Sabbath Waters

“Drink From Your Own Well” — Rev. Chelsea Page

August 21, 2022

Silent Meditation

I offer water that will become a wellspring within you. John 4:14

Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well. Proverbs 5:15

I want to tell you a healing story. When I was 18 years old and went away to college, I became sick. Throughout my freshman year I suffered from increasingly stiff and painful joints. I was never into sports or dance, so I figured I would just try my best to ignore it and focus on my studies. By summer I could barely put a shirt on or comb my hair. Back home I went to see a rheumatologist and was diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disorder.

Today I am much better, and people facing similar scary or complex diagnoses that impair their mobility sometimes ask me how I recovered from chronic pain and inflammation. The long answer is that it took years of trying many different treatments and lifestyle therapies. The short answer is that I had to develop a completely different relationship to my own body.

The woman Jesus healed in our gospel story today was pressed down by a spirit of oppression for 18 years. What was it that kept her tied up in bondage? Systems of oppression bind individuals in different ways and chafe in different places. So I can’t speak for her. But I can speak to the spirit of oppression that I had to learn to cast off as a sick 18-year-old.

When I got sick, my initial feeling toward my body was one of betrayal. In our Isaiah reading today, God promises “to satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.” Even before I got sick, I never saw my body as a watered garden. As a teenager I saw my body more as a wasteland, something that I feared didn’t measure up. At best it was baggage, that is to say, something about me that wasn’t really me, just something I carried. Once I became sick, this baggage felt heavier than ever, holding me back from all that I wanted to achieve.

Where did I get these alienated ideas about my body? As an adult I’ve come to understand that our culture encourages separation from one’s self, because people who feel deficient are frankly better for business. If we feel a need for things outside of ourselves, we will buy more. Our bodies will be more useful to others if they can be shaped to meet other people’s needs. In my case, I was shaped as a girl to be a good worker and consumer; in my grandmother’s case, it was to be a good wife and mother.

Getting free from the bondage of such ideas requires Sabbath. In the Sabbath tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures, God freed the people from slavery in Egypt, unleashing their bodies from bondage to work, and guided them through the parched wilderness into the watered garden of the promised land. God gave them a new way of life that included weekly Sabbath rest, a time to enjoy one’s body for its own sake.

So ironically, Jesus’s healing of the woman in the synagogue was actually a practice of Sabbath, not a violation of it. As he mentioned in his example of unleashing animals to get the daily water that was their due, liberation means removing obstacles to accessing the abundant life that is everybody’s birthright.

Here is what that looked like for me. My first step in healing my relationship with my body was to recognize that it was me, and I was it. There was no separation between my body and my self; it was my self. Secondly, I had to learn that my body was not a commodity, a finite resource to be spent in service of my goals or what I thought others wanted. Rather than using my body to create my life, my body became where I lived. And finally, I learned that my body can be different from others and still be equal and valid. It couldn’t handle the same stressors as my peers’ bodies, and my symptoms didn’t even fit the standard medical model. But if I respected my body as unique, I could listen to it, discern its messages, and let it guide me to what I needed.

The sum total of these three revolutions was that I began treating myself with more kindness. Gradually I learned how to respect my own limits, practicing rest and Sabbath. My growing body awareness led me to seek out better health care, and with the help of a spiritual director, my sense of self-worth grew. I still don’t have this mastered, but gradually, my body healed.

In their book Life Isn’t Binary, Meg-John Barker and Alex Iantaffi write: “We need to believe that you existing – in your full multi-hued, magnificent size and power – does not take away from me existing, in my own full multi-hued, magnificent size and power.” Jesus inhabited his body and spirit with a sense of wholeness, like a watered garden. He was not in competition with anyone, looking to use or be used. When the woman in the synagogue met him, she encountered the living embodiment of Sabbath waters. Deep called to deep, and the woman rose back up to her full stature. This miracle can be explained by a simple fact that our member Heather Tolley, who is a trained spiritual director, reminded me of recently. “Relationships are the ground in which we grow.”

Friends, no one heals by themselves. In my journey of learning new beliefs about my body, I had the help of a trained spiritual director. UCC minister John Mabry explains spiritual direction this way: “Just as you wouldn’t set off across the desert alone, it helps to have a soul friend along for the journey—because when your canteen is empty, it’s a good bet that your friend’s is not. What most people need is not another person—who is allegedly an expert—to tell them what to think or do or how to behave. A trained spiritual director is good at helping people uncover their deep-down wisdom.”

This deep-down wisdom is the living water inside each of us. Healing comes from within, and spiritual direction is but one of the many methods we have for accessing it. As we journey together through the parched places in our lives, let us help one another to drink from our own wells.