There is no denying it, friends: we are in the wilderness.
This past week has been one of uncertainty, anxiety, and trying to prepare for the unexpected. And it’s as if time has screeched to a halt. A friend posted online that she thought it was the change to Daylight Saving Time that would tire her out this week. I replied, “Was that really just last Sunday?”
Yet here we are. Pushed far out into the desert during Lent.
In our reading from Exodus, the Israelites are there too. After years upon countless years of misery in bondage and slavery, the Lord had delivered them from the oppression of the Pharaoh. Yet within a few days of their release, they began grumbling, thinking they had it better back in Egypt. Sure they might have had to work 24-7 for overlords who demanded they produce more and more, who beat them when they couldn’t keep up, and who derided, scorned, and humiliated them, but really, what was all that compared to getting a little fresh water? To getting something to eat similar to what they had before—like the exquisite fresh produce, the exotic spices, the mouth-watering lamb? So they did what people usually do when they get tired and angry and hungry all at the same time: they grumbled.
“Moses, you blasted dolt, why did you bring us out here?” “Is it too much to expect that you actually thought through the logistics of bringing thousands of people out into the wilderness?” “How did you expect to get water out here?” “You’re killing us, Smalls.”
They were filled with anxiety, uncertainty, and trying to prepare for the unexpected. Sound familiar?
Early yesterday morning I made a run to Market Basket to get a few more things for my already well-supplied pantry. The parking lot was full at 6:40—twenty minutes prior to the usual opening time. As a regular morning grocery shopper, I can tell you this is not the norm even in the run up to Thanksgiving. I overheard an employee who was furiously stocking shelves say to a co-worker, “Anyone who’s ever been on the roster of working here has been called in today.” I made it out in about a half an hour with the things I thought I needed—and the items I bought in a bit of panic—only to see that nearly all of the carts were gone from the entrance. At 7:15am.
We’re in the wilderness.
The Psalm we read today, Psalm 95, is recited almost daily in our Morning Prayer liturgy. I know the first 7 verses by heart, “Come let us sing to the Lord, let us shout for joy to the Rock of our Salvation.” Those verses end in a flourish, “For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. Oh, that today you would hearken to his voice!” But then it takes a turn. God begins speaking, reminding the Israelites—and us—what it was like for God when the people were in the desert. “Harden not your hearts like your forebears did in the wilderness—at Meribah and Massah when they tempted me.” That’s the episode we read this morning, where the people were grumbling about the water. God didn’t care for their response. God gets a bit grumpy. In fact, it’s as if God were tired and angry and hungry. God tells them that he detested them, and swears in his wrath that they’re going to be in the desert a long time until they learn their lesson.
I think it’s easier for us to project on God the qualities we see in others when they get tired and hangry. Short-tempered. Annoyed. Saying things they might later regret. It’s much easier to do that than to expect God to say, “You’re coming out into the wilderness to have your hearts broken open, so that I may let my light shine in you. It will not be easy. You’ll be scared. You’ll be severely tested. But do not be afraid, and do not give up on the hope you have in me. I will provide for you. I am with you always.”
You might be thinking that’s a lot of conjecture on my part, and yet that’s exactly the tone Jesus—very God in human flesh—takes with the woman at the well. He doesn’t put her down for the number of relationships she’s had. He doesn’t dismiss her because she’s a Samaritan. He simply tells her he has living water to give that will gush up inside her and bring her eternal life. “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty again,” she responds. Jesus, give me that living water.
My seminary classmate, Rob Fisher, in a commentary on this passage suggests that we not see the very unpastoral finish of this Psalm as an end, but as an invitation to pray it again. A call to go back to the beginning. He writes, “We come to the end and we may want to go back to the beginning. We want to return to that place where we were marveling at God’s wondrous works, where we knew the one worthy of our praise, and where we could not help but sing out to the ‘rock of our salvation.’ Indeed we must return to that place over and over again.” I think it’s the only way to our salvation in the wilderness. (Feasting on the Word, Year A, “Lent 3 Psalm Reading.”)
Friends, we can harden our hearts during this time. We can get upset as we get cabin fever through our social distancing. We can lose all hope believing that we will never experience again the delights of a game at Fenway or a great meal at our favorite restaurant or the joyful worship together in this place. We’ll hear, and I’m certain of this, that this is a judgment from God because of one thing or another. But let’s not give in to grumbling. Let us not give in to fear. Let’s give thanks to God for the good things in our lives during this time. Yes, it will be hard, but through this time of a real-life Lent, let us have our hearts softened and broken open by the one who wants to bring us living waters leading to eternal life. Let us shout for joy to the rock of our salvation. Because God will sustain us through this wilderness. God will be with us, and will provide for us when we call out for help. Oh, that today we would hearken to his voice.