Text: Exodus 17:1-7
“One hundred hours. That’s the oft-cited statistic for how long a human body can typically survive at ‘average’ temperatures without access to water.” (Anathea Portier-Young, Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7)
I had never heard of Flint, Michigan until 2014. Probably most of us never had. But in 2014 the town of Flint, Michigan became headline news when the drinking water source for the city of Flint was changed from Detroit to the Flint River in an effort to save money. Residents immediately began to complain about the smell, taste, and appearance of the water. They raised health concerns, reporting rashes, hair loss, and other problems. Officials would eventually reveal that due to insufficient water treatment over 100,000 residents in Flint were potentially exposed to high levels of lead in the drinking water. From the youngest to the oldest, Flint residents were being sickened by the water they drank, bathed in, cooked with, and used for cleaning. A federal state of emergency was declared in January of 2016 and Flint residents were instructed to use only bottled or filtered water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bathing.
Today, nearly 1 billion people in the developing world don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water. In places like sub-Saharan Africa, time lost gathering water and suffering from water-borne diseases is limiting people’s quality of life. Education is lost to sickness. Economic development is lost while people merely try to survive.
Three days ago, the news headlines declared, “Drinking water crisis grips Puerto Rico in wake of Maria.” In an interview on September 27, NPR’s Greg Allen reported that…the greatest need [in Puerto Rico] is clean, running water. His segment began: “At a government center in the town of Toa Baja, several people crowded yesterday around a spigot delivering a trickle of water. It was a friendly crowd, with everyone taking turns filling five-gallon jugs, bottles, and buckets with something most people take for granted, clean water.” He continues, “Wanda Ferrer says she can live without power, but what she really needs is water.”
Droughts in Somalia. Water rationing in Rome. Flooding in Jakarta and Harvey-battered Houston. One hundred hours without water and life becomes unsustainable.
Today on this World Communion Sunday it is appropriate for us to raise our awareness of our brothers and sisters around the globe and here in our own country who do not have access to clean, safe drinking water. Like the Israelites journeying through the wilderness, physical thirst still exists for many in our world.
Our lectionary text begins with the Israelites journeying through the wilderness experiencing the harshness and devastation that comes with no water source. To understand their situation and context, it is helpful to know something about the physical location of this story. “Today the Sinai Peninsula averages 82° Fahrenheit in May and 91°F in June. For those same months, average high temperatures are 95°F and 104°F respectively. In such extreme heat and with exposure to sun, the timeline for survival shortens considerably. Exertion—such as walking long distances in the day time, carrying one’s belongings, tents, and small children, and wrangling livestock along the way—shortens the timeline even further…One long, day’s march on an unusually, but not impossibly, hot, June day was all it would take to finish God’s people. Because they had no water.” (Anathea Portier-Young, Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7)
This is the context for the quarreling and complaining of the Israelites in Exodus 17. It is the reason that they are ready to stone Moses, their leader. Thirst, physical thirst—dying from lack of water thirst—is what prompts, once again the Israelites to ask the most basic, fundamental question of faith, “Is God with us or not?” It is not the first time the Israelites had been without food and/or water in their wilderness sojourn. At least three times before the people had cried out for the basics to sustain life. And now, around the campsite in Rephidim they cry out again: “Give us water to drink.” “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” “Is God with us or not?”
It could be easy at this point to pass judgment on the Israelites. As I said, this is not the first time they have found themselves in a dire situation—needing food and water. But if we look back on the other times when they felt desperate for the things that sustain life, food and water, we see that God’s response was always one of generosity. Manna and quail rained down from heaven. Sweet water came out of rocks and trees. But now, again, forgetting the past the cry out: Has God forgotten us?
I get it. I’m no different from those folks sitting around that campfire at Rephidim. It doesn’t matter how many times before God has provided, the fundamental question of faith is always, “Is God with us in the present or not?” Is God with the people in Puerto Rico right now? Is God with those who have lost everything in Houston, Texas? Is God with the woman and child in Africa who still in 2017 walk miles every day to get water? Is God with the child hiding in secret with his parents, fearful that ICE will find them and deport his father and/or mother and leave him parentless? Is God with the man and woman sleeping on the street here in Raleigh, North Carolina and in Matanzas, Cuba? Is God with the father who lost his job and has no savings but has three children depending on him? Is God with the transgender teenager who is bullied every day she goes to school? Is God with the couple whose marriage is struggling or the elderly woman who can’t remember her sons name or that the picture hanging on her wall is of her husband not a stranger? Is God with depressed and lonely? Is God with the millions who don’t have adequate healthcare? Does God hear the cries of the mother who prays without ceasing for her child who is lost to addiction? Is God with us or not? It is a fundamental question of faith that the faithful have asked since the beginning.
I asked the people attending lectionary group on Wednesday what evidence they could point to that says that God is with us. Here are some of their responses:
- I believe in God but I don’t expect anything from God.
- I don’t expect but I do trust. I see evidence.
- My friend Jane—I see evidence of God in my friend Jane.
- Our mere existence is evidence.
- In moments of synchronicity, I know God is present.
- Evidence is seen through faith.
As you can see, this question of God’s presence with us is an arduous and multilayered question inviting at best tenuous responses. We hesitate to say that God is not with us. And yet, as we see the suffering in our world, we wonder, “Where is this benevolent God who has promised to never leave us?”
In considering this basic, fundamental question of faith, “Is God with us or not?” there are several threads to pull out of this story of Moses and water from the rock that I think are relevant to our wilderness experiences in 2017. First, it is noteworthy that the people’s quarreling and testing and complaining is born of a stressful environment. Stress often creates an inability to remember what has been and to see what might be. Stressful environments can distort how we think and behave and problem solve. Like the Israelites in our text, we are living in a stressful environment.
Second, it seems from the story that when the people protested loudly, God responded. This story makes me wonder about our role as people of faith in quarreling with, complaining to, and questioning God in our moments of desperation and need. Dare we say that “the people of God work to shape God’s character just as God works to shape that of the people?” (Amy Erickson, Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7) It seems so in this story of water from the rock.
Last, a word of hope from this story. God chooses to bring water out of something that appears to be lifeless—a rock. It is one of the great themes of our faith: In unexpected ways, God finds ways to create and sustain life. In dead places, God calls out life. In hopeless places, God offers hope. In places of scarcity, God provides in generous abundance. Where hate longs to take root, God plants love.
Is God with us or not? That is the question the Israelites asked throughout their journey of faith. But today, I am wondering if, as God’s people, it is time for us to consider a different question for our times. Maybe the question that God’s people would do well to ask in 2017 is this: Are we willing to look for God in the unexpected places?
It’s easier to see God in the expected places. When the manna and quail are raining down from heaven, and the water from the rock is flowing with sweetness. But are we willing to look for God and see God in the unexpected places? In our complaining, our quarreling, and in our testing of God? Are we willing to look for God and see God in the unexpected places? In our conversations with people who hold different views from ours? Are we willing to look for God and see God in Black Lives Matter protests, or in disruptions at the general assembly? Are we willing to look for God and see God when our hearts are breaking and the ground beneath us is shifting and crumbling? Or in the faces of men and women experiencing homelessness? Or as our founder, John T. Pullen did, in the pool halls and beer joints and houses of ill repute?
Our faith, if anything, is a story of God being among us. And our story as people of this God and faith is whether or not we can see God among us. May we be a people who sees God when life is certain and when life is uncertain.
May we be a people willing to look for God in the unexpected places!