Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2The 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?”
3But 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?”
4So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
5The Lord said to Moses, “Go on 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. 6I 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. 7He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (NRSV)
This summer, like most summers, had a few long dry spells. During each one, my gardener wife would stand over her rows of tomatoes, beans, okra, and squash and say, “We really need some rain.” Then she’d go turn the handle on the spigot, pick up the hose, and start watering her garden.
I suppose that getting water from the faux brick-on-concrete block foundation of a house isn’t any easier than Moses whacking a rock with a stick; it’s just a lot less dramatic. Then again, when you think about the whole process of drawing dirty water from the Nolichucky River, pumping it all the way to Jonesborough, purifying it, and delivering it into our homes day and night at the mere twist of a handle—well, if that’s not exactly a miracle, it’s certainly a wonder. And as long as a person pays her utility bills, she can trust that process to receive a God-given resource that every living thing requires for its existence.
It seems to me that trust is the fundamental issue facing the parched and anxious Israelites as they languish in the wilderness. And as much as we can sympathize with the Hebrews, their accusation that Moses is trying to kill them reveals their faithlessness. And since faithlessness is really nothing more than forgetfulness, let’s remember the context of this story.
The incident at Rephidim occurs right after God has parted the seas, turned bitter water into sweet water, and provided both manna and quail for the people. Though they have experienced God’s faithfulness in multiple situations, they still haven’t reached a place of trust. Because of their limited experience, God remains, primarily, a liturgical utterance—The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The people know of God, but they have yet to know God. They have yet to love and trust God.
When our Sunday school discussed this passage, one person observed that the Israelites seem to be following Moses rather than God. So, they’re defined by their ongoing dependence on a fellow creature rather than their relationship with the Creator. So, while sweet water, manna, and quail are great, it takes a while for a few strokes of good luck to become a faith-building trend. It takes even longer to recognize the divine presence behind Moses’ leadership. And it takes longer still to trust that, whether Moses is present or not, God is, was, and will always be present in the life of the people.
That’s part of our faith struggle—learning to hear professions of faith not as wishful thinking but as the expressions of hearts at peace, hearts who trust that come what may, great joy or deep anxiety, God is present in the moment redeeming suffering, creating purpose, and calling us to lives of humble service and confident witness. This kind of trust-wrought wisdom is inherent in every authentic spirituality.
In discussing leadership in his book The Naked Now, Richard Rohr says that “wisdom is ‘the art of the possible.’ The key question is no longer ‘How can I problem-solve now, and get this off of my plate?’ It is ‘How can this situation achieve good for the largest number and for the next generations?’”1
The Exodus is one long problematic situation for the Israelites. And as the leader, Moses often wants simply to get problems off of his plate so he can move on to the promised land God has told him about and about which he has told the Hebrews. And they will eventually find that land—more or less. As with all temporal nations, it will be a territory they never truly own because they take it by force and hold it only until a stronger people take it from them by force. And on it goes. And so, Israel’s faith will wax and wane depending on the number and magnitude of the problems on their plate at any given time.
As God’s Nation-Within-The-Nations, Israel often wearies of and abandons the call to help lead God’s good creation in the ways of justice, righteousness, compassion, and trust. And perhaps TRUST, more than any particular geographical location, is itself the Promised Land.
Out there in the wilderness, bereft of trust and water, the Israelites lose sight of what has happened and what can happen. They’ve forgotten the Red Sea, the sweet water, the manna, and the quail. They’ve forgotten that God is with them in their thirst, and that God, whose providence can be trusted, is already on the other side of their need.
For 21st century Christians, who are accustomed to tap water, relating to this story means placing ourselves in it, and not just as Israelites. There’s room for us inside every element of the story.
Like Moses, we are leaders charged with the burden of wisdom, with the work of discovering what is possible in our own wilderness and acting in faith to lead others simply by living the radical new vision called the household of God, a vision in which the schisms that pit us against each other become celebrations of our different gifts, and the sand castles of meritocracy give way to communities of grace built on the solid foundation of mutual human respect and love, and on bathing in God’s delight in all that God has made.
We can see ourselves in Moses’ staff, something that Moses never uses as a magic wand for his own benefit, but which, at God’s command becomes both a symbol of and a conduit for the power of God touching the earth on behalf of people in need. That helps us understand why the staff is an essential image in Psalm 23, doesn’t it?
As rock and water, we can bear witness to God as both an anchor of identity and the flow of life and liveliness, as both safe harbor and open-ended journey. As water-logged rocks, we encounter and embody a life-giving paradox—the concrete mystery of God’s incarnate presence in and for the world.
Perhaps most importantly, as thirst itself, we live as ones who trust that our deepest desires are God’s own longings to be in relationship with us. “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in you,” wrote St Augustine. “I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you,” prayed Thomas Merton.
When we, as Christ’s body, join our voices in cries for justice and peace, we participate in the world’s thirst. And while we must participate in those thirsty cries, we can’t stop there. When protest becomes an end in itself, we reduce it to quarreling and testing. The faith community has more constructive roles to play. Like Moses, we intercede and advocate. We raise our staff and strike the jagged rocks of resentment, fear, and bigotry. We allow ourselves to be broken open so that through us the living water of Christ becomes a healing flow of humble welcome, truth-telling, and re-orienting relationship. We lead in acts of reconciliation, in demonstrations of confession, repentance, reparation, and resurrection.
Ours is a crucial, pivotal time, and as people of thirst-conscious compassion, as leadership staff in Christ’s new community of grace, as rocks saturated with living water, God calls us into a drought-weary world to speak and act with the love that casts out fear, the love that bears…believes…hopes…and endures all things, the love that never ends.
May we trust that love, whose name is Yahweh. And may we help bring water to a parched and anxious world.
1Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See. The Crossroad Publishing Company, NY, 2009. P. 158.