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March 19, 2017, 12:00 AM

Keep Your Mouth Shut

by Sandy Bach

17 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 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?” 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[a] and Meribah,[b] because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:1-7 NRSV)

Our journey to the cross and salvation continues this week with an escape. An escape from slavery.

The Hebrews had lived in unspeakable conditions. They were slaves used mercilessly for Pharaoh’s ever-growing building plans. Their plight became worse when Moses wouldn’t let go of his plea to pharaoh to “Let my people go.” It was a difficult time for all of them.

It took ten plagues to gain their freedom: water turned to blood, frogs, gnats, flies, diseased livestock, boils, scary weather, locusts and darkness. The slaves survived with God’s provision. The worst plague was that night the Angel of Death came through and every firstborn in the land died. The Hebrews were protected.

They followed instructions and were kept safe by God. They escaped into the wilderness where God provided safe passage through the Red Sea waters; safety on the other shore when the sea closed up; travel by day and night with God leading them. Bitter water was made sweet; manna and quail arrived daily from heaven.

Just when they thought they were at the end of their rope, God stepped in and provided.

Now, they have no water. Without water, the entire population and their livestock will die. We know of water shortages in many parts of America and the world. Flint, Michigan with its toxic levels of lead in the water. People in many parts of the world still have to find water in ponds and rivers; some depend on standing water and don’t know to boil it before they use it.

Water is important to survival. It takes very little time before we die from thirst. Moses is leading a great multitude and a lot of water is necessary to sustain them. So, we might well wonder, why is Moses chastising them?

The Israelites took a huge risk. They not only packed up and moved, but they escaped slavery. They left behind routine and a certain sense of security. Now they find themselves in a strange and unknown place: a hot, dry, arid wilderness with no supply of food without God’s provision and now: no water.

On the other hand, they’ve seen the work of God protecting them over and over again. Shouldn’t this situation have been met with faith that God was with them and would provide?

One would think so, but look again. They’re slaves. Every morning they and their ancestors got up knowing where they would be working; what they’d be eating and where they would lay down their heads at night. They knew punishment for not meeting Pharaoh's goals.

They were victims and slaves. Escape from Egypt, though, didn’t mean escape from slavery. They were still thinking like slaves; still victims without ability to think for themselves. Their 400-year history had ingrained them with this slave mentality.

So, they stand before Moses: hot, sweaty, dirty; dreams of the Land of Promise fading with each dry breath they take. They are depending on Moses to provide and they’re worried that Moses isn’t doing a very good job.

A few times a year I receive a call in my office that goes something like this:

Do you help with utility bills?
Yes, tell me what’s going on.
I have a baby at home and my electricity is going to be turned off in two hours. If that happens I won’t be able to keep my baby warm.
How much do you owe?
$385. I’m three months past due.

Now, the first question you might ask is, why did she wait until the last moment to seek help? She knew this was going to be a problem more than a month ago.

Living in poverty is a form of slavery. Most days you wake up to a new problem that has to be solved. The past few months, this mother has been figuring out how to feed her family; or how to pay the water bill; where she would get gasoline so she could go to work; how to get her car fixed so she could go to work.

Every day brings a new problem. And after a while, they run out of options and slip into the slavery of reacting to problems. There’s no time or energy to think proactively. People in poverty become slaves and victims of their circumstances.

Choices are limited when you live in poverty. Solutions are scarce. The wilderness is a difficult place to be. The wilderness is a good place to see God.

Coming out of slavery is chaotic. It’s the ultimate wilderness experience. Ask a recovering addict or alcoholic.

Many of you have experienced other forms of slavery. All of them place shackles on us and hold sway over our lives. It comes between you and God; it loves to keep you under its spell by making you believe that you have to have it or you don’t deserve it.

Slavery holds us under false assumptions. Breaking out sends us into the wilderness where we honestly hunger and thirst for something to make us feel better. We second guess our decisions. Was it really that bad before I came out here? What am I doing here? This isn’t what I signed on for. I want to go back. This place is God-forsaken. I want my life back – it was awful but at least I knew what to expect.

The Gospel of John shares with us the story of a Samaritan Woman at the Well who also was chained: she was a woman of low status living in Samaria, the enemy camp of the Jewish people. She had had many husbands, perhaps by Levirate Law. She had no one to care for her unless she stayed with a man. Apparently, she’s shunned by others because she waits until everyone is finished using the well before she comes out for water. It’s high noon and it’s hot.

What was it about that phrase that Jesus used, "Living Water," that touched her; that unleashed her potential; that sent her to the townspeople who had sidelined and shunned her; whose testimony convinced them to "come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!" (John 4:29)

I think Moses understood the plight of the Hebrews. He knew they were in a tough situation, but he also knew that leaving slavery behind would take awhile.  His vision was for them to become the people God desired them to be.

They were headed for the Mountain of God where God would form them into a people with laws and rituals and vocation. They would become the chosen people of God, blessed to be a blessing. But that won’t happen today.

Our journey to salvation contains moments of hunger and thirst in the wilderness. God is there to provide for us. God provided for the Israelites with manna and quail and water. Once the basic needs were met, God was able to form them into a race of people blessed to be a blessing to others.

Did you notice what Moses did in this passage? First, he prayed. It was brief, it was humble. He was frightened of them and for them. In prayer, God reminded Moses that he had what he needed to fix this. Remember that staff you used to show Pharaoh my power? Remember when you used it to strike the Nile and blood ran? Use it again.

And Moses brought the company of elders with him. They would be the ones to tell the story to their children and children’s children. They would share about the time when Moses prayed and then used the staff to bring much-needed water to a thirsty population.

God provided that day, they’ll tell their children. And God provides today.

What tools do we have at our disposal that we can use for God’s people in this world?

The Land of Promise awaits us and it won’t go away. So, let’s hunker down, get some of that good sweet water. Then let’s return to learning who we are and who God has called us to be.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


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