By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
March 12, 2023
Exodus 17:1–7 (ESV)
1 All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And 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 grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” 4 So Moses cried to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 And the Lord said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Is the Lord among us or not? Such words many of us have asked. We may have asked them throughout these past few years. We might have uttered such words in the past months, or possibly even this very day. Is the Lord among us or not?
As I sat down to write this week, my mind stopped in this place. I wrote those words and stopped. I even opened up a new document to retype those words thinking that maybe if I just retyped them I could move forward. I did this three times. I do this because I am a very honest person. I would love to say that I sense the presence of God every moment of every day, but that would be a complete lie. I do not sense God’s presence all the time. There are moments where I wonder. I remember during my childhood I would climb a tree in our yard and would sit in the branches wondering. And if the sunset was particularly weird casting a red tint to the earth around me, I would sit in that tree in tears wondering why I was left behind. There is a reason I do not like eschatology, and that is the main reason. I was so worried about being left behind that at times I forgot to actually live.
I might be too honest as a pastor. I admit that I do not know a lot. I admit that if you ask me a question, chances are very high that I will not have an answer that you would find profound. I admit that most of the time I struggle through life wondering what the point is. Some might find this unsettling, but I am ok with who I am. I do not know but I have always been curious. That is probably why I would climb the tree and cry when the sky was red because I figured my curiosity killed the proverbial cat. But through the years my curiosity has deepened my faith. I ask questions, and I believe that God does provide answers. The answers that I receive at times are odd and most would not understand because usually the answers tend to be “does it really matter?” I am ok with that answer. It tells me that maybe in all my seeking and searching, in all of my curiosity I have missed the point.
I have been a pastor for twenty years, thirteen of those years have been right here at Willow Creek. In those twenty years it has been rare for me to speak out of the Old Testament. I do not know why that has been the case. I have read the books, I have studied them, but there is so much history and connections that weave throughout that I have always found it too difficult for me to stay on point. But my mind is curious. I have questions and I am completely happy just reading about various passages that I have come across in scripture. I can spend hours reading why translators used one phrase instead of another. I find it fascinating when people I respect can look at the same passage and see completely different things, which scares some people but for me it just gets me going.
And then I come to this passage. It is a story I know well; I should be able to just write something down in my sleep, but instead of writing my mind seems to get stuck. “All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according the to the commandment of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.”
They were moving from the wilderness of sin. I have read about this place countless times in my life. I know that this is a desert they cross early in the Exodus. When we think of Exodus most of us think of the calling of Moses, the Plagues of Egypt, and the crossing of the Red Sea. We then know that they travel for forty years and God does some things, but we do not really worry about it from there. But these places they visit and what they do in those places have interesting stories.
They cross the Sea and they go into the Wilderness of Shur, and they go three days into this wilderness and they find no water until they come to Marah. There is water at Marah but they cannot drink that water because it is bitter. The people grumble against Moses, “what shall we drink?” Which is a perfectly good question when it comes to traveling in the wilderness. This wilderness of Shur is mentioned a few times in scripture. When Hagar flees with her son Ishmael it is toward Shur they are running, and it Shur is often referred as the western boundary to which Israel’s battles are fought. I find this interesting because Shur can be translated wall, but archaeologists have never found any ancient fortifications east of the Nile and west of Sinai. But it can also be translated as a verb meaning to watch. Which would suggest that this might be considered the Wilderness of The Watchers.
This gets my mind racing. The Watchers are a mythical group of spiritual beings in Hebrew literature that are believed to be the Sons of God that married the daughters of Men that prompted God, out of dismay, to flood the earth. And the offspring of these unions were known as the men of renown or the Nephilim, or giants. In many ancient near eastern religions they refer to these men of renown as the gods or the founders of their societies. In ancient Greece the Watchers could be the Titan and the Nephilim the god of Olympus. In Babylon, whose founders came from the land of the Hittites in southern Turkey, Gilgamesh their first king, and the one that survived the Mesopotamian flood epic, was a believed to be a demigod, or hybrid child of a deity and human union. Do you understand why my mind races? The tribes of Israel are walking across the wilderness of the Watchers, and the water is bitter. And they grumble. They grumble because they are walking through this wasteland, a land they once believed to be the dwelling place of divine beings, a land that they believed should have been filled with all the water imaginable, and instead of hope they find bitterness. Marah. Yet God is with them in this place. He tells Moses to throw a log into the water and that log transforms the bitter pool into water sweet to drink. And after they drank of the waters of Marah, God said to them, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, your Healer.”
They leave the Wilderness of Shur and they enter the Wilderness of Sin. In this wilderness between Elim and Sinai, they face another trial and they again begin to grumble. “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” In the wilderness of sin, God commanded Aaron to speak to the people, and after Aaron spoke they looked over the wilderness, and the cloud of God’s presence appeared. And Moses was commanded to speak for God, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” That evening God provided for Israel’s hunger. Quail covered the camp as the sun began to set, and as the dew in the morning lifted the wilderness was covered with flakes, which later became known as Manna. God provided meat and bread in the Wilderness of Sin. And for the next forty years the tribes of Israel ate of the bread of heaven.
Now they are leaving the wilderness of Sin, and they travel deeper into the deserts. They came to Rephidim. They have their quail and their manna, but there is no water. I grew up in the dry lands of Kansas, I might identify with these Wilderness wanderings more than I should, because I know that water is life. We protect water, we terrace our land to catch as much water as possible and to direct excess water to what we call waterways, which are large grassy areas that will slow the water down and prevent soil erosion and filter as many chemicals and sediment as possible before it enters streams and rivers. We build these things to protect the water and the soil, because it is water that provides for our life and lifestyle. God lead Israel out of the Wilderness of sin to a place where water was not available. And Israel quarreled with Moses and grumbled against God. “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”
This is not mere complaining but conflict. Moses says to God, “they are almost ready to stone me.” Water is more important than food, because all living things require water. One could make a case for the rule of three here. An average human could survive three weeks without food, three days without water, and three minutes without air. I do not wish to put this to the test, but it is significant. Water is important. We need water to maintain our health. If I ever had a health concern the first thing my grandmother would do is give me a glass of water. I will not tell you the second step to her cure-alls, but water was always number one. Israel is without water and it is getting serious. Wars have been fought over sources of water. Even today near the center of most geopolitical conflicts access to water is present within the conflict.
Moses in fear, cries out to God. And in this instance, something interesting happens. In the Wilderness of Sin, the cloud of the presence came when Aaron spoke. Here God tells Moses “I will stand before you there on the rock.” Moses and the elders of the tribes walked away from the crowds for all to see. They climbed up upon the rocks before them and the people saw the presence of the Lord in front of them upon the mountain. And when they saw the Lord on the rock, Moses struck the rock with the staff he used in Egypt, and water began to pour out. Moses and Israel knew that place no longer as Rephidim, but as Massah and Meribah.
Israel travels through the wilderness. They move symbolically through their own history, through the wilderness of Shur, or the Watchers. And they face a trial, will we trust God or turn to back to the kingdoms of men? They trust God and they move deeper into the wilderness, into the wilderness of Sin. The wilderness of Sin. In Numbers this is called Zin not Sin, and some people argue about that, but I find it interesting that here it is Sin. They grumble again. And as they move beyond the trials of sin, they face their greatest struggle.
We are in the season of Lent. The time of year many Christian traditions participate in fasts as they join with Jesus in the Wilderness where He was tested and tempted by the devil. This is why it became difficult for me to write this week. My mind is ricocheting from Genesis to the Gospels and from Revelation to the Garden. And in my mind, I stand with Israel in this moment asking myself, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
We are all traveling through a wilderness. We all face struggles. Some of us have struggles thrust upon us from outside, and others face struggles from within. I do not want us to focus on which struggles are most important or where to place the blame. A struggle is a struggle, and for each of us that struggle is monumental. We are in the wilderness.
Then my mind took another squirrel moment and I began to think about the seasons. Lent is near the end of winter. Winter is a wilderness. Winter is dark, bleak, and cold. We love the first part of winter because we have Christmas, but winter remains for two months beyond Christmas. CS Lewis wrote of Narnia, “It was always winter but never Christmas,” when the land of Narnia was under the spell of the White Witch. I see this as the time after Christmas when winter continues. It is a yearning for the light in the darkness, a hope for Spring. Lewis purists will probably argue with me on that but I think it is appropriate, because all of Narnia is walking through the despair of Winter looking toward the thaw that never seems to come.
Lent is a journey through the wilderness. It is that final sprint through the end of winter to the emergence of life beyond the dark days of despair. “Is the Lord among us or not?” Is it always winter but never Christmas? Jesus in the wilderness, and we are there with him. The author of Hebrews tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to hemp in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16) Jesus knows the struggles we face. He knows hunger, sorrow, and betrayal. He knows what it feels like to be misunderstood and misrepresented. He knows the joys of plenty and the suffering of want. He knows injustice and acceptance.
Israel walking through the Wilderness of Shur, Sin, and Meribah the presence of God was with them. Jesus, God Incarnate became Israel. He became the light to the nations, and through him the reconciliation of all that was lost. Jesus was in the wilderness. He was there with Israel and he is here with us. Though we may be in a place of testing and quarreling, of Massah and Meribah, he is near. In our time of questions and despair he hears our voice and he stands upon the rock before us telling us, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’”
Through the Wilderness of Shur and Sin Israel walked. Hungering and thirsting. Questioning and seeking. They struggled with the ideologies of the kingdoms of men and the hope of the Kingdom of God. But they had to choose. Will we follow? Will we believe? We may not walk the same path but we too wander through the wilderness and face similar trials. We walk individually and together as a community. We walk. But as we walk Is the Lord among us or not?
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