Holy God, with You is the water that gushes up to eternal life. Guide us to the spring of Your unfailing grace, and teach us to make the way known to all who yearn for Your love. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Streaks of radiant color brighten the horizon: purple, then scarlet and gold. Dawn arrives. Sunlight glints on dewy grasses and flowering shrubs. The air is cool and fresh; the path before us is well trodden, edged with wildflowers. We set out into a world of staggering beauty. But the sun grows hotter, and the path changes: it becomes more rugged, the soil under our feet turns to loose shale, the pitch grows steeper. We realize we’ve been climbing, focusing more and more intently as we seek secure footing. Rolling vistas have given way to rocky outcroppings that seem to hem us in. We grow fatigued, anxious. Undergrowth has obscured the path, and we have to make our way through thorns and thickets. We look up and remember: we’re journeying through wilderness.
Long ago, Moses led the Israelites out of slavery. Egyptian overlords had crushed their spirit, traumatizing them for 430 years—until the Lord sent Moses to lead them to freedom. The Lord unleashed plagues against the Egyptian empire: water turned to blood; frogs, gnats, and flies; pestilence and boils; hail, locusts, thick darkness. The tenth plague, death of the Egyptian firstborn, had finally broken the yoke of Pharaoh. That dark night when the Israelites left Egypt, Scripture says they went out “boldly, defiantly,” determined to live the covenant life to which God had called them. They reached the Red Sea with the Egyptian army thundering after them. Moses had struck the water with his staff, and the Red Sea had parted: walls of water towered over the Israelites as they crossed over on dry ground. They had seen the miracle the Lord performed on that day: looking back, they saw the walls of water crash down on those who would have dragged them back into slavery. Israel journeys on into the wilderness singing! Day by day, they learn that they have everything they need: fresh water and quails, manna that tastes like honey on the tongue, and the glory of the Lord among them, a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night.
They’re headed for a land “flowing with milk and honey,” a veritable Garden of Eden where they can flourish as a community faithful to their God. But first, they have to make it through “that great and terrible wilderness.” The ordeal of the journey begins to occlude their vision. Threats and deprivation menace from every side. As the weeks go by, images of the Garden of Eden fade; some wake up screaming from nightmares about “a land that devours its inhabitants.” This whole time, the Lord is among them. But, you know, fear can make you forget.
In our Exodus lesson, the Israelites are once again overcome by fear.
Resilience spent, they look out on a terrain that is utterly barren.
No milk. No honey. And no fresh water.
Fear rises from subterranean depths. A fear they had come to know well during their enslavement, it had gripped their hearts and colonized their minds for as long as they could remember. It followed them out of Egypt, shadowy and insidious. Now here it is again, whispering a monstrous thought:
maybe their God has abandoned them.
Do you wonder how they have lost faith so quickly?
Well, here’s something to think about. A huge number of Israelites fled Egypt: 601,730 slaves have followed Moses into the wilderness. Imagine it: throngs of refugees, as far as the eye can see! Moses is somewhere up ahead. Looks like he’s speaking and hitting something with his staff, but Israelites even a few hundred yards away can’t hear what he’s saying; the ones at the back of the camp are miles away. Then it happens—the miracle that everyone wants so desperately:
water gushes from the rock—
a fountain flooding into this wilderness!
Those next to Moses feel the torrent of fresh water splashing their faces, drenching their clothes. Laughing, they cup their hands and let the cold water jet over their fingers. Rejoicing, they drink deeply and call others forward. Some of them start to sing, and fear evaporates like dew in the morning sun. They know the Lord is there! Something shifts in their spirit, and they remember:
the Lord has always been there.
But some in the crowd hear “water” and don’t understand that there’s enough for everyone. They press forward to get theirs before it dries up. They push and shove, jostle someone out of the way who’s too slow. Anxiety mounts in the crowd—frail people and little ones are at risk of being trampled. Farther back in the throng, others glimpse the commotion but have no idea what’s going on. Some are sure that Pharaoh’s soldiers have ambushed them. The memory of enslavement has them trapped in fear. Instead of moving toward the gushing water, they start looking for places to hide.
“Is the Lord among us, or not?” It’s a life-or-death question.
Three thousand years ago, the Israelites asked the question like this: הֲיֵ֧שׁ יְהוָ֛ה בְּקִרְבֵּ֖נוּ אִם־אָֽיִן
“Are we truly free? Or will we die in this wilderness, alone and forgotten?”
These days in Essex, Connecticut, we might ask the question like this:
“Will our planet be saved from the devastation of climate change?”
“What about the coronavirus? Millions of refugees and others are at risk across the globe: how are we going to solve that?”
“What about older folks who have no one to check on them?”
“What about the children who don’t have enough to eat today?”
“Is the Lord among us, or not?”
Friends, the Gospel says yes,
SHOUTS a cosmic YES to the One who is Life itself!
Scripture shows us life in community,
life spent journeying toward the promise of new life,
week after week, month after month, year after year.
The wilderness is real, with its steep paths and its staggering beauty.
Our fear can sometimes occlude our memory of God’s grace—that manna melting like honey on our tongues.
But life in community means we journey together. We scramble over loose shale together, push through thorns and thickets together, helping each other remember the liberation we have in our God!
We get exhausted and anxious sometimes. There are matters of concern facing us.
But we have each other, and make no mistake: the Lord is among us!
We stand together, bearing witness to the water gushing from the rock, the torrent of God’s mighty love!
After this morning, we won’t gather at this altar for a while.
So until we are back together in this beautiful sanctuary, I want you to remember the water of Life gushing from the rock, the endless torrent of God’s love for you and for the whole world!
Now, to stay healthy, we’ll all be washing our hands a lot.
How about this: every time you wash your hands, every time the water splashes over your fingers, let it remind you of water from the rock.
Let it be a sign of God’s mighty deliverance and unfailing love for you!
Dawn will come. It always does.
Streaks of color will brighten the horizon.
And we’ll journey on, singing to the One who is Resurrection and Life, the One who is Living Water:
Jesus Christ, to whom be all honor, glory, and praise, now and forever. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Carolyn J. Sharp
15 March 2020
Exodus 17:1–7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1–11; John 4:5–42
Preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Essex, Connecticut
- NJPS translates the prepositional phrase at Exodus 14:8,בְּיָ֥ד רָמָֽה , lit. “with a high hand,” as “boldly, defiantly.”
- The books of Deuteronomy and Joshua narrate horrific harms perpetrated by Moses, Joshua, and Israelite troops against Canaanite indigenous groups, including noncombatants. Spiritual damage has been done to countless readers by the biblical ideology of divinely sanctioned genocidal violence and by uncritical reception of that ideology in some streams of Jewish and Christian interpretation over the centuries. Contemporary believers must wrestle with the repellent tradition that God commanded the extermination of indigenes and “gave” their homes, fields, and possessions to Israelite invaders. The moral and spiritual challenges posed by this biblical material must be addressed, whether or not the reader is persuaded that the Israelite occupation of the central hill country of Palestine historically came about through a massive one-time invasion or, as most scholars believe, through gradual settlement marked by cultural memories of local skirmishes. For sustained engagement of these issues in light of Native studies, see my 2019 commentary on Joshua in the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary series. This footnote expresses my conviction that it is ethically wrong to cite the motif of God leading Israel to the “Promised Land”—in a sermon or anywhere else—without acknowledging the violence wrought by holy-war ideology.
- See Exodus 15 for the Song of Moses and the Song of Miriam.
- See Exodus 3:8, 17; 13:5; 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; and many times in Numbers, Deuteronomy, and other biblical books.
- הַמִּדְבָּ֣ר הַגָּדוֹל֩ וְהַנּוֹרָ֙א, Deuteronomy 1:19; 8:15.
- Deuteronomy 1:19; Numbers 13:32.
After writing this sermon, I was delighted to discover beautiful wilderness imagery in a homily of the medieval German Dominican mystic Johannes Tauler (1300–1361). Preaching on 1 Peter 3:8, possibly in Basel in 1338 or shortly thereafter, Tauler is describing stages of the inward contemplative journey toward union with God: “We attain the first stage, that of jubilation, by reflecting on the wondrous tokens of love which God has so marvelously granted to us in Heaven and on earth; the abundance of favors God has shown to us and to all His creatures; how all nature—verdant and blossoming—is filled with His glory; how He has flooded the whole of creation with His unfathomable mercy; and the great gifts He gave to [humanity], how He has sought [us] out, guided and enriched [us]; how He invited and taught [us] and watched over [us] with patience…. When we reflect on all this with profound love, a great and active joy will be born in us…. Be of good cheer. The Lord is not far away. Cling to the rock of the true and living faith.” See Sermon 40 in Johannes Tauler: Sermons (translated by Maria Shrady; Classics of Western Spirituality; New York: Paulist Press, 1985), 142; emphasis added.