Robert P. Hoch
Our narrator tells us that there, in a place called Rephidim, the people thirsted. Wilderness surrounded them — and it wasn’t the wilderness you might find on a postcard or in an Ansel Adams photograph.
My mother lived through the earthquake of 1964 in Alaska.It registered something like 9.2 on the Richter Scale, making it one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded. She would tell us how it was, how the ground seemed to roll, like it was liquid and not solid rock. And then she told us that if we were ever out on the mud flats, the coastal area of our town, and we saw the tide go out really fast, so fast that fish got stranded, flopping on the suddenly naked ocean floor, don’t hang around. Get out, she said. Don’t look back. Run as fast as you can, as far as you can, as high as you can. . . .
Back then, we called them tidal waves. Now we know them as tsunamis. Our narrator would have recognized my mother’s warning – our narrator calls it wilderness. Wilderness is not a domesticated pet that licks you with affectionate sunrises. Maybe ten or twenty years ago, this concept of wilderness would be difficult for us to grasp. But not anymore.
Irma. Harvey. Maria. Worrisome signs are coming from Puerto Rico. Thirst. Hunger. Looting. Despair. It’s a place, and the thirsts are real and substantial. But it is also a mindset. As I listen to our country, it feels more and more like the understandable thirst of Puerto Rico is in danger of becoming a mindset for us all. That’s a danger. Perhaps an imminent danger. If that is the case, perhaps our text supplies an antidote.
Our narrator tells us that the people thirsted in the wilderness. It was the third of four testing episodes in the period of Israel’s desert wandering. Three of the wilderness stories have to do with the cruelty of nature; one with the cruelty of humankind.
Wilderness represents a place of stark realities. In wilderness, experiences of thirst or fear or hunger are readily understandable. But, we should also note this: that it isn’t merely a place. Wilderness is also a state of mind.
(Terence E. Freitheim, Interpretation: Exodus (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991) 187)
The people were so defined by the adversity around them that they actually came to resemble the wilderness – or perhaps were more wilderness than even wilderness.
“Give us water to drink,” they said to Moses.
“Who can make water out of dust?” Moses says back. “Who can turn dry land into green springs? That’s not in my job description.”
“Why then did you take us into this desert, to kill us, our families, our children, our livestock with thirst? If that’s what you intended to do, my friend, you’re doing a fine job of it!”
When Moses turns to God, it doesn’t get much better. He is more concerned about his own skin than he is about the welfare of God’s people: “God,” he complains, “why did you give me this church, this congregation? They’re so nasty to me. Tell you the truth, I think they figure they’d be better off with me dead than alive.”
A wilderness state of mind fosters a feeling of helplessness. It drives a wedge between people who should be working together. The spirit of a wilderness space leaches like a poison into the brain.
They were no different than the rocks of hardship that surrounded them – and perhaps they were even more cruel than the wilderness itself. After all, they were giving voice to bloodshed. They were giving voice to preemptive homicide, as if they wanted to outdo the wilderness around them with the wilderness in their hearts.
The good news in today’s scripture, and in our world, is that the dispute between Moses and the people, their thirst and threats, do not define this story. In that place of wilderness mentalities and wilderness realities, God summons us to act – and in our actions to neither ignore wilderness realities nor to fall to the temptation of the wilderness mentality.
God speaks to Moses. And God, our healer, prescribes a few actions, in which God initiates the action through three command verbs: go; take; go. “Go on ahead of the people, take some of the elders with you; take in your hand the staff, and go.” Go on ahead, take the elders, take the staff, and go.
And then God says “I will be standing there in front of you on the rock. . . .”
That’s an anthropomorphic expression – a human-shaped (anthropomorphic) image of God – God does this from time to time. God walks through the garden, in the cool of the evening. Adam and Eve heard God’s footsteps. God does this from to time, drawing near to us. And near the creation, almost like incarnation. And in this case, God doesn’t change the rock, but simply stands on top of it. As if to remind us that this wilderness may be fallen, but it’s God’s creation. It has within it, hidden from our eyes, like limestone sometimes hides within its chambers, flowing waters, the refreshment of creation. The creation God pronounced good. God is the ruler not only of the creation we cannot see, but also of the wilderness which we do see and sometimes reflect all too easily. God reminds us not only that God rules all things, and pronounces all things good, but that we have been given a unique relationship to this world – our text’s metaphors remind us that social good is something we co-create with God. It doesn’t just happen. It’s co-creation.
Rabbinical teaching describes it as “finishing” God’s creation. Grapes are fermented into wine. Spices are roasted to bring out their flavor. Salt preserves and enhances. Finishing the creation – but in order to “finish” the creation, you need to believe creation exists to begin with. That it’s not just wilderness you’re looking at.
It’s interesting to me that God doesn’t lead them out of the wilderness. This is not an exodus out of a place, an environmental version of white flight, but out of a state of mind. A state of mind where we believe we have no part to play in bringing about the flourishing of the natural world, of societies and economies. God says, “Go, take the elders, take the staff of God’s faithfulness, and go.” Become my people again; act as if the waters of adversity had already parted; act as if the bread of salvation was already given; act as if, around you, creation bubbled with refreshing springs. Act in faith and I will be standing there in front of you on the rock. . . .”Act in faith, in this concrete, seemingly zero-sum game, become co-creators with me as we learn to tell a better story . . . about the world we call home, about ourselves, and about God.
Hear our reading from the Book of Hebrews one more time: “Now faith is the assurance of things not seen.” That assurance prompts us to act, to follow, to go, to take. The Lord commands the whole people of God to go out, elders and probably children, too, to the very thing that seemed to rule over their existence, rock without water. And Moses did so. That’s what our narrator tells us. Moses did so. That’s all the narrator tells us. That’s it. Hollywood would never omit this scene, not ever. But it’s not there.
We don’t see the people go out with Moses; we don’t hear the sharp crack of Moses’ staff hitting the rock. We don’t hear the water gush and bubble. We don’t hear the people shout out in joy; we don’t glimpse how their children would have played in the water; how the livestock regained their strength, how the calves jumped and frolicked with new found energy; or how wild birds and animals came to drink from the sudden spring; even animals that ordinarily preyed on one another, lions alongside wild horses, drinking water together, their natural enmity temporarily suspended.
A staggering omission.
In fact, you might be shaking your head right now, saying to yourself, “Yes, they drank, I saw them drink. You saw them drink! Didn’t you see them drink?”
None of that was there, not in the text at least. We can imagine it happened, and I think that’s fine. You read it like you saw it happen. And maybe that’s the way we’re supposed to read. Like as soon as God said it, Moses lifted that staff, struck the rock, the rock broke open and water poured out.
Why was it omitted? Perhaps because our text isn’t about getting us to a Hollywood happy ending, but forming faithful living in the wilderness world.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
That’s it! Our text today isn’t about a happy ending, but faithful living.
Faith, according to Thomas Merton,
does not turn the unknown into the known;
it integrates the unknown dynamically into the known.
(Quoted by Stephanie Paulsell, “Theological Muscle Memory” in Christian Century, 27 September 2017, 35).
Continue to live in wilderness as if water were about to be discovered, as if adversity were about to be overcome, as if the dry places were about to be turned into green springs, as if the nations were about to drop their swords and learn war no more, as if. Live concretely, dynamically, in the conviction of things unseen.
Break bread as if an end to hunger were almost here. As if God’s reign and God’s peace were drawing near.
If we believe that, would anyone go hungry? If we were assured of the joy of salvation, would anyone grieve alone? If we trusted in God’s perfect peace, would any of us drink from the bitter waters of human cruelty? If we believed in God’s justice, would we stand quietly as people are denied justice?
When wilderness takes hold of a nation’s mind, Christ’s church takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and shares it . . .
Christ’s people continue to break bread . . .
here, and with the hungry who need bread;
here, and with the homeless who need shelter;
here, and with the lonely who need community;
here, and with all of us who act for a better story tomorrow.
We do so.
Moses did so.
We do so.
We sit outside, on our lunch break, and we pray with someone who is hurting, who is lonely and needs community.
Who does so?
We do so.
At an intersection on our commute, in what might be as hard and indifferent as any wilderness, we learn our homeless friend’s name, and he ours. And maybe we feel more human, altogether.
Who does so?
We do so.
In a place where we thirst for immediate gratification and visible returns, we plant a tree for the next two hundred years. We make an investment in the future knowing that we will not enjoy the returns – but a generation unknown to us will bask in the shade of today’s seedling of generosity.
We sit down with a child, in an afterschool program, help her learn math, care for her as if she is the most amazing wonderful thing of God’s creation.
Yes, she’s surrounded by wilderness, but within her glows a holy fire. Who knows what compassionate action will release into the world, as we tap into the invisible water that flows, hidden, inside rock formations, water that renews and refreshes not only the present hour, but generations, and peoples not yet born.
In the assurance of things hoped for, in the conviction of things not seen.
Moses did so.
By God’s grace and to God’s glory, we do so.
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
October 1, 2017