Rev. Caroline Barnett
What Happens in the Wilderness
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 these 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 and Meribah, because the Israelites argued with and tested the Lord, asking, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”
Well, things have not gone according to plan.
Obviously, this statement could apply to a lot of things right now, but it’s the Israelites I’m talking about.
In the cliff notes version of the Exodus story, the one that gets made into movies, the big dramatic climax happens just a few chapters before to our text for today. The Israelites, having been freed from slavery by Moses, have one final challenge to face. They must cross the Red Sea, escaping the Egyptians once and for all. So God, through Moses, dramatically parts the waters in an award winning visual effect, making a way for the Israelites to cross. They reach the other side unscathed. Shouting and singing and dancing commences, and the Israelite people are free from their oppressors and on their way to the promised land.
Fade to black. Credits role and they all live happily ever after.
But that’s not the end of the story, and in a moment that could easily be overlooked, we return to the Israelite people, only to find that happily ever after is not so simple.
They have not made it to the promised land yet, and the wilderness— well, it poses some challenges.
It poses one in particular that threatens their lives: They can’t find any water. And so start to have— what I would consider— a fairly normal reaction. They get anxious. Their anxiety turns to worry, their worry turns to anger and frustration, anger turns to bickering and finally transforms into blame and mistrust.
Why did you do this? They ask Moses. Why bother leading us out here if we are just going to die? We might as well have stayed in Egypt.
Sure, it wasn’t great, but at least we knew where the water was.
This wilderness is a lot more difficult than they expected.
For them, the wilderness is not only a place where their survival is threatened, but where the rules of the game have changed.
In the story of the Israelite people’s journey to the Promised Land, the desert represents a transitional period— they go from enslaved people to free people. They go from laboring without any agency over their own lives to waking up each day and trying to figure which way to go.
The rules of their old world no longer apply, and while they may be making their way to something better, the time spent in the wilderness, searching for sustenance, growing more anxious with each day, doesn’t seem particularly pleasant.
This week has felt more like wilderness than I am comfortable with.
This wilderness is not a journey toward liberation. It’s not a transition from enslavement to freedom. But I think we all know something about the world changing quickly and feeling uncertain about the future.
What will happen to our community, to our university, to our country, to our world now that we are the midst of this pandemic?
What are the rules here? Do I need to stay home? Am I paranoid? Should I stock up on food? What is the best way to keep us all safe?
It feels as if we are in uncharted territory, where what we once knew is no longer adequate, and we don’t know how long we will be here.
The Israelites and their nostalgia for the way things were and their cries to God for help— none of it feels that foreign to me.
But even in the wilderness, God is with God’s people. God shows up for them, everyday. And God performs small miracles—certainly nothing compared to the parting of the Red Sea—but in this section of Exodus marked by wilderness, God provides food every day, and draws water from unexpected places. They Israelites ask and God responds.
It’s not a straightforward trajectory for their trust. They take missteps and fall back into habits of fear and paranoia when they build a golden idol, believing that it will bring security to them. But throughout the wilderness, the people voice their needs, and God responds.
And God responds in unexpected ways. The heavens don’t open up and pour rain. No river magically appears that will lead the way to the Promised Land. Instead, God draws water from an unlikely place— a rock. God creates life and hope through something seemingly barren.
This wilderness we find ourselves in— this global health crisis— it's probably going to get worse before it gets better. And when something threatens survival, we are all prone to act like the the Israelites in the wilderness— anxious, distrustful, and ready to lay blame at the feet of others.
But when God brings forth water, God offers the people hope that they will survive. It doesn’t save the day in some big way, but it makes the wilderness a little bit easier to bear.
When I first started writing this sermon, I thought we were the Israelites, and yes, we share some similarities, but as we discern how best to live in our own particular wilderness, perhaps God is calling us to be water springing forth from a rock.
As a church, maybe we can be God’s water. We, as a congregation, are not going to fix anything, but we can be a source of God’s hope and peace in a time marked by anxiety and worry.
We can be like water in the wilderness by staying informed and clear-headed, sharing verified facts, not rumors or hearsay.
We can be the water in the wilderness by taking care of those who are vulnerable around us, by practicing social distancing, and checking in with those who might need a little extra help.
We can be water by being kind and compassionate to all people— rather than give in to stereotypes about who we should consider a threat.
We can be water by speaking of hope and caution in equal measure. Allowing ourselves to feel the fear and anxiety inside us, but not losing sight of the greater needs of our community.
We can be water by being flexible and willing to change our routines and patterns as new information and plans arise.
This church is already doing just that. We have made changes to be more like water in the wilderness. At this time, we are creating a plan to continue pastoral care for one another. We are still gathered as God’s people, even if it looks different than what we usually do.
We are working on measures to ensure the safety of all people, and we are committed to practicing our trust and hope in God, even when it feels difficult.
How else can we be water in the wilderness?
The Exodus story would be a lot simpler of a narrative if we were to gloss over what happens in the wilderness. That movie versions of Exodus— such as the Ten Commandments or The Prince of Egypt— they don’t have it in there.
But what happens in the wilderness is a whole lot more reflective of the times we live in. The threat is not some villain like Pharaoh, but the basic struggle for a community to exist. It shows us the real tension that rises when people’s survival is in jeopardy, and there is not a big miracle that saves the day.
But it is also a story in which the Israelites practice trusting that God is with them, and that God listens to them. And it is a story in which God provides, even in ways we might not expect.
Thanks be to God. Amen.