Sunday, July 05, 2020

Thirsty -- a sermon on Exodus 15

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Exodus 15.22-27 (NIV)
5 July 2020, Postcards of Faith 3

Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they travelled in the desert without finding water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah.) So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What are we to drink?’
Then Moses cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became fit to drink.
There the Lord issued a ruling and instruction for them and put them to the test. He said, ‘If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.’
Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water.

Here in Scotland, going out into the wilderness is more likely to involve worries about too much water, rather than not enough. But in the Sinai, and throughout most of the places where the action of the Bible takes place, water is a real concern. Many stories involve looking for water, digging wells, meeting at the well, watering animals, or, as is the case today, a dangerous lack of water.

The Israelites were only three days past the saga of crossing the sea when they ran out of water. Remember there were thousands of them, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, the way the story is told. And they also had sheep, cattle, donkeys, and maybe even camels, who would all need water as well. Even fleeing on short notice, they could probably have carried food enough to ration for many days…but no matter how much time they had to prepare, they would not be able to carry enough water for more than a day or two. They needed to find a well, or even better a spring or stream or pond.

It’s easy for us, who have plentiful access to clean water on demand, to forget what a valuable commodity it is. There are many in the world who do not have that, whose water is polluted, or has dried up, or is carrying disease. And when we start to think about people who have had to flee their homes due to violence, oppression, or disaster, just as the Israelites once did, we can add even more people to the list of those who are thirsty and worrying about when they’ll come across a clean water source again.

It doesn’t take long, when one is food or water insecure, to have all thoughts revolve around that lack. People living in poverty or where there is no water spend more mental and emotional energy thinking about food and water than those of us who have them immediately to hand. It crowds out other thought, makes it impossible to focus on other tasks, and generally means that everything that isn’t about survival must be put on the back burner.

So it is not surprising that when the Israelites, who had run out of water probably a day or even two days before, finally arrived at a place that looked wet, all they could think about was finally getting a drink. To discover that the place was called “bitter” because the water was undrinkable was the last straw. There was no space in their brains for anything other than desperation…and so they turned on Moses.

Remember it was just three days ago that they stood on the banks of the sea and complained that Moses should have let them stay in Egypt because at least then there’d be a place to bury them when they died. Just three days ago that scripture reports they crossed the sea and that they trusted God and Moses. Probably three of the longest days of their lives, as they walked on without any sign of water, jugs running dry, worry crowding out everything else in their minds, feet growing heavy and tongues starting to feel thick and dry.

This man Moses, who was cast upon the waters as a baby and rescued from the water by a princess, who brought them through the water…had led them to a place where they could not drink.

They could be forgiven for thinking back to the very first of the ten plagues, when the Nile and all its tributaries and canals were turned to blood. It was said then, in exactly the same words: they could not drink its water. 

Remembering all that happened after that first plague, and standing in front of water they could not drink, perhaps the Israelites wondered if they were at the beginning of the end themselves. Would the next nine plagues be ahead for them too?

Once again, the people grumbled against Moses. And Moses turned to the Lord, on behalf of the people. He absorbed their fear and pain and thirst, and took it to God…and God provided. God opened Moses’ eyes and mind to a solution, and Moses followed that guidance, and the people were able to drink their fill, and care for their animals.

Only then, after they have quenched their thirst, when their minds are no longer entirely absorbed in the problem of finding water, does God speak: “I will not bring on you the diseases that plagued the Egyptians.” Don’t worry, this is not the start of another round of horror. Instead, God says, “I am the Lord, who heals you.” The one who brings a balm to your wounds, who renews and makes whole.

And this is part of the healing process: Listen carefully. Follow God’s ways. Do what is right in God’s eyes, not only your own. This is how you will be made whole, stitched back together after years of oppression and pain and fear and grief: by learning to trust that God desires your flourishing, and following the way God lays out for you.

This will not be an easy task…for the Israelites, or for generations to come, or for us.

Sometimes, we will forget all that God has already done.

Sometimes, we will look back at the way things used to be, and wish we could go backwards.

Sometimes, we will refuse to be healed, preferring to perpetuate our own pain rather than do the hard work of desiring God’s way.

But even then, it will still be true that God is the one who heals us, and who offers us a part to play in that healing, for ourselves and for the world. Because remember God’s words to Abraham: he would be blessed, and all the world would be blessed through him. From generation to generation, we can be a part of passing on the blessing by participating in this healing work. Allowing our own fears and desires to drop to the side, so that we can see what God is doing, and join in. God knows that when we are in the midst of the trauma, it is hard to think about anything else. God knows that when we are thirsty, all we can focus on is water. God knows that when we are in the middle of a pandemic, all we can do is watch the news updates. God knows that when people are constantly being harassed, in large and small ways, for their skin colour or their accent or their religion, all they can think about is how to protect themselves. 

And God showed Moses the tree branch. It had been there the whole time, but he couldn’t see it…yet when he listened to God’s word and followed God’s way, the whole people was saved, again and again. 

The end of this episode is easy to overlook, after the fear and relief of finding water. It says that they journeyed on and came to an oasis that had twelve springs and seventy date palms — can you imagine the feeling of arriving somewhere so abundant, after time spent in the desert, and after generations of being enslaved? 

Twelve springs — one for every tribe. Seventy fruit trees — one representing every elder. This was a place where there was enough for everyone. No one would go thirsty or hungry here. Finally, they could relax. They could taste and see that God is good. They could begin to live into their new reality as free people, no longer scrabbling about for scraps of straw to make Pharaoh’s bricks, no longer hiding their children in the reeds of the river, no longer suffering in poverty despite their forced labour. This was a true oasis, a place of nourishment for body and soul, the first stop on their journey to healing.

The journey ahead of the Israelites was still long. There would be many setbacks along the way. But this first moment of trial in the wilderness, when God provides first and then shows them the path to wholeness, will be played out again and again. This is how God works: saves first, and then invites us into a way of life in response. Over and over. Then, and now. 

As our eyes are opened to the ways God is providing for us in this day’s trials and tribulations, let us also listen for the ways God invites us to participate in the healing that is ahead, for us and for our community and for the world. Not so that God will love us more, but because we are already so loved, so cared for, so nourished, so blessed, that we can join in God’s work of blessing the world.

May it be so. Amen.

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