Passage: Exodus 17: 1-7
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 and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
I’ve been asked to reflect a bit on our time as a community of faith during this global emergency with the coronavirus; and it calls to mind the season of Lent in which we find ourselves. Like last year, I’ll be using passages from the Common Lectionary, which most mainline Protestant churches employ for their scripture readings during each season of the liturgical (worship) year. I’ll utilize these biblical passages, because assuredly I would quickly run out of any personal wisdom I might have to add pertaining to this crisis, thinking it much wiser to draw my thoughts from a much deeper source of wisdom. Since we are just now realizing how life-changing this world-wide sickness will be, I thought I should just pick right up with this reading from the third week of Lent, one that definitely reveals the difficulties of the people of God.
Our passage today is taken from one of the stories most central to the Old Testament, the Exodus. Having finally been freed from the hard heart of Pharaoh, the people of Israel must pass through the desert to reach the homeland which God had promised them, “a land flowing with milk and honey”. Now in the midst of the wilderness, the people of Israel have started to argue and groan about their hardships, previously hunger, now in our story, thirst. Moses even assigns this location two names “Massah” (deriving from quarrel) and “Meribah” (originating from complain) to attest to the people’s contentious nature.
Yahweh’s people are out wandering in the “wilderness of Sin”— just the name generates a powerful image. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst,” they press Moses. Remember, Egypt – where they had been living in suffering and servitude under the thumb of the Pharaoh? They do seem to have quickly forgotten the miserable existence they had been experiencing. I guess their thinking is that at least it was an evil they were familiar with. Or perhaps their first experience of freedom and deliverance at the Red Sea gave them the wrong impression, that life under Yahweh’s leadership was going to proceed from victory to victory, a time of constant “milk and honey”.
And here we are all wandering in our own wilderness, far from the places familiar to us, far from a way of going about our lives that is in any way recognizable. Some of us may be in difficult financial situations, with the effects of the pandemic crushing the part of the economy on which our jobs depend. My daughter had to lay off around twenty employees today – twenty real persons with lives and families of their own – because the activity at her place of business has all but stopped during this crisis. Others of us are lonely, as the present predicament keeps us housebound, without the support and comfort we typically gain from friends at church and work. My Dad who lives in an assisted living center in Tennessee, is not just quarantined at his location, but has now been asked to stay in his apartment and have his meals delivered there. And all of us are anxious that life as we know it has been threatened in a real and undeniable way, with no certainty when the situation will be rectified. Some of us may be wondering like the children of Israel complained above, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
A repetitive theme appears throughout this entire narrative of the Israelites’ journey to the Promised Land. The people encounter difficulties. God is faithful and provides comfort and assistance. The people are briefly happy. Then they encounter another problem, and the people forget all that God has done for them. They experience consternation and frustration at each obstacle, complaining their lives are too hard. It would be easy to laugh and poke fun at the people of Israel, if it weren’t for the fact that they so resemble folks very close to us. Certainly not ourselves, of course.
Perhaps we are wondering about God’s presence during this time of difficulty for us and the life of our church community at Zoar. Weren’t matters already challenging enough with our diminishing size and financial struggles? Considering all this, I am reminded of the first few lines from a helpful book I read years ago, The Road Less Travelled, by M. Scott Peck. “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this, … we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult — once we truly understand and accept it — then life is no longer as difficult.” Those of us who are more seasoned (i.e. older) can no longer deny the truth that life is hard and brings challenges and sorrow to us all, no matter how we approach it.
While not immune from the struggles all are facing during this grim and trying time, we don’t have to let our concerns overwhelm us. As those of faith, we know in Whom our security lies. We don’t have to become cynical or live without hope. If we attend to these hardships with a “faith memory”, with the ability to recall the history of God’s ongoing presence in our lives, we find that much can be gained, much learning can be gleaned, while undergoing these difficult times. Sustained by our continued relationship with the One who is always constant, faith provides us a way through rather than just a way out.
This time of struggle in the wilderness was not simply a learning experience for the people of Israel. The relationship of trust in God built through Israel’s forty years of struggle, became central to their identity, to their faith history, as a community of believers, beyond those years of testing. God did not immediately deliver His people out of their troubles. He sustained his people through their times of trial. On the far end of trying times with my own health and living through a divorce, interpreted through the eyes of my faith, I find that I have discovered much more about myself. More significantly, my faith is stronger, having developed new compacities for understanding, gratitude, and compassion. The faith in Christ, through which I searched and found great comfort during those times, is now more central to every part of my life.
As we consider our responses to this crisis, both as individuals and as a community of faith, let us remember our own faith histories, our own stories of how Christ has been present in the joys and challenges of our lives. Let us continue to conduct our days in ways that befit this faith relationship that has sustained us. Let us continue to reach out – by phone, email, pen and paper, and by whatever other means we discover possible – to embrace our church family and to aid those who need our help. In doing so, I believe we will find Christ present in our actions, present for others, present for ourselves. And isn’t that what we are looking for in our time of need?
Prayer: Patient Lord, why is it that our first impulse is to complain rather than to trust in you, when adversity blocks our way forward and threatens to drive out the joy in our living? Help us to remember the history of our life together and depend on your continued faithfulness; and in so doing will our bond with you grow ever stronger. Amen