Memphis has seen an abundance of rain over the past week. The remnants of Hurricane Barry brought days of heavy rain.
On Monday and Tuesday morning guests at Manna House arrived from the streets soaked and tired. Some were as sullen as the low heavy clouds. Others tried to find a silver lining, “Well, at least its cooler,” or “It will be good for crops and gardens.”
Whether sullen or silver lining finders, guests sought shelter from the rain, and we all crowded into the house or onto the front porch.
One guest had creatively covered himself with a combination of trash bags to make a rain suit. He was neither overtly sullen nor looking for a silver lining. He headed straight to the coffee. And then he made for a couch. There he finished drinking his coffee and then promptly fell asleep, the water dripping from his rain suit onto the floor and the couch.
A few guests asked me about the weather forecast. We looked at a radar map on my phone and determined that the rain would last at least through late Tuesday afternoon. This did not lift any spirits. “Last night was a long night trying to find a dry place,” said one, “gonna be a long day.”
Later in the day, I shared with Ed Loring of the Open Door Community in Baltimore how the rain had affected our guests. Ed’s forty plus years of offering hospitality to people on the streets was reflected in his email me back to me, “I am sorry for your guests. The natural elements are enemies of the poor most often. The people of Bangladesh await the full force of the waters of the recent typhoon to wash their houses away. Yet, I sit here at my desk in ‘Ibo’s Place’ hot, tired and wishing for rain. Damn the contradictions of life. Damn economic inequality. Psalm 23 and Black Jesus are correct. There is enough with baskets left over for all.”
That got me thinking about the Bible and rain. The silver lining finders among the guests reflected Psalm 65:9-11.
“You care for the land and water it;
you enrich it abundantly.
The streams of God are filled with water
to provide the people with grain,
for so you have ordained it.
You drench its furrows and level its ridges;
you soften it with showers and bless its crops.
You crown the year with your bounty,
and your carts overflow with abundance.”
Maybe the sullen guests reflected the story of the flood in Genesis. There the rain becomes a deadly force, as it creates a flood so that “Every living thing that moved on land perished—birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind. Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died” (Genesis 17:21-23).
Earlier in Genesis, in the first creation story in Genesis 1, God creates order out of the chaos of “the waters” (Genesis 1:1-13). In Exodus, God drowns the pursuing slave catchers—Pharaoh and his army, in the sea after Israel passed through to freedom (Exodus 14).
In the Bible water is life-giving or death-dealing, depending upon where one stands with God’s efforts for justice and liberation. The prophets make this abundantly clear (Amos 4:7, Jeremiah 3:3, 5:24, 14:22, Hosea 10:12, Isaiah 45:8, 55:10, Zechariah 10:1, Joel 2:23).
In the early church, Jesus’ disciples followed him into the water, and baptism became a sacrament of dying to slavery to sin and rising to new life in Christ, liberation that is loving and life-giving. Later followers of the Black Jesus created a song of liberation for their escape from slavery, “Wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the waters.”
Manna House, I hope, is a way station on the road to freedom, a dry place in the midst of rain; that also shares water and coffee to drink and showers and dry clothing. Offering a place of sanctuary, offering hospitality, is not the promised land of deliverance, of full justice. Manna House is shelter from the rain, not housing. Manna House, like the manna in the desert, is not the fullness of the promised land, flowing with milk and honey. At best, Manna House is a place of sustenance along the way. I know we have a long way to go. There will be more rainy days ahead. But a change is going to come.