Scripture: Exodus 17:1-7 & Isaiah 43:16-21
Sometimes I struggle to have empathy for the Israelites. That feels like a horrible thing for me to say as a pastor but it is true. Sometimes I feel frustrated, angry, and confused by the Israelites. Our passage today, for instance.
We encounter the Israelites in the middle of the wilderness journeying through the unknown. They are wandering, making their way towards the promised land, but not there yet. They are in uncharted land and unfamiliar territory. And, naturally, when they stop to make camp they look around for basic necessities and find nothing. The most basic necessity, water, nowhere to be found.
So, what do they do? They stay open, curious, and centered. FThey go calmly go to their leader Moses and say, we see there is no water. We are thirsty, do you know how we can find water in the middle of this wilderness? And Moses replied, thank you for being so calm and centered in this difficult situation. There is some water right here because God is with us and God will care for us.
Oh wait, that’s not what happened? No. The Israelites thirst, which is natural and normal, but instead of remembering that God had literally in the previous chapter provided manna and meat for them, they quarrel, demand, and complain. Instead of remembering that less than two months before they miraculously traveled through the sea that Moses had parted, they said, ““Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”” And it is at that point, that I just want to say, are you kidding me? Are you serious?
I feel so frustrated, but when I keep reading and I get to the last line of our passage and my heart just breaks. “[Moses] called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites argued with and tested the Lord, asking, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”” That’s it. Chapters of missing the point, complaining, arguing. And that Hebrew word argue in verse 2 has connotations of striving or contending so like fighting, and verse 7 reveals what it was actually about the whole time. It wasn’t about the water, it wasn’t about the desert, the wilderness. It wasn’t about Moses. It was about, is God actually with us or not?
I recently discovered a show on Disney+ called Dr. Oakley, Yukon Vet. She is a veterinarian for a large chunk of rural Alaska and parts of Canada. In one episode, an owner brought her two cats into Dr. Oakley’s vet clinic and the owner’s orange tabby was not having it. Dr. Oakley works with her daughters who are in their early twenties-ish, and her daughter Sierra was trying to soothe this hissing, pawing cat out of its carrier. In frustration, Sierra said something like, oof that is a mean cat and her mom, said, no, she’s just scared. The cat was in an unfamiliar place, hurting, had been through a lot, and instinctively lashed out. That’s a mean cat mom. No, she’s just scared.
The Israelites were hungry, thirsty, and tired on top of everything they had already been through. On top of years of slavery. On top of leaving behind everything they had ever known, which was a massive life upheaval even though what they left behind was abusive and harmful. They were in the desert, in an unknown place, and the narrator voice in our passage tells us what the Israelites themselves cannot articulate. It tells us what their complaining and fighting and arguing was really about. It was about not knowing if God was actually with them, or not. It was about assurance and presence. The Israelites felt overwhelmed, they felt scared, they felt, I can’t even imagine, and out of that stressful state, they lashed out. But really, they just needed to know God was still with them. And it is easy for us, from our thousand years vantage point knowing how the story ends, it is easy for me to say, get it together Israelites, water from a rock, manna from heaven, pillar of cloud and fire, walls of water, how can you not recognize it, of course God is with you! But them I remember, I know what if feels like to be in the messy middle. We know what that feels like, to be in the middle of a journey, can’t go back (probably shouldn’t go back), and can’t see what the future holds. And at some point, maybe for you it hasn’t been recently or maybe it has, at some point we’ve needed an answer to the same question the Israelites had. Is the Lord really with us or not?
And the good news, is that the answer is the same for us as it was for them, the same as it always has been and always will be.
The Lord was with the enslaved Israelites when he heard their cries of pain.
The Lord was with the Israelites when he led them out of Egypt and guided them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night.
The Lord was with the Israelites when he parted the seas for them.
The Lord with the Israelites when he provided food in the wilderness and water from a rock.
From dust and brokenness, from deserts and rock, God brings gardens and water and revival and sustenance. God is with us. Yes, you will encounter difficulties, yes you will have struggles, yes you may feel scared and have knee jerk reactions to things, but take heart, God is with you.
I don’t know what each and every one of y’all are going through today but I know one thing. God works grace and love in the midst of even the most difficult situations. I have seen it in my own life, I have read it in these pages that I believe are God inspired, and I have seen it in your lives. The good may not be what we planned but God is working to bring flowers from ashes, water from a rock, and beautiful things out of the dust. God hears you. God loves you. You are not alone. God is with us. Amen.