The Israelites are thirsty and water is nowhere to be seen.
This freedom journey out of Egypt into the wilderness has been the Lord’s idea, a trip where God has made the itinerary. And now the people of Israel find themselves camped at Rephidim with no water to drink.
That’s like the first rule of camping. Camp somewhere that there’s water. Water is heavy, it’s not easy to haul. So if you find some, camp there, stay there. But the Israelites, with their kids, and their many animals are have stopped at Rephidim, where there is not a drop of water in sight.
We know what it is to be thirsty.
Maybe you like being thirsty in small doses – like the feeling of being really thirsty after a soccer game or a run or working outside on a sweltering day and you get to gulp down a big glass of ice water, water so cold it hurts in a good way as it goes down.
It’s fun to be thirsty when you take for granted getting to camp permanently in a house with plumbing and refrigeration and water treatment facilities in our town.
We thirst for the necessities of life. Water is first and foremost one of these necessities. So many folks around the world and in this community are denied that necessity of clean and accessible drinking water. They raise a contentious voice against the leadership structures of our day, demanding water to drink.
Yes, water is life, but we also need so much else to live and thrive as humans. Last week in our text, the Israelites, lacked food, another necessity. A people in migration, their shelter is also contingent and shifting. I could add more crucial items to this list:
Safety, belonging, relationship, meaningful work and rest, giving and receiving love all seem to be things that humans need to thrive.
These were all essentials that Egyptian slavery sought to deny them, slavery sought to twist their humanity. Now, in the wilderness, the people are embracing freedom. It is here, in the wilderness, they are reenacting new rhythms of humanity.
Their thirst comes from self-preservation and care for their children and hopes for the future and from seeing their many animals, their livelihoods, a day’s dry journey away from dying … and woven into these fears of dying from lack of water is another thirst.
“Is the Lord among us or not?” the people say. Were we following the voice of the Lord out here, or something else? We long to taste and be filled by the refreshing presence of the divine among us, but in our thirst… we wonder.
We are thirsty for the necessities of life. We are thirsty for God.
Out of a misdirected thirst, the wilderness can be confused as a place of absence. I think of how a white European colonist mindset imagines empty and barren landscapes. The rich biodiverse prairies in the center of this continent were called the Great American Desert, seen as voids of agriculture and livestock, expanses from which to remove the many peoples who called them home. This kind of imagination sees words like wilderness and desert as defined first by lack, by absence.
Our text gives us another view of wilderness. Here, the wilderness is a place of intensity and extremes where God meets the people’s needs in an intimate and powerful way. There is water in the wilderness if we know where to look and what to do.
In Egypt, a powerful empire tries in vain to control the waters, but in the wilderness, God’s good creation offers its gifts of food and water to God’s people.
This past summer I went on a packrafting trip with my brother in the Bob Marshall Wilderness of Montana, ancestral lands of the Blackfeet, Salish and Kootenai peoples. We each had lightweight packrafts that strapped to our backpacks. For the two long days we hiked. It almost felt foolish hiking on a dusty trail, hauling rafts with no water in sight.
The first day we stopped at the tiniest of trickles coming out of the hillside. We slowly filtered the water and filled all of our water bottles. We wouldn’t pass water again until evening, when we first crossed a tributary and camped there.
For 20 miles, we hiked as the drainage grew broader and broader, each new trickle and rivulet and tributary and stream adding more and more water. Finally, two river forks converged and there was water deep enough for us to float on. The next few days we rafted down the river. It got deeper and faster and until we, finally, had to pull out before a series of rapids that would have swallowed us.
Too little water is a problem. Too much water is a problem.
The people of Israel know these extremes. They have stood, impeded by a looming sea blocking their path to freedom. And as they stared at these overwhelming waters, God divided the sea and let them walk through. God made the waters stand like a heap, as Psalm 78 says.
And now in our text, the people quarrel with Moses in the wilderness, rightly demanding water to drink. Moses, feeling defensive, does not know what to do and cries out to God.
God does not seem to be threatened by the people’s demand for water. God just gives instructions here: “Go – take that same wooden staff, it’s known my miracles before – and take some other leaders with you that can still remember how I’ve worked in the past. I’ll be standing on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.”
God shows up again to Moses where God showed up before. In the wilderness Moses first encountered this mysterious “I am who I am” at the burning bush at the rock of Horeb. Now back here again, God offers Godself now to Moses and the people in the form of water from the rock. God doesn’t get defensive but offers the people what they need – something to drink.
Jesus faced these similar sorts of wilderness questions, questions of God’s presence and absence, throughout his life. Sometimes these questions came when he was alone – wrestling with the great tempter in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry or wrestling with the meaning of his calling in the garden of Gethsemane at the end.
But questions and murmurings also came from others, people wondering if God is really present in Jesus, wondering if scarcity is all there really is:
“By what authority are you doing these things, who gave you this authority?”
“Can anything good come out of Galilee? We know what kind of a backwater and wasteland that is…”
“We reached out to touch you, hoping we might be healed. Is this too much to ask?”
“We showed up to hear you talk and we are hungry – is there any food here for us?”
“We are thirsty, can you give us something to drink?”
The landscapes of our own lives probably don’t exactly match the arid desert of the Sinai Peninsula or the northern rockies of Montana. We live in a world of car commutes and screens, schedules and deadlines. We generally set our own itineraries and like to think we travel where and when we want. On our phones we can journey to wastelands and wonderlands instantly in the palm of our hand.
We may not know the Sinai wilderness but we know what is to be hungry, to be thirsty, to bring our longings to God. Jesus journeys with us through the wildernesses of our lives, offering to us the very life and love of God. When we follow Jesus, when we travel with God, the wilderness is not a place of emptiness and abandonment, but a place of unexpected gifts. By God’s grace and guidance we are shown where to look. A life of faith is openness to the unexpectedly good gifts of God that surrounds us with.
There is a dry path through overwhelming waters. There is food to be found as day breaks. There is water that flows abundantly from a cracked rock.
Yes – we are tired. Yes – we are hungry. Yes – we are thirsty. But God gives rest and food and water to God’s people. God spreads a table for God’s people in the wilderness.
This is the paradox of faith – that Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, didn’t regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself and became human. Humans get cranky. Humans get hungry. Humans get thirsty.
As humans, Christ is our hope as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, trembling with joy because it is God who is working within our lives and whose love flows throughout this world.
The rocks of our lives might seem dry – but the good news is that God pours out love in the most unexpected of places. Our reserves may be depleted, but there are unexpected springs of living water in the wilderness. God pours out more than enough love to quench our parched souls. God’s mercy flows wide, welcoming us to the table.
Out of our thirst we may ask, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
“YES!” God replies, an answer that flows on wider and deeper and fuller than we even know, sweeping us up, buoying us on.
The Lord is among us like living water,
like water from the rock,
like rivers in the wilderness.
May we all be swept up by God’s great love!