Exodus 17: Go to the Rock

Exodus 17:1-7: The whole Israelite community broke camp and set out from the Sin desert to continue their journey, as the Lord commanded. They set up their camp at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people argued with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” 

Moses said to them, “Why are you arguing with me? Why are you testing the Lord?”

But the people were very thirsty for water there, and they complained to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?”  So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What should I do with this people? They are getting ready to stone me.”

The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of Israel’s elders with you. Take in your hand the shepherd’s rod that you used to strike the Nile River, and go.  I’ll be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Hit the rock. Water will come out of it, and the people will be able to drink.” Moses did so while Israel’s elders watched. He called the place Massah[a] and Meribah,[b] because the Israelites argued with and tested the Lord, asking, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”

Go to the Rock

“Is the Lord really with us or not?” “Is the Lord really with us or not?” Why did you bring us all the way from Egypt to let us die of thirst in this desert? At least in Egypt, we had water. At least in Egypt, we weren’t so thirsty. At least in Egypt, we knew what tomorrow would hold. At least in Egypt, we weren’t so thirsty.

Is the Lord really with us or not? What kind of question is this anyway? How can the Israelites doubt that the Lord is with them? Wasn’t it this same Lord who heard the cries of the Israelites in Egypt, who knew their suffering? Wasn’t it this same Lord who called Moses and Aaron to lead the people out of Egypt, to confront the powerful Pharaoh? Wasn’t it this same God who spared Israel during the outpouring of the plagues upon Egypt? Wasn’t it this same God, who parted the waters of the Red Sea, creating walls the separated the water from the earth? And wasn’t it this same God who fed them in the wilderness with quail and manna every single day, until each person had enough to eat? And yet, they complain, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”

For hundreds of years, Israelites told these stories to their children. These stories were passed down from family to family, generation to generation, narrated in campfire circles and to children at bedtime. When someone finally wrote it down, you’d think that they might have given their ancestors a bit of break on this one. Sure, maybe they would’ve told the truth about what happened with manna, how the Israelites grumbled to Moses about having no food because they’re stomachs grumbled to loudly to ignore. “But then,” the would story would go, “by the time they were thirsty, they knew that the Lord would provide… they demonstrated great faith that the Lord was with them in the desert! They were only thirsty for a moment before God split open the rock and living water poured out until their cups overflowed.”

But no, that’s not the story they give us. They are hard on their ancestors. They tell how it is. The elders who sat and wrote down these stories understood something about our bodies, who we are and how we work. After all the generations these stories passed through, they tell the truth about how quickly we forget, about how quickly we complain, about how quickly we grow thirsty, about how much we need water.

It doesn’t take long, does it. By the end of this sermon, I will no doubt feel thirsty, not from walking on hard dusty ground in the heat of the day, but just from speaking with you. Most of us wake up in the morning needing a drink. Our bodies depend on water. We cannot live without it. Thirst, then, doesn’t happen only one time. When the Israelites panicked that they had no water, they weren’t only thinking of the present moment. They knew what was coming! We need water to live! Without water, we will die! Even if we have water for today, we will need water again tomorrow! We can drink until we are satisfied, only to know that we will eventually be thirsty for more.

“Is the Lord really with us or not?” I’m confident these thirsty Israelites weren’t the first people to ask this question and they certainly aren’t the last. “Is the Lord really with us or not?”

The gospel of John tells a story about a woman who gave up on this question all together. She moved beyond wondering if the Lord was really with her, so confident God had forgotten her that she gave up wondering at all. Born a Samaritan into a world that valued other bodies as better than her body: male bodies, Jewish bodies, even married bodies. Even after encountering Jesus, she still leaves their conversation without a name, numbered as one of many, simply called, “Samaritan woman.” She too, was thirsty. Most believe that her shame led her to drink water in the heat of the day, when no one else would be at the rocky well, when she could get a drink alone, without experiencing the stigma and stares of others. When she came to get a drink, Jesus was also at the well, thirsty himself and in need of rest and water from the long journey through Samaria.

Jesus, seeing the Samaritan woman says to her, “Give me some water to drink.” Looking around and confirming that he couldn’t be speaking to anyone else, she asks Jesus, “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” In a kind of cryptic message, the way Jesus often speaks, he responds to her, “If you recognized God’s gift and who is saying to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would be asking him and he would give you living water.”

Later in John, Jesus says to the crowds, “All who are thirsty should come to me! All who believe in me should drink! As the scriptures said concerning me,[a]  Rivers of living water will flow out from within him.”

The Israelites aren’t alone. The Samaritan woman isn’t alone. They aren’t the only community and she’s not the only person who has found themselves in the desert…that have painfully swallowed with dry mouths and chapped lips. We are thirsty people. We need water to survive. But that’s not all we need. We also thirst longingly for the answer to the question, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”

The Israelites complaint for water sends Moses to the only one who can satisfy, the only one who can meet this need. Moses turns to God, “What should I do with these people? How can I satisfy their thirst? I’ve looked around, I’ve checked far and wide, turned the house upsidedown, looked under the seats of the car, at the bottle of every bottle, I’ve even looked for dew on the ground and under the lids of jars and there is no water to be found. Where do we go for water? Is the Lord really with us or not?

The Lord answers Moses, “Go to the rock. Go to the rock. Take your shepherd’s staff that’s been with you from the beginning. Go to the rock. When you hit the rock, water will come out of it so that people can drink.” And when the water comes out, they will get a taste, an answer to their thirst and an answer to the question.”

The Israelites who wrote down this story and allowed the ancestors to look like desperate complainers who doubted God and tested God, they were onto something. They knew that we are thirsty people. Jesus knew also. All who are thirsty, come! All who believe in me, drink this living water! We are desperate to feel God’s presence, to be bathed in the water of the Spirit, to know that this is not all there is, to feel a sense of belonging to the One who is greater than I. We can only make it so long in the desert, so long wandering from one trial to the next, without a drink.

And yet, Jesus also says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Notice with me: not blessed are those who are righteous, but those who thirst for righteousness. Not blessed are those who are righteous, but those who thirst for righteousness.   Blessed are those who thirst for relationship with God, to know God, to see God.

I wonder, “Does Jesus want us to keep wanting?” Does Jesus want us to keep thirsting? Many faithful followers of Jesus throughout history have never claimed their thirst was quenched, never fully satisfied. You know that moment when you quench your thirst, when you sigh with relief when your throat is at ease once again, that’s the opposite of how many of God’s children have described the life of faith. They describe wanting more, being satisfied at times, while knowing they will be thirsty again.

The Psalmist writes, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul longs after you.” One early Christian writer, Gregory of Nyssa, describes how God gives us a taste of God’s presence and a glimpse of God’s beauty, only to draw us forward again, wanting more and more. Each time we thirst for water or for God and taste, we have only more desire, more longing. Mother Teresa, the famous saint of Calcutta who devoted her life to the poorest of poor, describes great pain she experienced thirsting after God, without feeling like her thirst was clenched. Since she didn’t experience her own thirst going away, she devoted her life to what she described as satiating the thirst of Christ. On the cross, Jesus himself cried out, “I thirst.” Mother Teresa, then, in each act of kindness and devotion to those around her, worked to satisfy Christ’s own thirst evidenced in the poorest of poor. Unable for her own thirst to go away, she devoted herself to quenching the thirst of Christ in other people. Another Christian writer at the turn of the 20th century, A.W. Tozer put it like this: “Oh God, I have tasted thy goodness and it has both satisfied me and made me thirsty for more.”

In the desert, in this desert, in the hospital bed, in the hours of sleepless nights, in the valley of the shadow of death, in the overwhelming work load, in the suffering and wondering and doubting and questioning, in the painful, throat swelling, dry mouthed thirst of the wilderness, we cry, “Is God really with me or not?” And we hear that prompting of the Lord in the desert, “Go to the rock. Go to the rock.”

What will be waiting for you at the rock? Will the water gush out, bursting forth, covering you from head to toe with God’s presence, drenching you in hope, cleansing you from the dust that’s caked to your feet and renewing you for a new day, a new hour, a new moment basking in the presence of God?

What will be waiting for you at the rock? Will the water drip slowly, quenching your thirst for but a moment, giving you just a glimpse of God’s spirit? Will it be so hard to get the water from the rock, that you’ll have to bend down, get underneath that dripping water to try and catch a drop? Will it be just enough for you to know, if only for a moment, that God is really with you? Will it be just enough to satisfy you for this hour, but keep you coming back for more?

What will be waiting for you at the rock? What if it seems like the water has run out, like there isn’t a drop left, the way that Mother Teresa described? What then? We follow her example. She still goes to the rock, over and over again, not to get water quench her own thirst, but to relieve the thirst of God’s other children.

What will be waiting for you at the rock? Is the Lord really with us or not? The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead to the rock. Take your shepherd’s rod. I will be standing there.”


This post was adapted from our sermon series on Interpreting Exodus.  Pastor Megan preached this sermon at Butner Federal Prison complex on August 30, 2015.

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