February 24, 2019 – Roma – The Waters of Life

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By Rev. Victor Kim
Ezekiel 47:1-12, Revelation 22:1-5

Ezekiel chapter 47.

In 25 years of ministry I’ve never preached a sermon on this text before.  Part of the reason is that it’s not in the lectionary, that three-year cycle of scripture readings which take us through most of the major themes in the Bible.  Another part of the reason is that it’s just plain weird, most of Ezekiel is.  Some people claim that in the very first chapter of Ezekiel there’s a reference to UFO’s, and then in other places you’ve got dry bones starting to live and growing sinew and flesh.  Ezekiel is a prophet from the time of Israel’s exile in Babylon about 550 years before Jesus and his prophecy is both a warning about the coming destruction of Israel and God’s promise to renew and restore God’s people.As strange as the book is, it’s a critically important book of the Bible and it contains vital imagery that is repeated in the very last book of scripture, the book of Revelation.

The text from Ezekiel 47 is part of the last section of the book, a section which speaks of a time yet to come when God would restore the people of God from exile.  It speaks of a new Jerusalem, the theme of which is picked up again in the book of Revelation, and it describes a new temple in the heart of the city.  Flowing from that temple is water, deep, rushing water.  And the water flows from the temple towards the Dead Sea where nothing grows, but the water from the temple will make the water in the Dead Sea fresh bringing life wherever it goes. Ezekiel mentions a place called Ein Gedi.  It’s an oasis in the desert, the wilderness where David hid from King Saul when Saul was trying to kill him.  You saw a couple of pictures from Ein Gedi and I can tell you that life abounds around Ein Gedi, even though it is surrounded by wilderness.

The imagery of water is impossible to miss in Ezekiel’s depiction of the new Jerusalem.  Without the water no life is possible.  It’s interesting when you consider that Jerusalem is one of the few major cities in the ancient world which was not built either next to a large body of water or a significant river.  Water had to be brought into Jerusalem from underground springs it wasn’t by any measure something that could be called a major body of water.  So it’s interesting that Ezekiel’s vision of a restored Jerusalem contains this abundance of water, so abundant in fact that it flows and gives life, even to a place like the Dead Sea.

In the book of Revelation, John picks up on this theme when he describes his vision of the new Jerusalem.  In that vision, John sees the river of life flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. In John’s vision of the new Jerusalem there is no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.  The water flows directly from the throne of God.  But the effect is the same, the water brings life.  The water gives life to the trees that bear fruit.

In Ezekiel’s vision the leaves of the trees are for healing, meaning the healing of Israel, but in John’s vision, which isn’t only about the restoration of Israel, but of all things, all creation, the leaves of the trees are indeed for healing, but for the healing of all the nations, not only Israel.  We see the inclusive, universal nature of God’s restoration at the end of time, not only Israel, but all creation. But whether it’s Ezekiel or Revelation, water is central to the imagery in both. Water is key to the life in the restored Jerusalem and in the restored creation. Life depends on water, the water that flows from the temple, the water that flows from the very throne of God.  And water is also key to the imagery in Roma, the last of our movies from our series of Academy Award nominees.

Roma is the name of the neighbourhood in Mexico City where the director of the movie, Alfonso Cuaron grew up.  The movie is based on his memories of his childhood, his family and in particular, his childhood nanny.  That nanny becomes Cleo in the movie, played by first time actress Yalitza Aparicio, who has been nominated for Best Actress. Roma is a story of people and their lives.  It’s nothing like A Star is Born or Black Panther.  Those movies have easily identifiable themes, an explicit plot which drives the story.  Roma is about life and it can be hard to discern explicit themes or a driving plot.  It’s also in Spanish and shot in black and white.

The movie takes place over a period of a year in the life of an upper middle-class family in Mexico City where Cleo, who is indigenous, works as one of the domestic servants.  The family she works for cares for Cleo and she is adored by the 4 children.  However, the parents’ marriage is unravelling and the tumultuous life of a busy family is about to get much more unpredictable. Cleo’s own life is also about to get more chaotic than she had bargained for.

She meets a young man named Fermin and she becomes pregnant.  When she tells him about her pregnancy during a movie, Fermin excuses himself to use the bathroom, but soon it becomes clear to Cleo that Fermin has abandoned her and isn’t coming back.  As events transpire Cleo happens to meet Fermin again, but by now Fermin has become part of a gang hired by the government to beat up student revolutionaries and he and his friends shoot a man during a riot.  While holding a gun he and Cleo meet again by chance and its then that Cleo’s water breaks.  There are many scenes of water in this movie and like in many of Cuaron’s movies; the imagery of water plays a key role.

The movie begins with water; water used to wash a driveway and in the reflection of that water you can see the sky.  It’s almost as if Cuaron wanted to make the point that the link between the earth and the heavens is the water.  The images of water in the movie connect the lives of the people in the movie, lives that seem disparate, detached, with very little in common.  Cleo’s life is nothing like the life of the family who she works for.  While she’s occupies the same space, and while the family genuinely appreciates Cleo, the lines are clearly drawn – she is the help. At a Christmas party held at the home of friends, it’s clear that the indigenous servants are expected to gather in their own space while the affluent gather in the main house.

The movie leads us through life and the sometimes chaos that life brings our way. Cleo’s employers are breaking up; it will never be the same again for the kids. Cleo’s unexpected pregnancy and the unanticipated ending to that pregnancy also embodies the fragility and unpredictability of life.  Mexico itself in the early 1970’s is experiencing societal upheaval, with the student movement for democracy threatening the government of the day.

People, of every class, of every age, of every status and condition, powerful and weak, master and servant, rich and poor, young and old, experiencing the creeping loss that comes with life, the breakup of family, the finding and losing of love, the finding and losing of life, Roma tells a story that says that we are all connected, that in the ordinary and sometimes chaos of life, water connects us, sweeping things clean again, renewing us, rebirthing us, bringing hope and healing where pain is often left unspoken and unresolved.

The end of the movie is the most poignant and powerful part.  Cleo and the family have gone to the beach, ostensibly for a holiday, but in reality, it’s so that the father can come home and move his stuff out while the family is away.  The kids want to go swimming but they are warned not to venture out too far because of the tide.  But of course, kids never listen and when one of them gets caught out too deep, Cleo, who has recently lost her baby and who can’t swim, goes out risking her life, to save the life of the child.  When they all stumble back onto the beach, it’s there, huddled together, drenched in water, that Cleo lets out her pain, saying, I didn’t want her, I didn’t want the baby, I didn’t want her to be born. It’s a moment of cathartic release, the pain she has carried for all those months.

In that moment of pain, Cleo is surrounded by those who truly love her, who truly care for her, despite the difference in their class and status, despite the fact that she works for them.  Even though the movie ends with the family back at home and Cleo back doing her usual duties, that moment when she is surrounded by love resonates.  There is a sense that each of us, all of us, need that connection, that love, to know that we are loved, that we belong, that we are united to one another and that there’s something bigger going on in the midst of all that we experience, both good and bad.

I think that’s part of what Roma is getting at.  For Christians, that symbolism also comes in water, the waters of our baptisms, the water by which we die with Christ and are raised with him, the water by which our Creator, our God, claims us as the children of God, each of us, all of us, together.    The living water that flows from our God washes away the dirt and debris of life, cleanses us from the grit and grime of life’s chaotic moments and in the life it gives, brings healing to us and to all the nations. In a way, as I read the texts from Ezekiel and Revelation, it seems to me that what God desires when God chooses to restore and renew, whether Israel or all creation, is healing, God intends healing so that we can know life in its fullest.

It’s pretty clear that Ezekiel’s vision of a renewed Jerusalem also includes a renewed people.  I wonder whether in some way we aren’t the leaves of the tree of life that John’s vision in Revelation speaks of, whether God doesn’t intend for us to be the leaves that are for the healing of the nations.  If the water of God’s healing flows through us, God’s people, wouldn’t it be so that we can be agents of that healing in our world?  Wouldn’t that be a faithful precursor to the new heaven and new earth that God has in mind?

Maybe you will see Roma if you haven’t yet, even though I’ve pretty much spoiled the movie for you.  It’s on Netflix, maybe your son or daughter or grandchild will give you the password to their account and you can watch it sometime in the comfort of your couch.  You won’t find an action filled blockbuster or a formulaic romantic story.  What you will find is a movie about life, a movie that truly cares for all the characters it depicts that says that all these lives, joyful or tragic, uplifting or depressing, young and too naïve or too old and jaundiced, that all these lives, all our lives, are connected and important.  Roma is a movie that invites us to pay attention to life, to all of life, to all the people in our lives, for the beauty they embody, even in their sometimes chaos. And maybe it will inspire us to see the people around us as God sees them, as God sees us, beloved ones to be healed, to be nourished, to be renewed and restored.

Friends, may the life-giving water that flows from the throne of God, renew our hope for our future and the future of all of us together.  May we be leaves of healing, for each other, for all the nations.  May the life-giving river of the water of life, in which we are baptized, renew us, equip us and inspire us to live as agents of God’s healing and reconciling love.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Written by Rev. Victor Kim
Preached on 24 February 2019
at Richmond Presbyterian Church.