Exodus 17:1-7 (CEB)
The whole Israelite community broke camp and set out from the Sin desert to continue their journey, as the Lord commanded. They set up their camp at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 The people argued with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”
Moses said to them, “Why are you arguing with me? Why are you testing the Lord?”
3 But the people were very thirsty for water there, and they complained to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?”
4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What should I do with this people? They are getting ready to stone me.”
5 The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of Israel’s elders with you. Take in your hand the shepherd’s rod that you used to strike the Nile River, and go. 6 I’ll be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Hit the rock. Water will come out of it, and the people will be able to drink.” Moses did so while Israel’s elders watched. 7 He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites argued with and tested the Lord, asking, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”
Is God Really With us or Not?
A couple had two little mischievous children, ages 4 and 12. They were always getting into trouble, and their parents knew that if any mischief occurred in their town, their children would get the blame.
The parents heard that a rabbi in town might be able to help, so they asked if the children could get a talking to. The rabbi agreed and asked to see them individually.
The 4 year old was first. The rabbi sat the younger down and asked sternly, “Where is God?” The child’s mouth dropped open, but no sound came out. It was as if all the air was sucked out of the room.
The rabbi repeated the question. “Where is God?” Again, the child made no attempt to answer.
Seeing there was no reaction (at least externally) the rabbi got louder, and bellowed, “Where is God!?”
The child screamed and bolted from the room. Running home, the child burst into the house and up the stairs before slamming the door behind, and hiding under the covers on the bed.
When the older child found the younger, they almost didn’t want to ask, but couldn’t help wonder, “What happened?”
The younger, gasping for breath, replied: “We are in BIG trouble this time! God is missing, and they think we did it!”
How often is it that when we’re in trouble, it becomes more difficult to be aware of God’s presence?
The anxiety of the Hebrew children is undeniable. They followed Moses out of Egypt into a “promised land,” hoping for new life under a new ruler. Their journey ended up being not unlike this pandemic – each day praying that they’d arrive safely, each day greeted by ‘just a little while longer.’ They ran out of water. Food. Their faith in Moses, and as a result, their faith in God fell so easily away, like the dust on their sandals. Anxious moments will do that. They make us miss what’s in front of us, they rob of us memory and history, and those fearful moments convince us that we’re alone.
I can only imagine the fearful, anxious moments that the family of Breonna Taylor have experienced over these last few months, praying for justice after Breonna was killed in ‘no-knock-warrant’ police investigation in Kentucky. I can imagine the cries of ‘is God really with us or not’ in the face of the injustices upon this earth. As the cries for justice for the African American people have gone unheard for more than a hundred years, the “freedom” they experience after slavery was not unlike that of the Hebrew people, as they moved from one crisis to another. Even now the crisis still looms. In their so-called ‘freedom,’ people still yearn for that ‘promised’ land, knowing the world they inhabit is still filled with injustice andfear and anxiety.
So too in Canada, our own struggles with race remind us, as we mark Orange Shirt day on the 30th, that we must face our own participation in the injustices done to First Nations people. And for the majority of us – we didn’t participate in residential schools, or the marginalization or injustices done – but our “promised land” was someone else’s before we got here.
No matter which journey we’re speaking of, be it the Hebrew people, African Americans or First Nations, we begin with the declaration that things aren’t the way they should be. We start with that not to diminish this world, but to realize that this is not a promised land for all people. Pretending otherwise does a disservice to the anxiety experienced and felt, the injustices that have been allowed to roll from one generation to the next.
Proof is the life of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, one of the Supreme Court Justices in the United States, who passed away this last week. I’ll admit my own unfamiliarity, but within her career – she championed the rights of women, combatting the centuries of misogyny in ways I couldn’t even imagine, things that I’ve taken for granted. To think that before her influence, women couldn’t have a bank account or sign a mortgage without a male co-signer (with many more movements towards justice that are too numerous to mention). The U.S. is far from a promised land but great strides were made in the name of justice thanks to Ginsberg.
We are grateful in the midst of those anxious systems, for those who lead – those who hear the murmurings and grumblings of the people, and find ways to meet the needs of the people. Moses’ role in this story is more of a middle-person – an intermediary between God and the people. This might seem foreign to us (a little Catholic) but it’s good to remember thatthe congregation of Hebrews started their journey with God out of fear. The experience of God pre-Exodus was filled with plagues, destruction, and death. No wonder the Hebrews grumbled to Moses and not God! Even Pharaoh worried about the health and wellbeing of his people. Even Pharaoh fed and watered his people. Who is this unknown God who can’t even be bothered to do that? And the ever increasing anxiety of the wilderness wandering convinces the Hebrews that they’re alone. Is God really with us or not? becomes the cry of a people who do not fully understand the divine. (It’s not their fault).
Backtracking a bit, the story of Genesis tells the interaction of the divine with people, however, there’s no regularity or ritual to share that interaction with others. Individual experiences assemble together to create a picture of who God is, but that question of God’s presence is a legitimate one. Is the God of life with us or not? Is the God who hears our prayers with us or not? The Hebrews don’t know how to perceive God without signs and wonders (good or bad).
So these passages of the Exodus set before us a pattern of perception – from ignorance and infancy in Egypt – to the Hebrews here pushing against the boundaries of God’s grace…as if they entered into the teenage years. Is God Really With Us…seems awfully familiar for those either raising teenagers or everyone else who grew through the adolescent years. And in those growing pains of this new relationship – remind us that there’s little or no room for personal or collective responsibility, there’s a whole lot of blame and name calling.
We might get annoyed by the Israelites, but it’s only because we see ourselves in them…in their complaining it makes us question, how often do we complain to God? Is God even listening?
In between those experiences of faith (undrinkable water made palatable, and manna and quails, and now water from the rock) we’re to hold onto those experiences to carry us through the ‘dry spells.’ For we’ve all hit them. Those dry spells make us doubt, and those doubts are closer at hand than our trust, when it’s far easier to cry ‘are you really with us God or not?’ rather than sing out, ‘all the way, my saviour leads me.’
But I want you to know this – no matter how deep your doubt, or how dry your spell, God’s limitless patience and mercy and grace await you. There’s no judgment on God’s part. There’s no audible sigh as a parent looks to their child in the midst ofhelplessness. God hears the cries of the Hebrews and reveals a way forward. God hears the cries of the people and works through us to bring about an answer. This is how thirst is quenched. Moses is told, gather the people, and find a way forward together. This is how the thirst for justice is satiated – with and through us – the grace of God waters the thirsty souls of this earth.
As we hunger for hope, God’s presence in the Exodus reminds us that our journeys are long – they’re filled with dangers both perceived and present – but the God of Israel goes with us, always, leading us into the promised land. With patience, and mercy, and grace enough for all, thanks be to God, who hears our cries.