A sermon drawn from Exodus 17:1-7
After reading about Jesus’ conversation with the “woman at the well,” we’re look back at an even older story about water and its meaning for the people of God; this is a story from an early stage on the Israelites’ journey out of Egypt. It takes place somewhere between the Red Sea and “the mountain of God” where they will receive the terms of their Covenant with God, including the Ten Commandments and other words of Torah – that is, God’s instructions for how to live as God’s people. So right now, they’re following Moses, they’re picking up manna 6 mornings a week, and they are pretty new at all of this.
Has anything like this ever happened to us? Where we’re in a situation, maybe a tight spot, and we wonder “How is this going to end?” More to the point, how is this going to end well?
When we don’t see everything we need right in front of us – especially when we’re suffering want – we can easily question the presence and provision of God.
And then, there are often people around us who love to rush in and tell us what we should be doing, or thinking, or feeling about that … like what we should learn from this story about the Israelites …
So first off, a quick reminder, I don’t think we really learn from this story that it’s “bad” to complain. Because we have to remember that this is a story in the Bible, and there is lots of complaining in the Bible, and people do not automatically get in trouble for complaining. Job complains, the Psalmist complains, the prophet Jeremiah and some of the other prophets complain, Jesus complains, even Paul complains! So I think we get to conclude that the fact the Israelites are complaining is not the problem here.
Also, second thing, I think we need to watch out not to make assumptions about what the Israelites are going through in the wilderness here at “Rephidim.”
Starting with that name, in fact: it might be one particular place, or might just be a generic term that means “campsite” or “rest stop” – it’s a little unclear. The text is not that specific, maybe on purpose! Because what we ourselves might need to learn from this story depends a lot on what we imagine the people are experiencing, and that may say a lot more about us and what we’re going through than it does about what was happening in the wilderness.
Because there’s more than one possibility here.
Some people are sure that the Israelites were practically dying of thirst in this story – that they’d come to the last drop of water in their canteens or water skins or whatever they had, and had been trekking through the hot Arabian desert for a few hours already on no water, and those people work out how many hours a human body can go without water and conclude that the Israelites were literally facing imminent death.
In which case, they quite understandably and probably rightly, wanted to know where the life-giving, absolutely necessary water was?? Where’s God with the water? We can probably see ourselves asking the same thing … are you really going to let us die out here? Is that what this whole thing was for?
Other people, though, are sure that they must still have had enough water, because the people start complaining here at Rephidim and then five whole days later, after fighting a battle with some Amalekites, btw, they show up at Mt. Horeb (aka Mt. Sinai), where Moses hits the rock and voilà, turns out there’s a river of water, enough to provide a couple of million people AND all their livestock with water for a year while they listen to God and absorb the ten commandments and build the tabernacle and organize themselves into a real polity, etc. So on that reading, they’re just now starting to notice that they might be about to be running into a water shortage, and they’re having to ration their water, and stop doing as much laundry, and they’re worried.
Kind of like how we get when we’re on a trip in the car, and start to notice that we’re on a quarter of a tank, and we didn’t get off at that last exit, and now we’re hoping that another one with a gas station shows up soon enough, before our warning light comes on.
Some people here have probably been through water situations exactly like this: watching the soil get dryer, or the pond get lower, and thinking, “we really need some rain … or things are going to be bad.” That is … things aren’t terrible yet, but we can see them heading that direction.
[Jesus quotes a saying in the reading this morning, that probably comes from that kind of experience, too: “four more months and then comes the harvest” – that is, we still have a whole growing cycle to wait out before we have new grain … because four months was the time it took between the first planting and the first harvesting.]
Assuming there’s some historical Israelite memory behind this story, which I think IS safe to assume, that historical reality is probably somewhere between those two extremes.
And what we think we’re supposed to learn from the text seems to depend a lot on which scene we have in our heads! Because if we imagine the people are panting out their last breaths, we might think the lesson is they aren’t calling on God enough. If they’re imagining catastrophes that haven’t come to pass yet, maybe the problem is REALLY that they want God to spare them from worrying … which doesn’t seem very reasonable. Especially because we know from other sources, and probably from experience, that God sometimes really calls us out past our comfort zones.
And then there is the biblical scholar Terence Fretheim, who points out that God has led these people into a place where there are plenty of resources: manna shows up on the desert floor, and from what we can tell, this may actually have been a naturally occurring phenomenon of the desert.
And then, when it comes to this water – honestly, we may like the idea that the water appeared out of nowhere, miraculously. But Fretheim says: more likely, the water is already there. But it’s hidden, they can’t see it, it’s blocked or bottled up in the rock, so what Moses has to do is bring it to the surface, free it, make it visible and available …
If we accept that interpretation, then we’ll think: God HAS been taking GOOD care of these people, God has led them into a wilderness where there is plenty to meet their needs, for the purpose of doing something special with them … BUT … true enough, the wilderness does not look like Egypt.
The food is not Egyptian food. And the water is definitely not the Nile river. And the food and the water both now take some work, as well as some getting used to. It takes accepting some new FORMS of these life-giving things. So they don’t even recognize them at first – that’s one thing that makes these resources hidden.
And because the resource are hidden, the people don’t perceive God’s care right away.
And then, drawing on those resources asks some changes from these people. Some pretty big changes.
And as we know – maybe very vividly – change can be real work. When things are going along in the same way as they have for many years, we know exactly what needs to be done, know the schedule, know who’s job is whose, we know our jobs, we’ve gotten to the point where we’re pretty good at doing what we need to do – and all that can be a really comfortable place.
Even – thinking of the Israelites again – if we were slaves in that place.
Changing things, suddenly being put into a position of needing to learn how to do something unfamiliar and new, or at least new to us, that may be a lot less comfortable. Even if now we’re really free.
Notice that MOSES was worried, too! Maybe because that situation – of being in an unfamiliar environment, of having to find out what the hidden resources are in this situation, encouraging people to make good use of them, all that – asks a lot of the leaders, too, the elders he takes with him. They have more responsibility, to pay attention, to suggest things, to regroup. In fact, the elders in this story turn out to be some of the hidden resources, too – that story comes up a little further on in the book of Exodus. Moses is evidently a little bit of a control freak, and has gotten into the habit of micromanaging life in the Israelite camp, and his father-in-law, says, Moses! Look around – you’re surrounded by people who could be doing a lot of what you’re doing, you’re not the only person here who can do things.
Faithfulness may mean exploring the hidden dimensions of the new, unfamiliar landscape, and finding the hidden resources available in it. True even for Moses.
So maybe the lesson we can learn from this story is that God WAS taking care of the Israelites. But not in such a way that they experienced ease.
God HAD led them to a place where there were resources adequate to the need. There WERE resources in the desert. But they weren’t immediately obvious. Instead, the people had to do some learning, about how to flourish in the unfamiliar environment of the wilderness.
And to do that, they couldn’t keep looking back to Egypt and making comparisons and thinking – with very selective memory, we might notice – about how great Egypt had been! Complaining might not be a bad thing, in itself. But the kind of complaining that gets us stuck in “the good old days” and keeps us from making the most of the present, certainly doesn’t help. And we could imagine how God might feel, having brought people to … THE WILDERNESS (so great!) … for what’s about to be a tremendous experience (!!), and they’re saying … “eww, who’s idea was this??”
So, for us … here in the literal middle of Lent … which traditionally in the church is a time of special or intensified spiritual preparation … we might take away from this that the place of concern isn’t necessarily a “bad” place … even though it may look that way before the resources (the options, the possibilities) that are hidden in that place have been located and … “surfaced.”
When we find ourselves in a place of concern, what looks like it might be a place of deprivation or emptiness, one thing we can remember is to trust that God IS still leading us –
Which means it will make sense to look for the hidden resources in the situation: to ask for the extra guidance and the insight to make sense out of the new and unfamiliar, to ask: What now? What next? What do you want us to do here, with this situation?
Because we can’t expect ourselves to know all about something we’ve never done before, but we can have the confidence that God is up to something, and will bring something to light – so we want to be on the lookout for it and have the openness to see it.
And we’ll have to get prepared for the answer to be, possibly, some kind of change. Some kind of letting go.
This past weekend the Synod of Lincoln Trails organized an in-person summit for members of COMs and CPMs, evidently something they have done in the past, and that event was really illuminating. They held it at a place, Copper Creek Church, in Champaign, Illinois, a church that began 14 or 15 years ago with the idea that they would be a home for people who had given up on church. Which is really audacious in itself, to put “given up on church” in a church vision statement.
But speaking of “letting go,” the pastor there, who told some of the stories of the church in the course of those couple of days, told us – when someone asked about this really beautiful bowl they have at the rear of the sanctuary … and there’s a little sign over the bowl, basically, “if you feel like giving some money, you could drop it here, or online …”
And he said, well, we know that one of the reasons people give up on church is that churches are always pestering people for money and time, they suck up all your money and all your time. And we really are serious about being a place for people who’ve given up on church, so …
We don’t have a pledge drive, and we don’t pass an offering plate.
And of course, the whole audience was church people, elders, pastors, presbytery executive types, I think we could hear the collective gasp … and he said, it is a little nerve-racking around November, December, to see how the year is going to end up … but … so far, they’ve been fine.
The church as a whole is in unfamiliar territory. The world is changing all around us. People here know this really personally and directly.
But God IS with us, God IS in our midst, and there are resources for us, if we can open our eyes to those, and learn how to make use of them … for whatever God is doing next, and calling us to do next.
Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Moses brings forth water,” Dialogue Islamo-Chretien, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons