Oh the people of Israel! What a bunch of complainers! They’re like a bunch of twelve and a half year olds. Wherever they are, they find something to complain about. And they always assume that God has nothing better to do than pay attention to them, and their myriad needs…
…and it’s an assumption based upon experience. Think about it. Earlier in their journey, they complained about the lack of food. What did God do? Suddenly there was manna and quail, more than they could possibly eat.
So now they’ve been complaining about the lack of water. Moses got to hear all the complaints, as if he was the babysitter of these troublesome pre-teens. They whined, “We want water! We’re thirsty! Get us water! Did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us off with thirst?”
And by this time, Moses was pretty tired of their continual complaints. So he did what he always did, as the intermediary between God and God’s people. He went to the boss and complained, too: “these people are ready to kill me – what shall I do?”
And God sighed – parents of preteens often do – and said, “Okay, go over to that rock over there and whack it with your staff – you know, the one you used to strike the Nile River and make all those plagues? – and watch and see. The water will come out of it, and they stop complaining.”
A psychologist might say that God and Moses had set up this pattern of complaint and indulgence, and might even say that is pretty unhealthy. Teaching people that they get what they want by complaining about it…we don’t do that today, do we?
The squeaky wheel still gets the grease, doesn’t it?
Poor Moses was left once again with that bitter taste in his mouth, as the person who got the brunt of it all, so he named the place “Despair and Strife Plaza,” the literal translations of Massah and Meribah, as a reminder of what royal pains the people were in that place, and how they tested God.
Now when the Israelites grumbled about how thirsty they were, I doubt they were thinking, “let’s test God.” No, I think they were grumbling and murmuring among themselves because their throats were parched, their animals looked like they were about to keel over, and no one had had a good wash-up in quite a while.
But it was a test of God, because in their minds, bad things were happening, and they were happening because Moses had led them out of Egypt (which they barely remembered as a place of slavery) at the command of their God and they saw nothing of the land they had been promised. They were tired and they saw no end in sight, and Moses was the one telling them that God was with them, but they never saw God…only Moses saw and conversed with God. Not a surprise that they had their doubts!
Now, God could have done something simpler in response to the people’s complaints. There might have suddenly been a pool of water that they came upon, an oasis. That happened periodically to people walking through the desert. It would have been less dramatic.
But God understood that something more dramatic was called for, because folks were forgetting that God was behind this journey. Folks were losing their faith in the midst of their everyday troubles like sore feet and sick relatives and not enough water. So he gave Moses instructions to use that staff that had been turned into a serpent, that staff that turned the Nile into a river a blood before Pharoah…a staff with history, a history of God’s power. “Hit the rock with the staff,” God said. “The water will flow from the rock.”
A dramatic gesture that would remind the grumbling Israelites of the presence and the power of God.
God not only provided water, God provided a reminder of God’s continual presence with them, even in the midst of troubles.
We need a reminder, too, especially in Lent.
Lent is only forty days long, and yet it too feels like a long walk in the desert. A dry and difficult time when we don’t sing songs of joy; we sing songs of our own failures and of the necessity for Jesus’ death to overcome those failures.
We feel the limitations in our hearts most poignantly, and we struggle to find a way to feel the coming redemption.
But Lent is not only this season; it is a state of the soul. We are sharply aware of our heart-sickness when we are dealing with our difficulties and tragedies. Losses of those who are dear to us: losses from death or from dementia; losses from divorce or other broken relationships; losses that simply result from time and distance. And in that moment we cry out to God: “I am thirsty. Where are you? Why aren’t you taking care of me?”
We grumble and cry, feeling isolated in our pain, wondering why God isn’t there for us, tending to us.
But God is.
It’s like the old joke about the fellow who was caught in a flash flood and asked God to save him. The fellow was a devout Christian and had no doubt that God would provide. So he climbed up onto his roof as the waters rose and he prayed. “Dear God, please come and save me from the flood!” After a while, an oversized truck came down his street, which was now awash with water. The driver said “Come on into the truck and I’ll get you out of here.” “No need! God will save me,” the fellow cried. An hour passed, and the water was now up past the porch and the downstairs windows. A neighbor came by in his bass boat and said, “Friend, come into the boat and I’ll take you to dry land.” And the fellow said, “No need! God will save me!” And more time passed, and the water got even higher, pouring into the upstairs windows. Scary! And then he heard the whirring of helicopter blades overhead and then he heard a voice coming from a helicopter hovering above. “We’re dropping down a rope ladder. Climb up and we’ll get you off that roof and take you to safety.” “No need! God will save me!” said the very damp and devout fellow. So the helicopter flew off to save someone else, and the water rose, and rose, and eventually the fellow was swept away…and he drowned in the roiling waters. He went up to heaven and presented himself to the Lord. “God, why didn’t you save me?” the fellow demanded. “What are you talking about?” God said. “I sent you a truck, a boat and a helicopter!”
God is present. God sends us what we need to survive the troubles of life. We doubt, though, in the midst of our pain. We are not the only ones. Jesus himself, as he was dying on the cross, cried out “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani.”
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
When we are in our darkest Lenten moment, in the deep purple shadows of doubt and pain and loneliness, we cry out, “Where are you? I’m thirsty. I’m lonely. I’m in pain. Why have you forsaken me?”
And God responds in ways that may not immediately be attributable to the divine presence among us.
A friend who gives us a hug and cries with us. A casserole left on a porch. A flower arrangement or a card. An offer to take us out to lunch, or to walk the dog. Helicopters, trucks, and boats come in many shapes and sizes, don’t they?
These are the presence of God among us in our times of trouble. We don’t see God directly. We see God mediated through another human being, just as God’s presence among the Israelites was mediated by Moses.
God responds to the needs of humans in pain through other humans, humans like you. This parish is good at this. When someone is in trouble, you ask what you can do to help, in ways ranging from the extremely practical to the extremely spiritual. You send cards, you call, you drop off food, you offer to run errands. And most of all, you pray. And your actions and your prayers are like cool water flowing from a rock into the parched souls of those who need it.
In this Lenten season, when we remember the pain that Jesus suffered on the cross, when we remember that it was our brokenness that required his sacrifice, let us also remember that we can be a part of the redemption by being God’s presence in the world. We offer our generous hearts as the pump for God’s cool water, as the rock is broken open by God’s power.
God is with us, at all times. God is in us, too. Let’s not forget that.