One of the weirder things about being a Peace Corps Volunteer is that you tend to pick up a lot of very random skills – skills that occasionally come in handy later! For instance, I know how to use a machete; I know how to haggle over a taxi fare in Spanish; and I know how to take a bath – and even wash my hair! – with a shockingly (some might say disgustingly) small amount of water.
One of the most surprisingly useful skills I learned is one we were actually taught as part of our training – and that is how to make oral rehydration solution, or ORS. It’s basically a kind of crappy-tasting homemade version of Gatorade.
It was actually a pretty crucial skill for us, living in the Dominican Republic. Walking for miles a day and sweating in the tropical climate, you could easily get dehydrated quite quickly. Although, to be completely truthful, between the dramatic changes in our diets, and the threat of things like giardia, cholera, and just your garden variety intestinal parasites, it wasn’t usually *sweating* that posed the biggest risk of dehydration. 💩
So they taught us how to make ORS. The recipe is quite simple: just a teaspoon of salt and twelve teaspoons of sugar in about two liters of water – and that’s it. It’s gross, but effective! (And you could always add in some fruit juice or something to make it go down a little easier.)
It was tempting to just drink water instead to try to replenish ourselves. But the trouble is that, when you’re really dehydrated, your body needs more than just plain water in order to recover. It needs certain nutrients, like glucose, sodium, and potassium – basically, sugar and salts – that support the electrical signals your body sends to your nervous system and muscles. If you’ve ever experienced a feeling of muscle weakness or muscle cramps when you’re feeling dehydrated, this is why! Your body needs more than just plain water in order to continue functioning well – it needs rehydration and rest.
I had oral rehydration solution on my mind after the hot weather we’ve been having all this last week (and looking at the forecast for the coming weeks!). I even decided to whip up a batch on Thursday after being out in the sun all afternoon for the mobile food pantry – for some reason, distribution took over twice as long as it normally does – so I was parched and pooped by the time I got home!
As I sipped on my ORS, I was working on my sermon and meditating on this gospel story for today. And I started to notice some interesting connections with what is happening with these two sisters, Mary and Martha. I realized that dehydration is actually kind of an apt image for what’s going on with Martha in particular. I think Martha herself may be feeling a bit spiritually dehydrated. It just seems like she hasn’t been getting enough rest and refreshment – she hasn’t been getting enough of the kind of spiritual nutrients that she needs.
It takes a little bit of parsing to figure out what exactly is going on here with Mary and Martha. Strap in, because this is gonna get nerdy! 🤓 Many scholars think that the way this story is often translated and told doesn’t actually reflect the original text very accurately. So I’d like to dig into the story a little bit and pull out some of these details. (I leaned heavily on fellow theologian Amy Courts’ excellent essay on this text.)
Luke writes: “Now as [Jesus and his disciples] went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.” Already we notice, it isn’t Martha and Mary who welcome Jesus into their home – it’s just Martha, who welcomes Jesus into her home.
“She had a sister named Mary, who ALSO sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching/word.” Most translations just straight up leave out a word in this verse, which is the word “also” – but it’s plainly there in the Greek (I checked!). Adding back in the “also” helps to clarify that, in the ancient world, the phrase “sitting at someone’s feet” usually wasn’t meant literally – it signified that you were a student or disciple of a particular person. We all of us here sit at Jesus’ feet!
And then in the next verse, verse 40, Martha actually wasn’t “distracted by her many tasks” – a more faithful interpretation of the Greek text is that Martha was “stressed out by her ministry.” Where our translation says “many tasks,” the word Luke actually uses is “diakonia”; it’s the root from which we get the word “deacon,” and everywhere else it appears in the New Testament, it is translated as “ministry.” Martha isn’t feeling salty about some household chores – she is feeling stressed out to the point of exhaustion by the work of her ministry to the community.
She vents to Jesus that her sister Mary has gone off and left her to do all this work by herself, and asks him to tell Mary to come home and help her. Mary is most likely off doing ministry of her own somewhere else – perhaps she was even one of the seventy that Jesus sent out earlier in this chapter! Jesus tells Martha not to worry about Mary, because she has chosen a “good portion”; Mary is out doing ministry in ways that suit her gifts – so let Mary do Mary.
Jesus calls Martha’s attention back to herself by saying her name twice, and he tells her: listen, “you are anxious and upset about so many things, but only one thing is needed.” Only one thing is worth so much of your energy. Like Paul did the week before last in our reading from Galatians, Jesus is pointing Martha back toward what is most central and most important – and that is God. Jesus is pointing her toward the living Word of God, which is Christ himself.
Martha has gotten so caught up in the day to day details and demands of ministry that she has lost sight of the good news of grace and love and life that are at the very heart of ministry. She feels the weight of this ministry resting on her shoulders, and without stopping to draw strength and nourishment from the word of God, Martha is on the verge of burning out.
I find her situation deeply relatable – I imagine many of you do, too. In such a small congregation as we are at St. John’s, it’s often the same people stepping up to serve and give again and again; and the weight of ministry is heavy when it feels like it rests on so few shoulders. And even in the day-to-day vocations to which we are each called, more is often asked of us than we may feel we have the strength to give. And it’s easy for us to lose ourselves in the details and the worries and the bottom lines and lose sight of the grace and love that are at the center of all that we do. And in case you’re thinking to yourself that clergy must have a better handle on this than the average person, I hate to tell you that pastors are usually among the worst offenders in this regard.
But we need the life-giving nourishment of the word to refresh us and renew us and recenter our hearts in Christ. Just like our bodies need certain nutrients in order to function well, the body of Christ needs the nutrients of word and sacrament, of prayer, in order for it to function well. There are so many things in this life that can tear us down and wear us out and drain us of our energy. But in Christ, we can drink deeply of the living water that restores us, heart and soul.
I want to end with a prayer that Bishop-Elect Scott shared at our text study gathering this week, written by Pastor Sarah Are. I invite you to pray with me:
Creator God, prayer has never been easy for us. Our mind flutters with news updates and questions of faith— our thoughts like a river that won’t stop.
So today we take a deep breath— inhaling your name into the cobwebs of our lungs, willing your presence to wipe away the dust of self-doubt and fear. And with that breath, we ask you that you would tell us again:
Tell us again how you moved over the waters.
Tell us again how you led them with a pillar of fire.
Tell us again of that still, small voice, and then tell us of the prophets.
Tell us of Mary and Joseph and that angel chorus.
Tell us of the blind man, and the leper, and the crowds that you healed.
Tell us what it was like to walk on water.
Tell us of the little children that ran to you.
Tell us of the justice you preached.
Tell us of the hosannas and the palm branches.
Tell us again of the love that changed the world.
Tell us again, because we are forgetful people. It is part of our human nature; that is why we long for this space (week after week), so that we might be reminded of who we are and whose we are.
So tell us again. For our anxiety is loud. Our scarcity is loud. Our fear is loud. Our anger is loud. Our shame is loud. Our loneliness and self-doubt are loud. Mental illness is loud. Doubt is loud, so tell us again.
Tell us again how it all began. Tell us of manna in the wilderness and the disciples around the table. Tell us again of your love for this world. Tell us again how it changed everything. Tell us again, so that we have the strength to tell others.