The first time I ever felt totally and absolutely alone was the night I was initiated into the Order of the Arrow in the Boy Scouts. The initiation included a 24 hour period of silence, which was bad enough, but the hardest part of that time was the night we each had to spend alone under the stars, not knowing where we were or how close we were to any other scouts. We were led in silence, single-file out into the remote areas of Camp Lakota near Defiance, Ohio with nothing but a sleeping bag. Our instructions were that when tapped on the shoulder by the guide who was behind us we were to stop in that spot, bunk down for the night and not leave that spot until a guide came for us in the morning.
The Exodus passage for September 25 reminds me of that frightened young boy I was some 50 years ago. Exodus 17 is a continuation of last week’s complaining saga in chapter 16. This time the complaints are more specific, namely for water. The Israelites have camped at Rephidim where, we are told, “there was no water for the people to drink.” (Note that this story must be from one of the other sources incorporated into the Exodus account. If God has provided food in chapter 16 it makes no sense that something as essential for human life as water would not have also been provided. However, following the manna from Heaven story in chapter 16 with this plea for water may also be a way to show us how quickly we return to complaining after one set of needs has been met, and how we are continually dependent on God to provide for us anew each and every day.)
But the Israelites still don’t understand the source of their liberation or their dependence on God. In verse 2 we are told they “quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’” It’s not Moses who provided food in chapter 16 and as we see it is not within Moses’ power to provide water for the thirsty pilgrims either.
I would argue that water is not the real issue here. As important as water is for survival there’s a deeper thirst, the same one Jesus addresses with the woman at the well in John 4 when he offers her “living water.” What’s going on in the Exodus story is that the real question behind all the murmuring and complaining comes to a head. The Israelites seem to have finally realized they are really on their own. There’s no 7-11 on the corner to buy Perrier when they’re thirsty. They are in the wilderness, without identity or place, free from slavery but homeless, and like those scared Order of the Arrow scouts, feeling a strange mixture of independence and abandonment. The bottom line question is not about water. It comes in verse 7, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Theologically one does not have to be in a desert to experience the wilderness or to thirst for living water.
- A widow after 50 years of happy marriage wakes up on a tear-soaked pillow in an empty bed in the wilderness.
- A young vibrant father in the prime of life is struck down by a freak accident and will spend the rest of his life in the wilderness as a quadriplegic.
- An innocent 10-year old girl is told she is HIV positive from a blood transfusion and is then driven deeper into the wilderness by an unknowing Sunday School teacher who tells her class that God has sent Aids to punish promiscuity and homosexuality. And she not only wonders if God is among us in the wilderness but who would want that kind of God there anyway?
- So does a family whose home is washed away by a flood that is labeled by their insurance company “an act of God.”
We’ve all been in the wilderness—without even leaving home: broken-hearted by a loving relationship gone sour; frightened by the fear of unemployment in a shaky economy; helplessly watching a whole year’s crop baked to a crisp in draught-plagued summer heat; weeping over the destruction of more acres of woodlands by the bulldozers of progress or the pollution of yet more rivers and streams.
Haven’t we all murmured and asked, “Is God among us in this wilderness or not?”
It’s a legitimate question raised by the Israelites. They are no longer able to depend on their Egyptian overlords to provide for them and are being asked to put their lives on the line and trust Yahweh and his agent, Moses. They (and we) are like a trapeze artist who wants to know if her partner can be trusted to catch her 50 feet above the ground; or a traveler who deserves to know if the pilot is sober and qualified to fly the 737 he’s about to board; or a marriage or business partner who has a right to know if their spouse or colleague is reliable and trustworthy.
If we risk our lives on someone we want to know if they are with us or not, don’t we? It’s OK to ask about God’s presence. There has to be room for doubt in our lives or there is no room for genuine faith. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. [Heb. 11:1] So, it’s OK to question God’s presence, but the problem is we often look for the wrong kind of answer to that question. Because what we really want is for God to do for us what we want. And sometimes the answer to our prayers is “no.” And we feel abandoned and forsaken, like Jesus on the cross or like the Hebrews in the wilderness. “Have you brought us out here to die?”
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer to “Our Father, who art in Heaven,” I sometimes want to say, “What good are you doing in Heaven, God. We need you here with us in the wilderness.” Robert Browning’s poem is comforting (“God is in his heaven and all is right with the world”) but anyone who has been out of their house or watched the 11 o’clock news knows that all is not right with the world. Is God with us in the wilderness?
Fred Craddock says that the problem is that we want our theology to be “When the Messiah comes there will be no more suffering.” We’ve got it backwards, says Craddock. What the Bible really tells us over and over again is that “Where there is suffering, there the Messiah will come.”
We know that is true, but like the Israelites, we ask why does God lets us wander in the wilderness and wonder if we are abandoned? Such times test us too and help teach us that we are not independent or self-sufficient. We are dependent on God, but only when we feel the void in our lives, the emptiness that no human can fill, are we able to admit our dependence on God and invite God into our lives to fill the wilderness-sized hole. I believe it was Eleanor Roosevelt who said, “People are like tea bags. You can’t tell how strong they are till they are in hot water.” Those hot water times are when we learn that we need God.
That faith and strength is like the metaphor in the title song to the great musical “Fiddler on the Roof” (lyrics by Sheldon Harnick):
“Away above my head I see the strangest sight, a fiddler on the roof, who’s up there day and night. He fiddles when it rains, he fiddles when it snows; I’ve never seen him rest, yet on and on he goes.
What does it mean this fiddler on the roof, who fiddles every night and fiddles every noon? Why should he pick so curious a place to play his little fiddler’s tune? An unexpected breeze could blow him to the ground, yet after ev’ry storm I see he’s still around. Whatever each day brings, this odd outlandish man, he plays his simple tune, as sweetly as he can.
A fiddler on the roof, a most unlikely sight; it may not mean a thing, but then again it might!”
Is God with us in the stormy, lonely, wilderness times of our lives? The answer is a resounding “Yes!” Emmanuel, one of the names for Jesus, means literally “God with Us,” incarnate in human form. In the Exodus 17 passage God answers this basic theological and existential question in a different but also life-giving form. In verses 4-6 God responds to the murmuring Israelites.
Moses asks God for help in dealing with his rebellious people. The mob is so angry Moses is afraid they are going to stone him. Desperate people do such things. But God tells Moses to take his staff and strike the rock at Horeb and “water will come out of it so that the people may drink.” The text tells us Moses did so “in the sight of the elders of Israel.” But notice what the text doesn’t say; it doesn’t say the water flowed out of the rock. The story ends right there and another example of how dependent the people are on God begins in verse 9 when they are attacked by Amalek. We are never told the water flows. People of faith however don’t need that blank filled in with details. We can hear the water gurgling up from the rock and taste the cool refreshing life it gives.
And in the bubbling water, we also hear the answer whispered to those who have ears to hear, “Yes, God is with us, everywhere; especially in the wilderness.”