Scripture Lesson: Exodus 17:1-7
A Rock and a Hard Place
Rev. Chip Low
I was shocked to see all the Halloween decorations when Tami and I went to Target last week. When they come down, Christmas will be next. I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready for that yet. If you remember, last year during Advent, we participated in the Advent Conspiracy. We were asked to consider how we could give presence to one another rather than piling up more presents under the tree. One of the suggestions in the videos we watched in worship was to give presence to others through clean drinking water. As a result of that focus, donations were made to the church for clean drinking water around the world. This focus on water continued to filter through people’s minds and hearts because now our whole church, from our children to our adults, is going to start the new year by studying scripture and the world water crisis. We are living into the many ways we can be formed as God’s people for the world and be on mission with God to restore creation as well as many lives.
Take a look at this video from livingwatersfortheworld.org. (Click here to see the video.)
I hope you will join us for this important study in how we can give our presence to others in the way we care for creation, care about the water we use, and care for others around the world without the access we have. Jesus offered Living Water in his ministry, water, he said, that we could drink and never be thirsty again. It is that same water that we are called to offer to the searching person, to the broken person and to the person without any water.
Water changes everything. It is true for 1 billion people in the world today with no reliable source of clean water, and it’s true of the Israelites in our scripture passage from Exodus. They too had a water crisis. As we pick up the story in Exodus today, the Israelites were traveling through the wilderness toward the new land and the new life God promised them. They had set up camp at a place called Rephidim, the Hebrew word for “fresh”. If “fresh” is the theme of this place, we might expect there to be all sorts of amenities for travelers. Fresh food. Fresh landscape. Fresh fields for livestock. Fresh vistas. And, especially fresh water. But, this was the wilderness. The only fresh thing about this place was the fresh view of more rocks and hills and dirt. No food. No fresh fields for the livestock. And, no water, fresh or otherwise. It was bone dry in Rephidim. I’m sure that if someone back then had had a phone, they would call the tourist bureau and complain that Rephidim was anything but fresh – dry, dusty, lifeless.
There’s something we need to understand about living and traveling in the wilderness, especially the wilderness in the Bible. It’s a state of mind as much as it is a place. It’s symbolic of the life of faith. The road is often difficult to travel. It often feels like you are making little or no progress toward a goal. It can feel dangerous and chaotic. You often wonder why you left the old life for a far-off promise when all you see is a whole lot of dirt and rocks and very few provisions. Wilderness is wondering when you’ll get a job. It’s that place after marriages break up and the time when families fall apart. It’s that place of not knowing the plan for your life. It’s that place of doubt and confusion, of grief and loss. It’s wondering if God is really present. And, you have to trust God in ways that you never have before, for food, for direction, for safety, even for water. Will the God who goes with us into the wilderness provide for us along the way?
After a long day of traveling in that physical and spiritual wilderness, the last thing the Israelites wanted to hear was that there was no water. They needed water. This was one of those moments where the spiritual life and the physical life come together in the same clear need. The wilderness of life and faith was getting to be too much, and without water, how could they keep going physically or even spiritually? The wilderness lesson is this: When life feels as dry as that wilderness was, can we offer even our basic human needs to God and trust that God will provide in the wilderness? For the Israelites, the answer was clearly, “No!” They wanted water, and they wanted it now!
“Give us water to drink,” they demanded of their leader Moses. Clearly, it was his fault they were there, even though it was God who had led the way. Clearly, Moses didn’t care about them or their families, even though God had provided for their needs already over and over again. They were so desperate for water that slavery was starting to look good again. At least back in Egypt they had plenty of food to eat and water to drink. It may have come at a steep price, their freedom, but they didn’t seem to care about their freedom any longer or the place they were going. All they could see was the present, and it was a crisis as far as they were concerned. It got so bad for Moses that he was afraid they were going to stone him. He was truly stuck between a rock and a hard place.
To his credit, Moses didn’t cower there between the angry mob and a dry, barren land. He took their complaint to God. But, God doesn’t address the Israelites’ complaints. God told Moses to take some elders and his staff and go to a rock at Horeb. God would be standing there on the rock where they would find water when Moses touched it with his staff. The rest of the story is summed up this way. “Moses did so.” No celebrations. No splashing in the miraculous water that come up from that rock just like God said it would. No recognition of God’s presence in the water. No, big gulps followed by a collective “Aaah!” That’s not what the story remembers. It’s almost like God was planning to provide water anyway, just like God had been providing food and water all along the way.
What the story does remember is this: Moses “called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested God, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Massah and Meribah mean quarrel and test. The story doesn’t remember God’s miracle of fresh water. It remembers the Israelites’ lack of trust and how quickly they tested God. They switched quickly from trusting in God’s presence and abundance to doubting that God was with them and seeing only scarcity. We might understand this if God had not been faithful to them all along the way. But, they’d been liberated from slavery. They’d witnessed numerous miracles including a watery defeat of the Egyptian army. God had traveled with them in a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. When they needed water it was provided. When they needed food it arrived. Even their clothes did not wear out from all the traveling they did. Yet, at this moment in the wilderness, all they could see is what they didn’t have. So, they tried to test God and quarrel with God and make God serve their needs, the God who already had.
Over the next four or five weeks of studying the water crisis, we will arrive in a wilderness place full of suffering and despair for nearly one billion people. What will we see? Can we see God’s abundance and provision in the midst of the wilderness, or are we going to focus only on the horrific scarcity and doubt whether God is here at all? If we follow the Israelites’ example, and focus on the scarcity, it is easy to doubt God’s presence and start quarreling amongst ourselves. The problem is too big. We can’t make a difference. It is not my job. My actions don’t matter. It’s someone else’s job. We throw our hands up in despair and look the other way. Meanwhile, God has created a world with abundant resources. God has given us the minds and the means to develop the technology needed to relieve suffering. Just as God had planned all along to provide water for the Israelites, so God’s plan from the beginning of creation is that all his children should live lives of health and dignity which includes having enough water. The question for us, are we willing to trust in God’s presence in this world and to align our ministry with God’s plan? Can we see how God is inviting us to share abundantly in every good work?
The video says “water changes everything.” It brings new life through the waters of birth and baptism. It replenishes the earth and quenches our thirst. God’s invitation is that we work for a world where water becomes the very presence of God and new life for all.