The abundant waters of faith

A Chagall painting helps us consider abundance and scarcity in our work and how we practice our faith.

At the recent ecumenical gathering of pastors, professors and other institutional leaders, “A Convocation of Christian Leaders: Taking Faith Seriously,” we used a painting by Russian Jewish surrealist painter Marc Chagall as a warm-up on the first day of the event.

The painting, one of Chagall’s depictions of “Moses Striking the Rock and Bringing Forth the Water,” served to introduce us to the themes of abundance and scarcity in our own work, ways of practicing our faith, the character of the prophet, and questions around “What gives life?”

Chagall’s depiction of Moses striking the rock portrays Moses with a raised stick in front of a dramatic sun, looking down at a river of water cascading over a cliff. Chagall uses dark, thickly painted colors to portray the Israelites on either side of the water. The crowd is a somber bunch, many with outstretched arms or hands, empty cups and hollow expressions.

Chagall’s portrayal of the Israelites reflects themes from his own heritage. Born to a simple family in a village in Russia, Chagall filled his paintings with images from village life. Using surrealist techniques like impressionism and cubism, his paintings were dreamlike, imaginative and magical. While he studied art around the world, he was homesick for his village and family and, as a result, his paintings were filled with themes of Belarusian folk life, the Bible and Hassidic Judaism.

With this introduction and the image in front of us, we began by answering two questions in small groups around our tables:

  1. What do you see? Describe what is going on in the painting.
  2. Who in the painting is taking faith seriously and how?

After a few minutes to discuss these questions, we entered more deeply into the painting by answering: “Where are you in the picture? How are you showing up to our week together? If Chagall had painted you into the scene, which figure would you be and why?”

Participants responded by talking about the ways in which they instinctively thirst for living waters, without always knowing what it is they need. The painting helped them express their desire to live “in the light,” to be at times joyful about the abundance that God provides while at other times fearful that what they need might not come.

One participant resonated with the figure of a woman in the painting who simultaneously extends her empty cup while placing her hand over her heart. She at once expresses both her faith and her need for the abundant waters. Another participant noted that while the water is flowing abundantly, the crowd doesn’t seem to be noticing. Are their times when, as poet Wendell Berry says, “What we need is here” but we don’t recognize God’s gifts?

Other participants identified with Moses, the leader who, keeping his face in the light, acts on his faith by obediently striking the rock.

Perhaps Moses, like these leaders, hoped beyond hope that his seemingly impossible act of obedience would bring forth sustenance for his people, abundance out of scarcity. New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson writes that the character of the prophet is one full of spirit, word, embodiment, enactment and witness. Chagall’s painting helps us see both these characteristics of a leader as well as what it might mean to take our faith seriously.