Sunday, September 25, 2011
by Ellen Sims
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “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. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Parents, wouldn’t you agree that our offspring are the least loveable when they whine? I will sound like a Mean Mom to admit this, but when our daughter went through the whining phase as a preschooler, her sing-songy “Mom–my, I’m thir–sty” used to absolutely undo me. What got to me was the accusatory tone she used to imply I was willfully withholding hydration from her. I had never refused to meet her needs. Why didn’t she simply ask for what she needed? I did not like being cast as the cause of our child’s thirst.
Most of us eventually stop wailing about our discomfort and instead learn to ask the right person in the right way. Just listen to the difference it makes: “Mom–my, I’m thir–sty” versus “Mommy, may I have a glass of water, please?” The child begins to learn to name her need and figures out how to meet that need—which might include asking for help.
To know what we adults need and to express that need appropriately is an important step in achieving goals and in developing mature relationships. Hear the difference between “You’re making me angry” versus “I need some time alone before we continue this conversation.”
Identifying a problem is at least a start toward the solution, but naming what you need is even harder though more constructive. The Israelites were in this child-like stage of complaint. “Mo–ses, we’re thir—sty,” they cried out in their wilderness journeying. And the implicit accusation was that Moses and God had conspired to make them thirsty. Never mind that God had been meeting their needs all along but was not acknowledged for all the times when they had NOT been thirsty. Suddenly, God is heartless and Moses inept. A people freed from oppressive slavery have forgotten they’ve been in worse situations and God has brought them through. They can only whine. Worse than whine, they once again accuse Moses and God of deliberately leading them from Egypt to kill them. When we’re stressed, we fear the worst and can lash out at others. Clearly, Moses’ band still had a long way to go on a spiritual journey that the first verse of today’s text tells us was made “by stages.” They have not yet reached the stage when they recognize God’s loving intentions in the world. They have not yet come to trust in God’s help without adopting a position of helplessness. They do not yet know the difference between a real injustice to be exposed and an unfortunate circumstance to be deeply grieved and corrected if possible. They do not yet know the importance of letting go of past bondage and moving forward in freedom and hope.
But sometimes it’s not really about forgiving someone and instead a matter of not blaming them in the first place. When another has wronged us, we can acknowledge that hurt and then forgive. When we’ve erred, we can take responsibility and seek forgiveness. But sometimes—it’s no one’s fault. Not even God’s. That may be the toughest thing of all–to move forward when we cannot assign clear blame for our plight. Not even to God.
Sure. In some theological worlds, God is the direct cause of all events. This god directs hurricanes to the specific cities that deserve them. But in my theological world, Risk and Chance are required for Freedom and Life. My thirstiness is no evidence that God’s love has ceased.
That this is a complicated matter is evidenced by the fact that there’s a different version of this story in the book of Numbers (Numbers 20). In that other version, the narrator criticizes Moses’s arrogant response to the people, using it to explain why Moses himself was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. Never mind that maybe after 40 years in the desert the old guy just gave out. But for us to feel secure, we need to feel we understand the connection between the causes and effects in our lives, so we create stories to explain, for instance, why this great leader, Moses, had to die before he could enter Canaan.
If the version of this story in Exodus focuses on the Israelite’s complaints, I don’t think it intends to minimize the suffering of those people. At least one way to approach this story is to ask if there’s a better way to express frustrations and basic needs in the ways we commune with God and with others. Better because it changes me in the process, moving me from whining to reflecting, from pouting to praying. My prayer life changes when I can move from seeing prayer as a way to manipulate God to an understanding of prayer as centering myself in God and living out of that love.
And yet . . . and yet the Bible is full of prayers that are as honest as a whine, and just that raw and piercing. When all we can do is feel, the Psalmist shows us that it’s okay to wail and moan and even yell at God. Jesus himself quoted the Psalmist on the cross when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” There was nothing else to say and certainly nothing else for him to do.
But most of the time we can thereafter move from prayer to action.
Which is why Dorinda is here today on behalf of our denomination. Because the world is thirsty. Quite literally. World thirst is becoming the new world hunger. Drinkable water is becoming the thing that separates the haves from the have nots. The world’s children are not whining but crying for water that is free of cholera, that is near enough that their mothers don’t have to walk all day to find it and haul it back. After we truly hear their plaintive voices, cries, screams . . . and deathly silences . . . there IS something we can do that is equivalent to Moses striking the rock and releasing a flow of saving water onto a parched people. The United Church of Christ, for instance, helps us go beyond a sense that the world is tugging on our skirts and looking up at us with baleful eyes (www.ucc.org). Our denomination hears those complaints and cries and then requests in clear language a specific way we can meet those needs. The United Church of Christ, in conjunction with the work of other ecumenical partners and with people around the globe, tells us that our offerings to Our Church’s Wider Mission and our four Special Offerings this year (like the current Neighbors in Need offering (www.ucc.org/nin) are ways to “strike the rock.” “Strike the rock,” Moses was told, and the people will have water. “Strike the rock,” and we participate in the saving work of God. “Strike the rock,” and we look to God in faith that our little effort will help.
“Is the Lord among us or not?” the thirsty Israelite’s wondered.
Hurting people around the world continue to ask that question. We in our tough moments wonder the same.
Strike the rock. Do something to produce or share literal water and what Jesus called “living water.”
Strike the rock.
We will know that God is among us.
PRAYER: Living God, let us drink you in. May we be able to say that you are indeed among us. May you always go before us. Amen