Is the Lord among us or not? It’s a question with which we’ve all struggled. We may have asked it quietly under our breath or screamed it at the top of our lungs. It’s a question that bubbles up in us when we reach yet another dead end in the mental health system after trying for years to get a loved one the help that they so desperately need. It’s a question that arises when we feel so sucked dry by the rat wheel we are spinning on that we wonder what the point of it all is. It’s a question that lingers when we are faced with the diagnosis of a terminal illness, a life altering reality, or another debt we can’t climb out of. It’s a question we can’t flee from when we feel like we’re alone and empty, when we wonder if we’ve made the right decisions or if we’re getting it all wrong. It’s a question that haunts us when we hear of yet another tragedy – a child with insurmountable health issues, a father who dies young and leaves behind his family, a hate crime, a mass shooting, an immigrant who gets turned away. The turmoil and struggles of this life bring the question to the forefront. Is the Lord among us or not?
The Israelites were caught up in an exciting vision when Moses first led them out of Egypt. You can imagine their building energy as Moses called them together and led them out of the bondage of slavery into the wilderness, bound for freedom, bound for a land that they could call their own. They experienced amazing signs and wonders. They felt like they would one day be free when they saw plagues descend upon their oppressors. They survived plagues of boils, hail, storms, locusts and the Passover. They had to pack up at just the right moment to flee from Pharaoh. They witnessed the miraculous parting of the Red Sea. They were overcome with a vision of milk and honey. They were bound for Canaan, bound for the promised land. Their vision, their call as God’s people was clear back then, but now they are in the midst of the dry, deserted wilderness, and they are living in the ordinary. They are in the middle of long journey in the wilderness. The days are long and hot. At every moment their survival is at sake. There are a few amazing signs in the desert, but they don’t happen every day. God has miraculously provided both water and food for them along the way, but their memory is short.
The Israelites start to weigh their lives under Pharaoh’s oppressive empire against this long, dangerous life journeying through the wilderness. They start to yearn for the tainted yet abundant water of the empire over the pure, scarce water of the wilderness. Our text for today says that the Israelites journeyed by stages. They would journey along for a little while and then decide to revolt, a pattern that they repeated over and over again. They would take three steps forward and then two steps back. I imagine it’s hard to keep focused on God’s larger vision when you’re worried about where your next drink of water is coming from. Their need is real, but yet their memory of God’s provision is short-lived. While camping at Rephidim, they quarrel with Moses, demanding water to drink. Now it seems that this whole decision to flee from Pharaoh was a horrible idea. What was Moses thinking? Why did they follow him out of Egypt only to die in the wilderness? They start to believe that his vision will lead to their demise. Without amazing signs and wonders constantly before them, without the excitement of those first days when they were caught up in the vision, they don’t trust that they are on the right path. Their words and actions demonstrate their theology of providence. They believe that when they have what they need and want, God is with them, but that in times of hunger, thirst, and affliction, God has abandoned or betrayed them or was never really among them at all. They are now in desperate need for water so they start to bargain with God through Moses. Moses serves as God’s surrogate. God speaks to the people through Moses, and the people respond to God through Moses. In this moment of need, the Israelites have lost their trust in God. They demand that God give an account of God’s faithfulness and provision now. Right now! They call on God to perform immediately at their request.
Moses is exasperated. He cries out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me!” God is probably exasperated too, with the people and with Moses! But God responds to the Israelites’ mistrust with kindness, with a sign performed through Moses that renews their faith. God tells Moses to go ahead of the people and take some elders with him who will serve as witnesses to this miraculous act. God says that God will be standing there right in front of him on the rock at Horeb. Moses is to strike the rock, and water will come out of it. Moses does what God tells him to do with the elders of Israel as his witnesses. He calls the place Massah, which means place of testing, and Meribah, which means place of quarreling, to mark it as the place where the Israelites wondered whether God was really among them or not.
Asking for something they and their children and their livestock needed was not where the Israelites went wrong. They went astray because they demanded that God meet their needs immediately. They went astray because they forgot all that God had already done for them. They went astray because they didn’t trust that God would provide for them, like God always had. They went astray because they measured God’s presence and faithfulness by how well their immediate needs were being met at the moment in front of them. Perhaps our question of “Is God among us or not?” should give way to another question, “Do we trust God or not?” Do we measure God’s goodness by how well we or our families are doing? Do we, like the Israelites, use legitimate excuses, like needing water, to cover up our own mistrust? God’s goodness cannot be judged by our own prosperity. God has not abandoned us just because things haven’t gone like we’ve hoped or even because we haven’t gotten our needs meet. As the story of the Israelites’ wilderness wanderings makes clear, following God does not mean walking an easy path or that everything is straightforward or that we will always have what we need or want, but it does mean knowing that God walks with us, that God is present with us, that God will see us through, and that God will respond to our lack of trust with grace.
As we journey through Lent this year, we are faced with the turmoil and struggles of this life that make us wonder whether the Lord is among us or not. We travel through the ordinary, through the mundane days where we see little signs and wonders that point us to God’s presence. As we just read in our Call to Worship, the Psalmist cries out to us pleading with us not to harden our hearts as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness. The Psalmist calls out for us not to follow in the path of our ancestors, not to test and put God to the proof, since we have seen God at work. We might ask ourselves: what is it that we are thirsting for? What are we longing for? And as privileged people, we may need to ask ourselves: are our bellies full and yet our mouths still open? Are we thirsting for things that are not God? Do we expect God to make us prosper with health, wealth, and happiness? Or do we trust that God’s faithfulness is enough? Do we trust that God’s presence will quench our thirst? Are we thirsting for our leaders to provide things that only God can provide? Or do we trust that the God who has called and formed and made us into God’s people will sustain us as only God can? Do we trust God or not? Do we only want a God who serves us and meets our every need or do we want a relationship with a God whom we are called to serve as well?
When the Israelites bring their complaint to Moses, we can see that their trust problem is actually a memory problem. They look back on the days of being enslaved in Pharaoh’s empire with longing, thinking that at least when they were there, they had water to drink. Their thirst in the moment is all that matters. The longing that they have for water takes over, and they nostalgically wish for the good old days when Pharaoh stuffed them with food and drink so that they could go back to being treated like machines. Oh, ya’ll remember the days when we sweated from early morning until way after the sun had set, the days when we were beaten by Pharaoh’s soldiers? Those were the days! We had so much water to drink then! They’ve forgotten that God has delivered them from Pharaoh’s hand, that God has sustained them so far, and they’ve stopped trusting that God will sustain them now, even in the dry wilderness. God has brought them out of a place where they were only valued for what they could produce and invited them on a journey where they will be valued as God’s beloved, on a journey that will teach them to direct their longings towards God. No one questions whether or not God is present when things are going well, but when we get into a place of desperation, the truth gives way to nostalgia and misremembering, which ultimately leads to mistrust. Do we trust God when we feel like God is absent? Or do we only trust God when we feel like our faith journey is going well, only when the vision is exciting? Can we trust God when we are in the depths of despair, when we feel like God is far from us, when we question whether the Lord is among us or not? Can we trust that God has brought us into the wilderness, into freedom, because God wants to be in relationship with us?
Mother Teresa’s correspondence throughout her life, her letters to confessors and superiors, have recently been published in a book called Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. In her letters, we’ve discovered that throughout much of her life and ministry, she felt God was absent from her. She wrote to one confidant, “The silence, the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.” She wrote a prayer to Jesus, “Lord, my God, who am I that you should forsake me? Where is my faith? Even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness and darkness.” She confessed to her local archbishop Ferdinand Perier, “Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil his work and that Our Lord may show himself –for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead.” He wrote back: “God guides you, dear Mother. You are not so much in the dark as you think ... You have exterior facts enough to see that God blesses your work ... Feelings are not required and often may be misleading.”[i]
How Mother Teresa felt did not keep her from following after God. Though she felt the excruciating pain of God’s absence, though her life caused her to ask many times over whether the Lord was among her or not, Mother Teresa walked with God and gave her life to work among the poor in Calcutta. Mother Teresa, even though she often felt God was far from her, had a deep understanding of how it is God who quenches our thirsts and satisfies our longings and that God longs and thirsts for us, too. She wrote this meditation in the voice of Jesus:
“I know you through and through – I know everything about you. The very hairs of your head I have numbered. I have followed you through the years, and I have always loved you – even in your wanderings. I know every one of your problems. I know your need and your worries…your sins. But I tell you again that I love you – not for what you have or haven’t done – I love you for you, for the beauty and dignity my Father gave you by creating you in his own image. I know what is in your heart – I know your loneliness and all your hurts – the rejections, the judgments, the humiliations. I know especially your need for love – how you are thirsting to be loved and cherished. But how often have you thirsted in vain, by seeking that love selfishly, striving to fill the emptiness inside you with passing pleasures – with even greater emptiness of sin. Do you thirst for love? ‘Come to me all who thirst’ (John 7:37). I will satisfy and fill you. I thirst for you. Yes, that is the only way to even begin to describe my love for you: I thirst for you. I thirst to love and to be loved by you… Come to me, and fill your heart and heal your wounds. No matter how far you may wander, no matter how often you forget me, there is one thing I want you to remember always, one thing that will never change: I thirst for you. You have tried many other things in your search for happiness; why not try opening your heart to me…more than you ever have before. Come to me with your misery and your sins, with your trouble and needs, and with all your longing to be loved. I stand at the door of your heart and knock. Open to me, for I thirst for you.”[ii]
What are you thirsting for that’s not God? What do you hold dearer than Jesus, the living water? What do you think will be more sufficient than God to meet your needs? What things do you cling to that keep you from fully trusting God? Those things probably sound legitimate, reasonable, understandable, but if we want them more than we want God, if we trust them more than we trust God, we have gone astray. God beckons us to remember that God has brought us out of Egypt. God calls us to faithful remembering. God beckons us to trust. God calls us to stay the course even when it feels like God is absent, even when it feels like the Lord isn’t among us. God beckons us to keep journeying through the wilderness and to allow the Rock, the Living Water, the one who thirsts for us, to quench our thirst.