Exodus 17:1-7 October 1, 2023
“You are to strike the rock. Water will gush out of it, and the people will drink.”
As we follow the exodus story through the wilderness, the plot is similar every week. There is an immense physical and environmental challenge to survival. They must cross the Red Sea before Pharoah’s chariots attack. They are hungry, and the wilderness doesn’t have enough food. Now, they are thirsty, and the land is dry. In the face of each challenge, God is generous and delivers what people need: physical safety, food, and water.
You would think everyone would get the message that God is going to be with them every step of the way, but each challenge unleashes all their fears anew. It sounds like Moses and God are getting impatient with this cycle, as Moses names this place twice: Massah and Meribah, Testing-Place, and Quarreling. He could have called it Gushing Water, Rock Creek, or the Sinai Springs but chose to focus on the peoples’ quarreling.
Is that fair? After all, water is a precious human need. We die in three days from thirst or faster in a hot climate that makes us sweat. I’m sympathetic when the people go to Moses and say, “Give us water to drink.” Moses sounds dismissive, saying, “Why pester me, and why are you testing God?” Telling people their concerns aren’t important is never a good leadership response, even if you think it’s true. People want to feel heard. Moses goes a step further, claiming they are really challenging God.
From Moses’ point of view, this tension has been building. He has delivered what people need, sometimes in epic proportions, and wants to be trusted. The next complaint is more intense, “Why did you take us from Egypt and drag us out here with our children and animals to die of thirst?” It’s one thing to tell someone we disagree with their decisions or that they made a mistake. It is another level to accuse them of attempting mass murder. And this is the second time. When Moses tells God the people might stone him to death, he is accurately sizing up the situation.
Doesn’t Moses understand the people are thirsty? I think he understands the problem because he is a person of the Sinai. He knows how precious water is. Moses found his wife by protecting water rights. Seven women were trying to water their father’s flock when a group of shepherds drove them off. Moses defended the women, drove off the shepherds, and watered the flock for these damsels in distress. He then marries Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, which gives him a strong alliance in the wilderness of Sinai. Moses understood the importance of access to water.
The problem here is not the people complaining about the lack of water. Many scriptures tell us that God hears our complaints. Lamenting what is wrong is a form of prayer. The Psalms are full of laments in times of loss, war, or injustice. “Here my cry, O God, and deliver me.” It is human to lament and ask for help. But it becomes problematic when lament crosses the line to blame and accusation. When the people tell Moses that he brought them out in the wilderness to kill them with hunger and thirst, they cross a line. When you go after someone’s character, a relationship breaks. Instead of solidarity, mutual work, and problem-solving to find water, the conversation turns ugly. “You are trying to destroy us. You’re deranged. You are a traitor. In the past, people were executed for this.” If blame goes this far, community is nearly impossible. If we allow this kind of rhetoric from our leaders, it’s impossible to have a democracy.
So, Moses names the place Massah and Meriba, testing and quarreling, not gushing water. Moses makes a crucial leadership decision. He is naming the behavior to attempt to stop the negative cycle. If we trust God, we will find solutions. We all lose if we demonize each other and blame rather than act.
Notice God’s response is to direct Moses to the water. Go to Mount Horeb. Horeb is the place where Moses saw the burning bush. The location is about more than water; it reconnects Moses to divine revelation and promise. Water is a physical need but also a scripture metaphor for God’s grace. Isaiah says God’s grace is like streams in the desert that will make it blossom. Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well, “I am the living water, and those who drink it will never thirst again.”
Let’s put this in the context of the global water crisis due to drought and climate change. Much of the world is in the same conundrum as Israel in the Sinai wilderness. The NY Times is one of the few news outlets covering the water problems, documenting how people leave their homes in rural areas throughout the Middle East. Reporters created a database of aquifers in the United States and found that 40 percent of wells are at record lows. The crisis is acute in places where our food is grown. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/08/29/climate/groundwater-aquifer-overuse-investigation-takeaways.html?searchResultPosition=7
Fortunately, the Times covers hopeful stories, too. We can do more than lament or bury our heads in the sand.
After Anand Malligavad tumbled into a lake, he thought he might die, not from drowning but from the stench.
Like hundreds of other lakes in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru, the one Mr. Malligavad suddenly found himself in was a receptacle for sewage, plastic debris, and construction waste. His unplanned dip happened in 2017 when Mr. Malligavad, a mechanical engineer, was strolling with friends near his office.
Walking back home, he smelled so bad that a guard refused him entry into his residential enclave. The next day, Mr. Malligavad made an unlikely pitch to his company: He would restore the 36-acre lake if it funded the project. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/09/22/world/asia/bengaluru-india-lake-reclamation.html?smid=em-share
New York Times, 2023.09/22
After being turned down since he did not know water management, he studied ancient water management techniques for four months. The Chola dynasty created an elaborate system of lakes 1,500 years ago that successfully gave more than a million people water for irrigation. The region once had 1850 human-made lakes, but now only 465 are left, and only ten percent are clean enough for drinking water. Urbanization covered lakes for apartment buildings and parking lots, and the remaining lakes were clogged with plastics and waste. The area has grown from 4 million people to 13 million since the 1990s, and they are short 172 million gallons of water each day. India has 18 percent of the world’s population and only 4 percent of the water resources.
Fortified with new knowledge, Mr. Malligavad won a $100,000 corporate social responsibility grant to test his project. He had no idea if these ancient ideas would work, but there was little to lose. After digging for 43 days, he had to wait for the monsoons to fill the lake. He visited the lake six months later and rowed out to the middle. The water was clear and fresh, ducks were swimming, and migratory birds had come back. He had created a little oasis amid Bangalore’s sprawling metropolis.
Since this first success, Mr. Malligavad has restored 35 lakes in Bengaluru with a combined surface area of about 800 acres and a water-holding capacity of about 106 million gallons. Thanks in part to his efforts, the groundwater level in the region over that time has also increased by about eight feet. In a spinoff effect, silt dredged from the lakes was used to cover a landfill, and 600 trees were planted to create a new forest in an area that is a dead zone. Now, Malligavad is in demand around India to help preserve water. He has a goal to restore 100,000 lakes before he dies.
The challenge is still daunting. While the Times was interviewing Malligavad at a proposed restoration site, a group of men came with clubs and attacked the party. Real estate developers and companies that dump pollution won’t easily give up land for lakes. The attackers told him to stop. or they would kill him. “If you kill me, you will not get a glass of drinking water in a few years,” Mr. Malligavad told the attackers. Soon, the crowd dispersed.
This story illustrates that environmental destruction is not inevitable. We have the know-how; we often lack the will and the values to do what is right. We, too, must move beyond Massah and Meriba and Washington, DC’s testing and quarreling. Strike the rock, not each other. Faith calls us to overcome the blamers and join the problem solvers. Stay tuned for the story of the Golden Calf.