A Cup of Water
30 September 2018
First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The Rev. W. Mark Koenig
On the night of December 13, 1862, the Confederate army held the high ground outside of Fredericksburg, Virginia. They had dug in behind a stone wall on Marye’s Heights that rose about 50 feet above an empty plain that stretched some 600 yards from the town itself.
That day, fifteen different Federal units had attacked the Heights – moving across the plain in futile rush after futile rush. The closest the Federal troops came to the wall was 25 yards in some locations, 40 yards in others.
In the darkness, ambulances removed the wounded soldiers. But they could not reach the men who had advanced the farthest against the storm of lead that poured upon them from behind the wall.
As the dawn broke on December 14, wounded, dying men still lay where they had fallen. They called for loved ones. They cried out for a merciful death to ease their pain. They begged for water.
After what must have seemed an eternity, an amazing thing happened. A Confederate soldier crossed the wall and went to the wounded, dying men to offer water from a canteen. When they realized what he was doing, the Federals held their fire. The man, probably Sergeant Richard Kirkland from South Carolina, is known as the “Angel of Marye’s Heights” because of his efforts to ease the suffering of those from the other side.[i] Sergeant Kirkland was killed in action before the war ended; that is one of the reasons the identity of the Angel is uncertain.
Jesus taught that in the least of the human family, in the most oppressed, the most vulnerable, we meet him.[ii] A soldier lying wounded under the guns of those who are called the enemy seems to be vulnerable, seems to be the least. What the “Angel of Marye’s Heights” did was certainly done to Jesus.
“I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”
I may never fully appreciate the power of Jesus’s words. I have been thirsty from time to time. There have been days when the water has been shut off for a few hours. I can remember once or twice when we had to boil water. But for 99% of my life, I have been able to turn on a spigot and receive safe, clean water.
People who live in Flint, Michigan. People who live on the Navajo Nation. People who live in other places in our country and around the world where there is no water, or the water is filled with lead or some mineral runoff or other poison know too well how important water is.
The people who heard Jesus understood. The land where Jesus lived is not a desert in the sense of miles and miles of sand dunes. But it is an arid land. It is a place where water is scarce and water is precious. The people who lived in Judea and Samaria almost 2,000 years ago knew well what the indigenous peoples who gathered at Standing Rock to protect the Missouri River remind the world: “Mni Wiconi – water is life.” Little reason that Jesus praised giving a cup of water to drink as a sacred act.
Our country passed through an emotional wringer this past week. The nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to serve on the Supreme Court has been contentious and controversial from the moment it was made. The drama and the trauma exploded exponentially when women came forward with allegations of sexual assault by the nominee.
After much wrangling, the Senate Judiciary Committee agreed to hear one of those women, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, testify. On Thursday, Dr. Blasey Ford told her story to the committee and responded to questions. The nominee did the same. It was a grueling day for those in Washington and for those across the country who relieved painful violations as the questioning proceeded and the news media dissected every statement.
The Committee reconvened on Friday to consider what to say to the full Senate. After several hours of statements and debate the Senators voted, along straight party lines, to send the nomination forward with a recommendation for approval. Although, one Senator voted yes only with the understanding that there be an FBI investigation, within a week, of Dr. Blasey Ford’s allegations. Such an investigation appears to be moving forward.
The process was emotional. Painful. Wrenching. Disconcerting. Anger, deep anger, bubbled near the surface and sometimes spewed forth like unrestrained lava bursting from a volcano. Two exceptions, two individuals who showed no little or anger, were Dr. Blasey Ford and attorney Rachel Mitchell who asked questions for the Republicans for a portion of the hearing. Both women.
Senators behaved badly. Barely restraining their words. Attacking each other. Raising their voices. Resorting to exaggeration and hyperbole. Demeaning each other. Attributing base motives to their colleagues with no evidence.
Twitter and social media exploded with fury at all the parties involved. In the days before the hearing, we learned that Dr. Blasey Ford had received death threats. During the hearing, we learned that Judge Kavanaugh had received death threats. After the hearing, we learned that Senator Flake who helped broker the compromise to have an FBI investigation, has received death threats.
This was far from the Senate’s finest moment. This was far from the finest moment for the United States.
The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing takes place at a time when we have heard a great deal about sexual assault, sexual violence, and sexual abuse. Bill Cosby was recently sentenced to prison following his conviction on charges of drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand at his home 14 years ago. As many as 60 other women have made similar charges.[iii]
Women, and men, have charged other individuals with inappropriate sexual contact of various sorts. Some have lost jobs. Some appear to go on with life as though nothing had happened. A few, a very few, have admitted their actions and resigned from their jobs or stepped out of the limelight.
Sexual assault is primarily directed against women and girls, but it happens to men and boys as well. Most perpetrators of sexual assault are men, but there are a few instances of women perpetrating such assaults against men or other women.
But abuse is not limited to the Roman Catholic Church. It has happened in our own Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Children have been abused on the mission field where Presbyterians served.[vi] Abuse has also occurred by Presbyterian youth leaders and pastors in this country.[vii]
A 2016 study revealed that 84 percent of Presbyterian female clergy have experienced discrimination, prejudice or harassment based upon their gender.[viii] While discrimination, prejudice, and harassment do not necessarily rise to the level of assault, they may. And they create an atmosphere in which assault may occur. Former Co-Moderator, the Rev. Denise Anderson writes, “most heinous behaviors have their beginnings elsewhere. They are undergirded by our commonly accepted practices and the things we never interrogate. When we don’t take care to pay women with equity, it doesn’t happen. When we aren’t intentional about examining our biases and respecting women’s leadership, it doesn’t happen. And if we can’t even trust women to make decisions about something as simple as their hair, how will we ever believe them when they come forward with their stories of abuse?”[ix]
The multiple allegations spurred the #MeToo movement in which women, transgender people, and men, told their stories and added the hashtag #MeToo. For people unwilling to share their story, who found it too painful to tell their story, who felt unsafe if they were to tell their story, who could not bring themselves to tell one more time a story that had been consistently disbelieved, denied and dismissed, the simple use of the #metoo hashtag served to affirm their experience.
#ChurchToo became used to refer to assault or abuse in the church. One of my seminary professors writes “I can’t even remember the names of all the men on my #ChurchToo list.”[x]What she remembers is the power and the privilege they held. In the end, sexual assault is not about sex. It is about power and control; privilege and violence.
No matter the gender or age of the person who commits the assault; no matter the gender or age of the person who is assaulted; all such actions are sin. The state defines different actions as different types of crime. To those who follow Jesus, all such actions violate the image of God in which each person is made and so are sin.
There’s a lot to process in what I have already said. I have identified some important dynamics and pointed in some necessary directions. I am happy to have further conversations with folks about the issues and concerns I have raised.
This morning, I want to say two more things.
First, we have witnessed amazing courage this week. Bruce Springsteen sings about “courage you can understand.”[xi] As I watched Dr. Blasey Ford testify, I saw courage I cannot understand. I stood in awe of her grace and strength as she presented her story and responded to questions in a hostile setting under enormous pressure and the glare of the world media. Her courage proved contagious and people found their voices and told their stories because of her.
But know this. If someone has sexually abused or sexually assaulted you and you are a human being, you are courageous. You are courageous for working through and living with that trauma every single day. You are courageous if you find your voice and lift it protest and a call for justice. And you are courageous even if you never speak a word aloud. You are courageous. You are not alone. You are stronger than you imagine. And you are beloved by God. Do not ever forget that.[xii]
Second, I believe that amid the stress and trauma of the days before the hearing and the stress and the trauma of the hearing and the vote and the stress and trauma of waiting for what comes next, I believe there were moments of kindness, glimpses of grace, tender mercies, acts of love. To use the image of Jesus in our gospel lesson, cups of water were shared.
We learned that 10-year-old Liza Kavanagh prayed for Dr. Blasey Ford. A cup of water.
Maria Gallagher from Westchester and Ana Maria Archila, who is a native of Queens confronted Arizona Senator Jeff Flake at an elevator inside the U.S. Capitol.[xiii] As they spoke, Mr. Flake nodded and looked down, his eyes darting between the women, the floor, and the elevator walls. “I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me,” Ms. Gallagher said. “I didn’t tell anyone, and you’re telling all women that they don’t matter.” Fighting back tears, she demanded the senator’s attention. “Don’t look away from me,” she said. “Look at me and tell me that it doesn’t matter what happened to me.” This marked one of the first times either woman had publicly shared their accounts of sexual assault. Ms. Archila said she was moved to tell her story after seeing Dr. Blasey’s testimony.[xiv] Sometimes cups of water are delivered with tough love.
Senator Flake took his stand for an FBI investigation after conversation with colleagues, Republican and Democrat alike. While reports indicate he talked to several Senators, it seems likely that his conversation with Senator Chris Coons proved pivotal. Senators Flake and Coons rarely vote together but they have become friends. For a moment that friendship became a cup of water as friendships often do.
Women and men, who had profoundly painful memories rekindled, and grievous wounds reopened, found comfort in Facebook posts by strangers and in the presence of friends. Cups of water.
Friends I have known for years thanked me for my simple words of kindness and support posted on Facebook. They shared parts of their story with me that I did not know and for which I weep. They reminded me that courage is contagious. And sometimes we do not know when we pass along a cup of water.
“I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”
In the week ahead, I give you two homework assignments.
Look around you for people who are sharing cups of water.
Look around you for ways you can share cups of water in the name of Christ.
Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Fred Rogers, or Mister Rogers as he is better known, said that “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”[xv]
I believe that in our passage for today, Jesus says something similar with the image of sharing a cup of water.
When scary things happen, when life become unsettling and threatening, look for the people who are acting with kindness, who are showing love, who are sharing cups of water.
When scary things happen, when life become unsettling and threatening, be the people who act with kindness, who love, who share cups of water in the name of Jesus.
May it be so. Amen.
[ii] Matthew 25:31-46
[iv] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/12/world/europe/german-church-sex-abuse-children.html. A study in Germany reports that more than 3,600 children, most age 13 or younger, were sexually abused by Catholic clergy members over the past seven decades by at least 1,670 church workers.
[v] https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/19/us/catholics-react-pennsylania-sex-abuse/index.html. In August, a study notes that over the past 70 years in six Pennsylvania dioceses, 300 Catholic priests abused more than 1,000 children.
[xi] “Nothing Man,” https://songmeanings.com/songs/view/3458764513820554674/.
[xii] This paragraph grew out of a Facebook exchange with Hannah Truxell.