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‘No water necessary. No waiting required’

Thursday’s worship at the Presbyterian Association of Musicians’ Worship & Music Conference explores water, faith and healing

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Tony McNeill led “Cert’nly Lord” following the sermon Thursday, the fourth full day of the Presbyterian Association of Musicians’ Worship & Music Conference at Montreat Conference Center in Montreat, North Carolina. (Photo by Rich Copley)

MONTREAT, North Carolina — Worship during the Presbyterian Association of MusiciansWorship & Music Conference being held this week at Montreat Conference Center continues with its pattern of seamless and beautiful liturgy and quality musicianship, the latter provided Thursday by Dr. Tony McNeill on piano and Eric Wall on organ.

The Senior High Choir contributed Rollo Dilworth’s “Take Me to the Water.” One poignant moment had the congregation sing slowly, under McNeill’s leadership, “I Love the Lord, Who Heard My Cry,” following a reading of the day’s Scripture passage, John 5:1-15, the story of Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath who’d been ill for 38 years.

Auggie Sall participated in the reading from John 5:1-15. (Photo by Rich Copley)

The Rev. Larissa Kwong Abazia, the conference preacher, told a story from her days as a hospital chaplain in Philadelphia, where she ministered to a 17-year-old former football player named Jake who’d suffered a severe spinal injury after a high-speed crash sent him through the windshield onto the pavement 25 feet from the crash site.

Any dream of playing football on a college team was gone, Kwong Abazia said. Classmates and teammates visited Jake early on during his months-long hospital stay, but their visits became less and less frequent. “Maybe his friends went back to their lives,” she said.

But his mother stayed by his bedside. She and Kwong Abazia prayed using words of lament, which “grew angry for what had unfolded” as they focused on what the future would mean for Jake. Even as his spine stabilized weeks later, Jake “never talked much,” Kwong Abazia said. Mostly he “looked out the window in silence” whenever medical professionals “would poke and prod around his progress.”

Kwong Abazia wondered: “What does a person of faith do in these moments? We want to comfort, to fix, to see beyond what we could be. We want to be at the end of the story rather the uncertain beginning and middle,” she said. Many times, we “fill the room” with empty platitudes like “God will use this for good” or “God never gives you more than you can handle” or “When God closes a door, a window opens.”

We “run toward resurrection,” Kwong Abazia said, without acknowledging the loss of Good Friday or the uncertainty of Holy Saturday.

A view from behind worship leadership in Anderson Auditorium at Montreat Conference Center in Montreat, North Carolina. (Photo by Rich Copley)

Turning to the biblical text, Kwong Abazia noted that experience tells this man that people are unlikely to bring his weary body to the water’s edge for a chance at healing. It’s said that when the water is stirred, it’s the first person in the water who receives the healing, but “the people who needed access to the resources are the exact people who are kept from them,” Kwong Abazia said.

Jesus commands the man to stand up and take his mat. “No water necessary,” Kwong Abazia said. “No waiting required.”

Then, even after he’s healed, the man returns to the temple, “to the familiar call of his religious and social life,” she said. “He knows nothing else. He walks to the exact place that deemed him unclean, unworthy and unwanted I the first place.”

“Friends, our temples too need cleansing,” from our bromides that include “it’s not your turn yet” and “you can’t do that” and “you’re so young — you just need more experience.”

Thursday’s worship service in Anderson Auditorium ended with a student drumming ensemble. (Photo by Rich Copley)

“We make faith palatable and comfortable rather than risky,” she said. Instead, we ought to be telling those who visit our faith communities, “we are different today because you are with us,” she said. “We can then say, ‘we are blessed.’”

“As the Spirit moves, we will arrive at places we could never have imagined or dreamed without one another,” Kwong Abazia said, quoting Jesus one more time: “Stand up. Take your mat. Go.”

A circle of about 24 youth drummers concluded worship with a rousing finale.

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