Written by Daniel Hazard
Sunday, September 25
Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
God's Sustaining Presence
Welcoming God, you receive and bless all who come to you in humility. Show us our false pride, that we may repent of all conceit and arrogance and, caring for one another, may honor Jesus to the glory of your name. Amen.
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, "Give us water to drink." Moses said to them, "Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?" But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?" So Moses cried out to the Lord, "What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me." The Lord said to Moses, "Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink." Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, "Is the Lord among us or not?"
1. Is it unfaithful to question God? Why or why not?
2. What should Israel have done in its thirst?
3. Does God feel more present in good times or in bad?
4. Has "wilderness" been a positive or negative faith experience in your life?
5. What are the mirages that we have wandered toward as a culture?
by Kate Huey
Bread and water: the basics of life...and in the wilderness, it's hard to find either one. In last week's reading, when the people of Israel were suffering from hunger and perhaps a touch of sunstroke, they complained to Moses for bringing them out to the wilderness just to die. If you're hungry and hot enough, even slavery in Egypt starts to look not so bad, if only for the security--however terrible--it provided. And God responded to the cry of the people, just as God had heard their groaning in Egypt, which, of course, is why they found themselves out there in the desert, hungry and unhappy. In this response, God, faithful and compassionate, gave them bread from heaven, manna, to feed them throughout their time of wandering.
The hunger story is followed immediately by this one about thirst, in the same wilderness, during the same wandering, and it goes very much the same way. When the people complain about having no water, they again question Moses' leadership for bringing them out to die in the wilderness. And once again, Moses goes to God and asks for help, but this time there's a touch of fear as well as a note of frustration in his conversation with God. The great leader senses that the people may turn into an angry, dangerous mob that would rise up and stone him to death. In providing water, God is saving Moses' life as much as meeting the needs of the people.
God doesn't seem to get angry or impatient with these thirsty Israelites, perhaps because water is a reasonable request from people in the middle of a hot desert. But the Israelites are also in another kind of wilderness, finding their way not just to a Promised Land of milk and honey, but to a new way of living once they receive the Torah on Mount Sinai. "God," Gary Anderson writes, "is naturally more willing to be lenient toward Israel prior to her moral education in the ways of the Lord." This wilderness experience, then, is a time of preparation for what's ahead, up on that mountain, a time for the people to learn to live in trust.
Can a faithful people question God?
What was really going on when the Israelites grumbled and questioned Moses' leadership? What does it say about them, their faith, and even about God? Walter Brueggemann says that when the people complain, they're hoping to "mobilize Yahweh to be Yahweh's best, true self. These questions arise not in an act of unfaith, but out of deep confidence that the God of the core testimony, when active in power and fidelity, can prevent and overcome such intolerable life experiences." In a sense, then, even complaining to God in frustration and fear expresses some kind of faith, a kind of hope grounded in what one trusts to be true about God.
That's one way to read it. But it's also possible that the Israelites were doing the testing: "If you really are God, you would...." Or, "If you really loved us, you would...." Gerald Janzen draws our attention to a simple phrase in the first verse, about the people journeying "by stages" through the wilderness, questioning and grumbling about God (and their leader, Moses). Delivering one kind of "ultimatum" after another, they set themselves up as the ones who could judge whether or not God was with them, and whether God was doing what God was supposed to do. Janzen wonders, "[I]f we are the ones to decide what shall count as evidence of God's good presence and activity among us, does this not make us like God in respect to 'knowing good and evil'?" We already know what happened before, when humans tried for such knowledge.
How do we sense God's presence?
However, a second question arises for Janzen: "If absence of water in this instance counts against God, what of all the 'stages' along the way where water has been provided? Do they not count positively for God? Which experiences, the negative or the positive, shall we take as the most reliable evidence concerning God in the world and in our lives?" In fact, in Exodus 15:27, just before the manna story, the Israelites spent time in "Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees; and they camped there by the water." The spare narrative about that comfortable part of the journey doesn't mention any conversation about God's presence or Moses' leadership when things were going well.
As in the manna story, God acts here through God's special agent (as God acts through people, today) to meet human need. A curious note is "struck" by Moses' staff, the one, scholars remind us, that he used to turn the Nile to blood (the filmmakers had so much to work with when they made "The Ten Commandments"-- how much more vivid could a scene have been?). Remember back in Chapter 4, verse 2, when God asked Moses what he had in his hand, and Moses responded, "A staff"? We might wonder if God used the staff (changing it into a snake and back again) to bolster Moses' confidence in himself as well as his faith in God. That staff would help to convince the people of both Israel and Egypt that this Moses was to be taken seriously. But we also know that this staff can bring death as well as life: remember the Nile River turned into blood, or the Red Sea drowning the Egyptians, while the Israelites crossed the Red Sea safely under Moses' staff? James Newsome says that the power of God is symbolized in that simple walking stick: "Yahweh's miraculous power is two-dimensional, in that it can become an instrument either of death or of life. The same Yahweh who can banish water from the Nile can produce water from a barren rock."
Israel remembers the wilderness
We might reflect more deeply on several themes in this reading. First, there's the wilderness, a powerful symbol, like Moses' staff, capable of being experienced in more than one way. Throughout the story of the people of faith (right down to today), "wilderness" can be a lovely, pristine, holy place where you can draw closer to God, or it can be a lonely, threatening place, symbolizing despair and abandonment. Think of the desert fathers or monks in monasteries away from "the world," think of Jesus preparing for ministry and being tempted by the devil, think of the early settlers in the United States who saw the land not only as theirs (despite its occupants) but as a place to build an entirely new and holy civilization. Gary Anderson reminds us that Israel later would send the scapegoat bearing its sins off into the wilderness where it would die. As "a spot of uncleanness and death...the wilderness was a natural location for Israel to rise up in rebellion against her Creator."
If the wilderness itself embodies two very different meanings, the memory of Israel is also divided about its time there. On the one hand, there's the memory of grumbling, complaining, and unfaithfulness, but it's also true, Gene Tucker says, that "the time in the wilderness was remembered as a time of God's gracious and miraculous care for the people." While manna is remembered to this day as God's response to human need, the water incident is recalled in terms of the grumbling rather than the gift, verse 7 tells us, in the names Moses gives the place, Massah and Meribah.
In that wilderness and that want, and in that grumbling, Walter Brueggemann finds a compelling illustration of the way humans and God relate, not in high theological claims but in deep human need, the reality of basic physical human needs. "What happens in this transaction," Brueggemann writes, "is that the water question (material, concrete, support for life) is turned into the God Question concerning the one who 'leads us beside still waters.'" In his beautiful sermon on this text, "The Big Yes," he observes that the Bible understands God as sometimes present, and sometimes absent. That's what the Israelites were experiencing out there in the desert: the feeling that God was absent. What person crushed by depression or deep mourning or pressing need hasn't asked, "Where is God?" Such a person doesn't want to hear complex theology. Brueggemann calls the Israelites "exceedingly practical" in their expectations: "Don't talk of water, show me."
God says "Yes" to Israel
Most importantly, and perhaps most astonishingly, the answer to "Israel's deep question" (the God Question) comes back as "Yes," Brueggemann says: "Israel can remember not only that water was given by God, but remembers how it was given. Like blood from a turnip, like a purse from the ear of a sow, water from rock, food from hunger, life from death, joy from sorrow, Yes from No, well-being from anxiety." The story, then, about "God's Big Yes" is not only about something that happened long ago and far away: it's about us, too, our own wilderness, our own needs, our own questions, and our own prayers. If Brueggemann is right that this story is about "being dazzled beyond every expectation," we too should expect to be dazzled.
A wilderness, and questions, of our own
September 11 has heightened the anxiety we all became accustomed to, living through a Cold War but also subject to the fear-mongering of all the powers seeking to profit from our anxiety or to extract our agreement to decisions we might otherwise never support. And that's where Brueggemann takes his sermon: to us, today, and our own "long season of fear, anxiety, and violence." In our fear of elusive terrorists hiding in a vast mountain wilderness, in our anxiety about scarcity and our inevitable confrontation with our limitations, Brueggemann describes us well as "being driven back to wilderness questions about the reality of God, the reliability of God, and our capacity to trust God in the thin places where there are no other resources for life."
Water is quite literally a challenge in the world today, but it's also a metaphor for all of our needs (and our wants, we must admit). With "a new awareness that we live in a world of resources that are thinner than we had imagined," we have turned to the wrong things to meet both our reasonable and unreasonable needs. Brueggemann describes these wrong things as "mirages that look like remembered water, but are not really water that can quench."
Brueggemann compares the biblical stories with the way our television commercials typically work. In the biblical narrative of faith, there's a problem presented, a need voiced, and then God provides a happy resolution. "The derivative TV use of this structure falsely substitutes for God 'the product.' The problem may be loneliness, stress, or bad odor. When the 'product' is used, life is powerfully transformed to one of companionship, calmness, popularity, peace, joy, and well-being." The trouble is that it just isn't true, Brueggemann says. Whatever the products deliver, they can't provide what a faithful God provides, our lives "moved from hunger to fullness, from thirst to water, from blindness to sight, from leprosy to cleanness, from poverty to well-being, and in the end, from death to life." We can turn only to God, Brueggemann says: "There are no other miracle workers."
For Further Reflection
Francis of Assisi, 12th century mystic
Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, 20th century
Water is life's mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.
William Langewiesche, 20th century
So much of who we are is where we have been.
You should not see the desert simply as some faraway place of little rain. There are many forms of thirst.
Catherine of Siena, 14th century
Nothing great is ever achieved without much enduring.
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