Sunday Night Worship – 9/28/08

Thirst

Exodus 17: 1-7

How did I get here? It’s 2am after a night of arguing and a month of hurt feelings and your girlfriend or boyfriend has just left for good. Alone, hurt, confused, tired, angry – maybe all these at once – you say to yourself, How did I get here?

You remember when you first met. You flip through the months together and think about kissing, sharing secrets, making plans, laughing. It doesn’t add up. Things were so good for a while. You seemed so right for each other. You had even wondered if this one might be the one. How did I get here?

Maybe you have been watching the news reports and the stock market and wondering if you’ll ever have a job or a retirement fund and you’re worrying about taking care of your folks because you’ve heard them worrying about their retirement funds. How did I get here?

Maybe it’s about college. You applied, got in, packed all your belongings, unpacked all your belongings, had to throw out some of your belongings once confronted with the size of your dorm room…It was ok for a while. But now you’ve started to wonder what you’re doing and where you’re heading. Maybe you have started talking to yourself like this: Should I switch majors? How do I decide on a major? I’ve switched majors four times and it still doesn’t seem like a good fit. How did I get here? Am I cut out for college? Am I the only one who feels overwhelmed like this? Why did God give me intelligence and drive and hope about my future, just to leave me here in all this uncertainty? How did I get here?

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Well, it’s good to know it runs in the family. Our Israelite ancestors were prone to the same questions (minus the dorm room). Like us, they looked up and realized they had no idea where they were or how to get to someplace they knew. After being spared 10 miraculous plagues in Egypt…after being led through a dry path in the middle of the Red Sea…after journeying together a ways through the wilderness, here they are. We might think they’d be praying prayers of thanksgiving and praise, grateful and trusting of the God who’s provided so much and seen them this far along the way.

But that’s not how the story goes, is it? Though they’ve been journeying through the wilderness in stages and are now camped at a spot named Rephidim – meaning “refresh” or “support” – here they are bellowing to the heavens, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17: 1 & 3; NIB Bible p. 111).

An interesting thing about this question is the grammar. In the New Revised Standard Version it reads just like that, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” But the original grammar reads like this, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, with my children and my herds to let me die of thirst?” (Storyteller’s Companion, pp. 73-4).

What begins as a lament on behalf of one’s people, devolves within a few words into a personal plea. Why are you doing this to my people – heck, look what you’ve done to me! When things haven’t turned out as you planned and now the plans seem irrelevant altogether and all the lines have gotten fuzzy and you’re not even sure God is with you, it’s hard to focus on anything outside of your immediate and overwhelming feelings of need. Who cares about the rest of the Israelites! God, are you going to leave me here to die like this?

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There’s a great scene in the Neil Simon movie, The Goodbye Girl. Marsha Mason plays a woman who’s been left too many times by men who made promises they didn’t keep. After the last one skips town she’s left in his apartment, which he has sublet to another friend without telling her.

It just so happens that Marsha Mason’s character has a thing for actors. The most recent failed relationship was one in a series of relationships with actors and the sublettee is an actor as well. She’s come to think of herself as cursed by actors and it’s only because she is broke that she agrees to share the apartment with the new actor, played by Richard Dreyfuss.

In an attempt at friendship between roommates they are grocery shopping together and just as Marsha Mason lets her guard down the slightest millimeter, a purse snatcher comes by and makes off with hers. She irrationally insists that Richard Dreyfuss go after the guy in the speeding car, which, for some unknown reason, he does. He doesn’t get her purse back, though, and as they walk home together, Marsha Mason says, “Why do I have such lousy luck, every time an actor comes into my life?”

To which, Richard Dreyfuss says, “I really don’t think they robbed you because I’m an actor.”

Uncertainty and fear can make us lose our perspective. Marsha Mason’s been so hurt that all she knows to do is blame every bad event on the nearest actor. Of course this is not a fair or accurate accounting of what’s happening but at this point she can’t even see that.

Kind of like the lament in the wilderness. God has more than once made a way out of no way and yet here they are, forgetting about God and even forgetting about each other – me, me, me! – begging for something more.  What more could they want?

Water, apparently.

They say that once you know you are thirsty you have already begun to dehydrate. What if this is the first time the Israelites have ever known they were thirsty?   The desert is a harsh place and I have no doubt that this story is about real water coming, improbably, from a real rock, gushing forth onto the cracked, dry, ground for God’s very thirsty people.

But, as with many things in life, thirst is both physical and spiritual. Harriet Tubman once said that she could have freed a lot more people if she could have convinced them that they were slaves (wikiquote.org cites Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Gates and Appiah, p. 299).  Try telling someone he’s dehydrating when he doesn’t feel thirsty yet. It’s interesting that the Israelites aren’t afraid to complain, but they complain to Moses rather than to God. They’ve been having a hard time communicating with God since the beginning of the book of Exodus. In their slavery way back in chapter two, they groan and cry out (2: 23) but they don’t direct their cries to anyone in particular. They are estranged from God. They’ve been in Egypt so long that the glory days of Joseph are well in the past and almost forgotten. They are from Egypt now; they know no other home. And it seems that they don’t know their own enslavement. Sure, they groaned as Pharaoh piled on more work but they were toughing it out with no plans to leave.

It isn’t a mass uprising that brings them out of Egypt but God, through the leadership of Moses. Even before they knew the extent of their enslavement, God was acting to free them. I’m not sure the Israelites see it this way because here they are now in the wilderness, many miles and miracles behind them, asking Moses for water instead of asking God. Even Moses comments on this when he says, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” (Ex. 7: 2).

Maybe this people so long lost have started to see Moses as their savior. One of the things about thirst is that once you are dehydrated anything can start to look like water. Tragic stories abound of people lost at sea who, against all better judgment, start drinking seawater when they can’t abide their thirst one minute longer. It’s sure death and you and I can see that sitting here, though it’s anything but clear to them.

Uncertainty and fear can make us lose our perspective. But sometimes that’s just what we need most. Lost at sea, wandering in the wilderness, uncertain about your course in life, fearful about the future, hurt and scared after a break-up…They may all be times that cause us to cry out How did I get here? Surroundings once familiar start to look strange, our focus shifts, we realize we might be lost.

And that’s the saving moment! Loss of perspective can be uncomfortably, even painfully, disorienting. But it can be a disorienting gift, too.

Sometimes our truest thirst only becomes apparent when we realize we can’t quench it ourselves.

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Sometimes all it takes is a break-up or a train wreck or a question you can’t find an answer for. Sometimes this is all it takes to shift the light and change our view of the surroundings. Or of ourselves. When we look around and see no water and no way…when we understand that the thirst we feel goes much deeper and we have no means to quench it on our own…and when we see that thinking we could is its on sort of slavery…when we get to this spot in the wilderness we are ready to let God be God.

We’re used to finding our own water. Not just the ubiquitous plastic bottles we carry everywhere, but also in relationships and careers and most every corner of life. We mouth the words about God providing for us. We profess belief in a God who creates and saves and journeys with us…a God who is more powerful than anything, including death. But sometimes, around the edges, we can start to think that just maybe we’re the ones who are in control.

We detest uncertainty. We call it “lack of direction.” We hate fear. We call it “weakness.” We avoid vulnerability. We call it “dependency.” We mistrust mystery. We call it “unknown.”

Just our luck that God comes to us in these places we fear. Just our luck that God’s medium is mystery. Just our luck that we are God’s wandering people, waiting on God for the next day’s manna and the next unlikely rock to crack open and quench our deepest thirst. We’ve only just realized how soulfully thirsty we are – how close to dehydration and craziness! Thank God we became disoriented just in time.

Fear not the uncertainty! Fear not the wilderness – nor the wildness of God! Don’t be afraid for your life, because this fear is the beginning of life. When you don’t know where you are or how you can get anywhere else, God knows (Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible, Vol. II, p. 75).

When things haven’t turned out as you planned and now the plans seem irrelevant altogether and all the lines have gotten fuzzy and you’re not even sure God is with you… When you lose your way and are surrounded by dry streambeds and outcroppings of rock – even in a place like that God can bring forth water.

In the midst of death, God always brings abundant life.

How’s your grammar been lately? Any actors done you wrong this month? Has your vision been focused in on yourself and your plight? Give thanks for the moment when you stop and realize you don’t know where you are: How did I get here? Give thanks for the shifting light and the presence and providence of God way out here in this wilderness. Give thanks when, by God’s grace, the question turns and you say, with awe: How did I get here?

Thanks be to God!

© Deborah E. Lewis 2008

Weekly Meeting Schedule
  • Sunday
    • 11:00 Morning Worship at Wesley Memorial UMC (next door)
    • 5:00 Sunday Night Worship
  • Tuesday
    • 6:00 Tuesday Night Dinner
    • 6:45 Forum — Discussion/speaker on a variety of faith topics and student life.
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