Preached on the first Sunday of the COVID-19 suspension of public worship.
I was taken aback when I walked into the conference room at my first church. The faded institutional yellow paint was peeling. A beat up wooden table was surrounded by metal folding chairs. A decades old stretcher in the corner on battered wooden poles, and the army green canvas was brittle and frayed. At a council meeting I asked why the stretcher was there. “Oh, that is an important church artifact. During the flu epidemic of 1918, the church chapel was used as a hospital. We have kept this stretcher ever since to remember.” That’s great. But why is it behind the door? If it is important, why not mount it on the wall of the chapel and put up a plaque to remember?”
This suggestion was met with awkward silence. A few days later the stretcher was gone and a fund-raising campaign began to renovate the conference room. At the time I thought, “Mission accomplished!” Now I’m not so sure. I wish I had insisted that they mount it on the wall, to celebrate a time when the church acted faithfully in a crisis. Today, over 25 years later, I wonder if anyone still remembers how the church offered compassion during the epidemic of 1918. I wish there were minutes from the church council meeting. Were they afraid of contagion? Did they continue to hold worship services? Was anyone opposed to doing this act of service? Or was this bold act just seen at the time as doing their Christian duty?
This scriptures remind us that we are not the first people of faith to face these trials:
Do not fear the terror of night,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
nor the plague that destroys at noonday.
– Psalm 91:5-6
During my first read of today’s scripture from Exodus, I was struck by the amount of fear, blame and hostile rhetoric. This was a people caught up in fear. Listen to their words. “The people argued with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” I am sympathetic with their fears. This is a real life-threatening crisis. Have you ever been dehydrated? I was so dehydrated once because I couldn’t keep anything in my stomach, and I could feel the ends of my fingers and toes going numb. No water is serious. The people in the wilderness may not have been dying of thirst yet, but they understood resources were scarce. Would everyone get their share of precious water?
Being afraid is normal in a real crisis. I made several nursing home and assisted care visits recently, as we were getting news of the Covid-19 virus. One person was telling me in great detail about a stomach bug afflicting everyone on their floor. The person began to cough and my skin crawled and I wanted to flee. I crossed my arms so I wouldn’t touch my face. When they asked for prayer and I held their hands. The power of the moment, that human contact, surged through me as we prayed, it felt important. And then I quickly left and covered my hands with sanitizer. Now I have to rule out this kind of contact and the nursing home is closed to visitors. I’m glad I held hands with everyone that day, and while I’m embarrassed by my fear, now it is so necessary to avoid this human touch. I feel fear and it breaks my heart.
Fear is normal. It tells us to be careful. We should listen to it. Fear helps us survive, and to be alert, to take action. But if fear also needs faith. Free floating anxiety can make us reactive or withdrawing, angry and blaming.
I wonder about Moses and his intense reaction to peoples’ real fear about thirst. He says, “Why are you arguing with me? Why are you testing the Lord?” Why is Moses so defensive and reactive? He doesn’t offer any insight or assurances to their fears. It sounds like scolding. “Hey people, this isn’t a real crisis. You are over-reacting. There is plenty of water, beautiful water, I’m going to jump in my pool. ” Moses even says, “Why are you testing the Lord?” When other people invalidate our concerns by claiming God’s backing, things go downhill quickly. Look at what happens when a leader like Moses is reactive and blaming. The people get more reactive and fearful. They respond, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children and all our livestock? Can you feel the negative cycle of fear, blame and reactivity.
Moses then turns to God and says, “What should I do? The people are ready to stone me.” Notice that the real issue is still not being discussed. No one has yet offered any solutions about how to get water. It’s all about blaming, or trying to avoid fault.
God, in contrast, doesn’t scold Moses or the people. God will not respond by taking sides in the argument. God gets the focus back on supplying water. But notice that God does not just pour water from the sky. First, God restores confidence. Moses is instructed to get the elders together, take his staff with which he struck the Nile, and when you strike the rock at Horeb, water will flow. Here is my paraphrase:
Moses, remember who you are. You are a leader. You are not alone. Get your elders together. Build unity. Then go find the water.
God’s gamechanger is not simply a miracle of water from a rock. God helps move the people from a fearful cycle to a faithful cycle. Instead of fear, blame, paralysis and inaction; God restores faith, which leads to unity, action and resolution. Fearful systems are reactive and blaming. Faithful systems are creative, unifying and proactive. In fear, we are afraid we will die of thirst. In faith, water flows in the wilderness, even from a rock, and we find enough to sustain us.
This story of water flowing from the rock is not just a one-time sign. In Exodus, the people go through ten trials, but in faith find a way where they thought there was no way. In the previous chapter, Exodus 16, people where hungry. Moses had lived in the wilderness as a shepherd. He taught them to live off the land. They gathered the sticky secretions from Tamarix trees, calling it “manna.” Moses showed people where the quail landed to rest, exhausted from their travels, so they could be easily caught. They learned to find the resources they needed in a strange land, a wilderness which at first seemed barren and unforgiving.
We may now feel a sense of wilderness. Sudden change is hard. It’s a strange world where all the things we normally do for reassurance are what we must stop doing-just when we want to gather, to shake hands, to hug a friend, to share a meal together, we are called to keep our distance as an act of love. It feels so wrong. It feels like wandering in the wilderness, thirsting. Thirsty not only for connection, but also meaning, justice, a different world from the one we are now living in. Some of you may be asking the same question as Israel asked in the wilderness, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”
Friends, I do not hold the staff of Moses, and cannot magically get us everything we need. I do not have the healing power of Jesus to make this terrible virus disappear. I can’t even tell you things will be better soon, in fact they will likely get worse. But I can tell you that I have faith that God is always with us. I believe that living water still flows, in these rocky times where we thirst for wholeness. If we strike the rock, here is how I see water flowing today.
Water flows from the rock when we turn our fears over to God and receive an outpouring of faith. It’s OK to acknowledge your fear. In fact, it is an essential step of faith. Without any fear we would likely be in denial of the human suffering around us. This crisis calls us to a deeper inward journey.
I see water flowing from the rock when people become more intentional about their care and concern for one another. Every time you avoid a handshake, or hug, or stay home instead of going to an event, do something concrete to connect. Your words of kindness matter. Your gestures of care, and actions to help others are important to our well-being.
I see water flowing from the rock when people work for compassion and justice. When Rep. Katie Porter relentlessly forced the CDC official to offer virus testing for free, hopeful waters flowed. Every day, people who work in health care show up , to meet the challenge of caring for the sick and saving lives. I spent time this week talking with the leaders of 12 step groups who meet here, trying to figure out how to support people in their recovery, but without spreading the virus to one another. Our local agencies are figuring out how to get food to people, and protect people who are homeless. I see a whole community of living water who are concerned not just about themselves, but about people who are most at risk and vulnerable.
We will get through this. It will not happen without sacrifice, or suffering, or courage. On the other side of Covid-19, there may be a new normal. Perhaps we will learn some valuable lessons. We have had a crash course in how interconnected we are to everyone. When our world has been fragmenting and divisive, we now have to work together. We have seen the necessity of everyone needing health care. The virus does not pass over celebrities like Tom Hanks, or NBA stars, or political leaders. We are not healthy unless we value the health of everyone. We see the necessity of leadership with integrity and compassion. Our society forces too many people to the edge, living on the margins during normal times. This is not normal. Perhaps we won’t feel normal again for a long time. Maybe that is a good thing. Normal for the people Moses lead was to live in slavery. Wilderness was hard, and they thirst for something better. On the other side of wilderness, there is a promise, a promise of life transformed by a faith. Strike the rock, watch the waters flow. Drink from the living streams of God.