When you’re in the desert, finding water can be a problem. More than anything, you need water. And the fear of not having access to water can be an even greater problem.
In the bible, the need for water has a spiritual dimension. The psalms use that experience of deep thirst to describe what it is like to long for God:
O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you;
my soul is athirst for you.
My flesh also faints for you,
as in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water.
So would I gaze upon you in your holy place,
that I might behold your power and your glory.
In the story of Moses leading the children of Israel through the wilderness, water is a recurring theme. It began with babies being thrown into the River Nile, and the saving of Moses himself. Then the Israelites came through the water to safety while their enemies drowned. Then there are the stories of the need for water in the wilderness, and in our Sunday by Sunday cycle, we only get one of these – today’s story of the waters of Massah and Meribah. In the first story, the Israelites camp at Marah, where there is water, but it tastes bitter, and Moses has to remedy this. Then they spend some time at Elim, where there are twelve springs, so water is plentiful.
In today’s story, they get to Rephidim and set up camp. But there is no water. And once again, they complain to Moses. We heard last week how given they were to moaning and mumbling. When other people moan, it can get to you. When you are the grumbler, I can only think you don’t realise what an impact it has on people around you. You are imposing your bad mood, your fear and anxiety on other people, and it makes them feel miserable too.
On this occasion, it got to Moses. On previous occasions, he had remained in control when the people complained to him and he was able to calm them down and talk to God and go back and reassure the people. But this time, Moses answers back and is quite short with them. The argument is hotting up, and Moses becomes fearful himself, afraid of what the Israelites might do to him. He comes before God with his fear: “They are almost ready to stone me”, he says.
The Israelites have already forgotten to trust in God, who brought them out of Egypt, who led them safely over the water, who gave them food and water over and over again. God is with them, all the time, present with them, leading them. They are so quick to put it out of mind. And what is worse, is that Moses has lost faith. God always has an answer. God can always provide a way forward. But for a moment, Moses has forgotten this.
God tells Moses to go back alongside the people, to walk with them, to listen to them, to hear their deeper concerns and their inner fears.
Sometimes when people grumble at you about one thing, it is really because they’ve just been through something difficult and that is the real problem, not the focus of their moaning. It’s not always easy to get to the real issue.
Moses himself has to learn to trust in God once again. It is a constant lesson for all of us, to give our worries to God and let God take the strain.
The people were thirsty. Of course they were. We all need water every day. But they were spiritually thirsty too. They needed God, and they couldn’t recognise the presence of God with them, even when God was that close to them. With spiritual thirst, the first thing is to recognise it, and to tell God about it – like in the Psalm:
As the deer longs for the water brooks,
so longs my soul for you, O God.
My soul is athirst for God, even for the living God.
Then God will help you quench your thirst. God will give you opportunities where you experience God and help you deepen your experience of knowing him and loving him.
In our story in the desert, God tells Moses to take his walking stick and strike the rock. Which he does, and water flows out of the rock, so that everyone can drink. The problem is sorted, water is provided. God can make things happen in the most unlikely of places; God provides solutions that are utterly unimaginable to us.
The story was told over and over again among the Iraelites and people reflected on it and saw new things in it, and saw their own lives reflected in it.
In the book of Wisdom, for example, there is a reflection on this story. The water flowing from the flinty rock is like wisdom that nourishes those who seek knowledge of God, and shows how God provides water for our souls. The poem says this:
When they were thirsty, they called upon you,
and water was given them out of flinty rock,
and from hard stone a remedy for their thirst.
The incident was seen as a test, God testing Moses and the Israelites, as a way of showing them their lack of faith and their need to be dependent on God. And God tests us, to remind us that of our own need for faith and trust in God. When we learn from our experiences, we grow in wisdom.
Moses was regarded as having cracked up under the test. Later in the story, God reminds Moses of this incident, and God tells him that he won’t be allowed into the Promised Land because of what happened at Meribah. Moses is allowed to see the Promised Land, but not to cross over into it.
For us today, the story challenges us to think about our own thirst for God, our own longing. And to recognise that and offer it in prayer. Because God will meet that thirst. Even when our souls are flinty rocks, God can bring forth fresh water.
And when we are celebrating harvest, the story is a reminder of the necessity of clean water for all people in all parts of the world. As a church, we have long supported Water Aid, which helps to give people access to clean water. So we are putting out a special collecting bowl today and next week for Water Aid and I would invite you to remember those who suffer because of the lack of water.