Exodus 17: 1-7
Reading about Moses inspires me. He is a bold advocate for justice, speaks truth to power as he confronts Pharaoh. He gets into “good trouble” many times, as he navigates multiple threats. Pharaoh’s armies, hunger, thirst and the flagging faith of the people he leads. Throughout everything Moses continually deepens his relationship with God. He is propelled by an inner vision, which makes him a great leader. He adapts and keeps people together. Any pastor or congregation is well served to study Moses.
The standard view of Exodus is that Moses guided the quarrelsome people single-handed through trials and tribulation. The literary style emphasizes Moses’s faith over against the peoples’ lack of faith. He is the one who saw the burning bush, who performs miracles; staff in hand, and speaks for God. In today’s text, the people are thirsty, demanding and afraid. This is the third of four such crisis; the fear of Pharaoh’s army, then need for food, now water, and soon they will encounter snakes. The author uses the same literary device each time. First the people air their complaint. Then they question why Moses has brought them into the wilderness, and finally charge that he brought them into this place to kill them, along with their children and livestock.
Moses handles the first two crisis quite well. He doesn’t argue. He prays and then delivers. They cross the Red Sea and they find Manna and quail to eat. But now, Moses talks back. “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” Now when Moses prays, he is fearful, and tells God he is about to be stoned to death. It sounds like Moses has a lapse of faith too.
I have noticed several wider church leaders using the metaphor of wilderness to describe these times. We are in an unfamiliar environment, with several protracted, life-threatening crisis. As familiar ways of doing things crumble, we are out of our comfort zones. The wilderness works us as a metaphor. What can we learn in this text about our own thirst for God as we go through this time of wilderness?
I noticed a shift in my thinking midweek towards great sympathy for the people. Would I be any different? As we go through parallel pandemics of COVID, racism, climate chaos and threats to a fair vote and democracy (yes, four pandemics at once!) my faith gets shaken. Were the people truly quarrelsome or were they brave people engaged in a tenuous journey with great adversity? Were they faithless whinners; or was this inevitable, even necessary conflict amid scarcity?
Thirst is serious. Have you ever been so thirsty your lips start to stick to your teeth, and you would drink anything? You would drink from a muddy puddle or even a Diet Dr. Pepper. As fatigue and irritability set in, you can’t think of anything but your need water. The human body can survive 100 hours without water in normal conditions. At 90 degrees that drops to about 50 hours. Under the triple digit temperatures of the Sinai, the number is down to about a 24-hour day. The people following Moses are continually about a day away from collapse and death, unless they have a source of water. Their whole quest for freedom hinges on this basic biological reality. We can’t live on theology alone. Without water, you might have tremendous faith, but are still going to die of thirst.
Living this close to the edge effects not just your mood, but your brain. Experiencing wave after wave of crisis keeps the body in a heightened state of vigilance, which leads to exhaustion. All of our energy goes to old reptile brain that focuses on survival. We can’t access our executive reasoning parts of our brain. Focus and creativity wains, leading to disengagement, anxiety and irritability. It’s the perfect environment for quarrels, even violence. Moses didn’t have the benefit of training in trauma-informed therapeutic practices, so he is caught up in the emotional morass.
In v.7, Moses names the place Massah and Meribah, which mean “test” and “quarrel.” Quote:
“Because the Israelites quarreled and test the Lord, saying ‘Is the Lord among us or not?”
Many traditional interpretations of the text focus on the unfaithfulness of the people. How dare they question Moses, after everything he has done for them? Haven’t they seen enough miracles to have faith in God? What is it going to take? Why do they continue to test God by doubting in divine goodness? 17th century theologian, Matthew Henry, wrote in his popular commentary that the peoples’ longing for water was inordinate. “Natural desires, and those that are most craving, have need to be kept under the check and control of religion and reason… It is a great provocation to God for us to question his presence, providence, or promise, especially for his Israel to do it, who are so peculiarly bound to trust him.” https://www.ccel.org/ccel/henry/mhc1.Ex.xviii.html
This does not sit well with me, perhaps because I have visited Massah and Meribah in my heart so many times. Since March, I feel like I live within the city limits of this place. I have strange dreams in the middle of the night. Wednesday night I dreamt that we were freezing rat meat in our basement for the winter. And we run a vegetarian household. I couldn’t sleep after that because my mind started to wonder, “What if the pandemic lasts for another year? How many people will come back to church? Nothing will ever be the same.” And that is without even going to the election or the Supreme Court vacancy. When we hear the quarreling and polarization in our country, Massah and Meribah are right down the street.
Moses 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 and trying to avoid fault.
God, in contrast, doesn’t scold Moses or the people. God does not enter into the futility of placing blame and figuring out who to punish. 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 summary:
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.
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 among us, and will show us the way forward. I believe that living water still flows, in these rocky times where we thirst for wholeness.
It is incredibly easy to see things that make us fearful. Its blasted all over the headlines. Where do you see the living water flow, where the creative energy of love is unleashed, where justice flows down like waters?
- I have heard several parents this week praise their children’s teachers for incredible innovation and care to make sure some real learning happens. Teachers have not given up watering the seeds in young minds that will flourish in the future. This may sound small, but to do this, you have to believe in a future that is worth education children to live in.
- Amid my deep and abiding fear that our elections will be compromised and democracy is under threat, many of you are volunteering to be poll workers, writing letters urging voters to participate, and training to work on the census. Yes, I worry that it won’t be enough, but it reminds me how deeply people care and commit.
- This month I’m coaching four members of our church. A common thread I notice is the new questions people are asking about their lives. I hear a deep thirst for work that is meaningful and feeds the soul. People are clarifying their values and willing to make life changes to focus on what is most important.
- I take heart in the number of people who are facing into our nation’s racism, and are educating themselves so they can act in anti-racist ways.
All these things may seem like small shifts amid powerful fears. Like the people in the wilderness, we are staying about a day ahead of our thirst. Moses is still a hero for me. But the real miracle in the wilderness is that people stayed together and created a new community. It took everyone to get through the hard times. It will take of all us too, longing for Beloved Community. Remember and ground yourselves in the promises of God, “Blessed are you, who thirst for righteousness and justice, for you will be filled.