Exodus 17:1-7 Common English Bible (CEB)
17 The whole Israelite community broke camp and set out from the Sin desert to continue their journey, as the Lord commanded. They set up their camp at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.2 The people argued with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why are you arguing with me? Why are you testing the Lord?” 3 But the people were very thirsty for water there, and they complained to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?” 4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What should I do with this people? They are getting ready to stone me.” 5 The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of Israel’s elders with you. Take in your hand the shepherd’s rod that you used to strike the Nile River, and go. 6 I’ll be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Hit the rock. Water will come out of it, and the people will be able to drink.” Moses did so while Israel’s elders watched.7 He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites argued with and tested the Lord, asking, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”
In Advent we heard the message of Emmanuel—God is with Us—in Lent we hear the question—“Is the Lord really with us or not?” The Advent declaration appears in the revelation to Joseph that the child of his betrothed was conceived of the Holy Spirit and that God would save the people from their sins through him (Matt. 1:18-25). The Lenten question is raised during a rather tense encounter between Moses and the people of Israel as they wandered across the desert. The murmuring or complaining of the people of Israel is a constant theme in Exodus. The people cried out to God, seeking deliverance from slavery. Now that they are free, they have other complaints, and the person who bears the brunt of these complaints is Moses. A chapter earlier, the complaint had to do with food. Now it’s a lack of water that concerns the people. You have to feel for Moses, because he has been put in an untenable position. He had claimed that he was acting on behalf of God, after demonstrating God’s power, the people agreed to follow him. Whether they understood the full ramifications of this decision is unknown. Of course, had we been among the people affected, we probably would be complaining as well. After all, water is essential to life, so why would you camp in place where water was absent?
Here is Moses. He’s being forced to explain the lack of water. Moses responds, strangely enough, with a question for the people: “why are you testing God?” What does Moses mean by that statement? As for the people, they are putting the onus on Moses. Why did he bring them to this place? Why did he rescue them only to lead them to certain death from thirst? In other words, slavery was bad. Dying of thirst was worse!
Even if we’ve not experienced such thirst, most of us have been exposed to the issue. I like watching nature programs like Planet Earth and Planet Earth II. When the programs focus on deserts, you will be exposed to animals searching for water. Perhaps you will watch as a troop of elephants cross foreboding desert sands in search of an elusive watering hole. A wide shot from the air reveals nothing but sand in all directions, but the troop marches on. Most likely this troop will include at one least one calf struggling to keep up, its only hope of survival being the discovery of that water hole. You want to root for that calf to make it, but that’s not always the way things end. In a recent show, the calf fell and couldn’t get up. The mother stayed behind, watching over her calf, even though she too was now at risk because she was separated from the rest of the troop. You grieve for that mother.
If you grieve for the elephants, then surely you must grieve for the people of Israel who face a similar fate. There are children in this caravan. They would be most vulnerable. Think of the recent stories of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria and Iraq. Remember the faces of children who face hunger and thirst. Do we hear their murmurings? Do we empathize with them, and thus with the people of Israel camped in the desert with no water in sight?
The people are understandably upset, and Moses seems to be caught in the middle. He is the one God charged with leading them out of Egypt, but did he lead them out of Egypt to a place where death was certain? For his part, Moses is wondering what he had gotten himself into when he answered the call of the burning bush. Yes, he had been able to do miracle upon miracle, including parting the sea. But, none of that mattered now, as a thirsty people demanded water. I can hear Moses say to God: “What I do to deserve this?” “What am I supposed to do with this people?” I can hear him say to God, “I didn’t learn how to deal with this kind of a problem in seminary. So, what am I supposed to do? They’re about to stone me.” In other words, Moses was about to resign his leadership position! This is a sentiment that often marks clergy as they try to lead congregations that won’t go easily into the night. In this case, the people seem to have a point. They didn’t sign on to a trip that would to their death in a land without water.
Of course, it wasn’t Moses who delivered the people from Pharaoh. It wasn’t Moses who opened the sea or provided manna. It was YHWH. Fortunately, God had a solution. God told Moses to take the elders with him, along with the staff he used to strike the Nile, and go to the rock at Horeb, which is where God will be found standing on the rock. God instructed Moses to strike the rock with his staff, and when he did this, water would flow from that rock. If only drought-stricken lands had a staff like that. When Moses followed this command, he struck the rock in the sight of the Elders, and water began to flow so that the people could drink.
As is often the case in Exodus, this place takes on a new name. It is called Massah (Test) and Meribah (Quarrel). That is because the people tested God and quarreled. As they quarreled and tested God, they asked “Is the LORD among us or not?” They had seen God at work, but they still weren’t sure that God was with them. This episode might be remembered as one of those times when Israel tested God. That is, they showed a lack of faith. Consider the word of the Psalmist: “They tested God again and again, and provoked the Holy One of Israel” (Ps. 78:41).
I have never seen the parting of the sea, bread fall from heaven, or see someone strike a rock to get water to flow from it. Now, I know that there will be those who want to explain how all of this could happen. We moderns love natural explanations of biblical miracles. Regardless of the explanations, I’ve not seen anything close to what is described here with my own eyes. So how might I as a human being know if God is with me? Should I take my ability to find a rare parking spot as being a sign of divine presence? I would love to have the power to pray for one of my parishioners who is experiencing health problems, and watch those problems immediately disappear, but I’ve not seen that happen, though I do believe in healing and I do pray for people. I trust that God hears my prayers. But, how do I know that God is with me?
In this story, God provided the people with water to sustain them. God provides us with water as well that will sustain us—spiritually. Remember the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. He offers her living water. He tells her that everyone who drinks the water of Jacob’s well would again thirst, but “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman told Jesus, “I want some of that water” (Jn. 4:13-15). So do I!
So, the answer is—yes, God is with us!
Picture Attribution: Chagall, Marc, 1887-1985. Moses Striking the Rock and Bringing Forth the Water, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54659 [retrieved March 13, 2017]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/abeppu/3815912913/.
Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan and is the author of a number of books including Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016) and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015).