Rev. Teri Peterson
Exodus 17.1-7 (CEB)
30 September 2018, Forward in Faith 4
The whole Israelite community broke camp and set out from the Sin desert to continue their journey, as the Lord commanded. They set up their camp at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people argued with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”
Moses said to them, “Why are you arguing with me? Why are you testing the Lord?”
But the people were very thirsty for water there, and they complained to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?”
So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What should I do with this people? They are getting ready to stone me.”
The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of Israel’s elders with you. Take in your hand the shepherd’s rod that you used to strike the Nile River, and go. I’ll be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Hit the rock. Water will come out of it, and the people will be able to drink.” Moses did so while Israel’s elders watched. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites argued with and tested the Lord, asking, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”
The Israelites aren’t having a very easy time of it, are they? Things weren’t going very well in Egypt, despite their short memories on that front. They saw God do amazing wonders, and rescue them from slavery, and bring them through the sea and out to freedom. But once they were out of Egypt and into the wilderness of the Sinai peninsula, some problems arose. It must have felt like they were just muddling along as best they could, traveling, making camp, trying to keep track of children and herds and friends, while also not getting too exhausted for the journey or too overwhelmed to cope with it all. It’s no wonder they seemed prone to complaining, and to wondering at every turn if God was still there. They were led by the pillar of cloud and fire, showing them the way, protecting them from danger. They had been fed manna and quail. But every day was a new challenge to overcome, a new drama to face.
And so they turn to Moses, looking for help, voicing their concerns. But Moses, too, is tired, and overwhelmed. He might be a little bit hangry, too, from the looks of things—his first response to this mass of thirsty people crying out for water is “why are you arguing with me????” What do they want him to do? After all, he’s just a person like they are. Yes, he’s the leader, and yes, God speaks to him, but surely he doesn’t have to be the only one who does everything, right?
His deflection doesn’t work, though, and Moses is beginning to feel as desperate as the rest of the people are. Only then, when he feels his own life is in danger, does he finally turn to God again.
I think God’s response is fascinating and lovely. Moses says “help! They’re going to stone me!” And God does nothing with that at all. Instead of answering Moses’ cry for personal safety, God addresses the thirst of the Israelites. God recognises this is a real problem, the people need to be provided for. People need the nourishment of a cup of cool water in the desert. Their complaint is valid, their cry is heard.
And so God reminds Moses who he is: “take your shepherd’s staff and go ahead of the people” God says. Like a shepherd, be a leader. Remember, sheep follow, they can’t be herded from behind. So the leader goes ahead, taking some elders with him, and the people will follow. With that sign of his pastoral identity and purpose, Moses strikes the rock, the elders see the salvation of the people flowing out, and everyone is able to drink and be satisfied—and so they have an answer to their question: is the Lord among us, or not? Yes, and God not only sees them for who they really are and what they really need, God provides for those needs even when the leader is more worried about saving his own skin.
Often, preachers and writers ask us to imagine ourselves as the Israelites—to identify with the people who are overwhelmed and wonder where God is, the ones who ask for help and God responds in really tangible ways. We are indeed sometimes forgetful, sometimes overwhelmed, sometimes thirsty, sometimes demanding, sometimes questioning. That’s true. I don’t think it’s the whole story, though.
What if instead we imagine the community outside the church, the people who are not a part of the congregation, as the Israelites? All those people out there in our neighbourhoods, on the train and in the cafe and in the bowling club and the pub and the shops and at school and everywhere. The world is full of pressures, people are anxious and overwhelmed, just getting along day by day, some feeling overly full and some empty and many seeking something but not sure what. Some sense it and don’t know what questions to ask or where to turn for help, and others try to fill the void in different ways (some healthier than others), but ultimately what it comes down to is that people are thirsty.
Now imagine how often people encounter the Church as if we are Moses. They hear the Church saying it can’t be questioned, and that doubting God is sinful. They come looking for nourishment, and the Church gives them our frustration and fear right back. They long for water, and the Church gives rules and blames them for their own predicament and then asks them to join and give so we can save ourselves.
If we’re lucky and people hold on until we get around to the next part of the story, we might get a chance to lead by example, to go out ahead with the shepherd’s staff, to witness a miracle and share the good news with those who come along with us. We might get the chance to be reminded by God that God’s care is for all the people, not just for us and our institutions and plans and rules. Hopefully we, like Moses, would take the opportunity to turn our faces away from our own self-preservation and toward the future and step out in faith, and then shout out the good news of what God has done.
I would like to make another suggestion.
People are indeed thirsty. Life in the modern world is complicated. Only a few minutes looking at the news headlines is enough to have even faithful people asking “is God among us or not?” For those who long for just a taste of living water, with only desert in sight, it can seem bleak.
What if the Church is meant to be like the rock? Split open, gushing forth streams of living water, enough to quench the thirst of all.
The rock doesn’t ask why people are thirsty. It doesn’t ask where they’ve been all this time. It doesn’t blame them for being in the wilderness, or for not knowing what to do. It feels the strike of the shepherd’s staff, and it breaks itself open and offers itself. And people find that even in this strange place, there is a taste of hope, a drop of love poured out just for them. The rock doesn’t get anything out of it, the people don’t become rocks or anything...it’s a selfless act of emptying itself for the sake of others, so that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
The world is literally dying of thirst, longing to know the answer to the question: is the Lord among us or not? What would it look like for the Church, the Body of Christ, to understand itself as the rock that feels the tap of its shepherd, and then opens up and simply serves the need of those around it, without hope for its own gain? It might look like literally working for clean water and food for all. It might look like offering spiritual nourishment in new ways, even for people who will never join the church. It might look like reaching out to be a friend to those who are lonely, or passing on skills we have that others can use, or giving of our time or resources to work for justice in our community and nation and world. It will look like going forward in faith, reaching out, not simply waiting for people to come to us in the manner we’re used to. It will certainly involve prayer, and listening for the nudge of the Spirit, and courage to break ourselves open and let love pour through in whatever form people need to experience grace.
Jesus promised that we would become a well of living water, springing up with eternal life. Can we hear the thirst of our neighbours, and open ourselves up to meet it?
May it be so.