Every year or so I take a group of students on a pilgrimage to Almost Heaven. Its institutional label is Appalachia: Arts, Energy, and Education. Most of these pilgrimages are to West Virginia, my place of birth and ordination. Some students come willingly, some from obligation; but all are pilgrims in the end.
We see rough areas where mountains used to be and meet people who know how to do good in hard times. If the class has become a community through our travel, the last stop is Palestine, West Virginia. (I sometimes wonder what wandering Aramean was father to these names.) We turn left at the Blue Goose, round the curves on Sonoma Road, and park on the edge of the steep hillside that has a sign MARKS’ MANOR.
Burt watches for us from the top of the hill, and his hound wags welcome. Burt was a famous raccoon hunter in this corner of the world. At ninety-four, he’s given away his guns, and the young dog at his feet doesn’t know what an easy life he’s got.
Burt bewitches my students with stories of moonlit nights and the music of baying hounds. It’s as though “we’re not in this century,” one whispers. The magic deepens when he cuts a branch from the peach tree and shows them how to search for water. It’s a gift he says; he’s the only one in his family that got it. I tell my students that Burt’s known for finding water on hillsides of stones and in bad seasons of drought. Some of them try out the peach branch; others watch, skeptical and silent. What does it take to find water in the wilderness?
The prophet reminds us that it takes a gift—a gift of the Giver. “Here is your God.” When the Holy One comes, there is water, living water everywhere, and not a single life will die of thirst.
Holy One, form pools of living water in these burning sands of time. Amen.
These readings convey that God’s coming, or the coming of the Messiah, will be profoundly transforma- tive. The promises of messianic possibility work against our exhaustion, our despair, and our sense of being subject to fate. The psalm provides a comprehensive summary of the miracles wrought by God in the past to make new life possible. Jesus’ life and ministry embodied these large expectations of Israel. The prophetic oracle, psalm, and Gospel reading all move toward the practicality of the epistle reading, which demands that we allow this claim of new human possibility to permeate all of life. Our life is directed to the reality of God, the very God whom we dis- cern in our present and to whom we entrust our future.
• Read Isaiah 35:1-10. Where in your life do you feel that you have gone astray? After you realize you are lost, how do you return to the way that is God?
• Read Luke 1:47-55. When have you spoken fearlessly about a situation in your life?
• Read James 5:7-10. For what do you thirst?
• Read Matthew 11:2-11. What characteristics draw you to a
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