The song at the sea must have been an incredible party. The Israelites have made it to safety. The Red Sea has swallowed up their enemies, and their powerful god has liberated them from generations of slavery.
And you have to imagine that the actual walking through the Red Sea, when the waters had parted, leaving them this magnificent passageway to freedom. Well that must have been pretty incredible too.
If you’re like me, you have a pretty clear mental image of the event, as Charlton Heston raises his staff and a mighty wind comes and parts the waters. But there is another story of the way that it happened that has come down to us through the Jewish tradition.
The story says, that when Moses and his people were trapped between the Egyptian Army and the sea, the people had begun yelling at Moses, asking why he had led them out of the safety of Egypt. He asked God “what now?” God rebuked Moses and told him to tell his people to just keep on walking and stop doubting.
So a man named Nachson, a leader of his tribe, begins to wade on into the water. He steps in, expecting the waters to part, but they don’t. So we walks in up to his waist, expecting them to part, but they don’t. When the water is up to his neck, he expects it to part, and it does not. It is only when the sea is up to his nostrils, we are told that God opens up the path before him.
God wanted to free the Israelites, but first they had to do their part. Liberation didn’t come because they sat back in comfort and asked nicely. If you have ever worked to get our government, or any major institution or corporation, for that matter to change its way, the story of Nachson may feel familiar to you. He was in almost over his head, before the way started to clear.
-wade in the water-
Why would he do such a thing? What gives a person such solid faith in the path before them?
Sometimes I hear stories about people I admire, and I try to ask myself, who am I in this story? To be honest, I’m probably not Nachson. I’m probably not pharaoh, or Moses either. I’d like to think, of the bystanders watching Nachson walk into the sea, I would have at least been one of the supportive ones. “Keep up the good work Nachson, I’ll be right behind you as soon as the path is dry!”
Shane Clairborn, a radical Christian activist, worked to set up an intentional community where people can not only believe in Jesus, but follow the example of Jesus’ life, by holding property in common and loving their neighbors in action as well as words. To hear him tell his story though, of fundraising and conflict and getting his jaw broken in a rough neighborhood, he often seems to be in a little over his head. But, Shane says, “Some of us have just caught a glimpse of the promised land, and it is so dazzling that our eyes are forever fixed on it, never to look back at the ways of that old empire again.”
I imagine that Nachson, had seen somewhere in his heart, a dazzling glimpse of the promised land. He saw clearly where he and his people were at, with a powerful and angry army coming up behind them, and he saw where they were headed – through troubled water, and onto freedom. The path from here to there was clear, and no sea was going to stop him from walking it.
-wade in the water-
One of the first real discussions I ever participated in on the subject of racism was a white-identity group at UUA General Assembly many years ago.
We were in an oversized room in a convention center, a dozen white college and high school students sitting in a circle. Someone said these words that hit me. The said, “Racism is the name a system that pushes down one group, People of Color. But the other half of the system is a process of lifting up another group, white people.
I have gone on to learn more since then, about what that lifting up and putting down looks like in real life, but that first sentence, that definition, articulated, what had been for me, the missing half of the story on race.
This other half of the story included me – included my place in things. I started to look back on my life at these invisible forces that, like gravity, shaped the world around me and pushed me, so silently, in a certain direction:
-that time the police let me go with a warning,
-the first good paying job I got through a family friend,
-everyone who said I looked like a “natural’ leader,
-the private school I went to,
-the other time the police let me go with a warning,
-the honors classes I took, strangers who naturally trusted me,
-my own trust in the government to be on my side,
-and last but not least, the other time that the police let me go with a warning.
Coming to look honestly at my place in this old empire of ours has felt at times like being in over my head. How uncomfortable to realize that despite my best intentions, I am sometimes in the position of the Israelites fleeing the Egyptians and that I am at the same time also the Egyptians.
Most of the Egyptians weren’t bad people, you know, they were part of an unjust system, where exploitation of the most vulnerable was just built into the their economy.
The sneaky thing about white privilege is that I did not ask for it.
It’s like finding some extra money in my pants pocket after doing the laundry.
All along the way, my employers, and the police, and locally funded schools, and standardized tests, and family connections, and the housing market, have all been slipping money and other privileges into my back pocket, and I never even needed to pay attention to it. In fact, I was encouraged not to.
But walking intentionally into uncomfortable conversations about race, going into the discomfort, sometimes up to my neck has given me, if not a glimpse of the promised land, at least a vision of the way toward it.
Once the Israelites were out in the desert, and the way forward looked difficult, some among them we are told, asked Moses to take them back to the more comfortable land of Egypt and back to slavery, rather than trust that they could cross the sea. I can understand that.
What’s a white person to do when we inherit money accumulated by our parents or grandparents in a time when their careers and even their neighborhoods were closed to people of color.
What’s a man to do when corporations slip an extra 30% in income into our back pockets, just for being male bodied.
What’s a heterosexual to do when federal marriage law slips some extra money in our back pockets for loving someone of a different gender.
Looking around to the systems of inequity in this old empire that surrounds us, is uncomfortable. Finding all those dollar bills and benefits in my back pocket, feels a little like being trapped in Egypt as an Egyptian. Living in comfort made affordable by the cheap labor of exploited people. The Israelites had a plan for liberation, but what of the middle class Egyptians. The story doesn’t tell us if any of them felt uncomfortable with their place in things.
I am stunned by the courage of that Mexican man on the immigration rides in Arizona, who at great personal risk boarded a very public bus in order to speak his truth about humanity in an unjust system.
But I am equally impressed by the white woman who sat near him and was willing to get into that struggle up to her neck. I had thought perhaps that she would have had nothing to lose, by showing her identification to the authorities, but she sought a greater purpose. Perhaps she saw a glimpse of the promised land, through the realization of living her values in troubled water.
Our broken immigration system is troubled water.
A public school system that fast-tracks some to college and some to jail, is troubled water.
A consumer culture that urges us to find comfort in things at the expense of relationship is troubled water.
The separation of people according to racial profiling is troubled water.
Wading through those troubled waters of injustice can bring us to the other side, where we can realize the promised land of justice, equity and compassion in our human relationships.
I don’t know if there is a god out there somewhere who has specific opinions about how we go about bringing change to the material world. My experience though, tells my that god or no god, some plans work better than others. Sitting back in comfort and asking nicely for change, tends not to work. It is rare to find a story of societal transformation, without some troubled water. Without someone moving forward into the depths, holding fast to a vision of the promised land.
-Wade in the water-
The African-American spiritual, Wade in the Water, comes from the new testament story of the pools of Bethesda, where we’re told a multitude of people waited by it’s shores, because it was known that in certain seasons, god would trouble the water, and the first one into the pool when the water was troubled would be healed of all their ailments.
In a story of exodus from slavery in our own nation Harriet Tubman was said to sing this song, to tell slaves on the run, that they should follow the water-way, so the dogs would not be follow their scent.
I can’t say for sure, which character in the Exodus story I would have been. But I can say that I’ve known some modern-day Nachson’s (say modern-day Nachson) and am planning to try my best to follow them into the water.
Coming of age in Unitarian Universalist community challenged me to think about how change happens. From the World as it is to the world as it might be. We have a strong tradition of heresy that, I hope, isn’t coming to an end any time soon.
I invite you to join me in the heresy of returning any unearned money you find in your back pocket. I invite you to think of a modern day Nachson in your life and ask them how they do it. I invite you to wade into the troubled water, of discomfort, of conversation, of action. I invite you to turn your back on this old empire of ours and join in recommitting to a Unitarian Universalism that speaks of a promised land here and now, and walks steadily into the water to get there together.