Mar 12, 2023
Third Sunday in Lent
Text: Exodus 17:1-7
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
On this third week in Lent, as our focus on the Old Testament readings continue, we begin in the wilderness of Sin (Seen). Note that it is not “sin”, as it is spelled in English, although the story may cause us to wonder if it should be. We ended last week with the election of Abraham and Sarah as the ancestors of God’s chosen people. Now we have jumped ahead 500 years to just a few weeks after the people of Israel were freed from slavery in Egypt in that watershed event called the Exodus.
They are just beginning what commentator Stan Mast calls “the great wilderness of in-between, between being released from bondage and possession of the promised land.” And they are faced with a crisis. God has led them into a campsite with no water. (Even non-campers know that is foolish, unless gallons of water have been lugged along for the trip, which evidently is not the case for the people of Israel.) I said that God has led them there because we read that they journeyed as the Lord commanded.
Given their location, it fast becomes a desperate situation. After all, in optimal circumstances, it takes only a few days without water to face death, and a desert certainly is not optimal. All those children, the livestock and adults are quickly thirsty, agitated, and afraid. They did what they have done before; they blame Moses.
Now, consider that for a moment. Think of all that God has done for them in recent weeks, not only bringing them out of Egypt and through the Red Sea, protecting them from the pursuit if the Egyptian army, but also providing food. In the previous chapter they cried out using the same bitter question as is in today’s text: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with hunger?” Then, God provided them with manna and quail in abundance. But they seem to have forgotten all that in their thirst. They cry out, “Give us water to drink!”
Did you notice that their anguish is directed toward Moses, not God? Some scholars say that is how they “put God to the test”, not with their whining, but by forgetting God entirely in the crisis. They did not even trust God enough to pray. So, testing God’s patience with their grumbling was not so much the problem, it was that they doubt or deny that God is with them at all. Moses summarizes the people’s “test” of God with a single question: “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Commentator Mast writes that it is as if they are asking, “How will we know if he is here? We won’t/can’t believe in the presence of God unless he gives us water. He has to pass the test of giving us what we want/need, or we won’t believe God is with us, among us, for us.” (1)
In the end, God passed their test, but they did not pass God’s test of them. They get water after Moses followed God’s directive and struck the rock at Horeb. Indeed, they get water, but not because they trusted God. “It was not Moses who gave the water (or the manna or the parting of the Red Sea). It was Yahweh who is always present with his people, even in the wilderness of In-Between,” writes Professor Mast. (2)
Here is something interesting – in the Old Testament we are always reading about places being given a name. The place of Jacob’s dream is Bethel, or God’s House; the place where a ram is provided so Abraham does not have to sacrifice his own son, Isaac, is called Yahweh Yirah or the Lord Provides. But, in this case the name Moses gives to the place where water gushes from a rock is not God Refreshes, but Massah and Meribah, which means Quarreling and Testing. Their lack of trust is memorialized until this day.
We may sympathize with them. On a very practical level, if you have ever run out of water while hiking on a hot day, you know how desperate that can feel. Dehydration causes the body to set off all types of alarms. The feeling of panic and weakness may become so intense that you are willing to ask anyone who comes along if you can have a drink of their water, or you may even drink from a nearby water source, not knowing if it’s clean enough to do so safely. I’ve twice been on the brink of doing both of those things, once I was surrounded by trees and plants, and the other time I was in a desert; both situations were upsetting, but the desert was overwhelming.
However, we also may sympathize with the people of Israel not because we are actually thirsty, but because we know what if feels like to be an the end of our rope, wondering where God is; asking, “Do I matter to God? Does God see me?”
Let’s take one more look at the story. God tells Moses to walk past the people (the ones angry at him), to take some of the elders (no doubt as witnesses), to use the tool – the staff – which God had endued with power previously and to head for the rock of Horeb. God tells Moses, “I will be standing there in front of you….”
As one commentator noted, it is as if God is saying, “I am taking my stand on the rock that will give you life, because you need my presence in your life. I brought you out of Egypt to myself. You think you need water? You need me!” (3)
As we’ve seen, there are many possible “take aways” in these seven verses. The message may be, “Don’t be like them!”, as some commentators suggest, and as Psalm 95:7-9 confirms: “For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. O that today you would listen to his voice! Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your ancestors tested me and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.”
Or, to quote John Piper, “When God brings you into a waterless encampment, and you see the wilderness stretching out in every direction with no way out, don’t be like Israel! Trust him. Trust him!” (4)
But I think there is a message that has to be remembered first. God will be standing there in front of you … even when you’ve forgotten that is the case and neglected to ask for help. Therefore, TRUST! Amen
- “Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7” by Stan Mast, September 27, 2020, www.cepreaching.org
- Same as #2
- “Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7” by Scott Hoezee, March 12, 2023, www.cepreaching.org
- “Water from the Rock for Undeserving People” by John Piper, Exodus 17:1-7, August 7, 2022, www.desiringgod.org