(Lectionary for March 19, 2017)
The Lenten journey often wants us to head to the wilderness, whether that be in some remote spot in the desert or among the canyons of the big city; after all, wildernesses come in all shapes and sizes, and they are to be found among the rocks and animals of the wild well as places within our innermost selves. This peculiar text regularly appears in Lent, I assume because it is set in a wilderness, and it involves a passel of complaining folk like us.
Of course, there are other big problems with this ancient story. It is filled with magic and a host of unbelievable bits: magic sticks and water from bare rocks are two. Still, after the wonders of the Sea of Reeds, these tricks do seem like pretty small beer. Yet tricks they are, and we progressive students of the Enlightenment are simply not having it. Would that we had a magic stick or two to solve the world’s growing problems with a lack of clean water! Would that we could actually coax some of that water from the desert’s rocks after a whiny demand of YHWH! Come on, God! Hand the water over, so that your people, all of them, might drink! Abracadabra! Poof, and out flows the liquid we crave and need! Hardly! This tale of legerdemain is just foolish pipe dreams in the world we know. Just as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens and their militantly atheist crowd keep crowing: “The Bible is only a primitive book filled with fairy tales and nasty stories about death and slaughter. Why pay attention to any of it now in our world of science and fact?” Why, indeed? If we are asked to believe that magic man Moses actually produced water from a desert stone with the help of YHWH in order that we may be judged as appropriately religious, then count me out. Sign me up for the Harris atheists today!
However, I trust we know by now that the value of these sorts of ancient tales is hardly to be found in their factual truth or falsehood. That binary choice is so ridiculous that we could hope that we would not have to waste breath on such a thing anymore, however much cash Harris et al have reaped from their straw man religious assaults. If you are offended by that statement, then you have my permission to stop reading now and return to the Middle Ages where you belong. This text, nonetheless, remains worth our attention, because it does, as so much of the Bible continues to do, raise up for us things about us that need a searching look. Today in this brief essay I want to focus on one of those.
The Israelite escapees from the rigors of slavery in Egypt now find themselves facing something even more rigorous, namely a blasted desert which appears to them endless and is made especially fearsome because of a complete lack of water. Naturally, and immediately, they ask their leader, “Give us water to drink” (Ex. 17:2). Though the writer of the story prefaces their demand with the negative word “quarreled” (or “contended” perhaps more simply “fought”), the fact remains that they are thirsty, and they need water to survive the anvil of the desert that they are now trudging through. Moses just as quickly argues that their “quarrel” with him is unjust somehow, and he accuses them of “testing” YHWH (Ex. 17:2). The two words, “quarrel” and “test,” are the leitmotifs of the tale, and they are used as ways of suggesting the lack of trust on the part of the newly minted people of YHWH.
Still, one can hardly blame them. Their cry is heartfelt and anguished; “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us with our children and livestock with thirst” (Ex. 17:3)? Escaping pharaoh and his chariots is one thing, but parched tongues and tiny swollen bellies is something else. Quite fairly, we would agree, freedom is grand, but the freedom to die a horrible death by thirst is not the freedom they, or anyone, had in mind. And Moses, if you will pardon the expression, is caught between a rock and a hard place. “What am I to do with this people,” he whines to YHWH; “they are about ready to stone me” (Ex. 17:4)? From that prayer comes the magic trick that we mentioned above, and the act that makes the tale memorable.
Yet it is not the trick that does it for me. It is rather that last sentence that haunts: “Is YHWH among us or not” (Ex. 17:7)? Is that not finally the question that we all ask in the end? Is God actually doing anything among us, or anywhere at all? That, I am convinced, is the central question that is in the hearts of all who find their way to church of a Sunday or to a synagogue of a Friday eve or a mosque of a Friday noon. Is YHWH or God or Allah, the one of many names, active, alive, or not?
Please note that the desert Israelites ask this pointed question after the water has gushed from the rock, after the waters have parted at the Sea, after the call of Abram from Mesopotamia, after YHWH has destroyed the world and promised never to do so again, despite the continuous nastiness of those whom God made for it, and after YHWH made it all in the first place. Yet, still they, and we, ask, is God among us or not?
It is a question we must continue to ask, for on the asking of and the answer to that question rests the very essence of our faith, whether it be Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, or any other faith that has a God at its center. At the end of the day, if one cannot answer that question with a resounding yes, there can be no faith worth the name. If God either is merely the creator, the deist originator of all, who has then retired to a well-earned rest for eternity, or if God remains far away in a many-splendored heaven, toting up the scores of an ever-sinning humanity, assigning eternal rewards and punishments accordingly, leaving us only with “our hands” to perform the contested demands of that mysterious being, then all of us are in deep doo-doo indeed. We need desperately to affirm that the God we proclaim is in some very tangible ways active among us now.
I grant readily that this affirmation is far from easy for us progressive types. It is far simpler and far more acceptable for us liberals to say, in effect, “Praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition, and we will all be free!” The ammunition in that old ditty need not be actual bullets and shells; it may be our good will, our ceaseless work, our demands for action. But if all we have is our hands, we are doomed. I have looked at my hands today, and they are old and weak, not nearly as rugged and ready as once they were. I imagine many of your hands are not dissimilar. All of our hands added together will never be enough to move our world to a place of wholeness and harmony. In short, if “God has no hands but our hands,” we might as well break out the booze and start dancing, because the jig of the world is up. God simply must be among us! We must affirm, as those desert Israelites apparently could not, that God has acted in the past, is acting now, even in our deserts, and will continue to act for us in the future. Is God among us or not? Yes, my friends, God is, without doubt, beyond question, absolutely! On such an affirmation one can build a life and remain in hope.