I live in Scotland, a country which is known for its rainfall, which means I have no idea what it means for there to be no rain for years. No rain over the weekend would be nice! However, a few weeks ago, I was given a wee taste of my own dependence on water flowing out of my taps whenever I want it. One Saturday night, my village’s water supply was cut off for around 15 hours, along with much of the surrounding area. This was long enough to mean that we had to be provided with bottled water by the authorities, late the following morning. Until that happened, it was an uncomfortable situation. I mean, how do you make a cup of tea without fresh water? How do you keep yourself hydrated? How do you boil potatoes or rice or cabbage? And that’s not even thinking about the washing of dishes, clothes or bodies; or the flushing of toilets. Now, I know we were never in any danger, but my imagination took over as I pictured myself trudging over the hills, with a bucket in my hand, to find the spring of water bursting from the ground. In the end, I would do anything to get the water I needed because I cannot live without it.
In the middle of this week’s passage from 1 Kings, we meet the person we have come to know as the widow of Zarapheth. She is given no name, but we can know that as a woman on her own, living in biblical times, she had no means by which to support herself. She was poor, and she had a son who was dependent on her. Elijah, the man of God, met her as she was collecting wood for a fire. Her reply to his request for bread is heart breaking: “as surely as the Lord your God lives, I don’t have any bread, only a HANDFUL of flour, and a little oil. I’m about to go home, where I will make a fire, bake some bread and feed it to my son, before we lie down and wait for death” (paraphrase and emphasis mine).
Here is the important bit I usually miss in this story. King Ahab, in his palace is free to dally with foreign gods (see the end of chapter 16). He risks the wrath of God, but he is rich and can cope with the consequences. Elijah is free to declare that there will be no more rain, and God will look after him. But what does this lack of water mean for the ordinary person, who does not have limitless resources? What does a three year drought look like for those who have no say in how their country is governed? The price for the selfishness of rich rulers, and the price for the righteousness of religious leaders, is paid by the poor! It is the powerless widow and her fatherless child, living in another country, who will die because of the decisions and actions of those who are high above them on the social and religious scale. Sound familiar?
In the U.K., this week, there has been a lot of strong feeling expressed over the decision made by our Conservative government, NOT to provide school meals for children over the Christmas holidays. For many children, school meals are their main source of food for the day, which means that during the school holidays, they will mostly go hungry. This decision of our government has led many people to offer to provide meals for these children, and it has also led others to speak up about their own experiences of hunger as a child. They have told of the physical pain of headaches and aching bones, of feeling cold all the time, of their parents not eating so their children could have enough food. They have also spoken of the shame of being poor. It’s truly heartbreaking.
In the story of Elijah, this man of God is fed by a poor woman who could not be blamed for wanting to keep the food she had to herself. When I received my allotted 12 litres of water for my family of 5 plus 2 dogs, when our water was cut off, not knowing when it would be restored, my instinct was very much to keep it for my household. We needed it. What would I do if someone wanted, or needed, some of MY water? Somehow, the widow of Zarapheth managed to overcome her survival instinct, and she shared what she had with this strange prophet man. Without her, Elijah would not have survived. The widow stands out in this story, as one who heard from God, obeyed God, gave generously when she had nothing. She never reached the bottom of her jar of flour, or her jug of oil, but she could have done. She demonstrated faith in God, her provider. Faith for me to aspire to.
This Sunday, the first of November is All Saints Day, when we remember believers across time and space, and the difference they have made with their lives. The nameless widow of Zarapheth must surely be included in their number.
Jean Kirkwood serves as a parish minister for the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) in the east of Scotland, United Kingdom. You can find her blog here: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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