22 Sep Walking Wet: Thirst & Longing When Water is Absent
Walking Wet: Thirst & Longing When Water is Absent
Exodus 17:1-7 and Psalm 42:1-2
September 22, 2019
M. Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church
In the first two weeks of our Walking Wet series, we have looked at the watery chaos from which creation was birthed and at the life-giving waters of baptism. This morning we turn to those times when there is a shortage or absence of water. The setting of the Exodus passage is in a time of drought in the desert, and the images of flowers blooming in the desert are far, far away. The arid land often suffered from a lack of water. Droughts and thirst were common. One thing the Israelites knew from experience was that when there is no water in the wilderness, people perish unless God intervenes.
In Psalms 42, thirst is a metaphor for spiritual longing, for yearning for God and God’s presence. Jesus experienced such thirst on the cross, and we, in our own lives, identify with such longing, as well.
The title of the Exodus story might well be “Thirsty People Behaving Badly.” In Exodus 16, the people had behaved badly when God gave them food, manna from heaven, in the wilderness. In this chapter, they behave badly before God leads them to water. It feels like a very long time since they offered praises to God after God led them through the waters of the Red Sea, yet we shouldn’t forget that their miraculous deliverance from slavery and escape from Egypt form the backdrop against which this story is set. God has been faithful to them at every turn, providing for every need along their journey.
Even so, chapter 17 captures the Israelites doing one of things they do best: complaining. First, they complain to Moses whereupon Moses scolds them for testing God. In fact, one of the significant features of this story is the way in which the people quarrel and put God to the test. The Israelites are basically saying, “If God is here, where’s the water?” Theologian Terrence Fretheim in his commentary on Exodus says that this testing makes their belief in God contingent upon a divine demonstration. “It is, in essence, an attempt to turn faith into sight.”
The Israelites are so angry over this latest wilderness challenge that they look back longingly at their years in Egyptian slavery, believing they were better off before Moses rescued them. I’ve always felt a lot of sympathy for Moses at this point. He risked life and limb to get these people out of Pharaoh’s clutches, only to have them turn on him now. He takes his frustration straight to God, pleading with God for help.
Even though Moses might not survive a vote of confidence by the people, he clearly has God’s vote, and God continues to appoint Moses to lead the Israelites. To deal with the current crisis, God tells Moses to gather the elders together and take his staff with him. God assures the beleaguered leader, “I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb” (17:6). Just as it is in countless places in scripture, we see that God is the initiator. God promises to be present, to go before and in front of Moses. God acts and the people respond. This is how the rhythm of life in the wilderness is intended to work, not only for Moses and the Hebrews, but also for us.
At God’s direction, Moses strikes the rock with his staff which results in life-giving water gushing out for all the people. One commentary writer notes that at the center of this story is the “faithful, powerful intervention by God.” It is a story that emphasizes God’s faithfulness in contrast to the unfaithfulness of the people. It also underscores God’s choice to bless God’s creation even when creation does not deserve God’s blessing.
It is interesting that verse 7 sums up the story not be focusing on God’s gift of water but on the fact that this place will be remembered as the place where the Israelites quarreled—Meribah, which means “quarrel,” and as the place where they tested God—Massah, which means “test.” In future years, when the people hear the words Meribah and Massah, they will experience negative memories about what happened there. It’s like us hearing the names Chernobyl or Sandy Hook, places that forever come to be associated with the tragedies that occurred there.
This is a rather surprising ending. We much prefer happy endings and might even be tempted to rewrite this one so that the Israelites come to their senses, remember the gracious generosity of God, and give God the thanks and praise that is due. But such an ending does not exist. This is, after all, one of the perils of the wilderness. When we find ourselves in spiritually dry and dusty times, we are often as angry and afraid as the Israelites were. Throughout their wanderings, good things have happened, like crossing the Red Sea, and sinful things have happened, like building the golden calf while Moses was away, receiving the Ten Commandments on the mountain. So, what do we focus on, emphasize, remember? If we focus on the difficulties, we end up with Meriah and Massah. Or, we can choose to offer gratitude to God who chooses to continue to be our God and love and bless us, even when our behavior does not merit it.
How we respond in times of fear, uncertainty, and pain is one of the core concerns of the human condition. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl describes being stripped of every freedom except one: the freedom to choose how he would react to his circumstances. It is understandable that in such an extreme situation, a “survival of the fittest” mentality would be the default position for many, but Frankl says that even there, there was still a choice to act humanely and to care about the fear and pain of others rather than simply lash out of one’s own fear and pain. The Israelites failed to remember this and often, we don’t either. When the pressures of life come, we forget to ask God for help so that we can respond in faith rather than fear.
A good many of the psalms were composed in the desert, when the psalmist was experiencing spiritual thirst. In Psalm 42 the psalmist gives voice to the deepest longings of his heart, acknowledging that he cannot live apart from God. To be physically thirsty in the desert is life-threatening. The psalmist recognizes that his soul’s need for God is just as urgent, just as critical. His words call to mind the words of St. Augustine in his Confessions: “our hearts find no peace until they rest in you, O God.” The thirst described by Augustine and the psalmist is like the worst kind of homesickness. Because we know what we’re missing, we yearn for it all the more.
This raises a profound question: for what does your soul thirst and how might that thirst be quenched? In our community and around the world we observe many kinds of thirsts. Many people have a deep thirst and yearning for life to be different. There is a thirst for liberation and freedom from oppressive regimes; for torture and killings to stop; for accessible and affordable healthcare, education or food; for discrimination to end; for pain and disease to go away; for a sense of self- worth, and to love, be loved, and belong.
Not only do we each have things we long for, we are also given gifts and resources to help quench the deep thirst of someone else. That might come in the form of helping quench the thirst for education by tutoring on Wednesday evenings in the Eagles Wings program, and Donald & Karen would love to talk to you at coffee hour, if you’d like to help satisfy that thirst. It might mean quenching people’s physical thirst which we do by including $3000 in our mission budget to purchase two fresh-water wells in developing countries or stocking the Little Free Pantry with water bottles. It might look like helping quench someone’s spiritual thirst by praying with them or sharing an encouraging scripture with them. All of us can do something to help meet the thirsts of others.
One thirst that is shared by people all over the world is the thirst for community. Once upon a time, we sat on our front porches on leisurely evenings and visited with neighbors and passersby. Sociologists tell us that air conditioning and television moved us inside, and it wasn’t long before those big porches disappeared, both literally and figurately. Today, technology, commuting, and the demands of 21st century life have upped the ante even further. Study after study shows that feelings of loneliness and isolation are on the rise. People long to be connected and to be part of community.
This is a thirst that the church is wonderfully positioned to fill. But it doesn’t necessarily come easily or naturally. For true community to occur, we must constantly work toward acceptance, openness, and trust. We must be a place where all people know they are welcomed and loved. Community can and many times will feel warm and fuzzy, but often it will also require hard work to understand and appreciate our differences. It will be inconvenient and messy. It will take time, commitment, and a willingness to share what we have, not because of what people deserve or don’t deserve, but because that’s what community is and how community behaves.
I am grateful for Calvary’s long and strong tradition of hospitality and of quenching many kinds of thirsts for people both within these walls and outside them. But we can never get comfortable and certainly never complacent about our call to offer life-giving water in all its forms to those who need it—and we all need it. In this room right now there are people gasping in the wilderness emotionally or spiritually, and our generosity with a caring word can be for them like an oasis in the desert. Some of us are stuck in a cycle of complaint. We are focused on what isn’t going our way, what is hard, or which door has closed. We need to remember God’s faithfulness, God’s gracious provision of all our needs. We need to trust, rather than trying to turn faith into sight.
Some of us have some reckoning to do with what we really do thirst for. The truth is, we’re so busy pursing the next goal, achieving the next task or just surviving the day that we’re not really in touch with how parched our souls and spirits really are. We need to move to the proverbial porch, sit a spell, and listen.
Times in the wilderness are part and parcel of our human experience. But even there, God provides us the life-giving water we need, because God gives us God’s very self which is the only thing that will truly satisfy a thirsty soul.
Thanks be to God. Amen.