Thirst and Longing When Water is Absent

Exodus 17:1-7 –The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?”

But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”

Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So, Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the place Massah and Meribahbecause the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Psalm 42: 1-2 —As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?

Revelation 21:6 — He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.

In the first two weeks of our Walking Wet series, we have looked at the watery chaos from which creation was birthed and at the life-giving waters of baptism.  This morning we turn to those times when there is a shortage or absence of water.  The setting of the Exodus passage is in a time of drought in the desert, and the images of flowers blooming in the desert are far, far away.  The arid land often suffered from a lack of water.  Droughts and thirst were common.  One thing the Israelites knew from experience was that when there is no water in the wilderness, people perish unless God intervenes.

In the fall of 2019 until mid-March 2020, our adult education class studied the Dead Sea Scrolls that were found in Israel in the mid-1940s. It was a fascinating study – somewhat detailed and laborious, but we stuck with it. What this study did for us was to make us aware of the difficulties of life in the desert near the Dead Sea. This is an area similar to Death Valley in the US. It is extremely arid and seldom rains. When it does rain it may be just a heavy thunderstorm and then it all disappears. Life for the Qumran community of Jews in the Dead Sea desert was extremely difficult and the absence of water would spell doom to them. As archeologists examined the area in the 1940s a fascinating discovery was made concerning water.  Show the two slides of an aqueduct and a cistern in the Qumran area. — one day while the archeologists were working, a quick thunderstorm came up and the flood waters were directed by the aqueduct into the cistern. The community had life giving waters. Human ingenuity at work!

The title of the Exodus story that we just read might well be “Thirsty People Behaving Badly.”  In Exodus 16, the people had behaved badly when God gave them food, manna from heaven.  In this chapter, they behave badly before God leads them to water.  It feels like it has been a very long time since they offered praises to God after God led them through the waters of the Red Sea, yet we shouldn’t forget that their miraculous deliverance from slavery and escape from Egypt form the backdrop against which this story is set.  God has been faithful to them at every turn, providing for every need along their journey.[1]

Chapter 17 captures the Israelites doing one of things they do best: complaining.  First, they complain to Moses whereupon Moses scolds them for testing God.  In fact, one of the significant features of this story is the way in which the people quarrel and put God to the test.  The Israelites are basically saying, “If God is here, where’s the water?” This testing makes their belief in God contingent upon a divine demonstration.  “It is, in essence, an attempt to turn faith into sight.” We tend to do that, don’t we? “Show us your presence God!”  

The Israelites are so angry over this latest wilderness challenge that they look back longingly at their years in Egyptian slavery, believing they were better off before Moses rescued them. Even though Moses might not survive a vote of confidence by the people, Moses clearly has God’s vote, and God continues to appoint Moses to lead the Israelites.

To deal with the current crisis, God tells Moses to gather the elders together and take his staff with him.  God assures the beleaguered leader, “I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb” (17:6).  Just as it is in countless places in scripture, we see that God is the initiator.  God promises to be present, to go before and in front of Moses.  God acts and the people respond. 

This is how the rhythm of life in the wilderness is intended to work, not only for Moses and the Hebrews, but also for us. It is a story that emphasizes God’s faithfulness in contrast to the unfaithfulness of the people.  It also underscores God’s choice to bless God’s creation even when creation does not deserve God’s blessing. The Israelites failed to remember this and often, we don’t either.  When the pressures of life come, we forget to ask God for help so that we can respond in faith rather than fear. Are we doing this now during the Covid-19 pandemic – responding in fear instead of faith?

A good many of the psalms were composed in the desert, when the psalmist was experiencing spiritual thirst.  In Psalm 42 the psalmist gives voice to the deepest longings of his heart, acknowledging that he cannot live apart from God.  To be physically thirsty in the desert is life-threatening.  The psalmist recognizes that his soul’s need for God is just as urgent, just as critical.  The thirst described by the psalmist is like the worst kind of homesickness.  Because we know that what we’re missing, we yearn for it all the more. We yearn not to have masks and social distancing. We yearn for the old days –we thirst for freedom. Yet we know that our world has significantly changed, and it will be years before we return to normal. We see so many people fighting and challenging common-sense reactions to the pandemic. We really do live in fear and our faith is waning!

One primary thirst that is missing during the pandemic is community. Once upon a time, we worshiped without fear of transmitting or receiving contagious viruses. We stood and sang at full strength. We shared our lives with others over dinner at The Gathering Table. We celebrated Holy Communion together. We prayed together and hugged each other. That has passed and we thirst for the return of community. Today, technology helps to bridge the gap, but it still doesn’t provide the complete sense of community.

In this room right now there are folks gasping in the wilderness emotionally or spiritually, and our generosity with a caring word can be for them like an oasis in the desert.  Some of us are stuck in a cycle of complaint.  We are focused on what isn’t going our way, what is hard, or which door has closed.  We need to remember God’s faithfulness, God’s gracious provision of all our needs.  We need to trust, rather than trying to turn faith into sight.

Some of us have some reckoning to do with what we really do thirst for.  The truth is, we’re so busy pursing the next goal, achieving the next task or just surviving the day that we’re not really in touch with how parched our souls and spirits really are.  We need to move to find a quiet place and sit a spell and listen to the still small voice of God.

Times in the wilderness like now are part and parcel of our human experience.  But even there, God provides us the life-giving water we need, because God gives us God’s very self which is the only thing that will truly satisfy a thirsty soul.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1] Paraphrased from Calvary Presbyterian Church M. Michelle Fincher September 22, 2019