The Rev. Teri Peterson
25 September 2011, Ordinary 26A
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. 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 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. 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?’
I love to read. I read constantly—almost everything I can get my hands on. Novels, theology, blogs, news articles, church magazines, the Bible…I love stories. When my eyes or brain are too tired for reading, I listen to podcasts or radio dramas, I watch old movies or tv shows. In part this is because I like the escape—because I can find myself in the story somewhere. Sometimes I might identify with a particular character, or a situation, or sometimes even some part of the scenery. Sometimes I’m in the story because I’m so outraged at whatever is happening, or so sympathetic. Whatever the case, almost every time I can place myself in the story.
So I wonder today if we might try this out. I’m going to read this story again. I invite you to close your eyes and picture the scene, and see if you find yourself in the story.
(read scripture again)
Where were you in the story?
Some of us identify with the congregation of the Israelites—the people who want what we want, and we want it now. I have certainly fallen into this category often enough in my lifetime that I have actually had friends and family members just hold up cheese, in case I want it to go with my whine. We all whine from time to time. We all have needs that ought to be met—water, food, shelter, love, justice, healthcare. The Israelites were no different. Except that one chapter ago, when they were hungry, God fed them with bread and meat…and continued to do so every day, like clockwork, for the next 40 years. And except that two chapters ago, they were walking across the dry floor of the sea, then watching their persecutors drown as they tried to chase the fleeing Israelites. So maybe they were different—they had seen some amazing things, they were being directly provided for by God, and they were now following God toward the promise. What the promise was exactly, they probably weren’t sure. And who this God character is may still be a little unclear. After all, there wasn’t exactly time in the slave lifestyle to maintain a religion. Moses himself, while talking to the burning bush, had been concerned that no one would listen because they don’t know this God character—only when God gives a name, “I am who I am, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” does Moses even begin to think about agreeing to this crazy plan God has cooked up.
So the congregation of the Israelites can perhaps be forgiven for having their moments of toddler-style temper tantrums. They are people who have just been reintroduced to the God of their ancestors, people who are just beginning a journey with this God. In terms of their faith journey, their experience as God’s chosen people, their ability to trust God’s promise to provide for them, they are children who don’t understand why their every need is not immediately met, who will turn on the leader with the slightest provocation, who will have separation anxiety when Moses goes up the mountain to talk to God, and will demand to get their way but will never say thank you without being reminded.
Okay, so it’s not flattering to imagine ourselves in this role in the story. But sometimes it might be accurate. After all, we are a people whose culture is built on instant gratification. I’m the first to complain that we can’t seem to get the wireless internet signal to reach to the fellowship hall…because it would be so convenient if we could stream movies for youth group rather than having to plan ahead to get the DVD. And I know I’m not alone in my desire for convenience and quick service on my terms. There’s uproar every time facebook changes something. There’s some intense anger about the way Netflix will now have two separate websites—one for DVDs and one for streaming movies and tv shows—which means, gasp! we have to create two separate lists and go to two different sites to get what we want. There was an article yesterday about how Amazon warehouse employees are treated, constantly being required to increase their rate of work until they’re locating and packing up to four items a minute in the huge maze of a warehouse, all so we can get our items cheaply and immediately. We live in a 24 hour news cycle, a 24 hour advertising cycle, and a 24 hour buying cycle. There is no need to wait for anything—whatever we want, there’s a way we can get it right now. And if we don’t…
The Israelites needed food and water. They were traveling with a God who had proved to be greater than their imaginations, but they still tested this God, requiring God to earn their trust. It takes time to change from persecuted slaves to the beloved community of God. It takes time to unlearn things, to undo the psychological and spiritual and physical damage, to learn new ways of being and doing. It takes time to grow up.
In the meantime, they blame Moses. If there’s no water, no food, no healthcare, no justice, no safety, it must be the leader’s fault. Why did he do this to us? Is he trying to kill us? Is this a plot to ruin the country, to put an end to our way of life, to get glory for himself at our expense?
But Moses doesn’t take the bait. Instead, he shows us that he’s been hanging out with this God for a while now. He’s had some time to get used to the idea of following God into apparently hopeless situations, and he knows that this complaining and whining and arguing and testing isn’t about him. He tries to turn the people’s attention to God, but that doesn’t work any more than it does with children. So he talks to God—he doesn’t respond to the sarcasm, the anger, the accusing words, he simply talks to God. Moses knows that he can’t create water…and he knows there is One who can. Moses knows that instant gratification isn’t the name of the game with this God—10 plagues, multiple stuttering audiences with the Pharaoh, a seemingly impenetrable ocean, and a vast expanse of desert are ample illustration that God is not interested in granting our most immediate desires at the expense of our deeper needs. But Moses also knows that without God, he can’t do anything except get himself killed by an angry mob.
But with God, all things are possible. Moses takes the leaders of the tribes, the elders of the congregation, and goes ahead, showing the way. Moses was a shepherd—he knew that sheep follow, they can’t be led from behind. This group of leaders goes ahead into the desert, and there they encounter the presence of God. There they experience God in a way they couldn’t imagine back in the camp. They know that God is with them—the question of the Lord’s presence among them is no longer a question. It’s a reality. With that knowledge, they can lead the people into the sure and certain hope that water, living water, is provided out of God’s gracious bounty. There is enough. In the presence of God, they grow up. Their faith journey is no longer just beginning—now they, with Moses, are leaders who know the way.
Moses isn’t a beginner at following God. His faith has matured as he’s spent time with God, known God’s presence, heard God’s voice, and seen God’s faithfulness. When the people complain, he knows that while the surface issue may even be as important as whether there is water to drink, it’s still just a surface issue—the real issue is the question of whether God is among us or not.
This is still the same question. There are lots of presenting problems in the life of a community—whether it’s our church, our nation, or our world. There are lots of important issues. There’s a lot of temptation to blame leaders, or to argue, or even for leaders to believe that it really is about them. But those are all toddler responses. It’s time for some growing up as we walk this faith journey. Yes, we are children of God, but that doesn’t mean we need to act like children. Paul writes about people young in faith and how he fed them with the spiritual equivalent of milk, but at some point it’s time to move on to solid food. Here’s our chance—to follow the example of Moses as we grow in grace. By creating that community of leaders, Moses found a way to spread the good news of God’s presence and God’s faithfulness, the life giving water of grace. It’s not just his word anymore—it’s the word of people whose faces are shining with the love and promise of God. The challenge for us now is whether we will join them.
May it be so.