Out of Egypt: Water from the Rock
We’re continuing on journeying with the Israelites this week as they make their way out of Egypt and into the wilderness. The text for today tells us this happens “by stages.” This is both true in the sense that a large group of people can’t really move all at once, but only by stages, and true in a deeper sense. This journey is not just literal but spiritual, and the Israelites certainly are only moving by stages spiritually too. In today’s passage, they’re arguing with Moses. “Give us water to drink.” The language is imperative: do it, and do it now. Moses responds, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the Hebrew here is more explicit – it’s legal language. Moses is saying more specifically something like, “why are you bringing me and God to court over this?” We don’t know if Moses’ word choice is because he’d reached his breaking point, tired of the complaining, or because that large group of people he was leading was lodging a more organized, serious complaint. A mob of discontent people could be pretty intimidating. After all, they’re accusing Moses now of bringing the people out into the desert to kill them with thirst, and Moses senses they are so upset they are going to stone him to death. He cries to God for help. So God instructs Moses to go ahead a ways, along with a group of elders, and at the rock of Horeb, where God will be, to strike the rock with his staff. And then water will come from it, and the people will be able to drink. Moses does just this, and everyone has water to drink. But he names the place Massah and Meribah, meaning quarrel and test, because the people posed the question: “Is the Lord among us or not?”
If you’re keeping track, that’s three times now that the Israelites complain to Moses, asking if he and God freed them just so they could die in the wilderness. First, at the crossing of the Red Sea, then, as you heard about last week with Pastor Penny, when the people were hungry, and now, when the people are thirsty. Each time they accuse Moses of leading them from Egypt only to let them die. Each time they seem to ask the question that is explicit in today’s text: “Is the Lord among us or not?” And each time, they have their needs met by God through Moses’s leadership. Each time, then, their fears are eased, their needs met, and God presence with them is affirmed in a way that seems undeniable. And yet, this pattern keeps repeating. “Is the Lord among us or not?” It’s like they can’t be convinced. And I don’t know about you, but I’m amazed at God’s patience. This is God, the creator of us and everything, and when the people whine and complain, God simply meets their needs with nary a chastising word. I’m not sure I could be so patient. Why exactly are the Israelites so unwilling to believe in God’s presence, when they’ve witnessed God at work, saving them in every way, over and over again? What will it take to convince them?
How many of you have ever seen the Drew Barrymore/Adam Sandler movie called 50 First Dates? It’s a cute romantic comedy, and the premise is this: Barrymore was in a car accident and the accident affects her short term memory. She can remember everything in her life up until the accident. But after the accident, she forgets everything once she goes to sleep. In other words, to her, each day is like the day before the accident. Of course, real amnesia doesn’t work quite that way, but we suspend our disbelief for the movie. Her family works hard to create a safe world for her. Rather than spending every day of her life re-teaching her about the accident, they create a world where the accident never happened, knowing they have to do it all over again the next day. Then Sandler’s character comes along and falls in love with Barrymore. She likes him too – each day she meets him. Because every day is like the first time meeting him. She never does get her memory back, but by the end of the movie she and Sandler create a life together where every single day he has to tell her the entire story of her life together. Every day, she has to meet him over again as if for the first time, and eventually meet her children, again, as if for the first time.
This is what I think the Israelites are acting like. Like they have to start everyday at the very beginning again, and have everything explained to them all over. I’m God. I love you. I’m going to save you. I will be with you. Moses is going to lead you. We aren’t bringing you out here to die. Over and over and over again. It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of learning retention happening here. I think about school teachers – one of the hardest things for teachers is working on retention. When kids have summer vacation, teachers have to wonder how much of what they’ve learned they’re going to lose over the break. Teachers hope kids will retain everything, but each September, a little bit of the starting work is review of the work from the year before. A reminder of what’s been learned already. However, teachers trust that they’re building on a foundation and years of learning that have come from the years already completed. You don’t have to start English in 12th grade with learning the alphabet and learning to read before you can get to studying Shakespeare. You’re expected to remember what you’ve learned already. And you remember what you’ve learned because you’ve been putting it to use – reading and writing every day. Otherwise, you get something like my efforts to learn how to knit. My half-hearted efforts mean that I’ve taught myself to knit and purl. But I get distracted and busy with other things and I never get good enough to knit well. And then a year passes, and I decide to try knitting again, and I have absolutely no foundation to work with. Even though I’ve learned it before, I have to start all over, right at the very beginning. And so I’ll never really learn to knit. Not the way I’ve been going about it.
I think God is so patient with the Israelites because their recent experiences mean it’s more like they’re trying to remember after recovering from an accident, like in 50 First Dates, than they are like trying to learn how to knit, but too busy to be bothered remembering, like I’ve been. God is patient, and willing to show them again and again, “Yes, yes, the Lord IS with you, always, always, always,” because they’ve been slaves! They’ve been oppressed! They’ve had their children slaughtered by Egyptians! They’ve been beaten and forced into hard labor! They’ve been living in crisis mode. And so for a while, they have to go back to square one every single time. Every time, they have to start in the same place: God, are you with us? And God will respond, every time, in word and deed, Yes!
Eventually, though, God will start to expect the Israelites to retain some of what they’re learning. Next week, in fact, when we look at the ten commandments, we’ll see that they include language about not putting God to the test. Because a deep relationship can’t be built on a foundation where one person in the relationship is constantly requiring the other person to prove themselves. Eventually, they Israelites will heal as a people, and God will expect them to learn a new way of being a people and being in relationship with God.
The question, then, for us is this: Do we treat God like we’re in crisis mode? Or like we’re in a relationship, and like we’ve remembered some of what we’ve learned about God already? Sometimes we do face crises of such magnitude that we need a little bit of going back to basics. Sometimes our world is turned upside down. We’ve faced unspeakable tragedy. We’re shaken to the core. We’ve suffered deeply. And we need some reminders of how much God loves us and how much God is with us. And we’ll get them. God is there, and will remind us of just that. God is with us.
But sometimes, we’re simply like schoolchildren refusing to do our summer reading. Or we treat our faith like a hobby we’re thinking about taking up, like knitting, but we’re never really willing to put enough in to remember what we learned the last time around. And so we don’t retain anything that we’ve learned from being in relationship with God. We don’t retain enough to let it really change us. We don’t let walking with God become something we can’t unlearn, like how to ride a bike. We want to start at square one again because it’s just easier, and doesn’t require any discipleship, any commitment, and changing our lives so that we’re walking with God. And then when we wonder “Is God with us?” Well, God’s still up to the test, yes. God is with us. But what kind of foundation for a real relationship is that? We don’t expect to start at square one in our human relationships. And God expects more from us too. Is God with us? Yes, we know that. Our whole lives are full of signs of God’s presence with us, God’s love for us. If you think you’re in danger of forgetting, I encourage you to find intentional ways of remembering. Every day, I hope you remind yourself of a way in which God has blessed you beyond measure. And this knowledge, this learning about God and growing in relationship with God, will be the manna in the wilderness and the water from the rock that sustains your spirit when hunger and thirst threaten.
Is God with us or not? Of course, God is with us. Remember? Remember. Amen.