Water in the Desert

Exodus 17:1-7 Matthew 21:23-32

September 25, 2011


The Israelites are at it again, complaining to Moses about their woes and worries. Last Sunday we heard that they were hungry, and this Sunday we read a passage not too much further on, in which they are complaining of thirst. It is understandable that they would be concerned; they are in the desert, after all, and everywhere they look, all they see is dry and barren land. Despite this, you would think that after God started sending manna and quail to them just a short time ago to assuage their hunger, they would know that God would also take care of their thirst. But they don’t really trust God to do what needs to be done. This is a key point, that even though experience has taught them otherwise, they still do not trust God to provide for them. They keep second-guessing God. They are not convinced that their needs will be taken care of. In the midst of this interminable wandering journey they are on, the Israelites are not sure they will survive. Every day they ask themselves if they left the relative comfort of slavery in Egypt only to die in the desert, never finding the home they are searching for. Unfortunately the response of the Israelite people is not so different from our responses today. We worry that our needs will not be met. We fret over the possibility that God has forgotten about us or might not fully appreciate the finer points of our needs. We don’t fully trust God to take care of us, despite the fact that past history shows quite a bit of care has come our way.

There are several things going on in this passage of Israelite history; on the surface is the very real threat of dying of thirst. These people are in the desert, after all, and there are no visible sources of water for them, their children and animals. Humans cannot live very long without water, and so it would not take long before they felt the effects of lack of water. They were also afraid that they had made a bad choice in leaving Egypt. Sure, they were in slavery there, but they did have homes and food was available. There was at least minimal security back there, even if freedom was lacking. The people were also asking themselves, “who is this God we are following? Is Yahweh really looking out for us? Does he have our best interests at heart or is this some kind of awful joke?”

These are all very real concerns, each one was certainly enough to stir up a decent amount of fear in any self-respecting person. I think they are fears we can relate to as well, even though we may not currently be wandering in a desert. We may not be physically in any danger, but the reality is, that we do know what it feels like to be frightened and thirsty. We know what it feels like to wander away from our goals and off of the track we had hoped to be on. We know what it feels like to be lost and uncertain. Sometimes we get lost on the inside more than the outside, and we lose sight of who we are, who we want to be. We know what it is like to be far from home emotionally, even if we never stray far away in the physical sense. Finally, sometimes we wonder just who this God is whom we follow. We know plenty of people who aren’t religious, who pay little to no attention to God, and many of them seem to be doing just fine, so why do we stick with this religion stuff, when it might be easier to walk away and live life on our own terms without having to worry about following God’s expectations for us?

What is it that the Israelites, and we, are looking for? What did the Israelites want from Yahweh, from Moses? When they kept thinking of things that they were afraid of, first asking for food and then complaining there was no water, was there maybe something down at the bottom of all of their fear and questioning? What is it that we need in our lives so that we feel secure and cared for, safe and comfortable no matter what the external circumstances? The answer to all of this lies at the heart of how we see ourselves in the world. It depends on our perspective as well as our expectations. The situation with the Israelites was that they had been slaves in Egypt. As slaves, everything they needed was provided for them including shelter, food and clothing. They exchanged their labor for the basics of life, and in return had everything they needed. They may have wanted more, they may have desired something different for themselves and their children, but still, when all was said and done, they had everything they needed. If we took a careful look at our lives, we would probably have to admit that we, too, have everything we need. We do not lack for food or clothing or shelter. There may very well be things that we wish we had, things we would like to have, but the truth is that we don’t need any of those things. Given the truth of the facts, that we have what we need right here and now, then why are so many of us discontent? Why do we search so hard for something else? Why do we whine and complain about anything at all?

My time on Iona this summer was very telling for me. My intention in going there was to spend time in the presence of the holy. I had no idea what form this might take, but I tried to keep myself open to whatever opportunities came my way each day. It was difficult to determine if anything was happening when I was in the thick of it. One day Gary and I decided to go off on our own, each wherever we felt drawn. We would regroup at the end of the day for a shared dinner at a wonderful Inn in the village.

I spent a good bit of my time on a beach, sitting on a rocky outcropping and watching various birds fly, swim and hop around getting food in the shallow waves. Beyond them was the sea and out in the sea, not too far away, were small skerries - rocky bits of land too small to be official islands. I imagined the old days when monks had inhabited Iona, and thought to myself that the monks might very well have done penance on those skerries - sitting by themselves out there on those tiny scraps of land for some perceived shortcoming. This turn of the imagination was a telling contrast to the birds whom Jesus used as an example in his sermon, saying; “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?” God does take care of the birds, I thought, and they really don’t seem concerned about proving themselves in any way. They are just birds, doing bird things, with no self-consciousness. So why do we humans work so hard to prove ourselves to God? If God is God, then doesn’t he or she have a pretty good idea of who we are already? Doesn’t it make sense that we should just go about the business of being who we are, without striving so hard to be someone or something in particular that might have very little resemblance to our true selves?

For the rest of the day, I kept turning this thought over and over in my mind. I tried to feel what it might feel like to simply be present with God, with no striving to do certain things that I thought would be appropriate or to think especially holy thoughts. I tried to emulate the birds as much as I could as I collected my things and explored more of Iona’s special places that afternoon. It continued to stay with me throughout my time there, and I still hold the birds’ teaching in my mind, that I don’t have to be anything or anyone except who I am and what I am. God really does know me and takes care of me, no matter what. This is true of all of God’s children. My sense is, that if the Israelites could have grasped that concept way back during the time they were wandering in the desert, they might not have been so worried about being left to die in the desert with no food or water. They would have realized that there was no way God was going to let that happen to them. God can and does provide for us, for all of us, despite the odds. We are loved and cared for in ways we cannot even begin to fathom, and it is good.

Loving God, thank you for holding us in your heart and caring for us from the depths of your compassion. Thank you for teaching us through our sister and brother creatures. We have so much to learn from them. Keep our minds and hearts open so that we may see your truth always, amen.