Exodus 17:1-7, NRSV
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rehidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The LORD said to Moses, “Go ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
The Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
I admit, when the Israelites start complaining on their way to the Promised Land (and this happens a whole lot throughout their journey), I get frustrated. For heaven’s sake, how many miracles do they need to witness before they realize that God is not going to let anything happen to them? How can they not see that they are right there in the palm of God’s hand, protected and guided every single step of the journey? What is their problem?!
But the thing is, this is not an unreasonable request: they are asking for water in the desert. A mama wanting her little one to have something to drink after a long day of hiking with all their worldly possessions on their backs is completely understandable. A young man needing to rub some cool water over his cracked, dry lips in an afternoon marked by wrangling camels and keeping them going in the caravan under a blazing sun can’t really be called petulant, can he? They’re not being selfish or really even short-sighted here—they’re starting to get worried that maybe Moses hasn’t really thought this thing all the way through. There’s no water in sight among the sand and the jubilation of being free of the Egyptians with their whips and blows is starting to wear off as they walk. Reality is setting in.
“So…where exactly are we going now? Are you sure you know what you’re doing, Moses? The land of milk and honey sounds really great and all, but did you make sure we brought enough food and water to get us there? Did you account for the hard part of actually making the journey? Because if not, if we’re never going to make it anyway, maybe we should’ve just stayed in Egypt. After all, the devil we know is better than the devil we don’t, right?”
They’re not wrong here—their needs are very real. And their need for water is both physical and spiritual. As Rev. Stephen Caine puts it in one of his sermons, “In biblical times Palestine was a hot, dry place. Water was scarce. Water was a huge commodity for which there was no substitute. In Scripture there is a strong connection between the body’s need for water and the deepest need of the soul. We thirst for God’s grace like the people in hot and dry Palestine were thirsty for a drink of water. Just as the body cannot live without water, we can’t live without God’s grace.”
So while the Israelites are very clear about what their bodies need to carry on, they seem to have lost sight for the moment about what their souls need—and in fact, what their souls already have. Their focus is off. No one is denying that they do in fact need water—God has already equipped Moses to provide it for them and Moses has assured them that he will. The problem here is that they just cannot imagine that Moses could pull enough fresh water to quench the thirst of every human being and animal among them from a sandy rock. They have no frame of reference for this, no way of understanding that this is even a possibility. It is so far removed from what they’ve known, and in their lives in slavery and oppression they’ve gotten used to preparing for the worst rather than hoping for the best.
Do we ever feel like we can relate to that mindset? There are some choices we face that can feel as dramatic and life-altering as this decision to leave Egypt and make a new home in the place God has prepared. It can literally be a move out of the house or country we’ve always known into some place new. Perhaps it takes the form of a change in career or a shift in our family size or dynamics. It can be a million different things that disrupt our trajectory and take us in an entirely new direction. Sometimes we embrace these changes with excitement and eagerness, but often they come with a certain amount of fear, too. We may want the Promised Land, but we don’t really know how we feel about that expanse of lonely desert that is standing in our way.
The desert can be a scary place, and there are certainly valid reasons for hesitation. What if we’re wrong about where God is calling us? What if it’s just wishful thinking? Or maybe we’re just caught up in the emotion of a moment and it will pass. What if the end result isn’t worth everything we’ll have to go through to get there? This could be terrible, like dying of thirst in the desert, or worse, like watching your family die of thirst because of a decision you made to leave the life you knew and try for something better. There are a lot of ways this could go wrong, you know.
But then again, there are a lot of ways it could go right.
So which way does it go for Israel? How do Moses and the Israelites understand their story? How do they define their relationship to God? Is God their loving provider, or more like a distant aunt who drops by with presents at the holidays but doesn’t have a lot to do with their day-to-day life? Sure they’ve seen a few miracles, but where is God in the nitty-gritty of trudging through the desert? One option is to see the Israelites as a people who have suffered with a few moments of relief—after all, they were enslaved in Egypt, then set free only to be pursued by a vicious army, saved from the army to wander through the desert with no reliable food or water source. Then they get stuck there for forty years, long enough for most of the generation who started this journey to die out, and when they do finally get to their promised land, it is inhabited by other people who are none too happy about giving it up. All these things are true about their story. All of these struggles are real, but they are not the only real and true things. They are not the most important things, and that is not how they have ultimately written their story and how we remember them.
These are God’s chosen people. They are survivors. Throughout all of this, God raised up faithful leaders from among them to guide God’s people. God had them build a tent so that God could come and literally camp among them in the desert, not asking them to do something God wasn’t willing to do Godself. God provided water and meat and manna. God gave them specific and detailed instructions about how to set up their society both while they waited in the desert and when they got to the Promised Land. God never let them go, no matter how angry or forgetful or broken they became.
Under this leadership, they “journeyed by stages as the LORD commanded.” This was a long, drawn out endeavor with stops and checkpoints and regrouping and course-correcting. There were probably some days where they wandered in circles. There were days when God commanded them to stop and settle in—for an extra day, a few weeks, maybe even years. There were seasons where they spent so much time in a certain spot of desert they could have told you the outline of every rock on the horizon and what time the temperature would finally begin to drop each day as the sun began to set. There were other days when they barely caught glimpses of the scenery around their feet as they hurried along in the shuffle. Their path was not linear, with steady progress and no backtracking. It was up and down, stop and go. It was full of confusion and bickering and occasional all-out idol worship (anyone remember the Golden Calf they built and worshiped while God was dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on the Ten Commandments, no less!). Getting to the Promised Land is clearly not a matter of simply making a plan and hitting the road. It’s frustrating and painful. It’s a sacrifice.
Healing from hurt or apathy is a sacrifice. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, letting go of the pain that binds us takes courage. Obviously we don’t want to suffer, but as long as we stick with what’s familiar—like Egyptian overseers with unrealistic work orders and quick tempers—we know what to expect. If we lay down the hurt we know, we will have to learn a new way of life. We can’t use our righteous anger as a crutch anymore. We may have to let go of our hope as well. After all, what if the real thing doesn’t live up to our expectations? What if the idea of the Promised Land is more satisfying, more of a reason to carry on, than the real thing? What if we won’t survive the journey no matter how determined we are to get there?
In a novel called The Alchemist by Portuguese author Paolo Coelho, a young shepherd boy from Spain follows a dream he has to find a treasure hidden near the Egyptian pyramids. He sells his flock of sheep and buys a ticket on a ship to Egypt where he meets the owner of a crystal shop. He works for the man long enough to save up the money he’ll need to make the rest of the trip. The shop owner is a devout Muslim man and his faith guides him in all things, including his hospitality to the young shepherd boy by giving him a warm welcome and meal and even a job when the boy arrived. Although we often hear about the inflammatory, extremist factions of Islam on the news, in reality the majority of Muslim people do not identify with these violent groups at all. In fact, most Muslim people adhere to the Five Pillars of Islam which are: (1) belief in one God and a prophet named Muhammad as God’s true messenger, (2) worship or prayer to God five times a day, usually facing in the direction of Muhammad’s hometown of Mecca, (3) fasting, particularly from sunrise to sunset during the holy month of Ramadan, (4) charitable giving to the poor, and finally (5) a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia at least once in each person’s lifetime. The Egyptian shopkeeper in the story did all of these things, with one exception. In an excerpt from the book he tells the shepherd:
“Mecca is a lot farther away than the Pyramids. When I was young, all I wanted to do was put together enough money to start this shop. I thought that someday I’d be rich, and could go to Mecca. I began to make some money, but I could never bring myself to leave someone in charge of the shop; the crystals are delicate things. At the same time, people were passing my shop all the time, heading to Mecca… “
“Well, why don’t you go to Mecca now?” asked the boy.
“Because it’s the thought of Mecca that keeps me alive. That’s what helps me face these days that are all the same, these mute crystals on the shelves, and lunch and dinner at that same horrible cafe. I’m afraid that if my dream is realized, I’ll have no reason to go on living.”
“You dream about your sheep and the Pyramids, but you’re different from me, because you want to realize your dreams. I just want to dream about Mecca. I’ve already imagined a thousand times crossing the dessert, arriving at the Plaza of the Sacred Stone, the seven times I walk around it before allowing myself to touch it. I’ve already imagined the people who would be at my side, and those in front of me, and the conversations and prayers we would share. But I’m afraid that it would all be a disappointment, so I prefer just to dream about it.”
It’s hard to leave stability, no matter how boring or unsatisfying or downright painful it can be, and to take on something new. Stepping out of a life that no longer fits us and our calling anymore can feel like that. Asking for help to end abuse can feel this way. Letting go of grudges and justified or unjustified anger and resentment can feel this way. Choosing healthier ways of interacting with ourselves and with others can have this effect. It takes incredible courage to do something different, even if it seems that we are leaving something obviously bad for something obviously better. Because that also means leaving the familiar for the unfamiliar, the known for the unknown.
We can understand the Israelites’ question then. We get why they need to be absolutely sure that God will be with them every step of the way; they’re going to need the help. We understand how they could see what they’ve seen and still ask, “Look, Is the LORD among us or not?” And clearly God does too, because God continues to show up in beautiful, tangible ways, reminding them that they are not alone.
One of the popular names we have for Christ is our Rock and our Redeemer. We’ve all sung, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.” Christ is our Emmanuel, God with us, a living, breathing reminder that God cares deeply and intimately about us and what we are going through, good, bad, or boring. Once we know the story of Jesus, we look at this story about the Israelites with new eyes. Jesus is God who came to earth as an unassuming, ordinary-looking carpenter’s kid and changed things with his ideas about love and sacrifice and generosity. He didn’t just talk about them, he made every decision and lived out every action this way, challenging us where we needed to be challenged, mercifully loving us when we have fallen short, leading us by example when we have lost sight of where we’re going, and healing us when we have been hurt. When Jesus met a Samaritan woman at a well on his way to Galilee she asked him for water, too, though she, like the Israelites, was skeptical about where exactly it would come from.
“The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?… [and] Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:11, 13)
On the cross, Jesus gave his life in love for all of Creation, and when he was struck in the side, living water flowed out. Does that remind you of anything? God providing life-giving water from an unlikely place in the midst of a seemingly hopeless situation…
Do not be afraid to ask for what you need from God and the people around you, especially when you are needing a little support in following where you hear and feel God calling you. That’s what the Church is for. Never feel shame or embarrassment about standing up for yourself and the people you love to ask for help. God is listening. God encourages us to do just that. When the people demand water, Moses cries out to God in fear and exasperation, “The people are almost ready to stone me!” And God seems to reply, “Oh, I’ll show you a stone. I’ll take your biggest fear, your greatest insecurity, and make it the vehicle of my blessing. I will work through those things you dread the most and bring new life to you and to the people around you.” God loves to turn things on their head and make our weaknesses into strengths. God transforms our personal fears into communal blessings.
God is present and listening, eager to respond to us in unexpected ways.
Will we be eager to ask?
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.