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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Lent - 2/24

          The people of Israel were in the middle of their wilderness wandering, having left Egypt but not having arrived yet in the promised land.  If you know the story at all, you know that the people were never too sure of this promised land thing.  It sounded good at first but when the wilderness journey wasn’t easy it didn’t take them long to begin to wax nostalgic for those good old days of slavery back in Egypt; the working conditions might not have been great, but at least there was food to eat and water to drink, or at least that’s how they remembered it.  Anyway, they did a lot of whining and complaining…but maybe this time it was legitimate. 

          They were camped at a place called Rephidim and nobody knows where that was but it doesn’t really matter.  What matters is that it wasn’t a good place to camp because there was no water.  Moses had led them out of Egypt with the promise of a land of milk and honey, but doesn’t water come before milk and honey?  Milk and honey they could do without; without water though, in this desert wilderness, they were going to die; it’s a basic fact of life…and death. 

          They knew they couldn’t produce water for themselves, so they complained to Moses, blaming him for their predicament, basically stealing the old Laurel and Hardy line saying, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten us into.”  That’s one thing, complaining to Moses, but in addition to complaining to Moses about a lack of water, they also dared to ask the God question, “Is the Lord among us or not?”  They didn’t just question Moses, they questioned God. 

Before we simply pigeonhole the people of Israel as whiners and complainers (which they were) we ought to recognize how very human this response is.  They were faced with a concrete problem, a serious life and death problem which was a lack of water.  For them though, this question of need was also a God question.  They blamed Moses but it was really the Lord that they were putting on notice here.  The presenting problem was no water but the larger question was about the reliability of their God.  Could they trust this God?

          As I said, it’s a very human response.  We’ve probably all been there faced with a concrete problem of health or well being of some kind for ourselves or for someone we care about, health and well being that don’t seem to be happening so our needs are not being met.  So we cry out to God, we pray expecting our needs to be met because we want a God who meets us not just in some esoteric spiritual realm but in the reality of life.  We make our needs known but because we’re good Christians we usually don’t ask the ultimate question, “Is the Lord among us or not?” because much of our popular Christian piety has trained us to think we should be submissive and praise God no matter what so we don’t ask the question and those who do ask it are denounced for their lack of faith.

          The people of Israel had no reservations about such directness in their conversation with God.  The beauty of this text though, and the beauty of others like it, is that while God doesn’t like being put to the test, he still hears the complaint of Israel.  He hears and he responds with a resounding yes, bringing forth life giving water from the rock.  With one strike of Moses’ staff against the rock the water question is answered and the God question is answered…and the answer is YES!

          This yes is part of what Walter Brueggemann calls the core testimony about God.  According to this core testimony God is reliable, God will provide, God is faithful.  In whatever wilderness we find ourselves, plagued by whatever anxieties befall us, God’s answer is yes.  To be sure, there is other testimony, testimony where God’s yes is pretty elusive, where needs are not met and complaints seem to go unanswered.  The core testimony of biblical faith however, core testimony that leads to the statements of faith we find in the creeds and the confessions is testimony about the God whose answer is Yes, a yes which from our side of the relationship we can depend on, a yes which we can hold God to; yes because after all, this is a God who can even bring forth water from a rock. 

          Texts like this one are part of the reason that wilderness is a theme often associated with Lent.  It is a good way to think about Lent, but our Lenten wilderness experience is probably less like that of the wandering Israelites and more like the earliest monastics who went to the wilderness, often the desert, to get away from the distractions, temptations and corruptions of the world and to draw closer to God.  Actually it’s true of modern day monastics as well; it’s a different kind of wilderness but that’s how my monk friends at the Jampot wound up way up there in the Keweenaw.  They were looking for someplace off the beaten path in order to have a degree of isolation from worldly distractions. 

          We’re not called to be monks, but getting away from distractions, temptations and corruption is a good way for any of us to approach Lent,  trying to eliminate the things that distract us from our relationship with God, or maybe we can’t eliminate them but maybe we can become more aware of them so that they are less of an influence on us thus making our relationship with God a higher priority.  It’s not a project intended only for the forty days of Lent but Lent is certainly a time to bring it to focus.  Removing the distractions can also help us to see ourselves more honestly, in particular helping us to see that all those things we think we depend on for happiness and security only get us so far, that our ultimate security is only found in the God whose answer is YES.

          The water from the rock story is a story of God’s YES.  That is the primary way that the story is remembered and I would emphasize that in our Lenten journey we need to hear it that way.  It’s interesting though that it is also a story that is remembered negatively as a time when the people of Israel tested God.  You may have noticed that in today’s psalm; it shifts rather abruptly from the unabashed praise of “Come let us sing to the Lord; let us shout for joy to the rock of our salvation,” to God’s closing statement of, “Indeed I swore in my anger, ‘They shall never come to my rest.’”  The negativity is because the people put God to the test and God doesn’t like that.

          It’s true that it’s not our place to expect God to jump through any hoops we place before him.  It’s not our place to make our faith contingent on, “What have you done for me lately God,” although that is a very human tendency.  But in defense of the people of Israel, they put God to the test because they knew the God whose answer was yes; they had experienced the yes.  Having experienced the yes they should have had more trust, but still, despite their lack of reverence, in their helplessness they knew that God was their only hope.  They turned to God knowing there was no other place to turn.

          Water from the rock also leads us to today’s gospel, the story of the woman at the well.  It’s a story that can be interpreted in a number of ways as is true of most of John’s gospel, but hear this too as a story of God’s yes, Jesus’ yes to us.  It’s another story of water, but John moves it from being about water needed to quench physical thirst to water that leads to eternal life.  It’s a story of Jesus providing what only God can provide thus making a very clear statement about who John believes Jesus to be.  In the water from the rock story, only God could provide what the people of Israel needed.  In this story it is still only God, Jesus who can provide life, a different kind of life, eternal life for the woman at the well and for us. 

          Simple water becomes more than water.  Water becomes a symbol of the new life that is found in Jesus, it becomes the water of relationship with Jesus, it becomes the life giving water of baptism, a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.

          In this wilderness of Lent, touch the water.  Remember your baptism.  Remember that God is indeed among us.  We are touched by the water of baptism, sealed by Holy Spirit, marked with the cross of Jesus, Jesus whose answer to us is a resounding YES.

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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