Water in the Desert

Over the course of my sabbatical, I spent 40 nights camping in a tent. While that has a nice Biblical ring to it, I didn’t plan it initially that way and until about two weeks ago thought I’d hit 39. The longest consecutive stretch of sliding into a sleeping bag was 12 days while on our family car camping trip as we made our way up the Rockies with stops at Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Glacier and Banff National Parks. I additionally had a seven day stretch on the hills of Kilimanjaro, and six days in a row while in the vast wilderness of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Minnesota and Ontario. Out of those 40 nights, most were not in the same location, but rather setting up camp for a day or two and then moving on to a new place.

Phil LaBelle, 2017.

Some of the sites were breathtaking, like the one at the Signal Mountain area of the Grand Tetons. We looked out from our tent over Jackson Lake with the entire jagged range of those mountains just beyond. We sat entranced that first day by the immense beauty. But not all was rosy even there as we had not one but two nights of gusty winds that kicked up for an hour or so after bedtime with the stiff breeze coming down hard from the mountains and over the lake. The wind had nothing to stop it before it hit the side of our enormous eight man tent which acted just like a sail. The four of us stood with our backs against the poles, holding hands, trying to not have our tent take flight and waiting for the storm to pass. On other nights at places so remote I could hear only the call of a loon, that plaintive wail it made as it tried to locate other birds nearby. One night I heard the sound of trucks rushing by and then hitting their brakes on the interstate that the campground backed up to.  I never really knew what I would get.

The Israelites have been camping too. With their miraculous Exodus from Egypt which we’ve been reading about since August, the people with Moses leading them have fled Egypt, crossed over the Red Sea as if on dry land, and have entered into the vast wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. But they’re in the desert, and it’s extremely hot out. And they’ve been hiking all day, carrying their belongings and chasing children and harnessing animals. When they get to their stop for the night and begin setting up tarps and other shelters, they go looking for water since their canteens are dry. However, unlike every place I camped over the summer, there’s no source of water for them. Nada. Not even an old cistern with some brackish water for them to take a chance on. There’s nothing to drink.

A sermon based on Exodus 17:1-7.

You can imagine the panic setting in.  Word spread quickly among the people, the ones who had gone out first to check the water supply and found nothing brought the bad news back.  I’m sure some didn’t believe them and went to check for themselves—thinking perhaps there was only a little water so those first ones wanted to keep it all for themselves. But then more and more saw that it was true. No water at all, and they had thirsty children and animals and elders in their community, never mind their own parched mouths.  So you better believe they went over to Moses to complain.  “Give us something to drink!” they exclaimed. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” “If you had any brains, you would have plotted out our course and selected appropriate camping spots so we’d be sure to have enough water. It’s obvious you have no idea what you’re doing.  That you’re not a great leader.”

All of this might sound a bit unlikely to you, or that perhaps the people are over-reacting. However, US News and World Report just this week wrote, “Only about 40 percent to 45 percent of the customers of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) had potable water as of Tuesday, company authorities said. Island-wide water service may not resume until electricity is restored across Puerto Rico, which could take months.” Electricity is needed to purify and pump the water to those Americans impacted by Hurricane Maria. We New Englanders know what it’s like to lose power for just a couple of days after a major N’oreaster, yet if that extended to 2-3 months or more, with our access to safe drinking water compromised, we’d be taking a number to bitterly complain.

Moses, the leader who stares down all those angry thirsty people, turns to God. “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” God responds. “‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.  I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.’ Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.”  The people drink the water they need. Then Moses called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

That question is one of utmost importance.  Is the Lord among us or not?  The question comes because it appears that the Israelites have been taken on this expedition and then forgotten by God.  However, there’s one thing our reading didn’t fill you in on. The Israelites have been through this before a couple of times; it’s not their first night in the wilderness. In Exodus 15, the campsite the Israelites come to has bitter water that cannot be consumed. They complain to Moses, he reaches out to God, and God instructs Moses how to make the water sweet. Again in Exodus 16, the people do not have enough food. They complain, Moses talks to God and both manna—that is, bread from heaven—and quails are given to them to eat and have their fill.  Not only that, but the manna continues to come down from heaven every morning throughout their entire time in the wilderness. 

So it seems a little odd for the Israelites to be asking again if God is in their midst or not.  If God cares about them.  If God is just playing a cruel joke on them and their children and livestock by bringing them to this deserted place without any water.

I know that walking in the wilderness can heighten many things. At one point this summer while out in the backcountry, the way I purify water no longer worked. Even though others had additional resources, it bothered me immensely and made me wonder what would have happened had I been on my own without a way to treat water. I also know that walking in the metaphorical wilderness of life can be disorienting and disheartening too. We can begin to panic and allow fear to take control of our lives.  We often allow the anxiety to push us to a state of amnesia, and we forget the goodness and mercy of God in times past.  So we too ask, Is the Lord among us or not?

What God may be trying to teach us is that we can trust in God’s presence. Even when we don’t feel it.  Even when it seems as if we are all alone with our backs against a raging wind and that it doesn’t feel like we can hold on much longer.  Trust me, God says to us.  Do not doubt.  Do not fear.  I am with you even when there is no water and you’re thirst is all you can think about.  Know that I will never leave you nor forsake you.   I am with you always, even to the end of the age.

I think the Almighty wanted the people of Israel to understand that God was not their Egyptian overlords.  That God cared for them.  And that they needed to place all of their trust into God’s care even when it appeared that all hope was lost.  That step of faith is a big one.  It’s not easy.  It means letting go of our own control of things which we really can’t control anyway and trusting that God would show us a way forward.

As is true for us.  Things beyond our control—wilderness experiences not of our own devising—teach us to rely on God.  That’s not the same as things we can control; we should not put God to the test to see if God will rescue us.  Jesus said as much in his temptation in the wilderness when Satan encouraged him to leap from a high place knowing angels would be sent to rescue him.  “Do not put the Lord God to the test,” he responded. Rather when the world closes in around us out in the desert, and we think all hope is lost, we need to learn to say “I know that even now the Almighty One is among us.  God is with me.”  Even when we cannot see or feel God’s presence.  God is with us.

May you know that deep in your bones.  May you trust that just as God has provided you with the abiding comfort of the Almighty’s presence in times before, so it will be again.  God loves you.  God will never abandon you.  God will keep you in God’s life-giving care.  Always.  Even in the midst of the dark times.  Do not be afraid.  Know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God will always be with you.  Amen.