Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 15, 2020
Exodus 17:1-7 Commentary
In my last two Sermon Commentaries on the Old Testament readings for Lent (Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 and Genesis 12:1-4a), I noted that the Lectionary is focusing on texts that highlight the “one for all” theme running throughout salvation history, culminating in the One who died for all, once for all.
That theme continues here in Exodus 17 with an episode from the ministry of Moses, one of the greatest mediators in the Bible. But as I began to ponder this passage, I wondered why the Lectionary chose this little story, when it could have focused on more momentous events in Moses’ life—his confrontations with Pharaoh, his parting of the Red Sea, his time on Sinai, his intercession for Israel after the Golden Calf debacle. Why this little water story?
After considerable thought, I now think that the RCL made this choice because of the way this water story connects with and highlights Jesus’ claim to be the living water in the Gospel reading for today. Sometimes I criticize the choices made by the RCL, but the combination of this week’s readings is nothing short of genius. Besides the obvious type/ante-type of the Exodus/John passages, Psalm 95 uses the names of the places where Israel complained and tested their God as the exclamation point in an exhortation to listen and obey. And Romans 5 reminds us that sufferings are used by God to sanctify us in Christ, rather than to drive us away from God. The twin themes of water and testing (trial by water?) run through this Third Sunday of Lent.
It is fascinating to note how often water figures in the story of God’s children. After Passover and the Exodus, they are trapped by the Red Sea, which is parted by the power of God through the staff of Moses. Early in their wilderness wandering, Israel begins their incessant complaining about, you guessed it, water, in Exodus 15:22ff. After satisfying that need, God gives manna and quail to quell yet another grumbling rebellion. But soon, a lack of water farther into the journey sets off yet another round of quarreling with Moses and God. Later there will the climactic parting of the Jordan River which opens the Promised Land to conquest.
It is easy to criticize Israel’s complaining, until we empathize our way into their dilemma. I mean, water is utterly essential to life. Our text opens with a shocking statement. “The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded.” Think of that– “the whole community–” thousands, hundreds of thousands of men, women, children, and livestock. Israel is being completely, radically obedient. There is no water and thus no grass and thus no food. Yet, they keep getting up and moving as the Lord directs. Way to go, people!
But it doesn’t take long for this to get old, and dry, very dry. If you are a child, you cry for yourself. If you are a mother, you cry for your child. If you are a father, you cry for your family and your herds. Humans can survive only 100 hours without water, even less in a fiercely hot place, especially when you are walking all day long. So, it is completely understandable that Israel would be thirsty, and testy, and quarrelsome. If we are obeying God’s commands out here in this (God forsaken) country, where is God with the water we need? No wonder they complained.
Except that God has met all their needs up this point. From the moment God heard their cry back in Exodus 3:7ff, God has always come through for his people, often in dramatic, miraculous ways. They have seen those miracles of redemption and provision with their own eyes in the very recent past. Why wouldn’t they simply trust God now and pray for water? Why grumble and complain and quarrel?
The answer is simple—because they don’t trust God, not in this moment. Yes, they have seen God act in the past, and they trusted in that moment. But that was then, and this is now, and what have you done for me lately, O God? “Is the Lord among us or not?” That’s the great question that permeates this story and our own lives. How do we know? What’s the proof that the Lord is among us, and with us, and for us? How can we be sure? What is the test of God’s presence and beneficence?
This whole episode, indeed, the entire history of Israel was about testing. God had promised to be the God of Abraham and his descendants throughout their generations, with all the blessings the promise entailed. As he had done in Eden, God was always testing his people to see if they would trust him and obey him. “You may eat of every tree in the Garden, except that one.” “Leave your home and go to a place I will show you.” “There the Lord made a decree and a law for them, and there he tested them. He said, ‘If you listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes… ‘(Exodus 15:25-27).”
More often than not, Israel (and we, their spiritual heirs) turn the tables and test God. When obedience gets tough and we begin to suffer, we often focus on the suffering and stop trusting God, even though he has always provided in the past. Why do we do that? Listen to the story. When Moses responds to their first quarrelsome complaint with a “why,” the story says simply, “But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled….” Their immediate (and legitimate) need overwhelmed their trust in the God who had promised to meet their needs and always has.
So how do we know if the Lord is among us? For Israel, God had to pass the test of immediate satisfaction. Give us water, show us a miracle, meet our need, and we will believe and obey and stop complaining. If you do a magic trick, you pass the test, and we will believe. If you bend to our will, we will obey your will.
That, in the last analysis, is what this story, and the human story, is all about. Whose will shall prevail? God willed to create and bless the human race, asking only that they keep their place as his image bearers. But humans exerted their wills against God’s prohibition in the vain hope of becoming just like God in all ways. So began the battle of wills that has roiled and ruined God’s perfect creation and its peak creatures.
The wonder of this story and of the Gospel is that God continues to bless his willful, rebellious children. Instead of punishing them for their attempt to test their faithful God, God simply gives them the water they need. This all too familiar story of contention and testing is yet another version of the Gospel of grace, grace in the form of such a simple but essential gift as water to drink.
So, it’s not surprising that our Gospel reading for today (John 4:5-42) has Jesus sitting by a well, dying for a drink of cool clear water. When he asks a Samaritan (!) woman for a drink, the ensuing conversation climaxes with Jesus famous words about being the “living water” that leads to eternal life. She runs back home to tell everyone the Messiah is sitting right over there by the well.
When Jesus’ disciples return from a shopping trip to that town, they wonder if he is hungry. Jesus replies with words that tie directly to the battle of wills that has dominated human history. “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work (John 4:34).” What Israel and the church fail to do under the pressure of trying circumstances, Jesus perfectly did, even to the point of death. Indeed, just before he died, he sat in another garden and replayed the scene in the Garden of Eden, with very different results. “Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done.” And so, after suffering the thirst of humanity on the cross, he perfectly submitted to the will of God and cried, “It is finished!”
How do we know if the Lord is among us in our trying times? Look to the cross where God met all our needs, not by magic, but by passing the test of obedience and trust, even unto death. As Paul said in Romans 8:31ff, “What then shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”
Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available.
The titanic battle of the wills that has brought misery to the human race is played out in billions of merely human scenarios- the 3 year old stubbornly sitting at the table long after the family meal is done, because she will not eat those slimy lima beans; the 13 year old throwing a tantrum over restrictions on screen time; the young couple steaming in silence after yet another argument about sex; the life-long prodigal son refusing to come home to God because it would mean submitting to authority; the Rat Pack singer defiantly crooning, “I did it my way!” Of course, with competing human wills, the issue isn’t as simple. But submitting to God’s will is simply the way to peace and life. Why won’t we do it? Because we’re not convinced that God is unalterably “for us.” As Satan insinuated, God is out to keep you from becoming as happy as God.
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