God’s Sustaining Presence

Sunday, September 28
Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Focus Theme
God’s Sustaining Presence

Weekly Prayer
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.

Focus Reading
Exodus 17:1-7

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?”

Focus Questions

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?
Reflection by Kate Matthews Huey

Bread and water: the basics of life…and in the wilderness, it’s hard to find either one. In last week’s reading from Exodus, 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 there. 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, very unhappy. In that 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 he has more than a cranky, thirsty congregation on his hands. It’s potentially an angry, dangerous mob that could rise up and stone him to death. In providing water, God is saving Moses’ life as much as meeting the needs of the people.

We notice that God doesn’t seem to get angry or impatient with this thirsty people, 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. This wilderness experience, then, is a time of learning, of seasoning, a time of preparation for what’s ahead, up on that mountain and long afterward. Could it be that God is testing the people, teaching them to live their lives 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”: they know who God is, so their complaints actually express a “deep confidence” that their God is the kind that helps when the going gets rough. (Why else would one pray?) 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 just as much as God was: “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’?” Of course, we already know what happened before, when humans tried for such knowledge. 

How do we sense God’s presence?

However, a second problem arises for Janzen, for the people are all about God’s need to act when there’s no water, but seemed to take the water for granted when it was plentiful in the past. “Which experiences,” Janzen asks, “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 care or Moses’ leadership when things were going well.

Janzen then draws a parallel between the doubts of the people at Rephidim, and our own doubts at different points in our lives, when things get tough. In response, he draws on both “the memory of oasis points in our past, where provision of our needs has carried with it a strong sense of God’s presence,” but also on the future hope that draws us forward, “something that reaches back to us from the future, to give us a foretaste of what lies ahead.” It’s hard to imagine that the people had any idea of what lay just ahead, up on that mountain, and how it would shape their lives, but Janzen says that when water gushes from that rock at the base of Horeb (another name for Sinai, where they would receive the Torah), “sustaining water comes not from where they are but from where they are headed for.” What would it look like to be sustained by the future more than by what is right before us in the present, or by what we’ve received from our ancestors before us? Have you ever had that experience?

Lessons for Moses as well as the people

As in the manna story, God acts here through God’s special agent (as God acts through us, 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”–seriously, 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 (including Moses himself?) and Egypt that this leader was to be taken seriously.

Several scholars see in the staff a sign of God’s own authority and power; Brueggemann says its purpose this time is “a life-giving wonder for Israel,” but the main point here, as always, is really about God’s own presence and power to deliver the people: “The staff, the rock, the courage of Moses, the witness of the elders, and the guarantee of Yahweh all converge,” he observes.

Beautiful. But we still remember that this staff can bring death as well as life: the Nile River turned into blood, the Red Sea drowning the Egyptians, while the Israelites crossed the Red Sea safely under Moses’ staff. And so, James Newsome says that God’s life-or-death power is also symbolized in that simple walking stick: “The same Yahweh who can banish water from the Nile can produce water from a barren rock.”

There’s more than one way to see, and remember, the wilderness

We might explore several other 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 (and even today), “wilderness” can be a lovely (in a rugged and stark way), 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 the people who already lived here) but as a place to build an entirely new and holy civilization. Perhaps as an illustration of the hope and desolation of the wilderness, Gary Anderson reminds us that Israel later would send the scapegoat bearing its sins off into the desert, where it would die. As “a spot of uncleanness and death,” he writes, “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 starkly 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 writes, that the people looked back on their time there under “God’s gracious and miraculous care.” And so, while manna is remembered to this day as God’s gracious response to human need, what’s remembered about the water incident is the grumbling rather than the gift, as verse 7 tells us, in the names Moses gives the place, Massah and Meribah. 

Wrestling with “the God question”

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, where we are all most vulnerable. “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 part of the story when it feels like God is absent. (This sermon is found in a book I recommend for reflection and prayer-time: Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann). 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 church talk or complex theology. Brueggemann calls the Israelites “exceedingly practical” in their expectations: “Don’t talk of water, show me.” A person in such great need today would say the same thing.

Most importantly, and perhaps most astonishingly, the answer to “Israel’s deep question” (that God Question) comes back as “Yes,” Brueggemann says, and just as important as the “what” is the “how” of God’s care: “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 is 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 nothing less than dazzled.

“Driven back to wilderness questions”

September 11, 2001 heightened the anxiety we all had become accustomed to, living through a Cold War and subjected to the fear-mongering of all the powers seeking to profit from our anxiety or to extract our agreement to decisions we might never otherwise support (spending money on armaments while cutting veterans benefits or support to foodbanks, for example). And that’s where Brueggemann takes his reflection on this text: to us, today, and our own “long season of fear, anxiety, and violence.” In our fear of elusive terrorists hiding in vast mountain wildernesses (or even in comfortable villas next to military camps), in our anxiety about scarcity and our inevitable confrontation with our limitations, Brueggemann describes us vividly as “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 and its availability are 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 our reasonable needs as well as the unreasonable ones. Brueggemann describes these things as “mirages that look like remembered water, but are not really water that can quench.”

Brueggemann also 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

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.”

Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces, 21st century
“To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken. But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless. Even in the wilderness–especially in the wilderness–you shall love [God].”

Francis of Assisi, 12th
entury mystic

“Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.”

Catherine of Siena, 14th century
“Nothing great is ever achieved without much enduring.”

Annie Dillard, 21st century
“I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames.”
“I alternate between thinking of the planet as home–dear and familiar stone hearth and garden–and as a hard land of exile in which we are all sojourners.”

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