The Old Stories: Sweet Water

September 6, 2020/Exodus 15:22-27

After so many years in captivity, the Hebrew people departed Egypt, guided on their way by God.  Even a final dramatic rescue – a pushing back of the waters of the Red Sea that allowed them to cross safely, only to watch the returning waters crush Pharaoh’s army – was not enough to keep the Israelites from complaining to Moses.  Listen for the Word of the Lord.

Imagine, for a minute, that you’ve endured a long a torturous existence, captive to brutal taskmasters who used you for your strength or skill or artistry to build the things of their imaginations.  Picture your dreams each night, when at last you collapse onto your bed, dreams of a different place, a new place – a place where you are sheltered and nurtured and loved.  A promised land.

Now imagine you are told the promised land lies just on the horizon.  All that you have suffered has brought you to this time, this moment.  You’re ready – oh, so ready – for life on the other side.  For a life in which struggle and need are replaced by grace and abundance.

Welcome to the vision of the Hebrew people.

Four hundred thirty years is a long time to live in captivity.  No doubt Israel watched with some degree of satisfaction as Pharaoh was brought low by a series of plagues.  Finally, their God had intervened.  Finally, their God had heard their cries, and with a series of plagues had convinced the Egyptian ruler to set them free.

After their miraculous escape through the Red Sea, the Hebrews turned from watching Pharaoh’s forces tossed about by the raging waters anticipating a promised land.  “Instead of a land of milk and honey, they [got] a desert.  The promise [had fallen] short.  Deliverance at the sea [led] into the godforsaken wilderness.”[1]

Not only did they find themselves trudging through inhospitable desert wasteland, they found themselves lacking the most basic of essentials to sustain life.  They had no water to drink, only the brackish, bitter water of Marah.  The farther they wandered, the more their faith eroded and their resentment grew.  “And the people complained against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’”  Moses turned their complaints to God, and in an instant, with the toss of a piece of wood pointed out by Yahweh, the water transformed from bitter to sweet.

“Even in the wilderness God is responsive to the needs of these complaining people.”[2]  God does not remove them from the wilderness.  God doesn’t snap God’s fingers and teleport them into a land flowing with abundance.  But God does provide for their needs.

The protests are answered, the cries are heard, quite undeservedly. … A table is spread in the very presence of the enemy (cf. Ps. 23:5).  There is a gift of water where only rocks abound.  There is a gift of healing where the pain never ends.  The movement from death to life occurs within the very experience of godforsakenness.  A sanctuary is provided, but in the wilderness.[3]

In these first days, the children of Israel do not know their wilderness sojourn will extend over forty years.  But what they are told immediately – what they are given the opportunity to learn at once – is the steadfastness of the God who has brought them out of captivity and who leads them into freedom.  “If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you” (Ex. 15:26).

Their lives will be shaped by the wilderness, and shaped as well by God’s incredible patience and mercy.  The divine will is “to stay with Israel in this time of their adolescence as children of God.  Coping with ‘teenagers’ is no easy task, even if the parent is God.  No divine flick of the wrist is capable of straightening them out without compromising their freedom.”[4]  Rather than willing them to be the children God calls them to be, God will allow them time and space to grow into the children of God.

In a first sign of God’s ongoing provision for their needs, bitter water is made sweet.  Sweet water that foreshadows the promises of the prophet Isaiah: “For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.”

God guides Moses to a simple piece of wood that, when tossed into the bitter waters, transforms them into sweetest refreshment.  A piece of wood right before him, “already available in the world of creation.”[5]

Imagine, for a minute, that you’ve endured a long and trying time of disease and isolation.  Picture your dreams each night, when you toss restlessly in your bed, anxiety and boredom disrupting your sleep.  Dreams of times past – of banquet tables filled to overflowing, your friends gathered around.  Laughter and stories fill the air.  Smiles blossom on faces.  So many months have gone by with empty tables or tables filled with one or three.  So many weeks with no hugs or warm embraces, with smiles hidden behind masks and frustrations bubbling over.  In your half-waking dream state, you cry out for help.  Lord, make this go away!

Do you hear God’s answer?  Do you hear God telling you to pick up the piece of wood lying on the ground in front of you?  Our text this morning “suggests [we] need to be alert to the potential resources within creation itself for resolving many such problems.  God is at work in the world in such a way that people are led to such discoveries. … But God does not do such work in independence from human questing, knowledge, imagination, and ingenuity.  [As persons of faith, we] should be more willing and open to speak of God’s involvement in and through the use of human and natural capabilities.”[6]

Remember God’s words to Israel, there by the bittersweet waters of Marah – words that echo down through the ages to us even now.  “I am the Lord … who heals you.”  And so God reminds us to take grain and fruit, wheat and grape, to prepare a feast even now – a feast that we enjoy together, in company.  With smiles and laughter and joy.  A feast in the presence of the Holy One.

Amen and Amen.

[1] Terence E. Fretheim, Interpretation: Exodus, 171

[2] Ibid., 172

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 172-173

[5] Ibid., 177

[6] Ibid., 177-178

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