Between my junior and senior years in college I spent a summer as a volunteer in mission at Ghost Ranch, the Presbyterian Conference Camp in Abiquiu, New Mexico. Part of the summer I spent life-guarding during the afternoons, and teaching swimming in the mornings to local residents—mostly children and their mothers. It was a true ministry, because there was a large reservoir, created by a dam, and there were arroyos which could fill with water during flash floods. But most of the local people didn’t know how to swim. I remember vividly how some of the mothers wouldn’t let go of the side of the pool, even though they could easily stand and walk across it. Fear, especially fear of water, is ingrained for some people.
I thought about that as I imagined the people of Israel, the Hebrews as they were called, stopped by the side of this body of water we call the Red Sea. Now I’m not going to get into the question of whether this was the Red Sea or the Reed Sea; whether it was a large body of water or a swamp; whether this is a “real” occurrence or a symbolic one. Let’s just think about people who have lived in a world where the Nile flooded each and every year—and in fact, the Hebrews were ghettoized to live mostly in the river delta, where the flooding would be the most devastating. We might even call it the Ninth Ward of Egypt. Water was not their friend.
So, they have fled the big city, and their homes, and walked out into this enormous, unending, dry desert area. And now, they are camped at the edge of water (so they can’t go forward). And off in the distance they see Pharaoh and his chariots galloping toward them. Pharaoh has one again changed his mind, and wants his “property” back. They are trapped. And they spend a very uneasy night, with the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire (the visible presence of God) between their camp and the Egyptians. But how was this to be resolved?
Moses, the one they have come to rely on, the one who had fought for them with Pharaoh, the one who had led them out of Egypt, the one who had gotten them into this mess in the first place—Moses, intoned that he had spoken with God and they were to cross the water. I’m sure this didn’t go over very well. In fact, just before our lesson for today the people have yelled at Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?”
Moses just raised his hands. And the people had a choice. Death by water. Or death by angry Egyptian. And those former slaves who were fearful of navigating water, much less swimming in it, froze. I know many of you have the Charlton Heston and “The Ten Commandments” movie in your head—watching the wall of water rise up on each side (as we tried to create during our Scripture Conversation). And so I was struck by a story from the Jewish Midrashim (the conversations that rabbis over the ages have put down on paper). The story is about a man named Nachshon. (from Seasons via Rabbi Adam Morris).
Nachshon was not a great leader, but he wasn’t a terrible one either. He was not the brightest, but he was no dummy. As they stood before this impossibly dark, deep, wide water, he quietly, but boldly shuffled this way and that, forcing himself to the front of the massive group of people. And he stood in the shadow of Moses’ still-raised arms.
Without fanfare, but with conviction, Nachshon stepped into the Sea of Reeds. The water reached his knees and nothing happened. The water seemed to taunt the people, and Moses’ arms remained raised. He stepped further into the water, which now reached his chest. The people were watching, rapt, and Moses still stood stoically waiting for something to happen.
Nachshon began to tremble from the cold of the water and the fear in his veins, and yet he stepped further into the void of the sea. As the water ascended past his neck and toward his mouth, some people gasped. Moses stood still, arms outstretched. Nachshon felt a twinge of doubt sweep through him as the water toppled over his head… yet, he continued to move forward.
That very moment, as Nachshon had given himself not only to the sea, but to something greater than himself, it was as if a key had turned and a door opened. The miracle of the Sea of Reeds had truly commenced.
Nowhere in the text do we have this story—in our lesson it almost sounds as if God blew all night, and in the morning there was the land bridge—viola. Although one can imagine that taking a step onto dry land that had walls of water on either side would take some courage. This story of Nachshon is exactly why I titled the sermon “Following the Lord.” And it is another example of why the Passover story is so important to be told each year, to be passed on from generation to generation. It is another reminder that this road to freedom, this following the Lord, requires much from us.
For sometimes it requires us to step into the very thing we fear the most—to be willing to trust that God has our back, God has a plan, God is calling us to do things we have never done before. Please do not hear this as permission to be stupid. But do hear we must be listening to God, especially when we think there are no options, especially when we are afraid, especially when much is required of us.
So the Hebrews walked through the sea on dry ground, and the waters swallowed the following Egyptian army. This is immortalized in what may be one of the earliest pieces of scripture—Miriam’s song: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
I understand the glee of Miriam. The release of pent-up rage at enslavement, and fear of being killed, and wonder at being saved by this God they are only just beginning to know.
And yet … all those Egyptians, all those horses. The angel of death was still reeking havoc. And I am not alone in my thoughts. The Jewish rabbis throughout the ages have considered this as well. And there is another story of how before the drowning there was a heavenly court case. The Egyptian deity, Uza, went to plead his case before the Holy One and the heavenly household.
Michael brought forth evidence in defense of the choices and actions of the Egyptians. And then Gabriel was sent down to Egypt to retrieve a piece of evidence on behalf of the Holy One. It was a brick. And all recognized it as a piece of the Egyptian kingdom crafted by the slave labor of the Hebrews. And as they gazed at it, horror set in. For encased within the brick was the form of an infant who had been buried alive in the process of production.
That very moment the Holy One sat in judgment. The sea consumed them as they were buried alive in its waters. In response, the ministering angels were just about to utter a song of praise and joy in front of the Holy One.
But before they could begin, the Holy One rebuked them, saying “My children, the works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you would utter a song in my presence?”
This story is also a lesson about following the Lord. Sometimes we are too quick to take sides, too fast to celebrate when others are in despair, too sure that we know what God intends. As I read this story I had a nagging suspicion that we might find ourselves at times cast as the Egyptians. We may not want to hear Jesus’ admonition that we should forgive not just seven times (read, A LOT), but seventy-seven times (in other words, more than you can count or imagine!). But we count on God’s mercy for our transgressions.
Following the Lord requires justice and mercy, abandon and restraint. The road to freedom, the path of following the Lord is not easy. It contains moments of miracles. But only if we keep moving, only if we trust, only if we humbly remember God is God of all.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.