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Exodus 17

Exodus 17:1-7


17:1 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.


17:2 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?"


17:3 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?"


17:4 So Moses cried out to the LORD, "What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me."


17:5 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. 17:6 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.


7:7 He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, "Is the LORD among us or not?"



95:8 Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, 95:9 when your ancestors tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.  95:10 For forty years I loathed that generation and said, "They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they do not regard my ways." 95:11 Therefore in my anger I swore, "They shall not enter my rest."



5:3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,

5:4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5:5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.


Body and Soul, Bound Together


I’ve never been desperately thirsty. 


I have been extremely thirsty, like those summer days working the freight cars parked on a siding on Railroad Avenue in Greenwich CT, cement bags, tile piping, and, worst of all, lumber.  On the way to Maher Bros. construction supply to unload we’d stop to slake our thirst at a candy store.  I’d down a couple of twelve ounce bottles of Pepsi in less than two minutes; then onward for more toil and sweat.  But desperate thirst, afraid there would be no liquid to supply my need?  No, never.  Thank God!  (More on this exclamation later).


The Jewish escapees from Pharaoh’s Egypt, however, are desperately thirsty.  Moses has led them into the Sinai desert without, so they assume, provision for their bodily needs.  And the need for water is the most keenly felt of all bodily needs.  Unless the prophet is running his own motor on a private stash of H2O, it is hard to understand why he seems to think his tribe’s clamoring for water is unfaithfulness.  Didn’t Jesus on the cross murmur among his last words, “I thirst”?  In remembrance (see Psalm 95:7) if not in the moment the Israelites clamoring for “water, water, cool clear water” (think song, not Bible), this thirst rebellion becomes the reason for making the wanderers wander for another thirty-nine years in the wilderness, until the generation dies off.  I thought the reasons for the forty year sentence were more numerous, especially the idolatrous cows of gold. 


Religions, including Christianity, generally take a dim view of indulging our thirsts, whether for booze, Pepsi, or any other craving for which that word is a metaphor.  Mr. Wesley, spiritual founder of Methodism, included in his questions of candidates for ordination this one: “Will you abstain from the use of tobacco and any other indulgence which will injure your ministry?”  Someone told me - probably erroneously, though it has the ring of truth, that bishops in North Carolina, where tobacco was king, omitted this question.  It’s the Puritan reflex, that if something is pleasurable, it must be sinful.  It’s an impulse behind asceticism, whether Simeon Stylites, the Hindu fakir, or the Lenten faster: to think to free the spirit by disciplining the body. 


They say you shouldn’t knock it if you haven’t tried it… and I haven’t, tried it, asceticism that is. I enjoy my creature comforts too much.  I know it’s a failing.  In France where the wine flows generously, I had a chance on a river boat on the Seine to learn to love vin; but I kept ordering soda pop.  When the Oscar for Best Picture delays arrival toward midnight, I am already in bed.  If the raspberry turnover at the supermarket screams “Buy me, eat me,” I am quick to take it out of its misery.  Had I been in the Sinai desert with Moses, I would have joined the crowd demanding his impeachment.  Steady comforts, familiar patterns, that’s me.


Which makes me first in line at Rephidim, where and when Moses strikes the rock and the artesian well shoots out its stream of cool clear water. 


And I’d do it with little sense of shame!  Let me explain.  It’s the way God made me, needing injections of nourishment at regular intervals.   Which is why, I’ve long supposed, Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  It’s the second petition in the Lord’s Prayer, mind you, right after the first and more sublime, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  The body’s needs may be second to the soul’s, but filling our hunger (or slaking our thirst) is definitely not an afterthought.  And never to be despised… as if life in the body was slumming for the spirit.  And that other Scripture many of us have memorized, Psalm 23, doesn’t it begin with the affirmation, no the certainty, that our shepherd will supply our need?


Instead of denying the body its needs (and making a big deal out of our self-discipline), our energies are better employed giving thanks to God our Creator and, to the point, our Provider.


So what’s the real problem for Moses and the Lord with the thirsty tribe in the desert?  Simply put: a lack of trust… which one of my seminary published classmates identifies as a lack of faith.  The children of Israel in the wilderness are behaving like children in the mini-van heading out for a family long motor trip.  “Are we there yet?” they demand to know five minutes after leaving. Insufficient patience.  Inability to get the big picture… and to endure the minor, and sometimes major, inconveniences arising along the way to the destination. 


On our journey, in life as in Lent, we are distracted and, with the nagging of our needs, forget the big picture, that our time here is sacred and deserves our full attention.  We have plenty of companionship in our loss of focus. As at the very beginning of the Christian era: within days of the raising of the cross on Golgotha Jesus’ closest friends, the disciples, whom he seeks to prepare for the struggle ahead with repeated explanations of the necessity of his death, they thought about everything else but the one thing they should have thought about.  Talk about children in the minivan! 


Like an admonition from the parent in the driver’s seat, this story from Exodus addresses our insistence on our needs telling us that, for God’s sake, hold on, take in the sights, entertain each other, but above everything else, keep in mind the mission.  For Israel in the desert the mission is to lead the world to know the greatness and the graciousness of the Lord (YHWH). For those of us who come after, in the footsteps of a Galilean rabbi, the mission is to be the agents by which the kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven.  A little thirst, or even a big one, should not be allowed to get in the way.   


Jesus, of course, has a more gracious way to correct misplaced cravings, with the assurance, citing the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, that God will provide. 

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