The setting for our scripture reading this morning is the wilderness of Rephidim. The Israelites, newly freed from slavery, have been traveling from place to place as commanded by God. They have seen pillars of cloud and fire. They have seen manna rain down from the heavens, and quail appear to ease their hunger.
But now they are camped out in the wilderness, water has run out, and dehydration is imminent. The mood changes. As thirst devolves into panic and panic into fury, the Israelites confront their leader--and by extension, their God. They are not happy campers. They demand to know from Moses why he brought them up out of Egypt to die of thirst. They want water to drink!
They really lay into Moses . . . and, in a sense, God. They moan and groan, cry and whine . . . complain, complain, complain. In Moses’ mind he cannot understand the ungratefulness of the people towards the God who freed them from bondage, set them free, and is leading them to their own land. He demands to know, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?” Moses wants to know, because, after all, he is just God’s front.
In frustration, Moses cries out to God: “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
With perfect twenty/twenty hindsight, those who have read the Exodus passages, have often gotten quite irritated with the Israelites . . . always whining, always complaining. Because we know the story and its ending, we wonder how these people can be so ungrateful in their faith of the God who rescues them . . . leads them to freedom.
But, despite our perfect twenty/twenty hindsight, we need to give the people a break. We need to give them a break, because we are not that much different than they are. We have had our gripes and complaints about God. We have done our fair share of whining. We have all demanded action and signs from God in our darkest hours. We have lamented with the best of them . . . we have all had our moments of ungrateful faith.
Did you know that God has been sued in court at least twice?
One individual in 2005, in Romania, serving in prison for committing murder sued God--indirectly through the Romanian Orthodox Church, for having kept him away from evil and allowing the devil to encourage him to kill. He stated that God broke the binding contract of his baptism.
The other case happened a little closer to Montana . . . in Nebraska. State Senator Ernie Chambers sued God accusing the Almighty of basically bringing mayhem through “fearsome floods, horrendous hurricanes, terrifying tornadoes” and the like.
Both lawsuits were thrown out of court. The reason? Since God doesn’t have a legal address, the presiding judges argues, God can’t be summoned to appear in court.
Apparently God did not get God’s day in court.
So, if a person can’t take God to court to settle a grievance, what is a person to do but moan, groan, complain, and whine.
Consider the Israelites. Remember that these are a people who have been freed of their bondage . . . generations of bondage. They had known life only one way and that was the way that their captors told them. There was no freedom involved in their captivity. Suddenly they are freed . . . liberty is theirs . . . they are no longer under the rule of an oppressor. Freedom can be scary . . . even terrifying. Now they were on their own, being led by a God they could not see beyond a pillar of a smoky cloud and fire. Wandering in the desert in what seems like a mindless pattern. Things are not going so smoothly and old Egypt--even with its oppression--is beginning to look good.
The thirst tips the scale.
More often than not, there is a deeper cause for complaint. The Israelites need more than just water to sooth their physical thirst. They need the presence of God to sooth their spiritual thirst. They need to know God’s presence. They need to know God’s presence in their everyday lives . . . in the good and in the bad.
And, that is what God gives them. In an elaborate display of presence, Moses brings together the elders of Israel, takes them to a particular place, strikes it with the staff, and water comes flowing out. The miracle occurs . . . a revealing of God . . . a revelation. All miracles point to the presence of God.
In the end, Moses understood. Our scripture reading tells us that Moses named the watering rock “Meribah” and “Massah”. When the ancient Hebrews names a place, they were marking it as significant in their sacred geography. This was not about water, this was about the spiritual struggle “. . . because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’”
This was the root of their complaint. They needed to know. Their ungratefulness of faith was rooted in a fear of being separated from the God who provides.
So, do you have a complaint against God?
In not wanting to sound ungrateful, but wanting to express truth, I think that most of us have had our share of lamenting when it comes to God . . . especially in those times when life kicks us in the teeth. We all complain, even to God. But deep down, I do not think it is so much the complaint that is being stated that matters, but the underlying need to know that God is presence . . . constantly present in our lives. In the good, in the bad, and in everything that happens in between. We just want that reassurance.
We thirst for that reassurance.
During the season of Lent, we are called to step into the spiritual wilderness to assess our relationship with God. It can be a difficult journey as we wander through the wilderness confronting those barriers that block us from fully embracing God into our lives. It can be a time of great frustration . . . great disappointment. A time of great thirst. And, in our questioning . . . our lamenting . . . a time in which we wonder, is God among us or not? It is a time in which we need reassurance.
It is a journey we are to make if we are going to realize the radical freedom of being a child of God, of knowing that the God of both the wilderness and water has compassion enough for our questions. God can handle it. Surprisingly, over and over again, God keeps on showing up freely to stand before us. God is always waiting. Amen.