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Exodus 17: 1-7

“Break the Rock Wide Open”  Exodus 17: 1-7; Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook; Northwood United Church; March 19, 2017

Scripture Reading: Exodus 17:1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’ But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’ So Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.’ Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’

Reflection: "Break the Rock Wide Open"

It was inevitable. People have sued everyone and anyone for such a wide range of problems, sooner or later this would come up. The law suit was the people vs…God. The defendant named would be … God. Yes God was brought to trial. It was 2005 and Pavel Mircea, a Romanian convict serving time for murder sued God for a breach of contract. Mr. Mircea contended: “God was supposed to protect me from all evils and instead, God gave me to Satan who encouraged me to kill”. Two years later, God was hauled into court yet again. This time it was Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers who filed his own lawsuit against God for bringing “fearsome floods, egregious earthquakes, horrendous hurricanes, terrifying tornadoes, and pestilential plagues”. As you can imagine, both lawsuits were dismissed. The judges overseeing the case cited that as God doesn’t have a legal address, God can’t be summoned to appear in court. As for the plaintiffs, Mircea continues to serve prison time and Chambers was not re-elected.  

In the passage before us this morning, we find ourselves immersed in the theological wonderings of the Hebrew people. They were frustrated with God, angry with God, and if there were any lawyers in their midst ~ were pondering legal action. Just imagine the incredible journey that they had been on. Through the Exodus journey, they had been liberated from bondage and slavery in Egypt. They were fresh into their time of wandering in the wilderness towards the land that God had promised. And as they wandered in the wilderness, far away from their homes that had always supplied food and shelter, they find themselves hungry and thirst. While God had led them out of slavery towards a land of promise, they begin to wonder about God’s provision. They begin to get afraid; they begin to ponder if God is truly with them or not!  

Have you ever felt alone and afraid? Have you ever felt (as the Hebrew people did) thirsty? ~ Thirsty for peace? Thirsty for comfort? Thirsty for justice? It is a deeply human reaction. They become deeply afraid and they turn on their leader. Moses had led them out of slavery, yet while he had taken them away from slavery, he had also taken them away from a place of basic comforts. They had food and shelter. All their basic needs were taken care of. Now, they had no food, no shelter and they were afraid for their very survival. And they begin to turn on Moses; they begin to turn on God. They say: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” Moses turns to God asking for guidance: “what shall I do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me”. God instructs Moses into an act of deep faith. Take the staff that he had used to part the waters at the Red Sea, and this time strike the huge rock at Horeb. And water will come out for the people to drink. Moses struck the rock, the water gushed down, and the people drank.  

What I find most fascinating about this passage is in the name they give to the place that this occurs. One might expect that the site of this miracle of God’s provision would be called ‘God Provides’ or ‘God’s Grace’ or ‘God is Good’. In this day and age of corporate sponsorships, we could imagine it being sponsored by a beverage company: “The Pepsi Centre of God’s Provision”! But it is not. This site is not remembered for God’s faithfulness, for God’s provision. All that is remembered is their quarreling and testing. The text says that it is named “Massah and Meribah” ~ Massah – meaning “a place of testing”. And Meribah – meaning “a place of quarreling”. What they remember is this being a time of trial and examination, rather than it as being a time of grace, provision and love. This is even more fascinating to me as we examine this story in light of the one which immediately preceeds it. The narrative prior to the story of the water from the rock is the well-known story of God providing manna from heaven. The people had gone hungry in the wilderness and in their hunger God provides manna to eat. And in our focus text, when the people are thirsty, God provides water to drink. The message of these stories is all about God’s grace in our wilderness time, God’s provision, God’s ever-present help in times of need. Yet they remembered this as a time of testing and quarreling. Human nature I guess? And while it might be our human nature to remember in this way, the good news in these texts in that in our wilderness moments when things have gone awry, God provides…food when we are hungry…water when we are thirsty…hope for another day…grace, hope and peace for our journey towards the promised land.  

Well, that was a quick reflection you might say! Umm…not really. I would suggest that it’s a lot more complicated than that. Sometimes it is helpful to look at scripture from a narrative perspective and consider where you see yourself inside the text. Scripture is meant to be a living document in which we find ourselves moved and changed. Where do you see yourself in the story? I was reading an interesting journal article challenging us to consider ourselves in the text, not as the thirsty Israelites, but rather as Moses. Interestingly, this text has been preached innumerable times locating the hearer of the sermon as being among the Hebrew people. How many sermons have you heard, when you considered yourself as being one of the Israelites thirsty and looking for water? The suggestion is to try something a different and locate ourselves within the character of Moses. And I think this is a good suggestion. Moses was the leader of his people and like Moses. Like Moses, we too occupy leadership roles in our lives. In fact, each one of us occupies multiple leadership positions in our lives. In various forms, we are in leadership roles in our families, in our communities, in our neighbourhoods, in our church, and we are also in a leadership role in our own lives ~ as we take individual responsibility for our living. When the Hebrew people come to Moses complaining, and Moses goes to God for guidance, the response is not immediate provision. God does provide, but something happens first. What happens is that God charges Moses to take his staff; take it to the rock at Horeb; and strike the rock ~ and the promise is that water will come out of it and the people will have water to drink. So, what is going on for Moses? I think there are a couple of things…  

Firstly, I think this story teaches us that even strong leaders must reach out to God in our times of need, in our times of testing, in our times of thirst. In the text, Moses had exhausted all the leadership skills at his disposal. God had helped him at pivotal points in the Exodus out of Egypt. When they were being pursued by the Egyptian armies, he went to God and God helped him part the Red Sea. When they were famished in the wilderness, he went to God and God provided Manna. And now, when they are thirsty in the wilderness, he went to God and God provides water for their thirst. Moses was one of the greatest leaders in the history of the faith, yet even Moses goes to God for help. Moses navigated the wilderness; he found the places to camp; he tended to medical emergencies as they arose. But when he came to those places that he could not lead them any further; he went to God. Even the powerful Moses returned to God when his tool kit was empty and he didn’t know how to proceed. I would suggest that the mark of a great leader is in knowing when we need to go to God for help and support. Isn’t this always the challenge placed on those who are counted on to be strong and reliable; we expect them to be an island, to be strong and not relying on anyone. I know that many people count on you in their life. They expect you to be strong and reliable, to have the answers. And most of the time we can offer that. Yet, do we turn to God, truly turn to God in your times of uncertainty, in your times of weakness and ask for God’s provision? It is often one of the hardest things to do, when we are supposed to be the ‘strong’ one, to reach out for help. Imagine how hard it would have been to be the powerful Moses, to realize that his tool kit was empty; to realize that he couldn’t offer water to his people; and to go to God for help. We must be ready to reach out to God in our times of need.  

The second part of this text is the most challenging because it calls for a complete cognitive shift ~ a change in our thinking. It is a call to break new ground, a call to forge ahead in new ways that you had not yet imagined. The text doesn’t really record a quizzical look on Moses’ face when he receives God’s answer, but I think he must have had one of those ‘you’ve got to be kidding me God!’ looks on his face. He goes to God with a dilemma ~ no water ~ and he receives an answer ~ take your staff and strike the rock at Horeb and water will spring forth. Huh! You have got to be kidding me God (I think) is what he was thinking on the inside. Moses, and all of us, know that a walking stick is no match for a hard rock! Yet, God gives him a new way to move forward, a new way to solve the problem he hadn’t thought of, a new way to get water…water from a rock?!? Who would have thought? I wonder if this text calls us to be open to doing new things in new ways in our wilderness wanderings. Who would have ever thought that ministry would have been revolutionized in the way it has over the past generation or two: singing from screens instead of hymn books, getting church news on websites and Facebook posts, calling in prayer requests via the telephone, supporting people via text message. I think in all areas of our lives, we have to be continually open to the possibilities of new ways of being and doing things. Today, they tell young people that they will likely occupy three different professions throughout the course of their lifetimes! Within our personal and professional and spiritual lives, we have to be open to the possibilities that God is calling us to use our skills in continually new ways and new applications. That staff in Moses’ hand is not just for walking and guiding the flock; it is also for breaking a rock in two in order that the water of life might spring forth. Who knows what it will be used for in the next leg of the journey? How are you being called to live differently? How are we, as a community of faith, being called to live differently? The times, as they say, are a’changin!  

And so, let us faithfully continue to walk our Lenten journeys towards the cross ~ may that never change. However, let us go forth knowing that we are not alone, that God is there for us to call upon in our times of need and distress. And may we always be open to the new ways that God is calling us to use our gifts and talents in the future.