How Our Past Clouds Our Vision

The Israelites get a bad rap.  They’ve been making their way through the desert, enduring hot days and miles of walking, and when they get to their campsite they can’t find fresh water anywhere.  Yes, they grumble.  But they’ve just spent the last 400 years of their history as slaves, and they thought that somehow things would be different, that they would no longer be pushed to their physical limits.  They want to be in the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey.  Instead they’re at Rephidim, and there’s not a drop of water to be found.  And they’re thirsty.

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So they complain to Moses, who in turn complains to God about the complaining Israelites without seeing the irony or the humor in it. “What shall I do with this people?” he cries out to God. “They are almost ready to stone me.”  God instructs Moses what he is to do.  He’s to gather the elders in the midst of the people, and take the staff with which he struck the Nile, and go.  When he gets to the rock at Horeb, he’s to strike it with the same staff and water will come forth.  Moses does as the Lord commanded him and water flowed out for the people.  And they changed the name of the place to Massah and Meribah, because the people quarreled (Massah) and tested (Meribah) the Lord.  They wanted to know if God was indeed among them or not.

A sermon based on Exodus 17:1-7.

But which of us wouldn’t be panicky if we showed up at the intended destination and there was no water to be found?  Some of the campsites at State Parks in Massachusetts don’t have potable water, and they make sure you know that before you reserve a spot for a night or two.  “Fresh water is not available for showers or drinking. Remember, campers should bring at least 1 gallon drinking water per person, per day.” Which isn’t too big of a deal you might think, except that these instructions are for campsites on the islands in Boston Harbor and you can’t just pop over to a local Kwik-E-Mart  and grab some bottled water after the ferry has left you behind.  You’re then in the same predicament as those Israelites, and I suspect that grumbling wouldn’t be far behind, especially if your buddy did the trip planning and forgot to tell you about the water.

About 71% of the earth’s surface is covered by water, and 96.5% of that water is in our oceans.  We know that human beings can go three weeks or more without eating food.  However, it’s only 3 or 4 days without water.  We need it to survive since water makes up 60% of our bodies.  (From https://water.cc/whywater.  Accessed 3/16/17)  You know this, of course.  You likely learned this in a science class back in the day.  But it’s good to be reminded about our need for water.  Sometimes we forget.  Especially when it comes to the spiritual water Jesus talks about with the woman at the well.

Jesus and his disciples were traveling in foreign territory, making there way through the land of Samaria on their way to Jerusalem.  It’s high noon when they stop to get a bite to eat, the disciples off to buy some sandwiches and Jesus waiting by the local watering hole.  While he’s there a Samaritan woman comes out to get her water for the afternoon.  “Give me a drink,” he says to her.  “You’re a Jew and a man, why are you asking me for a drink?” she replies.  “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that’s asking you for a drink, then you would be asking him for a drink of living water.” 

Living water.  That water that Jesus gives and by which the receivers will never again be thirsty. That water will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. 

We all know about the need in the world for clean water.  2.4 billion people in our world do not have access to clean water and healthy sanitation.  Additionally, the work of collecting water often falls to women and children, who globally on average spend 200 million hours every day doing so, and often with contaminated water.  We cannot ignore this justice issue—or its companions of the right to nutritious food, health care and education—either in our own country or in our world.  We must continue to support such basic necessities both in word and deed, recognizing the ways in which we can both hinder and help address them.  No child, woman or man on this planet should go without the refreshment of clean, cool water.

Yet neither can we ignore our the need we all have for that living water Jesus talks about.  We live our lives among the arid realities of the 21st century.  We face pressures that steal away our time, and often those things that nourish us most fall prey to our schedules.  As a result we become more and more parched, succumbing to the effects of that spiritual dehydration—believing that we can make it entirely on our own, ignoring the reality of our spiritual thirst, and choosing the mirage of entertainment instead of the oasis of connecting with God.  We are not unlike those who’ve lost their way in the desert, scorched under the intensity of the sun and coming precariously close to death.  Water lies in front of us if we can just notice.

Which was also true for the Israelites.  When they arrive at Rephidim and there isn’t a drop of water to be found, they panic. Just like we do when we get to those places.  Like them, we forget the call to HALT.  It’s an acronym, HALT, that’s intended to remind us to pause for a moment when we notice our stress starting to creep up.  Halt, pause, if you’re Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired; don’t act out or do self destructive things.  The Israelites were all four: they had fled from their captivity in Egypt, so they didn’t pack enough food; they feel acutely that Moses is being a bossy pants, and if he really wants to lead, why hadn’t he figured out the logistics first; they’ve left behind the only home they’ve known all their lives, even if they had been slaves; and finally they’ve been hiking all day without water. 

So they pop off at Moses and, by extension, God.  Their biggest problem sat in the reality that they had been slaves, as had their parents, and their grandparents, and those grandparents’ grandparents, going back some 400 years—longer than the years stretching from the present day to the American Revolution.  They had lived under the oppression of task masters, demanding more out of them than they could provide, and who on a whim could flood their lives with immense pain.  They never got a day off, and the hardships were unbearable.

So that’s how they saw any leader.  Except now they’ve found their voice.  So instead of holding their tongues so they don’t get punished, they tell Moses exactly how they’re feeling.  They grumble, murmur and complain—as commentators often describe it.  They’ve had enough. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”

I think when it comes down to it, their problem turns out to be a vision one.  Yes they arrive at the campsite and there is no water, so they imagine God is just as harsh as the Egyptian overlords when they were immigrant slaves.  But they’re looking with the eyes shaded by years of distrust.  They do not see what is plainly before them.  That the Lord has brought them out from under the hand of their oppressors already, that God had moved miraculously among them, providing them a route to travel, bringing them food in the wilderness when their stomachs were empty. 

They didn’t trust that God would indeed care for them.  That God deeply loved them, that their cries hadn’t gone unnoticed, that God wanted to bring them in to the Promised Land.  Their vision had become clouded, and even though God had acted, they refused to look with the clearer eyes of faith.  They allowed their expectations of God as just another taskmaster to distort their judgment and so they could not trust God’s goodness and love.

Perhaps we do too when things in life cloud our judgment.  We think that God could have stopped something terrible from happening, our enslavement to sin per chance, or the ravages of addiction.  We don’t fully recognize that God would have never wanted those things for us, that they are a result of the Fall, of our choosing our own way in humanity.  Rather, God wants to bring about our redemption.  God wants us to know healing and a fullness of life.  God wants us to trust that even in the driest and most desperate situations, water is there–living water is there—if we can just stop long enough to see it.  If we can HALT and take a deep breath and believe that unlike the rulers of this earth, God cares for our needs. 

May we see with the eyes of faith—the eyes of the heart—and trust in God’s desire for us to experience renewal and redemption, to have our thirsts quenched by a water springing up.  For God is indeed among us, and will never leave us or forsake us, and longs for us to experience eternal life.  Amen.