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. 2The 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?" 3But 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?" 4So Moses cried out to the Lord, "What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me." 5The 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. 6I 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. 7He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, "Is the Lord among us or not?"
(Note: We saw this reading earlier this year on the 3rd Sunday in Lent, March 23.)
As I was pondering this reading, I was enjoying a rare afternoon to sit in my backyard garden. It’s the first day off I’ve had in about a month. I decided while I was sitting here to water all the different plants in the hillside garden around the seating area where I like to work. I made sure to fill up the birdbaths while I was at it. Then I just turned on the hose and let it start running down the hill to water all the hostas, ferns, and other plants that dwell under the canopy of trees in our backyard. After about 10 minutes, suddenly there was great rejoicing in the Land of Birds, and dozens of sparrows, finches, chickadees, and wrens began to wing their way over to wash themselves in the birdbath and in the puddles of water on the ground. One of them even had the temerity to land on the empty birdfeeder, give me the stink eye, rap the base of the empty feeder sharply with its beak a couple times, and then flutter off in a huff, as if to say, “Get up off your duff, and get me some food, woman.” Never mind that I had generously turned on the hose, which is what had drawn these birds here in the first place. Never mind that I had graciously filled the bird bath and emptied of all the leaves and other junk that accumulated in it. This bird was not satisfied, and he was letting me know it. Meanwhile, a gang of sparrows promptly and joyously splashed out all the water I had placed in the birdbath, and one of them flew to a branch over my head and started to shrilly berate me to refill it.
Are these birds never satisfied?
And the answer is, NO. Once I started providing them with birdseed and water, they expect me to keep doing it. The nerve! That’s also the way it is when you help people, sometimes, too. There are some people in the world who, when you get into a relationship with them, it ends up being all about them. No matter how much you give them, they always want more. No matter how much you give them, they’re never grateful. They never seem to stop and think, ”Okay, that’s enough.” Some of those people we call ”babies,” and having one of those things basically means a lifetime of servitude to them (I’m kidding). They’re perfectly satisfied when all their needs are met—the problem is, that their needs don’t STAY met. Anyone was ever changed a filthy diaper, smiled into the angelic face of a six-month-old who has fought you every step of the way while you clean her up, and then watched her bat her eyelashes and coo blissfully and immediately fill that diaper right back up with a toxic substance probably banned by the Geneva Convention knows what I’m talking about.
The Israelites are the same way. Over and over again, they long for their days of slavery in Egypt over freedom in the wilderness. The more the going gets tough out in the Sinai peninsula, the more rosy their memories of their time in Egypt becomes. “Meh! The work wasn’t that hard! At least we had cucumbers!”
Forgotten is the groaning that they raised up to God—groaning so loud that God could not ignore it. Nope, just like infants, the minute their tummies grumble or their mouths get dry, they turn and bite the hand that feeds them. Last week we saw God provide them with meat and bread, manna and quail that fell from the sky, and all the Israelites had to do was go and pick it up. Today, it’s water—or, specifically, the perceived lack of it. Gripe, gripe, gripe. Complain, complain, complain. I think that’s one of the reasons why, although it did them very little credit, the ancient Israelites liked to tell this story on themselves-- one of the side purposes was probably to explain just why they complained so much, as all of us do.
Sometimes, we focus on what we don’t have instead of what we do. Here are the Israelites, freed from slavery in Egypt, moaning about how their every need isn’t being taken care of while they are traveling back to their homeland. We are an unhappy, discontented, grumbling people at times. Our reading from Exodus today is one of an Old Testament genre called “murmuring stories.” These are stories in which the people “murmur”—in our text, it is rendered as “quarreled,” but it seems that misses the flavor. “Murmuring against” someone is so much more suggestive of that tendency we all have to mutter just audibly enough to be heard, that passive-aggressive tactic that allows one to later deny that she has said anything at all. Murmuring of this type is filled with negativity, ingratitude, a simmering resentment. Freedom includes responsibility to look at our situation with clear eyes. And the first step is to be glad that we are free.
In Exodus 16, we hear the first mention of the conveniently named “Wilderness of Sin,” which is also called the “wilderness of Zin” in Numbers, as well as “Wilderness of Sinai.” Wilderness of Sinai has an entirely different feeling, however—in English, a “wilderness of sin” elicits a metaphorical response: who hasn’t felt lost in a wilderness of sin? The concept of wilderness also creates images of chaos, bleakness, desolation. Wilderness is where Jesus goes to be tempted and to encounter Satan, but it’s also a place where one can be alone and encounter God, as when Moses discovered the burning bush. The “Wilderness of Sin” will make three appearances named as such in the Torah: In Exodus 16, Exodus 17, and Numbers 33. We also see Moses using his staff, as he did when he turned the Nile into blood, and when he turned that staff itself into a snake before the Pharaoh as signs of God’s power and might.
A parallel version of this story appears in Numbers 20:1-13, but has an entirely different spin, since it appears as though Moses and Aaron make it sound as if they themselves, are the ones who make the water come out of the rock, rather than the “holiness of God.” In the Numbers version, afterwards, God then punishes Moses and Aaron by declaring that they will not get to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.
Meribah means “strife,” or “contention,” and Massah means “test.” Moses names this place Massah and Meribah because the people are demonstrating a lack of trust in God—and if you know scripture, this certainly won’t be the last time, either.
There is a lesson here for all of us. The people have been in the wilderness for about two months, and they are wondering where that “land flowing with milk and honey” is. But more immediately, they need water, and supplies are getting low. Even though they have come so far, the people question the commitment of God to provide for them, to care for them in this most basic need. But that saying “It’s always darkest before the dawn” really does have some truth behind it. Rather than focus on how we feel deprived, or lash out in fear when we feel uncertain, we can remind ourselves of the blessing of being one people, united by a common calling and a common identity, our common love of God, who has freed us so that we can love God through our own choice.