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. 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?” 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?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 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. 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. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Last week, the primary First Lectionary Text of the day was from Exodus 16, detailing God’s provision of quail and manna for the Israelites to eat as they were led by Moses through the Wilderness. It’s a great reading, but it’s a bit long, and trying to be mindful of the length of the service, I opted for the shorter alternative text from Jonah. That Exodus reading was a lead-in to today’s First Reading where, although the Israelites now have food, while they’re en route to the place God had said to go, Moses had chosen a place to encamp that had no water – the most essential of requirements for life.
The story is full of tension and drama. For us English speakers, the drama is even more amplified by a coincidental play on words between the Hebrew and English – they’re in “the Wilderness of Sin;” I mean come on, you know something noteworthy is going to happen in this story.
And what happens is that as a group the Israelites, who have had problems with Moses’ leadership in the past, confront Moses about his choice of campsites. In fact, the Hebrew term here is “rib”, which is often used to denote filing a complaint, often in a legal or a judicial sense. In short, the people lodged a vote of no confidence in Moses, citing his incompetence and ineffectiveness.
Moses’ response was interesting, and completely human. First, his defenses up, he complains about the complaints and the complainers; that the charges are baseless and unfair. And then – importantly – he equates the people’s complaining about him with their complaining about God; equating his own leadership decisions with God’s. It’s unthinkable to test or challenge God, so now it’s unthinkable to challenge Moses. To do so would call into question the complainers’ goodness or loyalty as Israelites. This was Moses’ response to the mass of people challenging his leadership, even though in the passage, we never hear that God had picked this particular campsite, and we never hear the people actually challenging God at all, only Moses.
This story comes down to us in the Book of Exodus along with the author’s intended gloss, telling us at the tail end, in the last verse, what we’re supposed to think about it – that it’s an illustration of the Israelites being troublesome complainers, disloyal, even at times anti-God; a “stubborn and stiff-necked people” as it says elsewhere in the scriptures. But if I just read the actual words here, without that gloss, I don’t see faithlessness. I don’t see any challenge to God. I see a group of people who are dying of thirst, who are suffering, who are rightly upset and angry at Moses and his leadership – which, honestly, the scriptural record shows to be pretty spotty and even at times unacceptable to God.
And just looking at the words, it’s almost impossible, especially after this most difficult and newsworthy week here in Louisville, to not see parallels between the Israelites’ complaints against Moses, and Moses’ response to their complaints; and the anti-racism protestors’ complaints lodged against the city’s leadership, and their response to that challenge; that those complaining are just a bunch of complaining, disloyal troublemakers.
If the story stopped there, it could end up being just another depressing reminder of all the chaos and problems we’re all living through right now, especially in the wake of the grand jury decision regarding the killing of Breonna Taylor, but also in so many other ways beyond even that. But thanks be to God, this story doesn’t end there. In fact, out of all that trouble, two important, over-arching, hope-filled moments of grace and gospel, both for the ancient Israelites and for us, comes through in the end.
The first of these is that the Israelites’ complaints, and their discomforting of Moses, were actually heard. Simply put, the Israelites standing up and making themselves heard by the power over them got actual results. This fact, that people’s voices, working together, can work change, real change, great change, in the leadership over us, was hope-filled good news to those Israelites, and it’s every bit as good to us as well, whether we’re talking about seeking an anti-racist city and society, or we’re thinking more generally about the incredibly important election coming up in just over a month. There’s great hope in the fact that the Israelites were heard. If you’ve seen any video of protests coming out of downtown, or other cities, whether on the evening news, or online, maybe watching one of the “502livestreamers”, you might have heard an often used chant that makes this very same point, that ”There ain’t no power like the power of the people, ‘cause the power of the people won’t stop!”
Of course, we aren’t naïve. We’ve all been around the block more than a few times, and we all know that massed “people power” can be a force used for good or bad, and that actually brings me to the second, and most important, most hope-filled, most gospel, good news in this story. Moses goes to God for help, and interestingly, he ups the ante to God claiming that he was afraid that the people were about to stone him; he was afraid they were going to resort to violence – even though the people never said anything like that in the story. In God’s wisdom, God just sluffs off that comment, but then tells Moses “I’ll be there.” God commits to being present, and to bringing a solution to the people’s suffering. God says “Moses, you still have a part in this too; you’ve got to get your rear end out here to this rock, but I’ll be there, ready to make things happen. You go ahead and strike the rock with your staff, and I’ll make the waters flow. In this story, Moses was just an agent in God, the real power, the real authority, solving the people’s problem. It was God’s presence, and God’s ability, and God’s desire, that caused the life-giving water to flow from the rock – bringing forth water where there seemed to be no water; bringing forth hope where there seemed to be no hope; bringing forth goodness and life where there appeared to be none.
Right now, in any number of ways, it might seem like there’s little if any hope at all, whether we’re looking at larger social issues, or we’re just at our wit’s end about when our kids can get back to school in person. Or we can go back to work in person. Or back to church in person. Or when we’ll be able to see our relatives again in person. Or maybe it’s a lack of hope due to concerns about our health. Or our finances. Our a strained or broken relationship, among family or friends. Or something else; whatever it is that might be sapping our hope right now, know that God is just as present with you, with us, as was the case in this text. Know that through Christ, God was present, and is present, and remains present; as is able and willing to cause living waters to flow for us, too. God can, and will. We might not know how, or when, but God will. God will hear our voices. God will hear our prayers. God will hear our cries, see our tears; embrace our worries and know our fears; and will bring us out of our wilderness just as the Israelites were brought out of theirs. This is our great hope. This is our great joy. Because while the protestors are right about the power of the people, it’s even more true that there ain’t no power like the power of God, ‘cause the power of God won’t stop.
So hold on to the hope in this story. And don’t be afraid, don’t worry, if you never actually hear God say “I’ll be there;” it’s only because God already is.
Thanks be to God.