Written for Foundations of Preaching, Brite Divinity School, Spring 2019
Water from the Rock
17 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. 2 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?” 3 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?” 4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 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. 6 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. 7 He called the place Massah[a] and Meribah,[b] because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
When was the last time you were really thirsty?
What’s the thirstiest you’ve ever been?
I remember being so thirsty that I had no idea I needed water. I was at Glen Lake Camp. I was in sixth grade, staying away at camp for the first time. I had spent the entire week going on hikes through the river and cruising down water slides. There was water everywhere. But like many under-supervised sixth graders, I didn’t drink any.
Thursday morning I walked into the dining hall, and I couldn’t breathe. The room started spinning. I tried to calm down. I got my food. Sat down at my table. Tried to eat. I didn’t want to say anything. I didn’t want to harsh the mood of everyone’s fun plans for the day. I didn’t want to interrupt the inside jokes and songs bubbling up from the table with joy.
But I felt worse and worse as breakfast dragged on. Everyone around me was talking but I could only hear my own panicked short breathing.
Finally the counselor noticed that I was hyperventilating with my eyes glazed over and took me to the nurse.
When I admitted to only drinking fruit punch all week. The nurse said
“your body is so thirsty. Why didn’t you say anything?”
This morning our text is about people who were very thirsty.
And they said something, and it might have saved their lives.
Israelites have been liberated from Egypt where they were kept in slavery for generations. Moses led them across dry land through the parted seas.
When they were hungry, God rained down flaky manna from heaven. But even though a lot of things have gone their way, the wilderness is vast and empty and hot and scary.
The Israelites remember fondly the security of bondage in Egypt. At least in Egypt they had food and water.
In this story, their complaining that we’ve seen throughout the book of Exodus becomes quarreling. Which is apparently much more serious.
Can we really blame them?
Just like the Snickers commercials say… You’re not you when you’re hungry.
So here we are, walking through the dry dirty desert. Eating flaky confusing heaven food for breakfast lunch and dinner.
But you know what would really help this stuff go down? Some water.
Remember getting done with work and taking a big gulg of water in the shade? Remember the feeling of the liquid cascading down your throat, healing up the itchy scratchy thirst, all the way down to your stomach?
The hair on your arms standing up as your body cools down? Yeah. We could really go for some of that right about now.
Hey, Moses, what’s the water plan out here? We’re getting thirsty. Give us some water.
Moses condemns their complaining, asking them why they would dare test God. God who has provided so much. God who gives freedom and safety and food from the sky.
Why don’t they just trust God?
But Moses theologizing doesn’t soothe their aching throats.
The people press Moses, test him, and Moses is afraid of what the ornery crowd, maddened by thirst, is going to do to him.
Moses cries out to God, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
God provides clear instructions for Moses to be able to provide water for the Israelites, and in fact, promises to stand right there before the people.
“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.”
And the narrator trusts that we will read the Lord’s words as the effective water rushing down the throats of the Israelites.
Because they never write that their thirst was quenched, but God’s promise is taken as good, and the people live another day, even Moses, who feared he wouldn’t live to see the day the Israelites died of thirst in the desert.
Moses was afraid of the Israelites stoning him, and God answers this fear by drawing water out of—a stone. A tool that instills fear of violence, in this story, becomes a wellspring of life.
Later in this same chapter, Moses’ arms get tired as he is holding them up in prayer, and the people place stones underneath his arms to support him.
If we follow the rocks in this story, we see that the relationship between leaders and the people that follow them is complicated.
Is it a failure of the Israelite’s faith to question Moses?
Or is it a betrayal of their God-given survival instincts to wilt in thirst, letting the room spin around them, without saying anything?
It seems, God can come into this complicated relationship, and not just mediate it into something tolerable, but transform it—turning the rocks that would be tools of death, into fountains, into support.
Often this story is used to condemn the Israelites for not having enough faith, and always complaining to a God who gives them so much,
but if we look closely, the people’s thirst and testing is what prompts Moses to go to God, and God’s response is not anger or condemnation,
but when the Israelites are caught between a rock and thirsty place,
God makes water bubble up from the rock. Bringing life into a place where it could not be seen before. And perhaps this is the holy response not just to Moses, but even to the tired grumbling of the Israelites.
It seems clear that Moses can’t be trusted to do the work of discernment for this community on his own. Moses continually glosses over the basic needs of his people, and only takes them to God begrudgingly when they cry out.
If you’re thirsty, maybe you should say something.
We can’t always trust our leaders to provide for us. Perhaps supporting our leaders needs to involve questioning them. Perhaps God will show up when we raise our voices and declare our need.
Making due in situations that God doesn’t want for us is not holy. It’s not hope.
Augustine writes: “Hope has two beautiful daughters: Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see to it that they do not stay that way.”
For years, the country of Liberia was caught in the throws of Civil war. The casualties rose daily, as people were gunned down in public spaces, because they were caught between an authoritarian dictator and violent rebel groups.
While men were the primary participants in the fighting, women were the ones to bear the burden of the war: seeking to find food for their families, to keep them safe, many of them were raped and killed for no reason at all. The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace had had enough.
The women sat outside, chanting in the fish market. Held organizing meetings in churches and mosques.
Finally, the wives all across the country went on strike, calling their husbands to end the civil war. The movement forced the seated dictator and the rebel groups to attend peace talks in Ghana, where the women followed.
They sat outside in the hallway during the talks and refused to let anyone leave until a resolution had been agreed on.
The women of Liberia did not act in a way their leaders approved of.
They were not meek. They were not content.
They toppled a dictator, put war criminals behind bars and rehabilitated child soldiers from rebel groups, through years of work.
One of the founders, Leymah Gbowee, said that it was time the women of this country ”take the destiny of Liberia into their own hands”…”in the past they were silent, but after being killed, raped, dehumanized, and infected with diseases, war has taught them that the future lies in saying no to violence and yes to peace.”
And so, They said something, and it might have saved their lives.
It would foolish to claim that their grumbling, complaining, quarreling, testing came from a lack of faith in a God that provides…it seems this testing came from an incredible faith
Faith—that believes God is capable of more than all of this.
God can transform the relationship of leaders and those that follow them, and many of us would love for it to be the leaders responsibility to invite God into that place. But it takes all of us.
The place where God gave the Israelites water from a rock is named in honor of the miracle that happens there.
But they don’t name it: “God provides.” Or “Thirst quenched” or “Moses was right as always.”
Instead, they name it Massah— test, and Merribah— quarrel.
Perhaps we are to remember the people who trusted God more than they trusted God’s messenger. The people who molded Moses into a better leader because they questioned him.
The people who might of stoned him, but instead held him accountable and held him up.
The people who said something…and it might have saved their lives.
Where are the places you’ve been told to trust God? Could it be that you’re actually being asked to ignore the needs of your community?
Could it be that “trust God” is easier to deal out than to address the problem?
Could it be that God is working—-not in your passive waiting,
but in the grumbles of your hungry belly,
in the disgusted fear when you look out on a landscape of violence and injustice,
in the itchy dry picking at the back of your throat?
What would it mean to ‘trust God’ if God was calling us to not just endure this life, but to transform it?
If you’re thirsty, maybe you should say something.