This message was offered at Wesley United Methodist Church (Culver, IN) on Sunday, March 23, 2014.
Gracious God, in the moments to come, give me the words to speak and they the ears to hear so that together, we might be inspired to speak and live your Word in the world starting today. Amen.
It wasn’t the first time.
They had complained, the first time, after just three days of travel in the desert (see Exodus 15:22-27). It had been three days since they had joyously celebrated the parting of the Red Sea and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army when they came to a place called Marah which literally means bitterness. It was an apt name for the water there was bitter and unfit to drink. So, the people complained to Moses: what will we drink? God instructed Moses how to make the water sweet and the people drank.
The second complaint session against God and Moses—we might call it “pastor bashing” today—was on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had left the land of Egypt. They had come to the desert of Sin (see Exodus 16). The people were hungry so they complained:
“Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt. There we could sit by the pots cooking meat and eat our fill of bread. Instead, you’ve brought us out into this [insert your favorite curse word or insult here] desert to starve this whole assembly to death.”
God provided quail and manna for the people. Interesting side note: manna means “what is it?” God provided the people bread to eat, but it wasn’t what they were accustomed to nor was it something they recognized. It was so different that they asked, what is it? and the name stuck: manna. At any rate, the Lord provided.
It was now the third time.
The people of Israel had just broken camp and were emerging from the Sin desert when the criticism reached new heights. The people were no longer complaining. Now they were arguing, demanding: “Give us water to drink [now. Don’t you know it’s your job to provide for us!]… Why did you bring us out of Egypt [?] to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?” The people were getting hostile, Moses feared for his life. God instructs Moses to take the other leaders. Note: he does not take the complainers. He goes ahead of the people with other leaders, strikes a rock and water gushed from it. The people drank. God provided. That place became known as Massah and Meribah—the place of testing and quarreling. The place where the Israelites asked, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”
Is the Lord really with us or not?
To those of us removed by millennia, it’s hard for us to imagine that the Israelites would ask such a question. These people had seen God work among them in amazing ways. Enslaved by Pharaoh, con-scripted to make bricks for a home that wasn’t their own, the people of Israel were led to freedom by a murderous fugitive who was called by God through a burning bush to lead God’s people into the promised land, the land God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. After God worked many signs and wonders through Moses—plagues that plighted the Egyptians, but left the Israelites unharmed—Pharaoh released the people. It’s a powerful story of God’s provision and care that the people, even though they had lived it, had forgotten.
After being released from Pharaoh’s oppressive rule, God led the people with a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. God’s presence was ever with them in a visible and tangible way; and, yet, they still questioned God’s presence among them.
They had danced in celebration the day that the waters parted and they fled Pharaoh’s army on dry land through the Red Sea; and, yet, they still questioned whether or not God cared.
It’s really quite remarkable that these people would question God’s provision even after God had provided “sweet” water at Marah and a supply of quail and manna as they entered into the wilderness (desert) of Sin.
It’s quite remarkable, really, to think that these people—a people who had seen God do many miraculous things to protect, to provide for and to care for them… It’s quite remarkable, really, that even they could fail to recognize the nearness of God’s presence and his eternal care. It’s quite remarkable until you realize where they’d been: a place of bitterness (Marah), a place of testing (Massah), a place of quarreling (Meribah)…a wilderness of sin.
We’re reminded, in our Scripture reading for today, just how short-sighted we can become when we put our own, immediate desires before God and others.
God had provided for the people in miraculous ways, but by focusing on their own desires—even though there may have been a legitimate need—they couldn’t recall all the ways God had already provided let alone rest assured that God would provide again.
When we spend all our time looking at ourselves, we fail to see God standing right in front of us. It doesn’t matter if God’s presence is made known in a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, it doesn’t matter that we’ve seen many miraculous signs and wonders, when we focus on ourselves—our own desires and our own wants instead of what God desires and what God wants—we’ll never see God at work and we’ll never sense his presence (not even if God’s standing right in front of us). In fact, we’ll find ourselves in Marah, Massah, and Meribah—we’ll find ourselves in a place of bitterness, testing, and quarreling. And, we—like the people of Israel—will ask: “Is the Lord really with us or not?”
God was with the people that day, even in the midst of their thirst, even in the midst of their anxiety about the future, even in the midst of their accusations and threats. God was with the people providing a way for all their thirsts to be satisfied, but they couldn’t see it.
Rather than accept the many previous signs of God’s presence and deliverance, they “hardened their hearts” (Psalm 95:8), and so let their hearts keep going astray (Psalm 95:10). Rather than openness to providence and possibility, they settled for quarrelsomeness (meribah in Hebrew, Exodus 17:7). Rather than “accepting the freedom and power” God gave (see baptismal vow 2), rather than “putting their whole trust in God’s grace” (see baptismal vow 3), they chose a way of self-preservation and conflict.
The woman at the well thus stands in stark contrast with the people at the mountain. The moment she heard of the possibility of “living water” from Jesus, she sought it, accepted it, welcomed it, and trusted Jesus to offer it. “Sir, give me this water, so I may never be thirsty.” By contrast, the people at the mountain continued to question whether Moses or even, perhaps, their God, had led them out of Egypt only to have them perish in the wilderness.
Is the Lord really with us or not?
The answer is an unequivocal, yes! Yes! The Lord really is with us. Yes, the Lord really does care and God will always provide for us. He may offer us “manna”–we may ask, what is it?–but God will always provide. We just need to turn our gaze from ourselves. All we have to do is stop the navel gazing, look up and, like the woman at the well, we’ll find Jesus—Immanuel, God with us—sitting right in front of us.
It’s my prayer for the Church (this church and the local church) that we might be a little more like the woman at the well instead of like the people in the wilderness; that we might stop concerning ourselves with our own desires; that we would get past our personal interests, for all that does is lead us to a place of bitterness, testing, conflict. It’s my prayer for the Church that we might concern ourselves with the needs of a stranger so that, like the woman at the well, we too might find God really with us. For it is only by looking up and serving the Christ in others that we’ll find our hungers and thirsts truly satisfied.
We are inclined to want things our way…
We make demands of you, O God, and those around us. And, when those demands aren’t met, O God, we question whether or not you and others truly care. We become bitter and we become known as a people—a place—of testing and quarreling.
O God, we tend to grumble when “our needs” are not met. Help us to focus less on ourselves that we might clear some space to grow in love with you and the people—the world—you love and have come to save.
Help us to be more like Christ that we might find our greatest satisfaction—the slaking of our deepest thirsts—in doing your will. Help us to set our desires on the altar so that your kingdom might come on earth as it is heaven. That, O God, is how Christ taught us to pray. That, O God, is the prayer we offer to you now as we once again proclaim our trust in and dependence upon you. May we faithfully live into the prayer Jesus taught us to prayer, the prayer we offer to you now…
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
 adapted from Exodus 16:3, Common English Bible.
 adapted from Exodus 17:2a, 3, Common English Bible.
 Taylor Burton-Edwards “Preaching: Notes for Exodus 17:1-11 and Romans 5:1-11” for the Third Sunday in Lent (March 23, 2014) at GBOD.org <http://www.gbod.org/lead-your-church/lectionary-planning-helps/third-sunday-in-lent4> Accessed March 21, 2014.
 Jesus said, consider the birds of the sky and the lilies of the field: see Matthew 6:25-34.