17:1 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.
17:2 The people quarreled 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?”
17:3 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?”
17:4 So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
17:5 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.
17:6 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.
17:7 He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
During the Holocaust in the concentration camps at Auschwitz, a trial took place. It was not the trial of prisoners by Nazis. It was very different. It was a trial conducted by Jewish rabbis in the barracks, and the defendant was God.
The rabbis argued about whether God had abandoned the Jewish people. They argued about how a benevolent God could allow such bad things to happen to them. And in the end, the rabbis, good, religious men, found God guilty.
One of the biggest questions of faith is “Why does God let bad things happen to good people?” Theologians have asked it for hundreds of years. Philosophers have pondered on it. And you and I have wondered too. Where is God when something bad happens?
I’m not going to give you a definitive answer this morning. Because, I don’t know. There are, in any given week, dozens of situations that I see and wonder why God is doing more to help. I used to feel bad about that. I used to think that I was disrespecting God. But wondering where God is and looking for answers is not the same as disrespecting God. If anything, it’s a form of taking God more seriously.
That was a little of what was happening in the passage. The Israelites are out in the wilderness. They have left slavery in Egypt and are journeying to a promised land. But Moses has led them far from home and they are thirsty. They begin to question him asking, “why did we even leave. And Moses calls to God and says, “They are almost ready to stone me.” The people begin to ask, “Is the Lord among us or not.”
We do it too when bad things happen. That is when we often find ourselves taking God more seriously. Seriously enough to ask where God is.
If you have been watching the news you have seen the pictures from Japan. You have seen the absolute devastation. You have seen destruction and loss of life and pain that will haunt the country for years. And maybe, at some level, you have asked, “Where is God.”
I’ve always rejected the idea that God does things to punish us. God does not going around using earthquakes to bring us in line. God does not cause tsunamis to prove God’s might. God does not will us to suffer in order to gain our love
But it’s easy to see how some churches have used what happened in Japan as a way of making people be fearful. Repent or else, we are told. Change your ways or you are next. And the underlying message, spoken or not, is this: those affected had it coming.
But God is not a God who hurts us. Rather, God is right there with us when bad things happen. And God is there in the aftermath.
When the people in the wilderness cried out loud enough, and when Moses went to God for help, he was given an unlikely answer: Strike the rock and water will spring forth. God tells Moses, “Your people will no longer go thirsty in my presence. I will save you.”
I believe it’s true that God hears our cries. And I believe that God does provide for us when we ask. But sometimes it takes longer than we might hope. And sometimes we have to go on a journey we wouldn’t wish to go on.
A close friend of mine, who has given me permission to tell this story, was sexually assaulted ten years ago. She was a very faithful person. And she was extremely proactive about her recovery. She saw a therapist. She went to a trauma recovery group. She even went to trauma yoga. She did everything right.
She managed to deal with the trauma of what was done to her, and to keep her faith. In fact, it was her faith that pulled her through it. But recently she told me that she was having a bit of a hard time. Trauma recovery is difficult and there are many layers and something you thought was done with has a way of coming back a little sometimes. And this time, it was hard for her to find God. No matter where she looked, God seemed far away. She’s one of the most faithful people I know, and I knew this must be devastating for her.
I think about Moses, taking a journey on faith. And I think about her, taking her own journey. I think about what it was like for Moses to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt. And I think about what it was like for her to say “I will not be defined by what happened to me anymore. I will be defined by surviving it.”
That was a hard journey to take. Many never take it. Many are happier living in the Egypt that they know rather than the promised land that they don’t. But she wasn’t, and she set out across the desert, and she is heading to the promised land. But right now she’s standing at the rock, just like Moses, asking God where God is. And God is telling her, “strike the rock. There’s living water in there for you. Strike the rock and know I’m here.”
I know she is going to get through this dark night alive. And she is going to be better on the other side. And the promised land that she reaches is going to be better than anything she could have imagined. But there’s no short cut across the desert when you’re looking for the promised land. There’s only the hard, hard journey and the doubt.
I look at Japan. They are not suffering because of their own actions. Just like the Jewish people at Auschwitz did nothing to deserve being there. Just like my friend did nothing to deserve being assaulted. They are suffering because sometimes, for whatever reason, bad things happen to good people.
But I know this: there is a promised land. It looks different for all of us. For the Jewish people in the camps it was freedom from persecution. For my friend it is to sleep without nightmares. And for the Japanese it is to rebuild homes and lives.
There is living water waiting to be struck from the rock. But we don’t know what it is going to look like. And sometimes, we may not know it yet, we are called to be the water that comes forth.
I read a story recently about a chef in California named Bruno. He had emigrated to this country and started out as a dishwasher. He worked hard and ended up opening his own restaurant. When he had more than enough, he began to donate financially to the Boys and Girls Club.
One day his mother came from Italy and wanted to see where his donations went. He took her to the Club and saw a boy eating a small bag of potato chips. He asks him if it was a snack, and the boy said “no”. It was his dinner. His mother overheard.
Now, I know something about Italian mothers, having one myself. And so, when his mother heard that and told him that he had to come back and feed them pasta, he had no choice. And for years now, he has been coming back and feeding dozens of meals a night to children who might otherwise not eat. When the economy went bad he lost a lot of his business. But he couldn’t leave the children without food. And so he refinanced his house, and kept right on serving.
There is water if you just strike the rock. And sometimes we can be the water that comes forth. We can be the strong shoulder to cry on. We can be the one who speaks out against hatred and oppression. We can be the one who sends help when our brothers and sisters can’t do anything else to help themselves. We can be the ones who be water to the thirsty in all sorts of ways
In just a few moments we will be taking up a special collection for Japan. Our proceeds will go to Church World Service, an ecumenical organization with a proven reputation for responding to disasters like this. They will make sure that your donations will get to the people who need them the most. They will make sure that water will spring from the rock.
And as for us, there will be a day when we are promised a new land. And if we dare to go, we will find at sometimes find ourselves in the wilderness. Dry and dusty and wondering where God is now. And we will have just enough faith that we will know what to do. And we will strike the rock. And somehow, God will give us water. We may not know what that water will look like now, but it will there. And we will not be allowed to go thirsty any longer. May it ever be true for us. May it ever be true for all God’s people. Amen.