Water, Water Everywhere: An Exodus Sermon

*This sermon was originally preached on 9/28/14 at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago.

(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. 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.

Amen.

 

 

 

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Learning to be Here: Reflections on a Facebook Sabbatical and Being Present

Recently, I opted to take my first ever legitimate sabbatical from Facebook. For two weeks, I deactivated my account and deleted shortcuts to the site and applications on all of my devices. This move was part of a larger effort I’ve been making to be more present in my new life in Chicago and less mired in thoughts about all the people I love and lives I’ve lived in places far away. One friend suggested that when I came back to the social media world, I might share what I learned in my endeavor to be more present—so on the off chance that this might be helpful for someone else, I’m sharing my reflections.

Did my break from Facebook change my outlook on life/social media/the present? Well, yes and no. I thought about Facebook a fair amount over the 2 weeks I was skipping out, but I never got the sense I was really missing anything. I did discover that if you’re inclined to waste time on the internet, there are 1001 other ways to do so and frankly, I’m not even sure Facebook was where I wasting most of my internet time to begin with.

On the other hand, in my last 3 days before my sabbatical, I posted roughly 15 times, at least 3 of which were about quitting Facebook. By contrast, I rejoined the site 3 days ago and—as of this writing—haven’t posted a status update yet. Though I know I was an extreme case, I seemed to have become someone who operated under the idea that “I think therefore I Facebook.” On my time off, I often had thoughts or experiences that would normally have resulted in clever long-winded social media posts. Without that option available to me (okay, there were a few instagrams…), I was left to appreciate these moments all by myself, or else share them with select friends via text, phone call, or in person over beer or coffee. God forbid.

The work of making this switch, I realized, is the work of recognizing that each moment is valuable for its own self. It’s just as valuable if the whole world doesn’t know about it and what it means to you, or even if no one knows. To think otherwise—to buy in (consciously or unconsciously) to the myth that “it isn’t official unless it’s Facebook official”—is to undermine the very value that you’re trying to name by sharing about the experience.

Related to this, two other practices I engaged in in the absence of Facebook were a daily journal and no [non-worktime] to-do lists. My daily journal is just that: a small notebook in which I dedicate one page for each day and write down/draw what happened, big thoughts I thought, impressions, feelings etc. The goal in starting this journal was to recognize that each day was full of life—and perhaps stop mulling over what a fuller life or different life might look like. There were some days, especially recently, when I was too busy living to even fill that one small page. I’m taking that as a good sign.

My abstinence from to-do lists also had an unexpectedly revelatory effect. Without being able to decide in advance and carefully control the parameters of productivity for my day, I was forced to ask myself whether a day could be good and valuable even if—in fact—nothing productive happened at all. Could a day be valuable just purely for itself, without necessarily having any impact on anyone else or any other day? Honestly, my enneagram type-3 personality wants to shout “NO!” but, I think that impulse is both wrong and dangerous. Understanding life is a gift means recognizing that every moment you get is a gift all by itself. Not having a to-do list forced me to recognize that I could experience each moment and each day fully only if I’m willing to trust that all the other moments and days will take care of themselves.

Another practice I took on was to refrain from all spoilers. In some ways this is probably a bit unique to me—I don’t know anyone else who spends as much time reading about movies, books, tv shows, etc. My running line when people ask if I’ve seen or read something is, “No, but I’ve read about it.” I haven’t given this up entirely, because my trivia team would kill me – but I have opted out of knowing what’s going to happen before I experience something. There’s so much information available to us these days that it’s easy to try and control things by knowing about them in advance. Without these life spoilers, you have to take each moment as it comes. And even though it can be scary (especially for a type-A control freak like me), it’s yet another way to realize the value that each individual moment carries as it delivers your own uniquely unfolding life to you.

Whether it’s because of these practices, or just the changing of the seasons—I do feel like I’ve turned a corner in the past few weeks. For awhile I’ve felt like my life was basically a game of Mao. Mao is a card game where only the leader (Mao) knows the rules and other players learn the rules and how to play the game by losing repeatedly. When I first started playing Mao the summer I lived in Guatemala in college, it frustrated me like crazy to not know and understand everything. But the thrill of figuring it out and finally learning how to play made it one of my favorite games ever.

These last couple of weeks, as I’m enjoying a new season (Fall was always my favorite as a kid) that wasn’t even a part of my life in Texas, I can feel my life in Chicago beginning to come together. There’s so much I still haven’t figured out, but I am making friends and learning my job and, piece by piece, building a life here. And just like in Mao, it’s not just about winning the game—figuring out how to play is pretty amazing too.

All of this processing and living over the last few weeks has helped me realize that there is nothing wrong with my life now and there is no where else that I should be instead. The truth is that I had a very good, beautiful life (though not perfect) in seminary and in Austin. That life, such as it was, is gone. It’s not off in Texas waiting for me to come back—it doesn’t exist anymore. And so what’s hard isn’t me being in the wrong place or even a not-as-good place—it’s just grief for what is gone. And grief deserves its space and time to be felt. Grief is how you know something was important and valuable and that it happened and that you loved it.

But I’ve been reading this book called Finding Voice with my supervisor and it’s really helped me to keep perspective on this whole transition process. It’s really for people in their field ed/SPM internship (Paul Hooker – I highly recommend it!), but since my context is also time-limited and based on being new to ministry, it’s proving very valuable. There’s one chapter about appreciating where you are. The author talks about Jesus sending out the disciples and telling them, “whatever town or village you enter, stay there until you leave” (Matt 10:11). It seems obvious but it’s harder than it sounds! Still, this is my practice and my living: to let myself, finally, leave Austin behind and be fully here in Chicago—and to stay here until it is time, once again, to leave.

So am I totally done with social media? Clearly not. Connections across the world and the systems that make it possible are important and valuable things. I’m grateful for what Facebook and other sites allow me to have in terms of long distance community. But I’m also grateful for what’s right in front of me and I don’t want to miss it. As always, everything in moderation and if I lose sight of that, I’ll take another step back.

In the meantime, I’m following Dorothy’s lead:

“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”