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 with us or not?”
This is one of the wilderness stories. The Israelites are between slavery and empire. It happens after they’ve watched their firstborn sons being thrown into a river and before they see God make a space for them in a fertile and farmable country where they will have several hundred years of safety and prosperity.
This is a wandering story.
This is a story of in-between times and what we do in them.
This week was heavy for me. I dove into Mark 7, and it made me feel a little bit better, because in Mark 7, I wasn’t the only one talking back to Jesus. (Y’all get my thoughts on the Gentile woman next week. It’s gonna be lit.)
So this week I went home and curled up with the stories that tell me true things about the covenant God. And I found an old sermon, from a strange in-between time in my life three years ago, about a story that has followed me around this year – the rock and the water at Meribah.
These are my two voices, baffled-seminary-Laura, and baffled-tavern-Laura-Jean, woven together. Lots of things have changed. More things haven’t. Let’s settle in with Israel today.
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?”
So my first reaction to these ridiculous, eternally complaining Israelites is… are you for real? After everything you’ve seen? After all the miracles you’ve experienced? You saw God collapse an empire for your salvation. You watched an ocean open and walked through it without getting your shoes wet. The last time you were hungry God ripped open the sky and gave you magical bread to eat.
And then after all this, the Israelites get thirsty. And just like clockwork, they form a “back to Egypt” committee and start asking where the water is, and where God is, and why can’t they just go back where there was water. Back to where they were oppressed – but they always knew where the next meal was coming from. And I want to wrinkle up my self-righteous nose and ask them, “for real? What is up with you, Israel?”
But my second reaction is that the Israelites’ needs seem super legitimate. They’re in the desert, there is nothing around them that can provide for their physical needs, and they are thirsty. They’re thirsty. And there is no water.
How long were they supposed to wait for God to provide water? Were they supposed to form a prayer circle, or encourage each other to “keep trusting God”, or go for coffee dates and tell each other that their feelings are legitimate and that at least we have “journeying companions” and repeat “sit in the tension” to each other? And then keel over and die of thirst? At what point do we say enough is enough? At what point do shout up at the sky goddamnit! Listen to me! I. Am. Thirsty.
So the story goes. The Israelites complain to Moses to do something, and Moses throws the Israelites under the bus, and tells God that these people won’t stop whining… and God gives them water.
There is no reprimand. There is no punishment. There is no shaming.
It turns out that my narrative of the Israelites testing and grumbling doesn’t come from the voice of God at all. God never expresses frustrating in the text. We’re seeing this story through the eyes of Moses. We’re seeing the Israelites through the eyes of a tired and overworked leader. And as someone who has been a tired and overworked leader, yes, I resonate with Moses’ frustration, and yes, I even resonate with his cranky decision to name the place “Testing” and “Grumbling.” Lord knows I’ve been frustrated enough at God’s people to give them snarky, terrible names. Lord knows I did that quite a bit last week when the evangelical machine snatched up Eugene Peterson and tore him up. Lord knows that I’m not innocent here.
We’re seeing the Israelites through the eyes of a tired and overworked leader.
But God is not the one who names this place. God is not the one who responds with anger at the Israelites need. When God steps into this story to supply the needs of God’s people, God has no rebuke and no punishment.
God just provides.
And oh my goodness, that provision is something really wild. In the middle of the desert, all dryness and dustiness and sand in your throat, God pulls water out of a rock. Out of hot, hard, solid, dry, rock-solid desert stones, God drags ice cold, thirst-quenching water to give to God’s people.
Because this story isn’t really just about whether God is giving us water on days when we can barely breathe because our lungs are so dry.
The Israelites’ thirst matters. But in the end, they want to know: “is the Lord with us or not?” [v 7]. These texts are full of sorrow, and fear, and lost purpose. They have stepped out of enslavement, but the next step wasn’t a brand new creation, but total confusion. They’re lost. And they’re afraid that they’re alone.
We’re asking for water, because we are thirsty, but we’re really wondering if the Lord is with us or not. We have physical needs, and we need them filled. But really, like the Israelites – we want to know if the Lord is here, in the desert, or if we’ve just been forgotten.
We are asking for water, because we’re thirsty, but we’re really wondering if the Lord is with us or not.
And I don’t know why, in this passage, and the manna story, and in the story of the Exodus itself, why God waits to intervene until the people cry – until their slavery is so bad they are groaning for God, or until they are lost and hungry in the desert, or until they really felt the dust on their tongue and their lips were dried out and cracked open and they could look from the left to the right and only see sand and rocks.
I don’t know why God waits.
But I do know that God does not wait forever.
We follow the covenant God, Emmanuel, “God with us” – who is with us when we groan and with us when we whine and with us when we doubt. Emmanuel is with us in between when we are freed and when we begin to flourish.
I don’t know why God waits. But I do know that God does not wait forever.
I don’t know why God waits. I don’t know why the wilderness can sometimes be so large and so empty. But I do know that Egypt is in the rear-view mirror, and the Promised Land is real and solid even if it’s still ahead of us. And I do know that here and now, no matter how we’re afraid and how much we try to strain and turn back – here, now, God will continue to make dry rocks into water fountains until we get to where we’re going.