10 min read

A Splash of Cold Water

Because in a world driven by scarcity and market forces, by competition and consumption, a blessing is completely disruptive. It turns the world right-side up. Because it can’t be earned or taken. It can only be received.
A Splash of Cold Water
Photo by Tadeusz Lakota / Unsplash

Sermon Delivered at The Local Church
Sunday, November 14, 2021
Scripture: 1 Samuel 2:1–10

I heard an interview with Jerry Seinfeld this week on one of my favorite podcasts. And he talked about this life hack I never knew about. Maybe some of you have. Do any of you splash cold water on your face first thing in the morning? He does. This is his life hack. That’s the first thing Jerry Seinfeld does when he wakes up. The secret to his success. Right there. He said he first saw it in a movie, and he called it a game-changer. He said that not only is it refreshing, but it also jolts him into a state of alertness. It wakes him up. Eliminates his grogginess. I did not know this was a thing.

But he said it’s also something he does periodically during the day — not just in the morning. Especially if he’s grumpy or out of sorts or just needs to hit the reset button. Wherever he is, he’ll find a sink and splash cold water on his face. He said it’s like putting on a fresh shirt. You just feel different.

The science backs it up, too. Apparently splashing cold water on your face — especially when you’re feeling anxious — triggers the parasympathetic nervous system — which sort of shocks your the system, distracts you from whatever it was you were feeling anxious about, and lowers your heart rate so you feel better overall.

In other words, splashing cold water on your face creates the disruption. It throws a wrench in your system. It takes you from trending in one direction and can set you on a new course. It switches the track. Whatever metaphor you want to use. It’s a disruption that sets you on a new path.

It’s this same sort of disruption that Hannah feels. Our passage today is from the book of 1 Samuel in the Old Testament. The Old Testament, remember, is the story of God and God’s people and God’s love for the world before Jesus. You might also hear it called the Hebrew Bible. And the books of 1 and 2 Samuel essentially tell the story of the rise of the monarchy for the Jewish people in Israel. In other words, what does life look like for God’s people under the rule of a king which is something they’d be clamoring for?

But before there’s a king there’s Samuel. Samuel was a prophet. And he’s the son of Hannah who is one of two wives of a man named Elkanah. And today’s passage is a song of praise from Hannah. In a few weeks, during Advent, we’ll hear Mary’s Magnificat — a song of praise from Mary, mother of Jesus, who borrows heavily from Hannah’s song here.

And Hannah’s praise of God in her song is overflowing. It’s effusive.

Hannah sings, “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.”

In other words, my heart is exploding in love and gratitude and praise for what God has done.

She sings, “There is no Holy One like the Lord; there is no Rock like our God.”

In other words, God is the foundation. God is the one who gives us our grounding. Who anchors us.

And if you listen closely to the rest of her song, so much of it also speaks of reversal. The words she prays and sings describe something new that maybe once had been trending in a different direction but are now on a new course.

I mean, just listen again to these words that Hannah sings:

The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap and gives them a seat of honor.

You can hear that reversal there, can’t you?

Where once there was hopelessness and death, God brings life.

Where once there was poverty, God brings abundance.

Where once there was disempowerment, God gives power.

And Hannah’s not just singing about this reversal because she’s heard about it. She’s not just singing about it because it’s trending on Twitter. Hannah is singing about it because she’s lived this reversal. This is her story.

Because before there was a song of praise, there was a prayer of lament.

Just a chapter earlier, at the very beginning of the book of Samuel, Hannah is praying at the temple in a place called Shiloh. Hannah wants a child, but she’s been unable to conceive — year in and year out — this in a time when a woman’s worth was based on her ability to bear children. And she is heartbroken. She wonders where God is in all of it. The passage says that even though her husband would give her plenty of food and drink, she couldn’t eat it. All she could do was weep.

And so the story goes that in a moment of sheer resilience and audacity and grit and grace, Hannah gets up and goes to the temple to pray. And in her prayer, she’s putting it all out there. She brings her whole self — years of heartache and frustration and bitterness. The author says that she’s “deeply distressed… and wept bitterly.”

You can hear the contrast, can’t you?

And the priest there at the temple, a man named Eli, sees her praying, and at first he thinks she’s been drinking. That’s how hard — how fervently — she’s praying. How intense it is. Eli basically says, “You’re making a spectacle of yourself. Put away your wine.” But Hannah responds, “No, I’m not drunk. I’m praying. I’m pouring my soul out.”

And once Eli realizes his mistake, there’s this beautiful moment, and when I imagine it, I can see Eli’s shoulders relax, his eyes grow kind, and his face soften. In this moment he sees her no longer with skepticism but with love. He sees her as God sees her. He looks at Hannah and says, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.”

In other words, Eli offers a blessing to Hannah. He blesses her.

And with that blessing, Hannah returns home, is able to eat and drink again, and the story describes how “her countenance was sad no longer.”

You see, that blessing for Hannah was like a splash of cold water to the face.

Because Eli saw her. Really saw her. He saw her as God sees her. It was a humanizing moment. In those words of peace and prayer and compassion and love, those words of blessing disrupted her hopelessness, her grief, her agony — even if just for a moment — and turned her toward something new.

I need to pause and mention that this story, Hannah’s story, can be a really hard one to hear, especially for those who have struggled with infertility or pregnancy loss. It is really hard to hear and sit with the story of someone like Hannah who is described as barren and then prays really hard and then conceives and bears a child.

And so if your story is one that has featured infertility or pregnancy loss, first, I want you to know that you’re not alone. It can feel so lonely, but you’re not alone. It’s a part of my family’s story, too. And if this raises questions in you that you want to wrestle with or talk about and pray like Hannah prayed, I’m here. Or if you’d prefer to talk to someone else, I get it, and I’m happy to point you in a safe and trusted direction.

And second, I want you to know that this story is not an archetype. This is Hannah’s story. It’s not a universal story. And so it’s not meant to be a blueprint or a roadmap for all people everywhere. I need to name all of that before we press on.

But where I do think this story can be an archetype for us is in Eli’s blessing and in Hannah’s response.

And by blessing, sometimes we might think that means an extra $200 in your bank account or getting an A on the test you didn’t study for or the cancer miraculously gone. And while, sure, those might be one way of thinking about blessing — #blessed — I’m thinking about something a little different today.

I’m thinking of blessing as something simpler. Something more low key. I’m thinking of a blessing as anything that helps us see and be seen as Jesus sees, that gives us a little hope, and reorients us toward God’s economy. I’m thinking of blessing as that which, however briefly and though it won’t fix everything, gives us a taste of life in God’s kingdom.

And that’s like a splash of cold water. Just like it is for Hannah. It reorients her. It disrupts her. It throws a wrench in the downward spiral and switches tracks from hopelessness and heartache to one headed toward healing.

When Eli blesses Hannah, this disruption is the catalyst for the reversal she’ll sing about. And I don’t know about you, but I think our world could use a little more blessing.

Last week, I shared this image that I’ve been thinking about to describe our current climate. About how we’re right now trying to run at the same pace we were running when the world shut down in early 2020, but for a whole host of reasons, we’re realizing that we don’t have the capacity we once did to keep that same pace. And so we’re wearing thin. We’re feeling exhausted. We’re barely hanging on. So many of you this week told me that you’re feeling that, too. Someone else said, “I wonder if we’re discovering that we weren’t in good shape to begin with.”

And so perhaps the blessing we need is something that brings a little ease and comfort to another’s life. Something that lifts a burden, turns a day around, and makes you feel less alone.

Or maybe it’s a blessing that disrupts the economy in which you spend most of your days. I was talking with a friend this week about how it sometimes feels like we’re allergic to blessing because it’s just so counter to the way the world works. A blessing is surprising.

Because in a world driven by scarcity and market forces, by competition and consumption, a blessing is completely disruptive. It turns the world right-side up. Because it can’t be earned or taken. It can only be received. You don’t buy it. It’s given freely and generously. It’s not reserved for a few, and it isn’t hampered by supply chain issues. There’s an endless supply, and it’s available to all.

And so when it comes our way, we often don’t know what to do with it. It’s hard for us to receive it sometimes because it’s so strange. We might deflect. We might downplay. We might dodge.

When what we really need is simply an openness — a letting go — to receive it from another. Perhaps that’s what this time and space is about. To let this time be a splash of cold water that changes us and reorients us by God’s grace — a blessing from the holy that refreshes us and jolts us awake, that points us to something different — so that we can then take that blessing with us and offer it to a world that is also at once yearning for it and resistant to it. Just like us.

This is the gift that the church has to offer. To bless as we have been blessed. To see as Jesus sees. To disrupt those forces, those powers and principalities, the lies that say this is all there is — and point to a different way. To help bring about that reversal that Hannah sings about — all by God’s grace.

And this is what we do at The Local Church. This is what we’re about.

We do it through our Comfort Food initiative — the brainchild of Dan Harper and Matt Paysour, coordinated by Annabelle Smith. It’s the blessing of a meal to someone who could use it — just because. It’s our way of saying, “Hey, we see you. We love you. We’re with you. God is, too.”

It happened yesterday as a handful of us gathered to help organize the items that so many of you have donated to help resettle Afghan refugee families — to bless them with a sense of the home and welcome found in God’s embrace.

It’s going to happen right after the service — and we’d love for you to stick around for it — as we make blessing bags that contain items of comfort for people in need and can be kept in your cars and handed out as you see fit. A way of saying, “You’re not alone, and you’re not forgotten — not by us and especially not by God.”

It’ll happen this Advent through our Angel Tree and the Diaper Drive. (More details soon.) It happens when you’re here and a song that Rajeev and the team lead becomes an ear-worm for you throughout the week. It happens when we receive Holy Communion and experience a table where no one is excluded, where Jesus meets us, and where we’re empowered with blessing to be a blessing. We receive love to give it.

Each of these blessings a splash of cold water in a world that is parched. Each of these blessings a disruption. Each of these blessings bringing the potential for reversal by God’s grace.

When it comes down to it, maybe this is why we’re here. Why you’re on the livestream. To experience blessing and then to share it.

Theologian and priest Henri Nouwen once told this story of a time when he was leading a chapel service at L’Arche in Toronto — a community where adults with and without intellectual and physical disabilities share life and friendship with one another. At the end of this chapel service, a woman named Janet came up to him and asked him for a blessing. But Henri was distracted, so he simply made the sign of a cross on her forehead and then tried to send her on her way.

But Janet protested, “No! I want a real blessing.”

Henri softened in much the same way Eli did, and he promised that at the next service, he’d give her a special blessing.

And so at the next service, he announced to those who’d gathered that Janet had asked for a special blessing. He wasn’t quite sure what she was after, but Janet walked up and gave Henri this big hug. And as Henri returned it, he looked in her eyes and said:

“Janet, I want you to know that you are God's Beloved Daughter. You are precious in God's eyes. Your beautiful smile, your kindness to the people in your house, and all the good things you do show what a beautiful human being you are. I know you feel a little low these days and that there is some sadness in your heart, but I want you to remember who you are: a very special person, deeply loved by God and all the people who are here with you.”

Having received this blessing, Janet sat down. But then someone else stood up and said, “I want a blessing, too.” And she walked forward, embraced Henri, and Henri said, “It’s so good you’re here. You are God’s beloved daughter…” And then one-by-one, they all came forward for their blessing. They all came forward to have their faces splashed with that cold water — and hear the words, “It’s so good you’re here… You are God’s beloved…”

Right now, if we have ears to hear it, Janet’s plea for a real blessing is echoing in so many places. And this is why we’re here.

Friends, it’s so good you’re here. You are God’s beloved…