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When You Pass through the Waters, I will be with You - Isaiah 43:1-7

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

One of things I did in my first year here at St. Matthew was to help lead a youth mission trip in Orland, Maine. On our day off from splitting and stacking wood for the homeless shelter, six youth, a chaperone and I went to Bar Harbor. At midday we walked across the sand bar which connects the town to Acadia National Park. Twice a day, this area has a 12-foot tidal flow. All of the water flows out to sea at low tide leaving dry seabed as wide a four-lane highway. At high tide, however, it is completely filled with water. On the Bar Harbor side there was a sign that said, “DANGER! This tidal basin fills within two hours after low tide. Plan accordingly: DO NOT GET STRANDED. Water taxis to get you off the island begin at $150/hour.”

We came back later that evening, and sure enough—the inlet was filled with water. We didn’t see any ferries with wayward visitors, either.

It made me think about the dangers of being cut off. What would it be like to walk over to the island, enjoy its pleasures, unaware of impending disaster, and suddenly see that there was no way to return back? You would be separated, out there all alone.

The Lord said through the prophet Isaiah: When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.

Long ago, the Israelites stood on a beach just like the one at Bar Harbor: the Red Sea. Behind them were the Egyptians with their swords and chariots, and before them was the sea. The God who had done the marvels of the plagues against Egypt, the God who had worked in Pharaoh’s heart to let them go, had now deserted them. Were there not graves enough in Egypt that they had to be slaughtered in the desert instead? They were out there, all alone.

And then the miracle happened: the Lord pushed the waters of the sea back. The Israelites walked on dry ground across the seabed. But by the time the Egyptians got there, their chariot wheels got stuck in the mud. When the waters returned it covered them, and there was no water taxi to rescue them. The Israelites were free. They were safe. They were together. They had passed through the waters, and God had been with them.

Passing through the waters had been a touchstone for the Israelites, a story told again and again as a reminder of God’s faithfulness and presence. But by Isaiah’s day the people had amnesia. And as the years went by, they began to care more about their own pocketbooks than justice. They seized power and control rather than relying on God. They strayed far from God and finally found themselves so far out to sea that they couldn’t find a way back. They were in exile, both spiritually and physically, 500 miles from their home, separated from God and each other and their land. They longed for God now, but there was no way to reach out. They couldn’t sing praises to the God they’d forgotten… and even if they could, why would God listen? They were separated from God by a chasm a million miles wide.

Do you know that place of exile? That feeling of being alone, cut off?

The pandemic has certainly been a time of isolation. Studies are indicating an unprecedented level of stress in the mental health of young people. We’ve seen the decline in cognitive functioning of older adults when they don’t have social stimulation. In fact, there’s evidence of social abilities of adults of any age have declined. But through this time, St. Matthew as a community has been like those water taxis: Confirmation students and Sunday school families making cards for homebound. Council members reaching out with phone calls to members. People pulling together to help when one of our families lost their home to fire. As a community, we have taken seriously the ‘reaching out’ portion of our mission statement, and applied it to our own people who can so easily feel far off when we can’t be together physically. Through prayer and communication and care, we have passed through the waters together, rescued each other, and brought one another back to safe harbor.

Transition times can feel like passing through the waters, too. I came to you only five months after you said goodbye to a beloved ministry of three decades. You were grieving and needed comfort and time to adjust. At the same time, you exclaimed how I was a breath of fresh air. Even as you missed the comfort of what was the norm at St. Matthew for so long, you were excited by the new possibilities before us and the places we could go. And so you got into the boats, not only to reach folks who were feeling far from home, but also to travel, to feel the wind in your hair, and to see new lands and meet new people. And we did travel, starting new ministries, tapping into the gifts of the people of St. Matthew, and connecting with ministries and needs outside our church. It was exhilarating to bring delegations a dozen strong to serve the Friday meal at Grace, to square dance and swing dance in the Hall of the Evangelists, to worship with jazz and a Bach Cantata, to have children and youth share their gifts leading worship in person and on Zoom. You have inspired me and lifted my heart to God over and over. I am grateful to God for this time, and for you.

And so now as you enter being in times of transition again, you can take what you have learned about the traveling life. There will be times of feeling far from home and comfort, but there will also be new experiences, new connections, and growth. Jesus himself was a traveling man, and often in a boat, so you are in good company.

And so, you don’t have to fear being separated and alone. For the words of promise from God through the prophet Isaiah speak across the ages:

Thus says the Lord, He who created you,

He who formed you,

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;

I have called you by name, you are mine.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.

Pastor Julie, 1/9/22

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