Growing up I wanted one thing perhaps more than all others. I wished for it, hoped for it, prayed for it, and it never came. When I got to college I would occasionally catch glimpses of it, but it wouldn’t last long. And when I thought about my future, I would dream of living in a place where I could see it all the time.
What was it I was looking for? Snow. I was looking outside during the blizzard this week and I thought, “Hey, I got my wish!”
I know that this probably sounds funny to those of you who grew up in New England, but down South we have very little snow. And in Florida, where I spent most of my time growing up, we had none. There were no seasons. Every day was the same.
When I first decided to move to New England about ten years ago I didn’t do so for snow. I did it because it was the right choice for me, and it meant that I could do ministry in a region where I could be myself. But I must say that the snow was a nice perk. I couldn’t wait for changing seasons.
And then one day my first year, I had to stop for gas in the middle of the day. I got out of the car, and it was cold and snowy and wet. The wind cut through me like a knife. I had never experienced cold like that, or even thought it was possible. And I stood there pumping gas and shivering and thinking to myself, “Why in the world did I ever leave the South?”
So, in some small way, I can sympathize with the people in today’s Bible passage. They had a much more compelling reason to leave home, though. These are the Israelites who after generations of living in slavery in Egypt, after years of back-breaking work, had finally been able to leave. They had followed Moses out across the Red Sea and they had entered the wilderness, looking for the Promised Land.
And, as you know, this didn’t go exactly according to plan. The people who had left Egypt probably thought that Moses had a map that would take them where they needed to go, and they would be there in no time. What they didn’t expect is that they would be wandering, and wandering.
When it became clear that they weren’t getting anywhere anytime soon, people started to look at Moses and wonder if he knew what he was doing. He had told them God was leading him, but they weren’t so sure about that. And on top of that, they were getting thirsty. They didn’t have any water to drink.
And so they went to Moses and said to him, “Hey, why did you make us leave Egypt? Just to kill us?” Because back home in Egypt they may not have been free, but at least they had water.
And so it’s understandable that in this moment, so far away from the only home they’ve ever known, away from food and water, away from a Promised Land that they’re not sure even exists, and that they’re really not sure Moses knows how to find, they start to wonder why they ever left Egypt in the first place.
Moving from one region of the country and leaving a captor in search of freedom are two very different things. I’m not trying to compare them. But I do know what it’s like to make a change in your life, to run into obstacles, and then to wonder whether maybe things hadn’t been so bad back where you came from.
The fix for my problem was simple. I bought a thicker jacket and after a while I learned to really love the change of seasons here. And I know that moving north opened up a world of opportunities for me that wouldn’t have been available at that time in the South.
But for the Israelites it wasn’t so easy. They really thought that this change they had made might kill them. Yes, being Pharaoh’s captives had been terrible, and no they hadn’t liked it, but at least back in Egypt they didn’t have to worry about dying of dehydration. At least back there they knew what to expect.
I get that. I think we all have our own Egypts, and our own Pharaohs. We all have times and places in our lives where things aren’t ideal, but at least we know what to expect. We might not like it much, but captivity is somehow less scary than the wildness of freedom.
But here’s the catch: we all have our own promised lands too. They’re there waiting for us. But in order to get there we have to let go of what is holding us back. We have to tell our Pharaohs that we are leaving. And we have to head out in the wilderness and look for a place that no GPS can find for us.
And sometimes, that takes a long time, and we have to cut our own trail to get there.
I’ve talked before about how in my 20’s I wrestled with my drinking, and eventually got sober. I don’t tell this story here to draw attention to myself, but I’m sharing it, first, because I believe it’s nothing to be ashamed of and it’s important to break stigmas around addiction. And I also tell it because I know what it’s like to let a personal Pharaoh keep you in captivity, and away from the Promised Land.
Before I finally got sober, and I’ve been sober for a double-digit number of years now, I got really comfortable living in Egypt. And I started to be way too loyal to a Pharaoh who had no loyalty to me.
When I finally did get sober, I expected everything to be better automatically. I thought, “I’ll be in the promised land in no time.” But here’s the thing: the first two years I was sober were probably the worst two years of my life.
Seriously, if you told me I had to go back and relive any period of my life, I’d probably go back to my most awkward middle school years before I went back to those first two years. Everything seemed to go wrong. Nothing turned out the way I planned. Every day was a struggle. I was out there in the wilderness saying, “You know, at least back in Egypt I wasn’t dying of thirst.”
In retrospect, those years probably seemed so bad because for the first time in a long time I was being honest with myself, and I was seeing the world around me honestly too. I was seeing what I hadn’t seen for a long time. And so I kept moving forward, cutting a new path. And year three was pretty good. And year four was even better. And year five was amazing. And it’s been pretty amazing ever since.
But that promised land didn’t come easy.
I think it’s like that for a lot of people who have to make hard changes. Recently I was reading about people who leave abusive partners. Do you know on average how many times it takes someone to leave an abusive relationship and not go back? One? Two? Three? Four?
On average it’s seven times. Seven. And that’s no judgment on the person who is leaving. It is incredibly hard to walk away from someone who says they care about you, no matter how much they hurt you. It’s even harder when you have to walk away with little money or resources. Leaving that behind is as hard as leaving Pharaoh. Harder even, because at least Pharaoh never told the Israelites he loved them.
And those are just a couple examples of the Pharaohs who want to hold us back in captivity, and keep us from the promised land.
Chances are, there has been a Pharaoh in your life too. Maybe there’s one there now. Maybe there is something holding you back from the place that God is calling you to. And maybe you know there is something better out there, but the wilderness you’ll have to cross feels so big and forbidding. Maybe you’re afraid to leave what you know in order to become what you know you are meant to be.
You’re not the first, and you won’t be the last. And the good news is that while it may not be easy, you will not go alone, and you will not go without God.
When the people started to yell at Moses that he was going to kill them all, he went to God. And he said, “look God, these people are ready to kill me. I need help.” And God told Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and that water would then pour out.
Moses did that, and it did, and the people drank. And they were strengthened enough that they could keep on walking, keep on searching for the promised land.
If you are in the wilderness, if you are breaking free from Pharaoh, God is walking this journey with you. And if you need it, God will give you living water, the kind that will see you through to the end. And on those days when you might look back, choose instead to look forward. Because what kept you in captivity is never better than the journey that can take you home. Amen?