In today’s Daily Office reading from 1 Kings 17:1-24, we find Elijah being sent to a place called Wadi Cherith, east of the Jordan. Here he will live off the ravine as it runs dry. He has gone there to hide, because he told King Ahab that there will be a profound drought and this news brings a reaction that renders him a recluse.
Then, the Lord commands him to get up and to go to a widow in Zarephath. The Lord literally calls him out of his fearful hiding and sends him to Zarephath to meet a widow. I’m terrible at biblical geography, but according to a tour guide in Israel, it takes about 5 to 6 days, and it would be pretty difficult for anyone, even someone in good health.
It is a long journey for anyone, but Elijah is dehydrated, starving, depending on gracious ravens for food. If it is a long journey for anyone, imagine how arduous for someone in his state, and to meet a widow who is also a stranger.
The term widow implies a life of grieving. She is identified entirely by her loss. He is sent out of his fearful hiding, on a long journey, where exhaustion will leave him bowing to her presence. If you look at this in more of its fullness, we learn that the life of the prophet is one of journeying all the way from the tent of the king where he speaks to the seat of power to the home of a desperate widow, where he will slouch at her door. A prophet crosses many miles on sore feet. All the while, Elijah carries his own pain and the grief of a life changed from power to hiding. Elijah carries dehydration, starvation, fear, loneliness, desperation.
And so, he meets the widow as she gathers sticks, and she tells him she has a plan. Her plan is to go home, make a meal with all that is left in her cupboard for her and her son, and then die. Her plan is to go home and die. He asks if she would deviate from this plan just long enough to feed him, though he knows he is asking her to feed him out of her true nothing.
Elijah’s plan of hiding in Wadi Cherith is interrupted by God as he is sent to visit the widow of Zarephath. He is sent to interrupt her from her plan, which is to go home and die. What is at stake for both of them is life. For Elijah, as he is fleeing a dried well and is starving, and for her as she plans to depart from the hopeless, widowed life. It shouldn’t be lost on us that she does not hold within her even the capacity to keep living and yet she holds within her the capacity to be hospitable, to be merciful, to feed him. She has an offering of hope for Elijah, this meal that they share, even though she may feel she has no well of hope to draw from to sustain her own life.
Truly, they are both desperate people. I wonder how we might channel our own desperation and hopelessness into the force that interrupts someone else’s plan to go home and die. What might happen if out of our scarcity we were willing to feed those who are without hope? Might our own hope—the hope we need to survive—be tucked away in a jar of meal that will only be multiplied if we share it?
We don’t always know when we are the holy interruption or when we are being interrupted by the holy. But we do know that being open to the possibility means we are open to the possibility that the next person we encounter might be the person who plans to go home and die. And we open ourselves up to the possibility that there is more for us in this life than our own going home and our own dying.
What hope could change our lives if we let a wild prophet into our home? What inhibitions do we need to lose in order to be that out-of-nothing loving widow? What greater image of discipleship could we have than God calling us out of hiding to meet a widow, knowing it will force us to live off of courage and risk? What more powerful vision of mercy can we find than a widow who chooses to spend some of her final breaths feeding a prophet and enemy before her own last supper?
Elijah’s interruption changes her life. He doesn’t magically fix everything; she’s still a widow when the story ends. But she is also still alive when the story ends. We know he truly changes the plan of her life. His interruption gives her a reason to live—if only at first to just feed Elijah, putting into action a new plan, a plan to live. What if our reason to live was to travel far, to dine with widows, risking that we might be the people who inconvenienced the hopeless long enough that we changed their plan for death into hope in this life? If we'd be willing to risk this much, I trust we'd end up like widows, giving out of our nothing, because even in our final breaths we would open our doors and share a meal with slouching strangers.
This is hard for me to say, because I know what it feels like to wonder if I should go home and die. Because of my anxiety, because of my depression, I know what it is like to think, just for a second, that maybe the best journey for me would be to go home and die.
And the truth is that I could love everyone with everything in me, greet each stranger as if I've shared every meal with them since my birth, give every crumb in my cabinet, and they might still go home and die. I cannot prevent that; I know that all too well given the grief I carry from those I love who have died. All I can do is entrust the hurting to God, remembering the love God showered on them in their creation, believing through my desperate faith that God must be doing better things for them than I can ask for or imagine. God must be, God must be, God must be, I pray.
But I also know what it feels like to get an invitation to dinner that feels like words out of a prophet’s mouth. In the course of my life so far, I’ve found that my own plan for hopelessness has been interrupted by prophets who are willing to come out of their hiding and walk a long and arduous path to get to the hole I am in. My own plan for hopelessness has been interrupted by widows who are willing to bring out the dregs of their jars, not for the sake of my happiness, but for the sake of my life. Most would never have known what was at stake for me in such a small gesture: a meal for them, life for me.
We will live our entire lives as both prophet and widow. May we cause and welcome God’s holy interruptions.