Exodus 17:1-7

Adapted from a sermon preached March 27, 2011; Lent 3
Joanna Harader

This morning, our primary scripture readings tell us about people who were thirsty; about people who find unexpected water from unexpected sources.

We have a story about Jesus that is probably familiar to many of you: Jesus and the woman at the well. In this story, Jesus’ humanity is revealed in his thirst; Jesus seeks water from an unacceptable source; and ultimately, Jesus offers living water to the woman and the entire community.

In Exodus, we have another, less familiar, story about thirst. And there is nothing metaphorical about the thirst in this story. The focus here is squarely on the fact that the people have been wandering through the desert, there is no water, and they are thirsty. Not just thirsty, dehydrating. It is with these thirsty people in the desert that I want to spend some time this morning.

I’ve been thinking about them a lot this week; trying to imagine the journey of these Israelite people. The fearful, furtive packing. The escape through the Red Sea. How do they know if they have made it? How do they know if they are really free? For many of the people there must have been days, weeks, maybe even months of glancing over their shoulders, of startling awake at night, of peering back toward Egypt, scouring the horizon. The slave-masters could still come to claim their property. Pharaoh surely had troops that were not swallowed up in the Sea.

And so the people try to move forward, toward the land God has promised. They take one step and then another across the shifting sands of the desert. They push and pull and carry their children and their belongings. They try to shade themselves from the brutal sun during the day. They huddle together for warmth at night. The cloud and the pillar move ahead of them, and the people follow.

Yet still they look back. Every once in a while. Less and less often, they glance to the horizon just to make sure . . .

Of course, the initial excitement of the escape wears off–as excitement tends to do. Moses, who began as a great heroic leader, seems more and more like an annoying father. You know, that kind of father who insists on enforcing ridiculous rules that nobody else’s dad makes them follow—vegetables before dessert, homework before screen time, making your bed every morning.

All these people who were once fellow slaves are now fellow travelers. And Moses isn’t the only annoying one, as it turns out. Some of them snore. And tell bad jokes. They stop right in front of you to fix their sandals without warning. It’s no picnic that they’re having trekking through the wilderness with this motley crew.

It also turns out that they don’t get to the land of milk and honey quite as soon as folks had been hoping. Instead, they are wandering through the land of sand and . . . more sand.

And sand being something you cannot drink, the people get thirsty. The first time this happens, they complain and God commands Moses to make the bitter water drinkable. Then, with sand being something they likewise cannot eat, they get hungry and complain again. So God provides quail and manna in the desert. And now, in today’s passage, they are thirsty again.

Many folks who read the Bible come to the conclusion that the Israelites were just a bunch of whiners: “We’re hungry. We’re thirsty. Are we there yet, Moses?” But Hebrew Bible scholar David Garber recalls his visit to this part of the world. He says, “after having traveled by bus and with plenty of water through the Sinai desert, I realize that these newly freed slaves actually had reason to complain.”

Being hungry–truly hungry; being on the brink of dehydration, these are serious matters. The Israelites did need food. They did need water. They are not demanding any sort of luxuries out there in the desert. Their whining is nothing more than the simple prayer that Jesus later teaches: Give us this day, our daily bread.

We can understand, I think, that the people were thirsty. That they were hungry. Asking for water is one thing. But I think the part that really gets to us is this question: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt?” Is it possible that they would rather be enslaved in Egypt than free in the wilderness?

Yes, it’s entirely possible. Before, when they were hungry, the people said to Moses, “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” (Ex 16:3)

Last week we talked about being called to new birth–Abraham and Sarah called to leave home; Nicodemus called to a new faith. “New birth” has a nice happy sound to it. But the reality of new birth is often not nice and happy–especially in the beginning. The reality is that new birth often thrusts us out into the wilderness. And this wilderness wandering often leads us, like the Israelites, to question whether we weren’t better off in the old life after all.

The new life to which God calls us is better life, but it is not necessarily easier life, not necessarily a more comfortable life. When the Israelites say, “We were better off as slaves in Egypt,” it sounds like they are ungrateful, like they are bitter, like they are being unreasonable and whiny. In reality, though, I think they were just being honest. As odd as it seems, there is a certainty they experienced in Egypt that they missed in the desert.

If work much with kids in the foster system, you quickly learn that many of them want to go back to their biological parents. Even if that means not getting fed or bathed regularly. Even if it means getting yelled at and hit on a daily basis. They just want to go home to what is familiar, to what they understand.

I recently read a fascinating article* about a prison in Norway that is set up as a village. It’s on an island, and there are no handcuffs or bars or even locked doors. The male prisoners work and share meals and have freedom to roam around the island and create a life for themselves. Sounds great, right? I mean, as far as prisons go.

But Raymond Olsen was not thrilled about being transferred from a maximum security prison to this little island village. On one of his first days there, he finished his assigned work and could not figure out what to do for the next hour and a half before roll call. Soon enough, Olsen filled out some paperwork and then waited for the ferry to come and pick him up. He had requested to be taken back to the regular prison with barbed wire and bars where he could sit in his cell 23 hours a day.

And I’ve come across another prisoner story lately–probably more apocryphal than factual. The story goes that years ago there was a general in the Persian Army who had a habit of giving captured spies a choice about their sentence: They could face the firing squad, or they could face what was behind the big black door. Nearly all of the captured spies chose the firing squad, not realizing that the menacing black door led to freedom.

One of the guards asked the general why he gave the prisoners a choice. The general replied, “Almost everyone chooses death over the unknown. In many ways, people are more afraid to live than they are to die.”

“Almost everyone chooses death over the unknown.”

Certainly for the Israelites, the slow death of slavery seemed preferable to the parched uncertainty of the wilderness. They knew the pain and suffering that they had experienced as slaves. And for many of them, that was to be preferred over this agonizing fear and questioning in the wilderness. Will we be caught? Will there be enough food? Will we have drinkable water? And, ultimately, is God among us or not?

At the root of the Israelites’ complaining was not an ungrateful spirit, not petty self-interest. As their questions reveal, at the heart of their whining is a deep fear. The people are afraid they will die of thirst in the desert. Moses, in turn, is afraid the people will stone him to death. Fear pervades the people of God.

It should not be surprising, therefore, to realize that much of God’s word in scripture seeks to calm our fears. Think of the words of the angels, the songs of the psalmists, the words of Jesus: “Do not be afraid.” These words echo throughout the scriptures: “Do not be afraid.”

It’s not just that fear is an unpleasant emotion. It’s that fear can compel us to stay in–or return to–the slavery of the world rather than pushing us to pursue the great unknown of God’s Kingdom. God repeatedly says–through word and action–“Do not fear,” not merely so that we can be happy, but so that we can be faithful.

I invite you to take a few moments and consider what fears loom largest in your life right now.

And what fears loom within your family, your church, and other communities you are part of?

As you think about your fears, consider whether they are holding you in situations that are not life-giving. Consider how your fears might be preventing you and your communities from moving toward the new birth that God offers us in Christ.

Whether we are considering our personal fears or group fears, we first must acknowledge that the fears–and the threats–are real. Whatever fear is foremost in your life right now, chances are that it is connected to a real, tangible threat.

The Israelites’ fears of dying of starvation and/or dehydration were legitimate. As they made their way across the Sinai desert, they were probably stepping over and around the picked-over bones of people who had died in that wilderness.

In many circumstances, the dangers are real, and our fears are warranted. We can understand the uncertainty of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. We can sympathize with their questions: Will we be caught? Will there be enough food? Will we have drinkable water?

These are valid questions for escaped slaves trekking through the Sinai desert. But we must remember their ultimate question: “Is God among us or not?” That’s really what it all boils down to: “Is God among us or not?”

Through the testimony of scripture, through God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ of Nazareth, this is one question that we who wander in the wilderness today can answer with certainty: “Yes, God is among us.”

God is among us, working in ways we cannot imagine. This God, who did not ridicule or condemn the people for their fear, but calmed their fear by providing water from a rock. A rock! If God can provide for the Israelites’ need for water with a rock, it’s worth taking a look around our own wilderness. Take a moment and consider: What common objects might God use–at any moment–to calm our fears and meet our needs?

Water from a rock.

Because God does not want us to stay in the old life. God does not want us to return to the old life. God wants to lead us forward into new birth. We must make the trek through the desert, knowing that God is able to calm our fears; God is able to meet our needs. In Christ, God walks through the wilderness with us, offering living water to quench our deepest thirst.

Thanks be to God.

*Abé, Nicola. “Prison without Punishment.” The Week. Posted on website March 4, 2011.