Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time.
1 Kings 17:5b-16
[Elijah] went and lived by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi. But after a while the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.
I don’t know much about football, but from the post-game interviews, it appears to involve a great deal of digging.
“They had to dig deep” say the coaches. “I knew I had to dig deep,” say the players. “How did you dig deep?” say the interviewers. “Oh, they dug deep and pulled out the win,” say the commentators.
It’s such a cliché metaphor that there’s even a Dig Deep Football Training Program in Michigan, founded by William Cooper. Everybody wants to learn how to dig deep.
It’s a cliché, but it’s overused because it works. When you dig a well, you put a lot of hard working digging through a lot of nothing. A lot of dirt and sand and rock. The water’s way down below your feet, water that will restore you, refresh you, keep you alive, but to get there—you have to dig deep. And more than that, you have to trust that the water’s down there, that it’ll be worth it, that you won’t just be shoveling rock until you peter out and collapse.
Athletes trust that they have a reserve of energy, strength, and precision inside them, if they can push through the fatigue. And while I can’t report this first-hand, I’ve been told it’s exhilarating out there on the field, when you finally find the well, and get your resources renewed. It’s one thing to win a game because it was easy the whole time and you barely had to try. It’s another to win a game because you nearly didn’t make it, and somehow, then, you did.
We’re not all athletes here, but I expect we’ve all had that moment, the rush of realizing there’s more inside us than we thought. Whether it’s a project at work, a relationship gone rocky, our mental health, or even our own life of faith, we all know what it feels like to be working and working and working with no reward, and suddenly to taste cool water on our lips when we finally get that breakthrough.
Our scripture today is about a woman who dug deep. It’s a wonderful story from the Old Testament, part of a larger novella about the prophet Elijah. Elijah has been on the run for challenging Israel’s queen, Jezebel, and her false god Ba’al. Ironically, God sends Elijah straight into Jezebel’s home country to hide, and sends a drought along with him. For a little bit Elijah survives on a wadi, which isn’t even properly a river but just a shallow valley that holds water in the rainy season. But he can’t live off this shallow water forever. When it dries up, he has to seek a deeper well.
And it turns out that the deep well he finds is not a structure, but a person.
God sends Elijah to Zarephath, to a widow who is also caught up in the land’s famine. Elijah asks her for a little water—just a little water—no more. He’s lived off shallow sips from the wadi so long that he can’t imagine what it would be to drink deep. She goes to fetch it, but then he asks for bread too, just a crumb, but that’s too much. The woman breaks.
“There’s nothing,” she says. “Just grain and oil, and I’m making that as a last meal for my son and I. After that, there’s really nothing. We’re going to die.”
Elijah tells her not to be afraid. He tells her to make him a little cake of the grain and oil, and then to do the same for her and her son, because the oil and the grain will not run out, not until it rains again and the famine is lifted.
And that’s what happens. I can’t imagine being in the widow’s shoes, giving her last bit of food to a stranger, praying and praying that his God—his God, whom she has never worshipped, never known, never heard stories about—will provide.
And God does, but I think there are two miracles in this story, not just the miracle of the self-replenishing food, but also the miracle of the widow’s trust. She prepared to sacrifice her last meal—and not just her’s, but her son’s—because she trusted Elijah, and trusted his promise of a God who would provide.
That’s digging deep, as far as I’m concerned. To be exhausted and starving and to meet a stranger by the gates and find you still have the faith to trust him. How deep did the widow have to dig inside herself to believe Elijah’s words?
It is stewardship season, and this year I’m asking you to dig deep. I know that for many of us, the wadi has dried up and the jar of oil is looking pretty empty. And unlike Elijah, I can’t promise you that if you give your last dollar to the church, God will make sure your bank account never runs dry.
But I can ask you to take the widow’s faith as an example, her willingness to trust, and to sacrifice, and ask yourself how deeply you are able to give. Even if it’s the same amount as last year—even if it’s less than last year, because let’s be honest, things have really changed—I’m asking you to dig deep, and to give meaningfully.
A professor of mine at seminary told a story from his days pastoring a congregation. Each year they ran a stewardship campaign exhorting the congregation to bring their tithes of treasure to the throne of God. And each year they fell a little bit more behind.
They brought in a consultant. “Ask people directly,” he said. “Ask them to give more.”
No one liked the idea, but they’d paid good money to the consultant, so with fear and trembling the elders made their first stop, to an older woman who’d been a member forever, a widow who was known to be sweet and polite and probably wouldn’t throw them out on their ear for daring to talk about money.
“Mrs. Perkins,” they said, once they’d sat in her living room with a plate of cookies. “Have you thought about what you’ll give to the church this year?”
“Of course,” she replied. “I’ll give what I always give. I’ve been faithful in my giving since 1972, when Harold and I joined. Now he’s gone but I still give.”
The elders looked at their sheet. True to her word, Mrs. Perkins had given faithfully. $5 a week, since 1972.
Now the elders had a sense that Mrs. Perkins was fairly comfortable financially, but even so, the next question was awkward. “Mrs. Perkins,” one of them finally ventured, “$5 a week doesn’t stretch quite as far now as it did in 1972. Have you ever thought about increasing your giving?”
Mrs. Perkins set down her cookie on her plate. “Well…” she said slowly. “No I haven’t. No one ever asked me.”
The elders looked at each other. “Please consider it. We think you could really help the church.”
A month later Mrs. Perkins sat in my professor’s office with a pledge card. “I had my daughter figure out the inflation,” she told him. “I was never good with numbers. But it still seemed a little low when I got to thinking about it. I love this church, and I want others to have the same chance Harold and I did to be here.” She handed over her pledge card with a new number on it for the first time in 20 years. And before she left, she told the pastor. “Thanks for asking. I don’t think anyone ever thought I was worth asking before.”
Now not everyone reacted to being asked to give directly the way Mrs. Perkins did. My professor has his horror stories too. But that sentence stuck with him: “no one ever thought I was worthasking.” For Mrs. Perkins, being asked to deepen her giving told her that the church still valued her, still thought there was a well of hope and trust inside her that could refresh them all.
The widow of Zarephath thought she was going to give until it killed her. Instead she gave until it fed her.
I am in a financial position where five or even twenty dollars doesn’t break my bank. And so when I give twenty dollars to a friend’s Facebook fundraiser, I don’t get anything from it except a fleeting sense of dogooderism, gone as soon as I scroll past. But I know in my life that when I give so that I notice, when I give so deeply that it’s just a little bit of a sacrifice, then my giving means something to me. Then I come to see it, to experience it, as God’s goodness working through me, as my faithfulness bearing real fruit in the world.
Please don’t give until it kills you. Please don’t give until it hurts. But please do give until it feeds you—until it feeds your soul, in knowing deeply that you are a generous person, a valuable person, a faithful person, a needed person. Please dig until you hit that well of resources inside you, of hopefulness and trust and joyful generosity—and then share what you have found with us.
We’re all thirsty here.
There is Living Water in this place, friends. Let’s dig deep until we find it.