In the Jordan River Valley, in the kingdom that was known in Biblical times as Judah, lies a large body of water about 50 miles long and of varying width - up to as much as 10 miles in one spot. This Sea has many unusual characteristics. For one thing, its surface is almost 1,300 feet lower than the surface of the Mediterranean, making it the lowest region of the earth's surface.
The bottom of the Sea is at least 1,300 feet lower yet, in the Northeast portion.
Even more unusual is that this area is fed by one large river - the Jordan - and other, smaller streams. But nowhere is there an outlet. The Jordan River flows into it, but nothing flows out.
Evaporation is the only way out. This, of course, does occur. But what remains behind after evaporation is all the solid matter, salts and minerals, which were carried by the Jordan into the sea. So dense has the Sea become that it is at least 25 percent solids (five or more times the concentration of the ocean), and is a commercial source for sodium chloride, potassium chloride and other salts. These are mined from a 100-foot stratum of crystalline salt 5 miles in length along the shore, or extracted from the water itself.
Swimming in this sea is said to be an experience, but not a particularly pleasant one. The swimmer bobs on the surface like a cork. The water is bitter, painful to the eyes, and like rubbing salt into wounds where any abrasion of the skin exists.
In early morning and late afternoon, the sea is a deep and beautiful blue, deceptively offering refreshment which it really cannot give.
The sea is called the Dead Sea. It is rightly named, for no marine life can live in it. The Dead Sea receives all the bountiful blessings that the Valley of the Jordan can give - but it does not give them up.
The very early Jews believed themselves to be God's chosen people, and their basic interpretation of this was that God would pour out his blessings upon them. Not all realized that flowing in of the blessings must be balanced by an outflow.
Isaiah saw this most clearly when he heard God saying to his people:
"It is too little, he says, for you to be my servants. ... I will make you a light to the nations, That my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth."
Later people of other nations began to realize that God was speaking to all the people of the earth who would listen - and believe - and learn and act.
In a way, we were potentially all God's chosen people.
God's people, are we? Assuredly, we are. All of us have received abundantly - of the love of God, of the forgiveness of God, of the grace of God. We have received abundantly, in material blessings, blessings of family and friends, love, beauty, strength, joy, support in time of trial and hardship.
And it may be that we, like those early Hebrews, should give some thought and effort to guarding against becoming like the Dead Sea - receiving and taking in to ourselves, but never giving out.
Jesus assures us throughout the New Testament of God's love for us. He assures us of his love for us. He calls us his friends. But he says, too, that there are things that we must do. "You are my friends IF YOU DO ..."
You are the light of the world - but a light should not be hidden under a bushel basket.
You are salt - which gives a good flavor to life.
You are my witnesses. Go and tell about me. Go and tell what you yourself are experiencing. You don't need to go to Africa - or even Seattle. How about right here in Juneau and Douglas?
This isn't asking too much. It shouldn't be hard. What he is asking is that we share some of that abundance that is flowing into our lives.
We can learn from the Dead Sea. Being God's people is a two-way process - receiving, and giving forth.
Bea Shepard is lay speaker at Douglas Community United Methodist Church.