“Is the Lord among us or not?”
That is the central question asked by the Israelites there in Rephidim as they are camped out in the desert. They had traveled from the wilderness of Sin in stages to this place, as the Lord had commanded them. But now after putting down their belongings, they discover there’s no water to be found anywhere. It’s been a long day, and they are dying of thirst, so they begin to quarrel with Moses.
If you heard our reading from Exodus last week, this sounds like the same song, but the second verse, a little bit louder, and little bit worse. Last week they had no food, and so they complain to Moses. “We don’t have any meat or bread like we did back there in Egypt. Are you trying to kill us?” God responds and miraculously provides quail for them that evening. On the very next morning God begins the daily ration of manna found after the dew dries up. And now just days later they come to Rephidim and there’s no water, but instead of remembering the goodness of God, and trusting in that, they grumble. “Give us water to drink,” they say to Moses, ordering him to do it now. Moses’s responds, “Why do you quarrel with me?” And “Why do you test the Lord saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’”
Which is really quite something, isn’t it? Let’s have a show of hands, how many think the Lord is among the Israelites given what we’ve seen so far? God broke the bonds of their injustice in Egypt, parted the Red Sea for them, led them through the wilderness, and gave them food each morning. You’d think God would have gotten at least a partial vote of confidence by now, right? “You know, God has been with us and met our needs so far, so yeah, I guess God usually has our back.” But instead they shout, “Give us water,” and ask, “Is God among us or not?” Meaning, if they don’t see that water and soon, well then that would show that God was in fact clearly not among them.
So perhaps the question they’re asking is really is this: “When things go poorly in our lives, is God present?” Which sounds an awful lot like the question in the book of Job.
You probably remember that story. Job had everything going for him—he’s wealthy, has great kids, an adoring spouse—and Satan challenges God about Job. “Sure, he sings your praises right now,” he says to the Almighty, “but what would happen if all this went away?” The text of Job describes what happens next.
“One day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the eldest brother’s house, a messenger came to Job and said, ‘The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were feeding beside them, and the Sabeans fell on them and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.’ While he was still speaking, another came and said, ‘The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; I alone have escaped to tell you.’ While he was still speaking, another came and said, ‘The Chaldeans formed three columns, made a raid on the camels and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was still speaking, another came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.’ Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped [God].” Job is having a terrible, horrible, no good, life altering day, and yet in the midst of all that he falls on the ground and worships God. Some friends will eventually come by telling him he’s crazy and should curse God. But Job responds by leaving God out of it and cursing the day he was born.
God eventually responds to Job and his friends saying “Were you there when I made the entirety of the world?” God then goes on for a few chapters describing all that God does. And we learn, as one commentator put it, that “the reality of God is not commensurate with human prosperity.” But we want it to be, don’t we? We want God to do amazing things for us, to make us smart and healthy and rich. And we want to claim that if those things don’t happen, then God wasn’t actually present with us. We believe that God left us high and dry when we lose a job, or get a terminal diagnosis, or read the latest news about our political opponents. We look around us and begin to ask, “Is God among us or not?”
The Israelites, of course, have spent generations under an oppressive system so you can understand their skittishness. They have to unlearn all that has been true before when their basic needs depended on their work, on doing things right for their masters. And those Egyptians could be fickle. When things went bad, then the children of Israel saw that they had to fend entirely for themselves. They had to hide babies in baskets and float them down the water hoping that the little one would live. The stories they shared at night centered on their resilience, on not trusting the Egyptians, and how to survive in that system, so you can understand how they do not yet trust that God would always follow through for them. When they get to Rephidim and they can’t find anything to drink, they imagine God is just like those Egyptians, heartless and cruel.
But God continues to respond and teach them. Moses is commanded to take some of the elders—leaders of the people—and bring them up with him to show the others that there’s more than just Moses and Aaron trusting in God. That even when things appear at first to be harsh, God is still there with them. That God cares for them, and will be with them. Always.
It’s hard to see that at times, especially when the world around us is dark. When, as a colleague put it yesterday, “Breonna Taylor’s neighbor’s walls get justice before she did,” it exposes the system we live in, and we wonder about God. We wonder about God’s presence when the bills pile up and the unemployment checks run dry. We begin to question if God is among us when a virus takes and alters lives at a horrifying scale. Or as the American West burns up. Or as—well, all of this.
It was Martin Luther King, Jr. who once said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” We see that in God’s teaching to the Israelites when water comes forth, and in the way Job responds to his trauma. And we can respond faithfully in that way too. First, we must trust that even when the entire world feels out of kilter that God is indeed among us. That the finite disappointments we encounter do not signify a larger loss of what is true. And we can respond with that infinite hope. We can seek change and take our part in the political system to bring about justice. We can share out of our resources to a neighbor who is struggling to make ends meet. We can alter our consumption of our natural resources to help heal the environment. We can provide comfort and support to someone who is terminally ill.
When we do these things—when we respond in this way—the answer to the Israelites’ question becomes so very clear. “Is God among us or not?” Yes, God is present in you.