Tex Sample, a United Methodist Minister from the US, tells a story of himself as a teenager doing work after high school as he prepared for college. Tex was employed on a truck, along with an older black man. They were a team and 18 year-old Tex was the ‘boss’ because he was white (despite knowing very little about the work!). Their job was to follow along behind a drilling team a few days after their work. The drilling team were searching for oil and Tex and his ‘offsider’ (Jim) went in and pulled the pipes out of the holes to be re-used.
On one particular day, the water can they used to provide drinking water through the course of a very hot and dry work, was missing from the truck. Ignorant, arrogant and naïve Tex said they needn’t worry as there would be somewhere on the road to buy water or drink. Old Jim silently went out the back of the station and found a rusty old tin can, slapped the excess rust and mess from it and filled it with tepid water from a tap. He got in the truck and carefully placed the tin can between his feet. Tex inwardly gloated as he cast a glance at the dirty tin can with water and floating flecks of rust and a thin film of oil. Old Jim just looked straight ahead – this was the time of segregation and before Civil Rights. Jim knew his place. He also knew how to be prepared on a hot day.
The first drilling hole came up soon enough and they worked hard to pull the pipes from the hole. It was tough work and took an hour. Even thought the morning was still early, there had been little decrease in the heat overnight and they were sweating profusely by the time they finished. Back in the truck, Tex was thirsty but stoic and confident there would be soon a shop. Meanwhile, Jim quietly blew the flecks and oil film back and took a deep drink. He finished and carefully placed the tin back between his feet, always looking straight forward. This happened another two times and by late-morning, Tex’s stoicism had become sheer stupid stubbornness, exacerbated by the racism of his age. He was suffering serious effects of dehydration and heat stroke. He had a worsening headache, his vision began blurring and he no longer sweated, despite the hot sun. They got back in the truck and Jim carefully pulled up the tin, blew flecks away and drank of the water. Tex knew he had to have water – he was in desperate trouble. He didn’t know what to do or how to do it. He had never drunk from the same cup as a black man and he didn’t know how to ask for help from a black man – it was not in his experience and always the other way round.
In the midst of this crisis, Tex’s racism could not be sustained and his need for water was more vital than maintaining status quo. In a broken and vulnerable voice, he asked:
‘Uh Jim could I… can I… would you mind if I…uh…had…a drink from your can?’
Jim replied, ‘no, suh, Boss, help yourself.’ He handed the can to Tex who looked into the dirty can where there was more concentrated rust flecks and oil but a couple of inches of water never looked so beautiful! He drank the most delicious water he had ever had and Jim looked carefully ahead. There was no gloating, no arrogance only humility. As he drank, it occurred to Tex that this was Holy Communion. This dirty, rusty can was the chalice with the wine, symbolic of Christ’s blood and he had just drunk and experienced life. The warm, rusty water was a gift of life and somehow, mysteriously, God was present in this experience. Somehow God was present in this strange place where a black man and a white teenager had shared a rusty tin can with water – something that would never happen in real life beyond this place.
Tex thanked Jim and they drove off to find a shop and more water. They bought food and sat under a shade tree and ate together – they broke bread. Tex expresses his shame in the way things played out between himself and a black man, the racism inherent in the system of his life that was to change as he grew and began to understand. Never-the-less, in this moment grace broke in and enabled something that was deeply profound in his world. Jim’s gift of water saved him from serious health problems that day.
This week we read the story of Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:13-17). It is simple in the telling but profound upon reflection. Jesus identifies with the ordinary people who have come forward seeking meaning, forgiveness, healing and life. He enters into the way of people drawn to John and seeks baptism, committing himself into this way John speaks of and invites people into. John protests that he should be baptised by Jesus but Jesus rejects this and submits to John’s ministry. As he comes up through the waters of the Jordan River, the heaven part and the Spirit descends in the form of a dove upon him and a voice calls from heaven: ‘This is my own dear Son, my beloved. With him I am well pleased.’ Jesus is then driven into the wilderness to be tempted and tested for 40 days.
Jesus submits to the way of God and God’s voice affirms that Jesus is beloved and pleasing. In this God affirms the way of Jesus as the Divine way in the world. The radical paths that Jesus will take are the identified ways of God – eating with ordinary and lowly people, those with bad reputations and caring for outcasts. He stands against the powers that oppress and calls for mercy and justice. He says the wealthy must share with the poor – to give up their money (and greed). Jesus calls for all people to give themselves into the way of love, justice, peace and hope and to be inclusive and generous to friend and stranger. He also urges us to pray for and forgive those who hurt us and be people of forgiveness and reconciliation. The way of humility, vulnerability and service are affirmed as God’s way in the world
In this story we encounter the 3 persons of the Trinity represented in baptised ‘Son,’ descending ‘Spirit’ and the ‘Father’s’ voice of blessing. We are invited to share in the blessing that is proclaimed and live into the life that God has created in us and for us, a life of inclusive grace where there is enough for everyone. All creatures – and the earth itself – live within the generous peace and abundance of God.
In this story we encounter God in the simple that becomes profound – water and baptism that cleanses, renews and invites us into something new and bigger, more profound. We are told of the Spirit’s descent as a dove and a voice from heaven that calls out love and blessing. Through this season of Epiphany, we will encounter wonder and mystery in the simple things that reveal the Divine in awe-inspiring moments and experiences. As Tex Sample experienced grace in the midst of deep thirst from an unexpected place, so we may find God lurking in the simple and ordinary and yet unexpected. In the simplicity of water that quenches thirst, Tex saw revealed the wonders of grace – Holy Communion, the blood of Christ come to him through a black man’s generosity and wisdom. Where will we experience the mystery and wonder of God?