This is a dialogue sermon by Pastor Kris and Kim Dickey about the well in Madagascar that Bethlehem recently sponsored as part of our capital campaign, ‘Opening New Doors.’ This video shows images from the hospital and surrounding area of Ejeda in southwest Madagascar.
Kris: Our congregation has been in the midst of a capital campaign for almost three years now, a campaign called, ‘Opening New Doors.’ Through it, we have addressed some deferred maintenance in Minnetonka and Minneapolis and have worked to create intentional welcoming spaces in both places. We have also used resources to reach out to the Minnetonka neighborhood in order to attract and connect with people who live here. We learned a long time ago that we are at our best when we look beyond ourselves. In fact, whenever we do a capital campaign, we give away 15% of what we take in for outreach. This time around, we gave some of that money — $30,000 — to Global Health Ministries to fund a new well for a hospital in southwestern Madagascar. Kim and I went to see it in October.
Kim: My name is Kim Dickey and I’ve been a member here for many years. Several years ago I said yes to co-chairing Women’s Day of Service, which is coming up, by the way. Some of our WDOS projects, then and now, are for Global Health Ministries, one of Bethlehem’s global mission partners. Today I work for GHM, and through that work, I became aware of Ejeda Hospital, one of the mission hospitals of the Malagasy Lutheran Church. My work has taken me to other mission hospitals — in Madagascar, Tanzania, India — but Ejeda was different. It was dry, so dry. Kris and I crossed many rivers as we traveled in Madagascar, and always there were people at the river, washing themselves, watering their animals, washing their clothes and laying them out to dry in the sun. People come to the river at Ejeda, too, even when the river is dry, which is most of the time. They come to dig in the sand in the dry riverbed for the little bit of water they can reach below the surface, to fill a jug, to wash their hair. Lack of rain has always affected the land and people around Ejeda, and there’s often only enough to support a crop once every three years. Climate change and agricultural practices have made drought more frequent and more persistent. Rain is seasonal, and when the rains fail, people starve.
Kris: Our trip to Madagascar was pretty amazing. Our guides for this part of the trip were Stan and Kathie Quanbeck, and their son Glenn, medical missionaries in Madagascar for 40 years. They helped us travel to Ejeda and understand its challenges.
One of the things that happened for me as a result of the trip is that I read the Bible with a different lens now. As I read stories in the Bible, I am reminded of images of people I encountered: people walking everywhere, women carrying water on their heads, men carrying tools to cultivate fields by hand, and fisherfolk casting their nets to catch fish….
On an ordinary morning when Simon had pulled into shore and was ready to call it a day, Jesus climbed into his boat and said, “Why don’t you push us out a little ways so I can speak to the crowd?” Simon was tired after a long, unfruitful night of fishing, but he complied.
When Jesus was finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Let’s go out to the deep water, and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon had already been fishing. He had fished all night, and he knew the fish were not biting.
Kim: Madagascar is consistently ranked among the ten poorest countries in the world, and the region around Ejeda is one of the most poverty-stricken in Madagascar. The hospital is a precious resource in this part of the country. Although it is remote, Ejeda serves a catchment area of somewhere between 150 and 200,000 people. The next closest hospital is in Tulear, almost 150 miles away. The roads between Tulear and Ejeda are unbelievably bad. It took us 7.5 hours to travel that distance, and we were in four-wheel-drive vehicles. Most people in this part of the country travel on foot or by oxcart, sometimes by taxi-brousse, if they can afford it. So a hospital that is 150 miles away might as well not exist for most people. That is why Ejeda is so important. That, and the fact that no one in need of healing is turned away, regardless of their ability to pay. As a hospital of the church, that is their mission, they are called to serve the poor and most vulnerable, to help those on the margins.
Kris: Jesus said to Simon, “Put out to the deep water where things are unpredictable, where it feels chaotic.”
Kim: Ejeda is in that deep water where things are unpredictable. They too have deferred maintenance to tend to, but no money to do it with. They struggle with medical equipment that doesn’t work or that they simply don’t have. Access to electricity is inconsistent (how does a surgeon operate when the lights go out? Do you choose to pay for fuel for the generator, or to pay your staff?), everything is difficult. But the most critical priority for the hospital was water — people were dying for lack of water. There used to be a well that provided ample water for the hospital, but it was destroyed in a cyclone many years ago, and the hospital never had enough money to restore it or find another solution. Most patients can’t afford to pay much, sometimes not at all, so their fees barely cover expenses, much less investment. Imagine a hospital without water. How does a surgeon wash his hands before surgery? How do you sterilize instruments? Consider for a moment the current news from China, or ebola outbreaks in central Africa – how do you protect your patients and staff from infectious disease if you don’t have water? And of course, how do you have enough to drink? Drought has been making the situation even more dire.
Today there is water flowing again at the hospital, thanks to you. A new well was dug. It’s 10 meters deep (39 feet) and it’s located near the river where the old one was. It is literally a life-giving gift, and we celebrate with them. The water is abundant from the new well. It taps into a reliable source, and the water gets pumped to the hospital for the operating room and exam rooms, for the lab and the laundry. It supplies water for patients, staff and their families, guests, and patient families to wash and to drink. Other, more shallow wells have been tried near the campus to help people grow some food. But the well we sponsored is life-sustaining for the hospital and the people they care for.
I took the opportunity to ask Dr. Justin, the medical director and surgeon at Ejeda, what gives him joy. We weren’t actually talking about water, but his immediate response, without missing a beat, was to say “water! When we didn’t have water I couldn’t think.” Imagine if your surgeon can’t think straight because he’s always thirsty. Imagine the responsibilities of a medical director – how do you make good decisions and guide a struggling hospital to solvency if you can’t think?
Kris: Fish began to jump into Simon’s nets, and where there had been nothing, there is now abundance! It’s cause for celebration! But quite frankly, it terrifies Simon. He knows he’s on holy ground, so to speak. Like Moses in the wilderness and Isaiah in the temple, he knows he has encountered the Holy, and he is afraid. He asks Jesus to leave him alone. Let him live an unremarkable life.
Perhaps the real miracle that day was that ordinary people like Simon Peter and Andrew and James and John had the faith to leave their nets behind and follow Jesus. “From now on,” Jesus said, “you’ll be catching people.”
Kim: The doctors and nurses, all of the staff at Ejeda, are ordinary people, a lot like you and me in many ways. Dr. Justin, the surgeon, likes soccer and tootsie rolls, and likes to laugh. Radiologist Benhazir is a good dancer. I saw a dad having fun pushing his son in a wheelbarrow across the hospital campus one morning. I admired the elaborate braids and hairstyle of some of the nurses, who giggled at the attention and my question, and welcomed me into their circle like I was one of their girlfriends.
They are also skilled medical professionals who could choose to work in a much easier place, with better salaries, paid every month, and equipment that works. Instead, like Simon the ordinary fisherman, they cast their lot with Jesus. They choose to follow him, and serve in this place.
Ejeda Hospital is located in a barren landscape, so barren it is hard to imagine the hospital can ever be fully self-sustaining. In some ways, it makes no sense to try to run a hospital here. It’s a little like Simon’s story — it made no sense to him to throw in his net where there had been no fish. And yet. Healing happens here, in Jesus name. The Lutheran healthcare system in Madagascar has a motto that appears somewhere on every Lutheran mission hospital and clinic — usually on an outside wall or in the waiting room so no one can miss it. The words give expression to their mission. Translated, they say “We treat. Jesus heals.”
Kris: “From now on, you’ll be catching people,” Jesus said. We know that people matter to God. All of the commandments can be summed up by just these two: Love God. Love people. That’s all we need to know. So it’s not a surprise that Jesus would call us to join in God’s mission of healing people and reconciling them to one another and to God. In so many ways, people have responded to God’s call, leaving what they have known to follow Jesus.
We’ve done it with sweaty palms and shaky knees; sometimes well and sometimes poorly. God calls us to do hard things.
At times, it is especially satisfying to be part of what God is doing in the world. Like today when we celebrate the well that is sustaining life at Ejeda. But sometimes we forget what God is doing in the world, and we focus on our capabilities, our accomplishments. We keep score. We are happy to be involved as long as we can hang onto power, as long as we can have a say. We forget that grace has everything to do with God’s faithfulness. That grace is God’s free gift to the world, a gift with no strings attached. We benefit from the Malagasy health care’s motto, “We treat, Jesus heals.”
Kim: Madagascar is far away, and the fact is, its realities are pretty distant from us. You might be asking, “Why should I care?”
One of the women who traveled with us is the caregiver for her husband, Les. Les needs help with everyday tasks of living, so it was not an easy thing for Iris to leave him and travel to Madagascar with us. Her absence would mean Les needed help from someone else to manage his days. Somehow they decided that he would move to a nursing home for two weeks so she could go to Madagascar. That was not a small thing. Les wasn’t ready to live in a nursing home. But when it became clear that that was the plan, his speech therapist said to him, “Les, I think you need to go to the nursing home to be a blessing to other people.”
Kris: Those words came to Les and Iris like a call. ‘To whom can we be blessing? How will God use us?’
God has the power to work through Les, just as God has the power to work through you and through me and the hospital at Ejeda. Wherever we are, God calls us to join in God’s mission of healing the world and reconciling people to God and to each other.
Where is God calling you to be a blessing now?
Perhaps it’s a miracle that God nudges us in a way that moves us. Maybe the real miracle is that God gives ordinary people like us courage to do hard things. The best miracle of all is that God works through us and bestows grace in the places that need it most. Praise God for the life-giving work we share in Jesus’ name. Amen.