*This sermon was originally preached on 9/28/14 at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago.
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. 2The 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?’ 3But 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?’ 4So Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’ 5The 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. 6I 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. 7He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’
The Israelites are wandering in the wilderness. They have been led by Moses out of a world of captivity and oppression at the hands of the Egyptians. They have survived plagues, and the Passover, and walked on dry land in the middle of the sea, and subsisted on manna from heaven. Now, the Israelites are thirsty. And they are wondering if God will take care of them. So they complain. “Is the Lord among us or not?” they question. After all that God has done for them their complaint seems a little ridiculous.
Of course, that’s easy for us to say from the comfort of lives where we get water from a faucet whenever we need it—a stone’s throw away from a great lake. Maybe we can’t quite relate to the realities of their wilderness. And perhaps our perspective is a little skewed, given that for us agonizing decades—entire lifetimes—of struggling to survive in an uncertain wilderness have been collapsed into a few chapters in Exodus. We don’t know the wilderness that the Israelites knew. But we know wilderness.
In the 3 months I’ve lived in Chicago, I’d wager that roughly 60% of all of my conversations with people have been about winter. Specifically about last year’s terrible winter. Months of endless snow and ice and temperatures so cold that being outside for any length of time could kill you. No sign of sun or its warmth in sight. And now the weather is turning, and there’s the promise of another deep, terrifying winter on the horizon and I am quaking in my brand new, fur-lined boots. We know wilderness.
We know too the wilderness of ceaseless violence in the news and on our streets, conflict and pain and no clear solution in sight. We know wilderness.
As I tried to understand these Israelites and their fear and doubt, I thought of these wildernesses that define our modern age. And I thought about the wildernesses in my own life. Long stretches of time defined by uncertainty, loss, hunger, and doubt.
From that perspective—a wilderness perspective—the story changed.
The Israelites are thirsty. They are thirsty, and tired, and terrified, and lost. They have left everything that they knew behind them in Egypt to follow a man they don’t really know at all into a barren, dangerous wilderness at the chance of maybe someday reaching this fabled promised land. People are getting sick and weak. People are dying. Their children are begging for just a sip of cool water to soothe their hot, sandy mouths. But they having nothing to give them. No comfort to offer. There is no water in sight. No God in sight.
“Is the Lord among us, or not?”
From a wilderness perspective, this question actually seems perfectly reasonable to me. In fact, I am frustrated alongside the Israelites. I want to preach a sermon about how they were right to complain. About how it saved them. About how the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Maybe another time.
But this time, it’s clear enough in this story—undeniable really—that God does not appreciate their complaining and testing. Though God graciously responds to their demands and allows Moses’ staff to miraculously draw water from a rock, the whole event is meant to stand as a reminder that God’s provision should never be doubted.
And so, frustrated in solidarity with these wilderness bound Israelites, and struggling in faith to trust God’s wisdom – I read and reread this story and tried to understand. And over and over again this search led me to one unanswered question: what would have happened if they hadn’t complained?
What would have happened if they hadn’t cried out to Moses in their fear and demanded a sign of God’s presence? What would have happened if Moses had never appealed to God and been told to draw water from the rock?
Knowing as I do that God had not abandoned them and trusting that God would not have let them all die in the absence of their complaint, I can imagine other ways this story might have turned out.
I can picture them in that wilderness, parched and scared. I can picture them on the day they had finally had enough and called on Moses. I can picture them deciding to wait, to remember the manna and pray and hope a little longer. And then I can imagine, just a few days later—maybe a week—when they are so worn down and so defeated by their thirst that the end of all their hoping and wandering seems inevitable, a sudden jarring ping on the arm of a trembling elder. A drop of water. And then more—not a summer storm, not a deluge—but a long soft shower. And for a moment they just stand there, faces tilted toward the sky, mouths open—tasting, overwhelmed with relief. And then they come to themselves and gather what rainwater they can in skins. It won’t last long, but they will make the most of it. And so they go on.
And then, finally, driven to near madness by the endless uncertainty and harsh conditions of their nomadic lifestyle, they stop. They set up camp. To rest or give up – they’re not sure which. Two of their children, passing the time, begin to dig. Faster and faster they dig, racing, deeper and deeper. And then they realize: the dirt and rocks beneath their fingers are wet! There is water deep below this rocky earth. And the adults come. And they dig a well.
Is this what the Israelites missed in demanding their rock-water miracle? Is this the journey that God preferred for them? What would have happened if they hadn’t complained?
I think this is the crux of it. God’s frustration with them. This is what they miss. The problem isn’t the question they ask, “Is the Lord among us or not?” That is precisely the question that should be asked when one is trying to maintain a faithful direction in the wilderness. In fact, perhaps if the Israelites had asked this question a bit more often there would be a few less golden calves in their story. The problem isn’t the question: it’s where they look for the answer.
They are looking for a miracle. They are looking for God, in all God’s power, to create life where there is only the possibility of death. They are looking for this miracle in something impossible and sudden—like water pouring forth from a rock after just a solid tap from their leader’s wooden staff.
There is a miracle in this story, but it’s not that water suddenly appears out of nowhere from a rock. The miracle is that the water was there all along. Deep beneath the soil and rocks , or in a soft rain days away. The water has always been there, since God first carefully molded creation and imbued it with God’s own love and grace.
Demanding water from a rock as a sign of God’s presence only reassures the Israelites that God is with and for them sometimes, when they ask for it, and in the impossible. What they might have learned instead in the rain or the well—is that God, like the water, is there all along. Always. This is what God wants them to know and trust. Not in Moses’ magic tricks or water-bearing rocks or in a God that sometimes pops in when things get really bad. But in a God who is always present. Because their journey is long and far from over. It won’t even end when they reach the promised land—it hasn’t even ended with us, because the real wilderness we are lost in is this trembling, broken world.
And magic staffs and water-rocks are few and far between—they are not the standard issue equipment of faith. But the whole world is a miracle of God’s presence, if only we have eyes and heart to see. Sometimes we pray for rain, and sometimes, we have to dig wells – but God is always there.
Four years ago, in the midst of a deep personal wilderness in my own life, my grandmother died. She was the beloved matriarch to our large Southern family—and her loss struck us all suddenly and profoundly. In the wake of her death, I struggled to find purchase for my faith in a good and loving God. At her graveside service, as the small crowd wept and spoke together the words of the Lord’s Prayer, a butterfly appeared. It hovered around the large bouquet of flowers that adorned her casket and then fluttered through the crowd before flying off to somewhere else.
Afterwards, as people stood talking in twos and threes around the cemetery, I could hear the butterfly being mentioned again and again in awestruck whispers with grateful, comforted smiles. I was comforted too, and I felt the urge to see it as a sign. A sudden, unexpected miracle—a message from God sent intentionally to us in just that moment—but I resisted this idea. Not because I didn’t believe, but because I realized, suddenly, that I knew a deeper truth. That God had so lovingly and carefully constructed this world that such a moment was always possible. That butterflies were created in just such a way that they are attracted to bright flowers, and that humans were created in just such a way that we would put bright flowers on a casket, and take comfort in the quiet, whimsical presence of a butterfly so that in a moment of profound grief we might be reassured that even in the darkness, God is there all along, holding all things together for the good.
We may not be wandering in the desert, but we all know wilderness. Injustice, conflict, strife, and brokenness plague the world. In our own lives we struggle with pain and loneliness and doubt. We thirst for reassurance, comfort, and hope. We cry out and ask, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
And God is. We don’t need Moses and his staff to bring God to us. We don’t need an impossible, out of this world, deus ex machina miracle. We need only look around—really look—and dare to see God everywhere in this world, even in the most unlikely places and even in each other. We need only open our hearts to catch God’s grace as it showers softly upon us, carry our faith like a reservoir to get us through the dry seasons, bear the cup to our friends and neighbors and even enemies that they may drink when their own cup is empty, and dig—dig wells in the broken wilderness where God’s grace and justice can bubble up and dig a well deep into this truth: God is among us. With us. For us. All along. Always.