The Red River Rises

This column was adapted from a sermon preached by John Hulden at Trinity Lutheran Church in Moorhead, Minnesota, on Sunday, April 13, 1997, two days after the expected crest of the flooding Red River (20.5 feet above flood stage), and five days before the actual crest (22.6 feet above flood stage). Later that week, Grand Forks, North Dakota, and East Grand Forks, Minnesota, 80 miles north of Moorhead, were evacuated as 11 downtown buildings burned uncontrollably. —The Editors

We had the plastic down first, then thousands of sandbags, more plastic on the river side of the dike, and more sandbags on top of that. The 100-year flood stage of the mighty Red River meant the dike was being tested like we hoped it never would be. And the mighty Red was seeping its way through the dike to the back door of my friends' house.

Where was the water getting through? From underneath the dike because the dike was sitting on ice and frozen concrete? From underneath the concrete patio slab? Maybe from where the dike was up against the frozen dirt and brick retaining wall? We didn't know.

We did know we had to continue pumping the water back into the flooding river, and keep the ice chunks and slush away from the pump. Losing ground, we bought another pump. We blew a fuse. Within a matter of minutes the Red River was lapping at the threshold of their door, and we were groping for answers.

Grope is my word for the week. Groping is when you try to make your way around in a dark room, reach out with your arms, and usually stub your toe. We groped for answers that week: Why 10 blizzards that winter, that week's being the worst? Why is it so cold in April? Is that good or bad for flooding? Will flood insurance cover this or that?

And deeper questions: Is there a more heart-wrenching story than a pregnant mom and her 3-year-old daughter freezing to death trying to drive home? Or a farmer crying over his cattle trapped and dying in the icy flood water?

So what do we do? We come to worship Sunday morning. Some of us come with aching muscles we didn't know existed. Some are still fighting the fight, with little or no sleep. Some grieve for friends and neighbors still fighting. Some have empty cupboards after feeding so many hungry friends and strangers.

Groping for the tough answers is no different, really, than groping for God. We grope for God when we need clarity in our lives, when we are confused, when we are angry, when we are sick and tired, when we are sick and tired of being sick and tired.

WE COME TO worship, and we hear these words from our gospel lesson: "[On the evening of his resurrection] Jesus himself stood among the disciples and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.' They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see'" (Luke 24:36-39).

"Touch me and see." This isn't the usual word for touch. This word is used only a few times in the New Testament. This word means to search for, to feel, to verify by contact, to grope.

Jesus invites his disciples to grope for him. Not just to touch him, but to touch his wounds. To search, to feel, to verify by contact...just like a blind person touching someone's face to really "see" her or him.

During his ministry, Jesus had healed so many wounded people. Now, on this Easter evening, Jesus was the one with wounds. The disciples had witnessed Jesus restoring the sight of many blind people. Now they were the blind and groping ones.

Jesus had touched and ministered to the unclean, often breaking the Sabbath and purification rules. Now the disciples were asked to break the rules—to grope for this convicted and executed criminal. Jesus says to them, "Touch me and see." The disciples are invited to begin a new community where we acknowledge that we all are wounded, that we are both righteous and unrighteous, that we all grope for God.

Hasn't this week been one of groping? When will this winter end? When will the river crest? What is in store for Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, and all the farms between here and Winnipeg? When will our power lines be fixed? Who is going to clean up this mess? Why must some die?

Jesus says to us, we who feel numb from the work and heartaches of this week, "Touch me and see." You who are blind, grope for me, and you will see. Reach out and feel my wounds. I was dead.... Now I'm alive!

This will be a week, a month, a year to remember. We mourn the many losses, the tragic deaths, the ruined property, and the setbacks to hopes and dreams. Yet we have cause to celebrate too. We celebrate how our community has reflected this new community of Christ by the planned and random acts of kindness. We celebrate our community where sandbags and cookies were handed out to rich and poor alike, and where new dikes and friendships were built.

We know we are not all standing on high ground yet. Nor will we ever be totally insulated and safe from nature's power. But let us work together to grope for answers. Let us serve our neighbors together as we grope for God.

Jesus Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.

John Hulden was pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church when this article appeared.

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