For The Someday Book

Day Seven: Living Water, Living Stones

Posted on: February 3, 2012

Today was our free day, designed by the Macedonian Ministries Program to give us space to reflect, pray, wander, and rest during this powerful experience. And, at last, we had beautiful weather! Temperatures rose into the 60s, and the sun shone all day long. We all felt re-energized by the sunshine and the soft schedule of the day.

View of the Sea of Galilee, looking south from Tiberias.

I traveled with a small group into the closest town, Tiberias, which is about 12 miles away from the Pilgerhaus. We caught a public bus at the main road, and just wandered around to see the sites and experienced the local culture. We meandered into local shops, enjoyed a “falafel complex” where vendors offered all kinds of free samples to coax you to stop for lunch, found the tourist district and boardwalk, and even visited the tomb of Moses Maimonides.

Promenade in downtown Tiberias

Tomb of Moses Maimonides, also known as RamBam

This was the first time since I arrived in Israel that 20th century history was in evidence more than ancient history. Waiting at the bus stop, we saw several caravans of Israeli Defense Force vehicles accompanying UN vehicles. They were headed toward the Golan Heights, perhaps to the Syrian border as that country verges on civil war. Tiberias was the first place we have visited on the trip that was not designed for foreign tourists, and we made an effort to seek out local culture and observe ordinary life. When we read Mitri Raheb’s book I Am a Palestinian Christian, he talked about looking in the Holy Land for the “living stones,” the people who live in this land and whose stories intertwine with the history and place. In Tiberias, I went to see the living stones.

Goofing off with the guys at the falafel stand where we ate lunch. They let Tom in the booth to pose cutting the meat.

Tiberias was originally a Roman city in the time of Jesus. After the exile of the Jews in 135 CE, many settled in Tiberias, where they lived together with the local population. The town was very important during the Middle Ages, and houses the graves of two important rabbis, Akiva and Moses Maimonides. However, by 1948, Tiberias had a strong Arab population. They were forced out in the 1948 war, and there were tensions that followed.

The ruins of the city wall in Tiberias, built in the 18th and 19th centuries.

We saw all around us evidence of this tense 20th century history. There were city walls, erected in the 18th and 19th century by a Bedouin ruler, that had fallen into ruin. More haunting, however, were the abandoned mosques. As we turned a corner from the main shopping thoroughfare, we entered a small plaza with an old building at the center. Just as we were beginning to investigate, a clear American voice behind us said, “It’s an abandoned mosque. It was a beautiful mosque, but there was trouble and fighting during the Intifada, so they had to close it down.” She introduced herself as Dina. Originally from Flatbush, New York, she had emigrated to Israel 30 years ago. She said she was meeting with a group the next day headed by a pastor from something called “Return Ministries.” I can surmise from that connection that Dina is a Jewish Zionist who has allied herself with evangelical Christians who advocate the return of all Jews to Israel as a precondition of the Second Coming. A disturbing collaboration has developed between the Christian and Jewish fundamentalists in which government policy is being shaped by right-wing religious ideology.

Abandoned mosque in downtown Tiberias

View through the window into the vacant mosque.

The array of cultural costumes was much more on display in Tiberias, as we began to see more ultra-orthodox and Hasidic Jews. The Hasidic Jews may or may not have been ultra-orthodox, but they were definitely not friendly toward Americans. I was struck by the different pattern of restrictions around dress. In most conservative religious cultures, the strict attention to garments applies mostly to women. In ultra-orthodox Judaism, the implements of religious dress belong almost exclusively to men—the distinctive curls, the hats and suits, the phylacteries and tefillin are all male garments. The women were dressed modestly, but they were indistinguishable from other women on the streets.

We also saw large numbers of young soldiers from the Israeli Defense Forces. They are striking in their youth, as all citizens serve after their 18th birthday. Men serve for three years, women for two. One member of our group pondered aloud, “What would these kids do if things got messy?” All of them, men and women, moved through the shops and restaurants in uniform. Even though they were clearly not on duty, they all had large automatic weapons strapped to their shoulders.

As we head toward Jerusalem, I know these modern political battles will be increasingly a part of our experience. The security wall will be in plain sight everywhere, and we will cross through checkpoints to get to Bethlehem. The pace will be faster, and city life bustling with crowds of people. The teeming energy of the city will, I suspect, overpower the beauty of the natural landscape that was so powerful in the Galilee.

I have to confess: I don’t want to go to Jerusalem. It has been beautiful here by the side of the lake, so peaceful and spacious and serene. Jerusalem seems dirty and crowded and noisy by comparison, and I wish we could linger here for another week of peace.

I also resist because I know what happens to the story in Jerusalem. Not only does it become noisy and crowded, but violent. Jesus in Galilee is a preacher of peace on hillsides, a bringer of food at the lakeshore, a healer of the sick in the homes of his followers. Jesus in Jerusalem is a political threat, an agitator of the Temple authorities, a constant source of conflict, and eventually a victim of violence via Roman execution on a cross. I am not eager to face this part of the story. I wish Jesus’ story began and ended in Galilee, with nice stories of village life and people living in harmony.

View of the lush Galilee, from the top of the Mount of Beatitudes.

But that was not the ending of Jesus’ journey, and neither will it be the end of ours. On to Jerusalem we must go, and face the consequences.

Before we left, I went down to the Sea of Galilee to say goodbye. I didn’t plunge all the way in this time, but I did take off my shoes, roll up my jeans and wade out. I wanted to feel the water again, to remember its healing power and cleansing strength before the dust and dirt of Jerusalem began to accumulate. I stood knee deep, scooping up a handful of water, throwing it into the air, and letting it run down my hands and arms and over my head. I have played in the water like this since I was a child. If there is water, I want my feet to be in it, and this was as close as I could get to swimming without getting soaked. It is a prayerful, playful act for me, and it always brings me to God. The living water of the Galilee has brought me deep healing on this journey.

I wanted a way to remember this moment, to find my way back to God again through this path. I remembered the ancient practice, dating back to Jacob and his forefathers, of building a pillar of rocks at a sacred place. Jacob does it at Beth El, where he wrestles with God, (or dreams about a ladder climbing to heaven). Rocks are everywhere here, so this practice makes sense to me in a way it never has before. I decided to climb out of the water and build a pillar of rocks to point me to this sacred space once again.

My pillar of stones. In Scotland, they call it a cairn.

I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, but I began to pile rocks on top of one another. They would slip and fall, and I would try again in a slightly different way. I was drawn to certain rocks for unknown reasons—this one or that one just felt right. I was anxious not to simply build it as high as I could, in a manner of striving, but to build it just right. After several failed attempts, it finally felt finished. I found the crowning stone and knew it was complete, not because it couldn’t go higher, but because it represented what I needed it to represent. The top, flat stone was similar in shape to an arrowhead, or even the Sea of Galilee itself. I pointed the tip toward the Sea. Remember, I prayed, if you get lost again—look to the water. Follow the stones, the living stones, toward the water, the living water. Come to the sea, over and over again. Plunge deep or just wade in up to your knees. Throw water in the air and remember your baptism. The rocks will point the way, the water will heal.

I hope to carry this message with me into the drama of Jerusalem, and all the way back home. Follow the stones, the living stones, toward the water, the living water. The rocks will point the way, the water will heal.

Follow the stones, living stones, to the water, living water.

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2 Responses to "Day Seven: Living Water, Living Stones"

Some say that the Holy Land is the 5th Gospel. That we understand the other four Gospels better when we know the 5th Gospel. Your reflections seem to come to the same conclusion.

Beautiful. This is, thus far, my favorite of your HLP postings. Thank you so much for sharing your pictures and your thoughts/feelings.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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