May 19, 2013
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?”
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)
The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”
Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
It has been a long journey—longer for some of us than for others. I’ve been traveling for just over twenty-eight years, which to some may seem like a short weekend trip, but to the children gathered for Sunday school, I assure you, it is a very large number.
However many years we each may claim to have been journeying in this physical human form, I imagine that we all share a common experience of every now and again—for a second, sometimes longer than a second—feeling that, no matter how far we may have come or how long we’ve been at it, we haven’t gone anywhere. Something happens, a perspective shifts, we lose a job or start smoking again or resume doing something we thought we had gotten past, or we become vulnerable, needy, anxious, fearful, or angry at ourselves or the people in our lives or the world. All of a sudden we look at ourselves and think, “I’m supposed to be a grown up? I’m supposed to have “it” or at least something figured out? I’m not growing at all! I haven’t learned anything! It’s not worth it.”
This is what the Israelites are feeling in today’s passage from Exodus—as if they have not gotten anywhere.
Forget that Moses had lead them out of Egypt, out of slavery and bondage; that God has parted the Red Sea, protecting them from the Egyptian army in hot pursuit; that when they had cried out in hunger God had provided manna, and when they had asked for meat he had given quail from heaven; that when they had earlier cried out in thirst, unable to drink the bitter waters at Marah, the Lord had made the water sweet. This story of the Israelites crying out once more comes after all of that. After all of these blessings, after all that God has done for them, they find themselves thirsty once more, and instead of trusting that God will provide—the God that had cared for them every step of the way—they again cry out: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” In their moment of need they reconsider every step they have taken so far. They question where God is leading them and wonder whether they would not have been better off remaining in the state of bondage they were in before.
At this place called Massah and Meribah, the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying,”Is the LORD among us or not?” Massah means “trial, test or proof” and Meribah means “contention or quarrel.” The Israelites quarrel with Moses, not believing that God will provide. They want proof. They want to know that the Lord is still with them. They don’t care that the Lord has provided for them every day before today; they need proof today. Today is a new day. They are experiencing a new thirst. After all, just because God was there for you yesterday, why should you believe that God will be there for you tomorrow?
This feeling can be so real. It is amazing how shortsighted we can become when things go wrong. We become so absorbed by our thirst that we cannot think or feel or remember anything else. In an instant, we feel totally and completely abandoned.
This past Friday, the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle caught my attention. It was an article on the proposal to put up a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge. It is believed by many whose loved ones have jumped from the bridge that such an act is impulsive. They believe that if their loved one had had just one moment to think about it, he or she would not have committed suicide.
The most compelling testimony came from a man who had actually survived the jump and suffered a broken back. He spoke of the impulsive nature of his decision and said that if there had been a barrier he would not have jumped—that all he really needed in that moment was someone to talk to.
The subject of suicide, as painful and difficult as it is to grapple with and talk about, describes the power a single moment has to totally engulf our sense of gratitude, purpose, meaning and especially hopefulness. In a single moment, like the Israelites, we can slip into a belief that God has abandoned us, and that we will never make it to the Promised Land.
But God does not, cannot, and will not abandon us. If for a second God were to abandon us, Emanuel Swedenborg tells us, we would cease to exist. Our very existence depends on the constant inflow of love from God. God is Love and God is our very life.
This is the great benefit of the scriptures—that they contain the stories of the Israelites’ journey, a story that Swedenborgians believe contains a picture or a template for each of our personal journeys. We are lucky enough to be able to read the story from start to finish. We get to read Exodus 17, we get to read of the Israelites’ thirst and murmurings, we get to hear them question whether God is with them or not—but then we get to read on.
We read on and hear that Moses pleads with the Lord on behalf of the people, and that the Lord responds by bringing fresh, gushing waters from the rock. In the Swedenborgian tradition, both rocks and water symbolize truth. But rocks (especially the large boulder we assume the rock of Horeb to be) stand for those large, heavy, strong, immovable, often straightforward, but foundational truths that we hold. “God is love.” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Life has meaning.”
It is for the sake of these foundational truths that the Lord leads Moses to bring water to the people, and it is to these basic foundational truths that we must now go when we fall into the false belief that we have been abandoned by God. We cry out, we complain, we ask for proof that God is there, and we are led to the rock. We try to remember those foundational truths, which perhaps we had forgotten. We meditate on them and what they mean for us. We repeat them.
And God will be standing there. God will lead us, like Moses, to strike the rock, and refreshing waters or refreshing insights will flow forth. From the foundational truths that we had forgotten about or taken for granted will flow forth the useful truth we thirst for and need—the truth that applies to our situations, answers to the questions that have brought us to this place of abandonment and solitude. When we feel abandoned and we take the step of talking to someone, this is what they help us to do. “It will be all right.” “God is present.” “Just hold on and have faith.” “I’ve been there, too.” “You are not alone.”
We help each other to see the rocks in our lives, the boulders that are always present, that cannot be washed away. This is what brings us to spiritual community, to friendships, to scripture. I feel this way. Oh, and sometimes you do too? And the Israelites too? We are part of a community that stretches across the globe, throughout time, and into the spiritual world. This grand community has seen temptation and trial, has been on the desert journey time and time again.
We have grown and will continue to grow unto eternity. We have gotten somewhere. We will at times feel abandoned, but we will hold to what we know to be true, and we will be given drink. Ultimately we will be given the drink that Jesus offers to the Samaritan woman at the well when he says, “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Rev. Sage Currie