been nothing short of devastating. Everyone here this morning comes with heavy hearts, for those we’ve lost, for the untold damage to homes and neighborhoods, for lives torn apart and washed away. It has been a week too full of water. And so perhaps there is some gratuitous cruelty in this story from Exodus, which is of course the story of water, the story of this Jewish baby laid into the Nile and sent into the water. I think if I’m honest, this story has always felt a little bit cute to me — cute little baby Moses, in his cute little basket, and he goes on a little trip down a cute little stream, and it all wraps up so nicely. But of course there’s nothing cute or nicely-wrapped-up about the week just passed. It has been a week of water, and nothing cute about it.

And then there’s nothing cute about the water in this story, either. In the Old Testament, water is a richly complicated and dangerous thing. In the wilderness, of course, it provides life, shooting forth from the rock to the thirsty exiles — we’ll read that story in a few weeks. That’s the water that so often shows up in Christian practice, the water drawn from the well, the water poured into the baptismal font, the waters of the grace of God. But in the Old Testament, water isn’t just for life. It’s also very much for death. In the first lines of Genesis, Israel speaks of God who separates the water below from the water above, and builds the earth into that separation — which is to say, if you drew a map of the universe according to Biblical Israel, there’d be water just above us beyond the sky, and there’d be water just below us, underneath the ground, and we are here held in suspension between the waters only by God’s grace. For Israel, life itself is only possible because we’ve been separated from the waters, because we’ve been pulled out of the waters, and there’s nothing cute about it. For the children of this ancient story, the images of the week just passed would be all too comprehensible. The water means death.

So consider this story again, then, without the cuteness. Pharaoh, in his paranoid state, has ordered the execution of Jewish baby boys. A couple of brave midwives have done what they could to disobey the order, but still, Jewish families live in terror. One unnamed Jewish couple has a son, and hides him as best they can, until he’s about three months old, when he’s too big to hide any longer. And so the mother takes him to the river. She builds a basket out of paper and set him afloat down the Nile. This is, at best, a Hail Mary. The river is massive, and papyrus will not long resist its power. There is no bed of reeds at the side of the river strong enough to withstand the right current. This child is abandoned to certain death. And then, a savior. An unlikely savior. The daughter of Pharaoh, the daughter of the very man who ordered the execution in the first place, sees this baby in the basket, and pulls it to safety. She may or may not know that it’s a Jewish child, but she finds out soon enough — soon enough, she calls for Jewish midwives to come and nurse it and raise it. Across the boundaries of politics, across the boundaries of ethnicity, across the boundaries of religion, even to a child whom her own father had sentenced to die, she pulls him out of the water. Out of the waters of death.

It’s a powerful moment. Without regard for the things that should have divided them, with higher regard for their common dignity as children of God, this woman sees an infant in danger of drowning and pulls him out of the water. In a story otherwise too full of violence and destruction and wrath, this is a moment to give us hope. And of course it’s a moment that we’ve seen repeated throughout the week just passed, in story upon story of strangers pulling each other from the water, of people of every color and every background and every inclination showing up for this moment of common dignity. In times like these, we say, when the waters are on the rise, there are more important things. But of course, as the Exodus story unfolds, this moment dissipates, and quickly. Pharoah’s daughter rescues this Jewish baby — Moses, a play on the Hebrew word for drawing out of the water — and still Pharaoh will come to hate him, the old ethnic and political divisions very much intact.  And Israel, for its own part, will not fare so much better. For now, they’re the victims, but soon enough, when they come into their own land, Israel will have more than enough experience persecuting outsiders and closing its door to strangers and immigrants. So this story is a sacred moment. In times like these, all that other stuff doesn’t matter. But the times like these, as you all know. They don’t last long.

Consider, if you will, the fire ant.  Among the pictures of devastation and of salvation from the last week have been photographs of something like a terrifying scientific curiosity, which are the islands of fire ants that floated to surface of the Hpharouston waters. If you saw these picture and didn’t sleep well afterwards, I’m sorry for bringing them up again, but I’m also fascinated. It turns out that the coast is home to millions of fire ants, but they’re not native. They’ve made their way to the Gulf from the rainforests of South America, where river flooding is just a regular way of life, which means that they’ve had millions of years to figure out a survival strategy, and it’s not that complicated. They just hold on to each other. The entire colony — up to half a million ants — link arms together to form a kind of floating raft, even with pockets of air to keep everything on the surface.  One single ant might be holding on to as many as twenty others simply to create the amount of surface tension that the whole enterprise requires. The result, if you’ve seen the pictures this week, is a terrifying display — nothing says stay out of the water like an island of fire ants floating by, ready to land on whatever surface they come across including your legs and arms. But I also have to admit. I think it’s kind of beautiful. The waters rise, and so we join hands. We hold on.

And we hold on to everybody. Actually there are two kinds of fire ants. I know, this is more nature documentary than you expected this morning — but stick with me. Originally, fire ants were fiercely tribalist, which is to say, the ants only had the capacity to serve one queen from their colony, and they’d fight with ants from other colonies. But then later on, some of the fire ants developed a mutation that prevents them from being able to see the difference between one colony and the next, one queen and the next. And now when the water comes, both kinds of ants react the same way — they can all join hands, they can all make islands, they can all float along the surface. But when the waters recede, when the ants make landfall, the unevolved ants will descend back into tribalism, territorialism, and self-destruction. Those will be your favorite kind because it means fewer fire ants, I get that. But the other ones will be fine. That’s what a good mutation does, after all — it increases the likelihood of survival, and it turns out that ants who no longer recognize these tribal differences are much more likely to survive once the waters recede, because they can work with whoever they wash ashore with. At some biological, genetic level, they get it: yes, when the waters rise, we hold on to each other; yes, at times like these, we hold on to each other; but, it turns out, it’s always times like these. These are the only times.

These are the only times. For the next few weeks, we will follow along with the lectionary as it guides us through the major movements of this Exodus story, a story with more than a healthy amount of tribalism and territorialism. This morning’s sacred moment — Pharoah’s daughter and the baby Moses — will be very much the exception, not the rule, and soon enough, the Egyptians will go back to being the enemy and Israel will go back to being the home team. But of course eventually the Exodus story guides us to Sinai, and it guides us to the delivery of all of the books of the Jewish law,  chock full of protections for foreigners, immigrants, and strangers, almost as if to say: these are the only times. Almost as if to say: remember: Moses was vulnerable, an infant, laid into the basket, laid into the reeds, given to the waters, but Pharaoh’s daughter saved him because human decency took over. An exception? Maybe. But in this case, it makes the rule. So go and do likewise. Protect the vulnerable. Welcome the stranger. Recognize the forgotten. Honor the immigrant. Hold on to each other. Not just in times like these. These are the only times.

It is not difficult, amid all the stories of bare humanity to emerge from Houston over the past week, to find hundreds, if not thousands, of stories that mirror this encounter between Pharaoh’s daughter and the baby Moses. You can read about Dayana Halawo, the Syrian refugee who spent the days leading up the storm going to the grocery store over and over again simply to make sure that her neighbors had enough food stocked before it hit. You can read about Jorge Aboundis, the Mexican-born baker who was trapped alongside seven employees inside his business when the storm hit, and instead of trying to get home, baked bread all weekend to feed hungry victims. You can read about Sadiq Musaavir and his five Muslim friends who decided just yesterday to go pitch in with the clean-up at Messiah Lutheran Church. You can read about a city that decided as the waters rose not to ask for papers from anybody who showed up needing help — a city that saw the basic humanity of its estimated 600,000 undocumented immigrants, at least in times like these. After all, we need to honor each other. After all, we need to hold on to each other. After all, we need each other.

The real work, of course, comes next. After Katrina hit New Orleans, undocumented immigrants rebuilt the city. After Sandy struck lower Manhattan, undocumented immigrants cleaned up the mess. In both cases, of course, they worked in the worst conditions, for shady subcontractors, without proper precautions, in full disregard for their health and welfare. And we looked the other way — we decided to look the other way — because, you know, in times like these. And regardless of the outcomes of the various political conversations currently surrounding immigration, from the Federal consideration of DACA to our statewide consideration of SB4, I am sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that when Houston turns to the work of rebuilding, it will once again be the most vulnerable who end up with the dirtiest and most necessary work. As soon as it becomes commercially expedient to do so, we will find all the loopholes that we need. So there is a fundamental hypocrisy in the way we talk about this — in the way we’re willing to value strangers and foreigners only when they’re the ones pulling us out of the water. But when the tables turn, who will we be? What will we remember? What story will we tell?

I hope we tell this one: the story of God who holds the waters at bay. The story of God who thought that creation was good enough to pull it out of the waters. The story of God who so wanted to know us and love us that God pulled our ancestors out of slavery, through the wilderness, across deserts and rivers and borders as old as time. The story of God who so wanted to know us and love us that he was born, vulnerable and unprotected, laid in the manger, and then cast into exile. The story of God in Jesus Christ, who lived as refugee, who fled persecution, who sought the solace of a foreign land, the story of God who sat with sinners and outcasts and strangers and lepers. The story of God who sits even with us. Who cares even for us. Who loves even us. And who calls us to love one another. To value one another. To welcome one another. To see the dignity in one another. This is the promise of the Gospel. This is the calling of the Gospel. This is the story of the Gospel. This is the story of who we are, floating across the deep, holding on together, held together, bound together by the grace and the mercy of the God of all things. Friends, it has been a long week, and too full of water. Hold on. Hold on to the God who holds on to you. Hold on to each other with all the arms and legs and grace and mercy that you have. Hold on, and keep holding, in times like these, and all the times like these, now, and forever. Amen.