Readings: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; John 4:5-42
You can’t imagine how thirsty I was that evening – how thirsty we all were.
We’d been walking all day in the sun and the wind with hardly a pause. We were all parched and the children were crying.
Not for the first time, I couldn’t help wondering whether Moses really knew what he was doing.
OK, so life hadn’t been that great in Egypt but at least you always knew where your next meal was coming from. The work was hard, that’s true, but it got a whole load worse when Moses came on the scene – antagonised the Egyptians so they took it out on us. We cried out to God for help, for an easier life.
And then Moses has this great idea of leaving. And once it looked like enough of us were going to go, well we couldn’t very well stay could we? Didn’t feel like it would be very safe, just a few of us Hebrews left in amongst all those Egyptians. And what if they’d still expected us to fulfil the brick quotas with most of the workforce gone? So we had to go along with Moses.
But it was just one disaster after another, Moses clearly making it up as he went along. First of all the Nile. Well of COURSE there was a river in our way. What had he been thinking? Oh, and there was an army chasing us, so we got to choose between drowning or being massacred.
Well, at the last minute Moses got away with that – turned out there was a kind of marshy drier bit we could get across, being on foot, and the Egyptian army missed the way or were too heavy with all their horses or something and they drowned. Something like that anyway, I couldn’t really see what was happening. Anyway, we escaped by the skin of our teeth.
But then there we were in the wilderness. No water of course. Or at least there was but it was undrinkable – it was like Moses wanted us all dead. In the end he found some kind of wood that you can throw in and it makes the water drinkable after all. Desertcraft some people said – but his fancy desertcraft didn’t stop us getting hungry. But it was like Moses didn’t even notice – we always had to tell him what was wrong, tell him we were hungry, force him into doing something about it. In fact that time he didn’t lift a finger – we were just lucky to find some flaky stuff all over the ground the next day which it turned out we could eat – not exactly a varied diet but it kept the wolf from the door.
So there we were again on that evening, without water. It was just typical that Moses told us to camp where there wasn’t a spring for miles around. Moses is always going on about God leading us, God providing for us – but in that case how come we were in the middle of the wilderness AGAIN with not a drop to drink? I don’t think God’s with us at all. Don’t think God cares.
Although I must admit I did wonder whether God was with us, just for a while that evening. Against all the odds Moses was wandering around, so furious he was just kicking things and hitting rocks with his stick (well, that’s what I’ve heard, I wasn’t actually there) and as if by magic one of the rocks kind of split open a bit and water came gushing out, clear and cool and delicious and - well, we were all there like a shot as you can imagine and so Moses got away with it for another day.
Well, I hope you both recognised and didn’t recognise this story. Of course it culminates in the passage from Exodus 17 we’ve just had read, but it also presents a rather different version of the earlier chapters of Exodus. This is the Exodus story retold from the perspective of someone who longs for a comfortable life, who isn’t really up for radical change, who rewrites the past to justify their bad behaviour or at least to suit their current perspective – and who doesn’t like being hungry or thirsty, especially at the end of a long tiring day.
Which is probably why I found it so easy to get into character. This is me all over.
Or maybe there was something about the Israelites’ predicament that drew me in. They are on the move, travelling away from the settled and familiar (if, in their case, also nightmarish) but they are far from arriving, indeed they don’t really know where they are heading or how long it will take them to get there. Perhaps that sounds familiar… And in this kind of inbetween maybe it is easier to behave badly, to allow each fresh setback to pitch us into despair, to blame others and fail to notice what we have contributed to a problem or could contribute to resolving it.
In one way, or course, the Israelites’ concern is perfectly reasonable. Water is a basic human need.
But look at the way they react. They are straight into scapegoating-the-leader mode, refusing to share responsibility for taking sensible action as well as rewriting the story of their journey so far. "Give us water to drink," they say to Moses “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?"
One of the things I really appreciate about sharing in leadership in this church is that, whatever may flit through people’s minds from time to time in private, I don’t think I have ever been given the message that I – or I and my fellow elders – carry sole responsibility for resolving difficult situations or sole blame for things that go wrong. I think we can hope that if a few WGMC-ers had been around, they might have been saying to Moses, “we’re all very thirsty, what shall we do about it?” rather than demanding that Moses sort it out.
However, it’s not just scapegoating the leader and shirking responsibility that are the issue here. It’s also the way the Israelites rewrite the story of the Exodus in two ways. Firstly it’s not God’s gracious rescue of them from slavery, forced labour and persecution, in response to their cries of despair and distress, but Moses’ pet project. And secondly although they were happy enough to ask God to intervene back when they were in slavery, now they have escaped they question God’s faithfulness: "Is the Lord among us or not?"
And rewriting the story and forgetting God’s faithfulness are a temptation for all of us – or perhaps I just think they are because they are a temptation for me.
So, finally to arrive at some T words (following Chris’s challenge to give this sermon a title beginning with T to match Veronica’s sermon on temptation and Chris’s on transfiguration and transformation), I think this passage brings us some reminders about trusting God and telling the truth.
Since leaving Egypt, the Israelites had already three times experienced God’s intervention at a time of crisis: as they needed to cross the Nile to escape the Egyptian army, when there was no drinking water and when there was no food. Yet they couldn’t trust God in this new crisis… To pick up an idea from Chris’s sermon last week, it seems they’d experienced the potentially transfiguring moment without being transformed by it.
Last Sunday Jane encouraged us to remember times of transition and uncertainty and look there for signs of God’s presence and provision. I suspect that this is a good habit to cultivate – remembering God’s promises and provision not only in the bible but also in our own lives and drawing encouragement to trust God in new uncertainty.
And I think we should ask God – and perhaps, more scarily, each other – to keep us accountable for trying to be honest in how we tell our stories and the story of the church. There’s a temptation to tell the story in a way that makes us look reasonably good or at least justifies our weaknesses and failures.
Lesley touched on this in her sermon 18 months ago on the phrase from the Lord’s prayer, “forgive us our sins”. She talked about the way we all construct an internal narrative about ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with that; as Lesley says, it’s essential to our sense of identity, but here’s the risk: “we want to be the hero of the tale, so we explain things to ourselves in a way that shows ourselves in the best light. We do not believe we are sinful. We make excuses and justifications for our actions.” Lesley pointed out that for a murderer at a Parole Board one of the criteria for early release is “whether the person admits the crime, is remorseful and empathises with the victims”.
That made me wonder, if I was facing a Parole Board, would I pass the test of truly taking responsibility for what I’ve done over the years, the mistakes and cruelties, the cowardices and the lazinesses? Or would I tell it in a neat little self-justifying narrative?
And as we think about the future of the church and the choices that have brought us to this point, can we tell the story honestly? Can we recognise our shortcomings, personal or corporate, and acknowledge where others including God may have been right or wise or gracious while we were wrong or foolish or ungracious?
So if Exodus 17 reminds us to trust God and tell the truth, what about Psalm 95, presumably chosen by lectionary compilers for its apparent reference to the Exodus passage. Indeed it appears to retell that story. It rejoices at God’s care for his people as a shepherd dependable as a rock. But then it pulls itself up short – “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”. Well, that is clearly good advice which the narrator of my first few minutes would have done well to heed and which the writer of Hebrews underlines: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”
But listen to the next bit. “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. For forty years I loathed that generation and said, "They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they do not regard my ways." Therefore in my anger I swore, "They shall not enter my rest."
In our Exodus passage God doesn’t complain about the people’s lack of trust but just instructs Moses on find water from a rock. The people complain, Moses turns to God in frustration and God responds graciously and generously to human need.
The psalmist though knows how this pattern was repeated again and again in the Israelites wilderness wanderings and how, in two incidents in the book of Numbers (14 & 20) God does lose patience and warns that, as punishment first for the people and then for Moses and Aaron too, only two trusting and hopeful spies will still be alive by the time the Israelites make it into the promised land.
But it’s interesting that in retelling the story the psalmist is rather harder on the Israelites than God was at the time and shows God running out of patience much earlier than we see in Exodus and Numbers.
And there, I think, is another risk for us as we construct our narratives – sometimes we are much less gracious than God is. I think there’s a challenge here for us as we continue in uncertainty and enter a period of thinking about the church’s calling which will surely in part at least grow out of its story: while seeking to tell the story honestly, let’s also try to learn God’s graciousness with our personal and corporate failings. Let’s not be harder on ourselves, on others or on the church than God is.
Let’s turn finally to John chapter 4 with its rich resonance with the other two passages so resonantly through the theme of water and longed for refreshment.
In John 2, Jesus has been at the wedding of Cana where noone really gets his miracle with water and wine, much though the guests appreciate the fine wine, and then at the temple where noone really gets what his Father’s house is for, and then he’s had the night time conversation with Nicodemus who doesn’t really get what Jesus means by being born again.
And then in John 4 he finally meets someone who does get it. Admittedly it takes a while, but the Samaritan woman gets there. Maybe it’s the surprise of Jesus talking to someone who by being both female and Samaritan is doubly out of bounds for a Jewish man to talk to or maybe it’s the inspired twists and turns of conversation –but something brings the woman to a strong suspicion that she has just met the Messiah.
And just look at the change in her. We’re often told that the reason the woman has come to the well in the hot middle of the day and apparently alone, rather than in the cool of the morning or evening with the other women, is that she is a social outcast, probably connected in some way with the number of husbands she’s had. Maybe her husbands have divorced her because she’s been unfaithful (or just a bad cook?!) and the other women despise her for this – or maybe they’ve divorced her because she hasn’t been able to produce a child for any of them and her infertility hangs about her like bad luck or her grief makes her uncomfortable company.
Anyway, whatever the reason, she arrives outcast and alone and yet – and here’s a bit I’d never noticed or questioned before - somehow finds herself able – and indeed eager – to rush back to the village and talk to everyone, to tell everyone all about Jesus. And not only that, they listen, and rush out to meet Jesus for themselves. So the outcast apparently becomes reintegrated into society, accepted and even respected.