During the famine Elijah predicted, when there was neither dew nor rain, God sent the prophet to a brook where he found water to drink. There he was fed by ravens who brought him food day and night. But some time later the brook dried up.
Life is full of jagged parts and rough edges. It was such a thought that C.S. Lewis had in mind when he noted that the only kind of furniture on which we never stub our toes or bang our knees is the furniture in our dreams. Life is inherently marked by pointed needs and palpable fears, waters that dry up, and days marked more by the scarcity of hope than any last dwindling comfort.
In the story told in 1 Kings 17, God sends Elijah from the desiccated brook and tells him to go at once to Zarephath of Sidon and find the widow who would care for him. The famine was still spread throughout the land, hope, like the brook, was running dry, and Elijah had no means to live. The story begins by making us keenly aware of Elijah's need for the widow. Yet, their introduction hardly seems auspicious.
As Elijah approaches the gates of Zarephath, a town far from his own, he finds a widow gathering a few sticks. Calling to her Elijah asks, "Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?" And as she was going to get it, he adds, "And bring me, please, a piece of bread" (17:10-11).
Whatever sort of prophet of God now stood before this widow, it was clearly not received as a sign of hope. She was a foreign, destitute widow who had encountered a prophet of Israel, and yet this only seemed to contribute to her despair. Her response to Elijah is as despondent as the stream Elijah had just left behind. "As surely as the LORD your God lives," she replies, "I don't have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die" (v. 12). At his simple request for a meal, Elijah hit the very center of a wound inflicted by the jagged details of this woman's life. She was a widow at the end of her hope and the end of her ability to provide daily bread. She was alone and failing to make ends meet, a widow forgotten by society in the midst of a famine. She had herself and her son to feed, and now Elijah was asking too. As surely as Elijah's LORD lived, God must have seemed somewhat cruel.
Yet whatever else this story reminds us (Jesus referenced Elijah and the foreign widow who helped him as he told the crowds that no prophet is accepted in his hometown) it reminds us that God's humble extravagance is present in the jagged details and unlikely alliances of our own lives. In the parts of life on which we stub our toes and bump our knees, in the tragedies and experiences that hit us with their massiveness and block all else, God is somehow still near and giving. What Elijah and the ravens and the widow show us is that we live out our stories before a God who will feed us, in times of famine, in times of feast, in sickness and in health; a God who can take the daily grind of the practical and shows us the realm of the possible even within it.
At every dry brook and despairing valley, God's unlikely presence invites us to live attentively to strange but real gifts, to those who cross our paths, and to hopeless suggestions to follow though we seem certain to be near the end. Here is an alliance of a man and a woman with so very little to give each other practically, and yet together they receive nothing less than daily sustenance, miraculously replenished by the God who brought them together in the first place. It is not always easy; it is quite humble in means. But it is enough.
In fact, it is significant that Zarephath, the place God sent Elijah to find the widow and the widow to find Elijah, is a word that means "refining." For in the rough edges of three unlikely lives, hope was refined by the unlikely presence of the God who brought them together. Following Elijah's instruction, the widow went to the flour and oil she had remaining and made three small cakes. And until the day when the Lord brought rain once again to the land, her jar of flour was not used up and her jug of oil did not run dry.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.