August 22

Water on the Sabbath

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Luke 13: 10-17


The eye of the Lord today rests for a moment upon a genuine generosity. If we follow his gaze our eyes too may rest for a moment upon genuine generosity. We too by the lenses of the Scripture may for a moment see what Jesus sees, imagine what he imagines, today. His vision may shape our own. Then in his light we may see light. Follow in the mind’s eye for a moment the angle of vision, the dominical angle of vision, now registered for us and all time in St. Luke’s generous gospel, Chapter 13. Hum the tune, some months before Christmastide: Do you see what he sees? In water on the Sabbath, simple refreshment of those who emerge from the manger, he sees and honors genuine generosity. Can we do otherwise? The next time you are tempted, as you consider a generous act, to think that no one sees, that no one shares, that no fruit falls, remember today’s gospel of water on the Sabbath. Follow the eye of the Lord, resting for a moment today on generosity. He teaches us about visible generosity. He delights us with religious generosity. He persuades us of the power of generosity.

Visible Generosity


In the Lukan recollection, Jesus spots a magnanimous, quotidian loosening of regulations. The Sabbath is to be kept. But there is a visible generosity, a leniency, a magnanimity, a forbearance, an embracing acceptance. In short, a generosity visible to all. The cattle lowing, the ox and ass, named early in the manger and now emerging, thirsty, will be watered. Water on the Sabbath. There will be water on the Sabbath and a way to slake an unavoidable thirst.

Isn’t ‘slake’ a marvelous verb? We do not suffer thirst much. But when we do, we know its unavoidable pain. Last spring, here in the Back Bay, and at BU, we had a day or so without potable water. It was a bracing reminder. Come summer, today, with heat and sun, we can wake up to a sharp thirst. We pass over some of the threshold spiritualities too quickly. I remember a glorious WS Coffin sermon, arguing, contra JB Phillips, ‘Your God is Too Large’. The text: Jn 19:28: (Greek: DIPSO), ‘I thirst’. Maybe the spiritual message of winter is the divine intimacy known in the small spirituality: ‘I shiver’. Maybe then the spiritual message of summer is the divine intimacy known in the God who is not too large for the phrase, ‘I thirst’. Hope has two beautiful daughters: anger and courage. (So, St Augustine). Anger to shake off a shiver. Courage to slake a thirst.

The summer is meant for the slaking of thirst. To slake the thirst for rest, we vacation. To slake the thirst for fitness, we exercise. To slake the thirst for meaning, we read. To slake the thirst for adventure, we travel. To slake the thirst for God, we pray. To slake the thirst, the DIPSO, the longing, for heaven, we listen, listen, listen….for the word. For denizens of the northeast, especially, the summer spiritualities MUST be honored, for the rest of the year to unfold.

The eye of the Lord, in Luke today, rests upon generosity. On the Sabbath, of all days, a generous fountain of water is poured out to slake a natural, quotidian, inevitable thirst. Water they need, water they shall have. Follow the way his eye, his mind, point. Follow his gaze. He invites you to look out to where he points. No magic, no mystery, no sacrament, no spiritual insight is required here. For those who will take a moment to look, generosity is visible. Plain as the nose on your face. Plainer still. Plain as the nose on my face. ‘A face made for radio’, as one said. We know, we see, generosity IN OUR OWN EXPERIENCE. The Lord simply points it out.

Luke steps away from the mounting vehemence—utterly regrettable—with which the observant are treated in Paul, then Mark, then later Matthew, and especially in John. Luke (as he does from chapter 9 to chapter 18) tells his own story. But Mark (2) and Matthew (12) and John (5) and so many other NT passages carry the same contrast of Sabbath vs. Water, Water vs. Sabbath. Speaking of thirst slaked: I found myself smiling this summer to read our former colleague Paula Frederiksen’s sharp treatment of this (FROM JESUS TO CHRIST) of some years ago. There is very little balance, no fairness, in the NT portraits of Pharisees and Sabbath. These are set pieces. ‘Why is this night different from every other?’ has become ‘Why is this teacher different from every other?’ And then the set pieces in response about Water and Sabbath.

Which makes our reading so wonderful, so exceptional, itself so generous!

Not for Luke, ‘brood of vipers’ language here. Not for Luke ‘white sepulchers’ language here. Not for Luke ‘before me thieves and robbers’ language here.

Rather Jesus sees generosity.

All across the other 26 books largely we find the requisite contrast. Water vs. Sabbath. The living water vs. the dead letter. The end of the law vs. the law. Grace vs. Law. The requisite combat: Healing Jesus vs. Sabbath Observance.

But in Luke 13 we find a reasonable, a generous voice, pointing to generosity visible among the observant. Here is the closing argument: ‘Now look. Why grumble about whether I may have straightened up and out a spiritual infirmity or two on the Sabbath? Let us reason together. We are not so different, you and I. When necessary, you provide water on the Sabbath. Generous of you, very generous. I see it. See: it is visible in your own experience. Water on the Sabbath. When necessary I provide that water too.’ Not water or Sabbath, but Water on Sabbath.

Can you see, in the mind’s eye, one generosity, genuine generosity? If you follow the Lord’s lead and outlook, you cannot help but see one, somewhere. Somehow it is refreshing, on a Sunday, or on any day, to see again, to LEARN again, to remember the visible generosities.

Religious Generosity


Even in religion, one can stumble across genuine generosity. Even in religion.

In the Lukan recollection, Jesus spots a loosening of religious regulation. In its broadest interpretation, this passage delights us with the remarkable, to our eyes, assertion that religion, even religion, even our own religion, admits of real generosity.

We are rightly reticent to follow Jesus’ gaze here. We have an authentic, gut sense—good sense that is—that we should be more careful, cautious, and critical than we are, normally, about religion. Perhaps this is a modern dilemma. Somehow I doubt that, though. Over time, we come to realize that regarding religion we are not ever as negative, honestly critical, truly and historically candid about religious malevolence as we should be. We forget, pass over, eclipse, offer special pleading.

For robes, stoles, temples, steeples and rituals of all kinds readily and regularly do human harm. A lot of bad can hide in church. And does. Any general applause for religion in general is, in the first instance, highly suspect. So, this winter, when thirst gives way to shiver, we shall brace ourselves in the wind of honesty about religion by remembering Dietrich Bonhoeffer, come Lent. Life Together. Religionless Christianity. Cheap Grace. The Cost of Discipleship.

We have every right, every reason to hold up, to pause here, along the sight line offered. Hum a little of the old spiritual, ‘Have you got good religion? Or bad?’

Yet, even here, SURSUM CORDA, to follow the divine sight line is to see moments—and they are a sheer delight—even in religion. Water on the Sabbath. Water EVEN on the Sabbath.

Before coming to Boston we had the privilege of helping to build a largest new building. (A building by the way is in some ways the quintessential spiritual, not material project, as Daniel Marsh well knew. Another sermon for another day.) The work took almost ten years, from warmup to extra innings. It both occasioned and required multiple, manifold generosities. One of sweetest, hardest, and truest, though, came from left field. I hope you can see the generosity, how delightful it was. It was a religious generosity.

During one piloting session, a young woman said: ‘I think some of us will pay a heavy price for this, which you do not see. We will want to give, truly want to. We see the need, love the Lord, support the church, affirm the direction. We are with you Bob. But we no money. We have no means. So we shall have to support in other ways, and we shall have to bit our lip, when we would LOVE to be able to do what others can, but just cannot. We will need to carry the burden of an unrequited love, a yearning—true, honest, loving, fierce—a longing to do more. (A thirst?). And that will be in some ways our biggest gift’. And she was right. And she did.

I feared for years that our biggest challenge would be people who had means but no desire to be generous (and there was some of that); but what I saw, along a delightful sight line, was the opposite: people who had bountiful desire, but limited means. We had to find a way to do the building without letting a single brick of spiritual disappointment fall on, hurt, genuine—yes, religious—generosity.

Somehow it is refreshing on a Sunday, or any day, to be delighted by real, religious generosity.

Potent Generosity


I recall a Russian poet, jailed for years, who said, when asked how he survived: “I remembered the generosities, the kindnesses I had known”.

In the Lukan recollection, Jesus spots a kind of generosity, simple and real like the watering of livestock, which has the power to influence others. Generosity begets generosity. Just as the greatest cause of war is war, so too with genuine generosity. You remember these simple acts when you see them. They make you more generous yourself. They bear fruit. They are Water on the Sabbath.

I miss preaching, when I am away in the summer. So, often the early fall homilies quickly grow out of all proportion, take off lickety split, and become like the peace of God, passing all understanding and enduring forever. Like zucchini. As this sermon came to life, a past particular Sabbath generosity, utterly humble, knocked at the door. I refused to open, for a time, for it is so humble, dressed in sandals and shorts, not really fit for Sunday worship. But sometimes an illustration tells you it is coming into the sermon, no matter what you think.

One Sunday some years ago Jan and I and our then teenage son were flying home from a wedding on the beach near Pensacola. I think this summer of the glorious ivory sand and shimmering emerald water before which I witnessed the vows that summer. Going home, we had a chance to be ‘bumped’, to pick up an extra later flight by taking a flight later that day. We agreed to do so, but left our son to make his own choice. Whether to stay five or six more hours with his parents, or to fly home to his friends, having spent already three days with mom and dad. He declined to be bumped. His friends were waiting at home. He knew his parents pretty well already, and they were, well, his parents. He wanted to go home. So he told the attendant. I remember what I saw that day.

A beleaguered airline worker, with dozens of people clamoring for his attention, with heat of all kinds mounting, with a plane to fill, seats to assign, simply stopped. He took our son by the arm, and walked a few paces with him. He tried to show him what he was giving up—a few hours now, a trip anywhere later. The fellow had no need to do so—there were umpteen other volunteer. He had many reasons not to do so—tempus fugit. But the two of them talked, laughed, talked. Of course I could see that an avuncular voice is far better than a parental one, in such a moment. Our son smiled. He was, and should have been, honored by the gift of the man’s concern, interest, and engagement. It was water on the Sabbath, a moment of generosity, which reverberates ten years later. It bears fruit, and I think of it when I am tempted to move quickly, or too quickly, from an avuncular conversation myself.

Of course, the son ditched his parents anyway. It was only natural, and in its own way, only right. He quickly got on board his duly ticketed, regularly scheduled flight. But the potent generosity of the moment remains radiantly visible. It is refreshing, on a Sunday—or any day—to see again, to be PERSUADED by the power of generosity.


The eye of the Lord today rests for a moment upon a genuine generosity. If we follow his gaze our eyes too may rest for a moment upon genuine generosity. The next time you are tempted, as you consider a generous act, to think that no one sees, that no one shares, that no fruit falls, remember today’s gospel of water on the Sabbath. Follow the eye of the Lord, resting for a moment today on generosity. He teaches us about visible generosity. He delights us with religious generosity. He persuades us of the power of generosity.

~ The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

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