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The freeing power of empathy
Let’s keep journeying in the desert this Lent. The Israelites do it right after they are freed from Egypt. In the first chapter of Exodus the Israelites escape from their Egyptian oppressors. In the first second, they are singing a celebratory song of liberation (one of the oldest poems in history), then they start to realize the desert is hot and they’re thirsty. Check it.
Exodus 15: 22—27 Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah. So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?”
Then Moses cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became fit to drink.
There the LORD issued a ruling and instruction for them and put them to the test. He said, “If you listen carefully to the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, who heals you.”
Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water.
This passage, when read through a lens of Jesus, powerfully illustrates one concept that is central to Lent: empathy. During seasons of suffering, when hope is as rare as water for the Israelites, which is like the one we’re embarking on during Lent, empathy with others, with ourselves, and with Christ offers is what offers us hope for our heart.
Let’s try to empathize with the Israelites here—like many people who need empathy, it may be hard to empathize with the Israelites.
The Israelites have just been freed from captivity—they were slaves and Yahweh delivered them from their Egyptian oppressors. And of course, before their muscles even stopped hurting from the slave labor, they are complaining about the water being bitter. “Marah” means bitter—it’s close to the Arabic word for bitter: “moorah.” They’re hot and tired and they complain about the water. It might be hard to feel sorry for them since they were just liberated and they found water to drink, but it wasn’t good enough.
Let’s keep empathizing. Giving someone freedom, symbolically, without giving them the resources they need to actually start a life is challenging. They didn’t pack a lot of canteens of water before they left Egypt and so, as they say in the following chapter, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt!” Now they are walking sort of aimlessly in the desert (as the story goes, they did this for more than three days; they did it for forty years) and they are literally dying of thirst. They walk through the Wilderness of Shur to Marah to Elim. Put yourselves in their shoes. Imagine traveling from Yuma to Tucson without water. It’s about 80 degrees in those two Arizona cities right now and in a car, it’ll take four hours to get there. Four hours in a hot car in a desert without water—sounds terrible. By foot, it’ll take three days! It’s a wonder they didn’t die; but clearly, reducing them down to Israelites who don’t know how to appreciate what’s been given to them is too harsh—it doesn’t help our heart and it won’t offer our hearts any hope when we’re journeying with Jesus toward the cross; when it doesn’t seem like there is a lot of hope to go around.
Here’s another way that you can empathize with the hurting Israelites. After the liberation of American slaves, General William T. Sherman issued a special military order that was commonly known as ’40 acres and a mule.’ 40 acres were promised to former slaves from the rice fields in Charleston down to the St. Johns River in Florida, along with a mule this was considered a pretty good start to starting a family farm. Sherman realized that freed slaves need more than freedom but a real start. And if the American Civil War was about freeing slaves, this was a good order. After Lincoln was assassinated and Andrew Johnson became president the order was reversed and the 40,000 acres given to 10,000 slaves was reallocated to the original white owners (the same thing is happening right now between the ancestors of British slave owners and ancestors of slaves in Barbados).
Imagining our own suffering is one thing, but we fast during Lent so that we can actually suffer and empathize with others who are suffering.
Before we go judging ourselves for being judgmental of the African-Americans or of the Israelites, let’s try to get to a place where we can empathize with ourselves—empathy typically refers to relating to other people’s pain, but we’ve numbed and desensitized ourselves so much that sometimes it’s challenging to really see the pain that we are in. We actually need to feel our pain, get self-aware. In one sense, we need to empathize with ourselves.
Fasting, giving something up for Lent or taking a discipline on, is a good way to get weaker, to experience some suffering so that whatever might be numbing you—whether its substances, TV consumption, sleeping too much, overeating, filling every second of your day with people—can wither away so that you can see what’s really behind it. Getting rid of some of those sedatives, opiates, the antibiotics that numb our pain is a good way to really know that we are thirsty.
It took journeying through the desert for three days so that the Israelites could notice that they were indeed thirsty and that the water they were trying to drink was bitter. In their thirst and in the water’s bitterness, they actually saw what was holding them up. As they let go of their control and admitted to Moses and to God how thirsty they were, God provided them with wood that made the water drinkable—but through their ability to see their suffering, they could see what was holding them up. They could see that they weren’t following God—that they needed a paradigm shift. And that the paradigm shift led them to a better place, one without suffering.
Getting to a vulnerable place, a place where there is some self-imposed fatigue, hunger, and thirst can help us get out of our normal worlds the ones where we want to remedy all of the suffering that we experience typically in the name of productivity. Lent is about slowing down, fasting, going in solitude. Being willing to fast in the desert for 40 days, like Jesus did, and get tempted by the devil—and relying on God through it. Jesus conquers death and the devil and offers us a way out.
As we venture into the hot, and dry desert and as we become more in touch with our own suffering, it’s particularly challenging to not want to turn back and go to Egypt. In his movie, Manderlay, Lars von Trier tells a story of a plantation that exists about 70 years after slavery—for most of the movie, Bryce Dallas Howard’s character, Grace, is under the impression that this plantation is continuing under slavery because of residual white oppression—but in fact, as Danny Glover’s character, Wilhelm, tells her at the end of the film—here’s me spoiling it for you—it’s in fact he, the community’s oldest member, who is imposing Mam’s Law and continuing slavery. He is doing so because the outside world is hostile and most of the slaves don’t stand a chance in it.
We need to get the stuff out of our system that’s numbing us. The result of fasting and being in suffering isn’t necessarily freedom from pain and suffering—sometimes it will seem like we are experiencing more pain and more suffering—but there’s hope to be had, hope that we can look to. It leads to transformation.
Drinking the bitter water, helped the Israelites to see how bitter they were being with themselves and with God, and along with the transformation of the water—there was an internal transformation too. Along with ending up in Elim, an oasis in the desert, they found an oasis in their hearts too. God was with them all along.
And God is with us, Lent is about empathizing with Jesus and his suffering, so that you can more clearly embrace his resurrection. Lent is about suffering to that we know that Jesus suffered too—that Jesus experienced all of the hardships and difficulties that we do and that he was transformed and gave us the same key to transformation. As we suffer in the desert this season, we know that Jesus did too, and so we know that we can relate to him and he us. As we fast this season, we’re learning that Jesus is something that we can relate to, something that we can have a relationship with. We’re learning too, as we suffer, how he suffered for us, too. We’re finding hope through our heart through that empathy—empathy for Jesus, for others, and for ourselves.