March 12, 2023 Hamilton Coe Throckmorton
Exodus 17:1-7 The Federated Church, UCC
I’m guessing at least a few of you play Wordle, a word game distributed by the New York Times. Every day, your task is to guess the letters of one five-letter word. And you have six tries to do it, starting from scratch. There’s only one Wordle per day, so you can’t waste your whole day doing it. And the game keeps track of your statistics and how many Wordles in a row you’ve solved. And it’s fun. Except when it isn’t! The other day, I was working on a nice winning streak and was hoping to keep it going. But I failed—I couldn’t figure out the word for the day with my allotted six guesses. And I was ticked! Not the slightest bit happy about being thwarted. I grumbled and moaned about it. I may even have stomped my feet!
So if I can grumble and moan about that, just imagine what it must be like for our predecessors in faith, those ancient Israelites. You may remember that they’ve been enslaved by the Egyptians for a long time, but that, by the grace of God, they’ve been miraculously allowed to escape to freedom. The promise is that they will eventually have their own homeland. But before they get there, they wander in the wilderness. And as they do, they are not at all happy about their meager existence. In today’s story they’re miffed that they don’t have enough water. So they complain. Or as the King James Version puts it, they “murmur” (17:3).
Nor is this the only time they murmur and complain. Repeatedly, as they wander in this wilderness, they’re not happy with the way things have turned out, and they’re not at all shy about expressing it. They’d rather be back in the clutches of Egypt than continue their deprivation in the wasteland. Or at least that’s what they think. So they murmur.
And truth be told, so do we. We murmur about Wordle games that thwart us. We grumble about ungrateful children or irritating parents. We mumble that life seems unfair: how come I don’t have the looks of my sister, the brilliance of my roommate, the same luck in life as my brother? My co-worker, who was hired at the same time I was, has risen faster in the ranks than I have. I got cancer and my rival just skates along untouched. My house just flooded, or burned, while my obnoxious neighbor always seems unscathed. There’s plenty that makes us murmur.
Shortly after college, I had a job as a landscaper for a family who had a summer place on an island just off Plymouth, MA. One week, my task was to remove the rocks from a circular patch of dirt so I could plant a rose garden there. I worked the entire week digging rocks out of the dirt, and when Friday afternoon came, I looked at that patch of ground and couldn’t see that I had made any dent in it at all. It still seemed full of rocks. And I sat on the edge of that dirt circle and wept. It’s fair to say I was murmuring, discouraged as could be by my apparent lack of progress and, more deeply, by my life that didn’t seem to be going at all the way I might have planned it.
Oh, I know what it is to murmur. And I’m betting you do, too. And underneath those grumbling words, those impatient sighs, there always lurks the spiritual issue. It’s the question that bedevils the Israelites in this story and so many others: “Is God among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7).
Strangely, the story is not critical of the people’s murmuring. At other places in the Bible, the contrariness of the people is criticized. It appears that God eventually wearies of their carping. But here there’s not a hint of any disparagement by God or Moses. The discouragement and grumbling of the people are accepted at face value, as if to say, ‘This is what people do.’ It seems to be a kind of validation of the human need to express the disappointment and displeasure that are an inevitable part of life. The fact that God is silent about their complaining is a kind of confirmation of the need to express what’s most on our hearts and minds. Don’t bottle it up. Let your disappointment out. Be straightforward about it. It’s seldom if ever healthy to pretend there’s nothing wrong. Murmur. Murmur to your heart’s content.
At the same time, though, something is incomplete when all there is is a murmur. If we murmur and leave it at that, we’ve truncated the process of dealing with our frustrations. It’s worth remembering that these ancient Israelites are on the move. They’re not stagnant. They are essentially pilgrims. Pilgrims are people who are, in some sense, on the move toward or with God. If you do a pilgrimage on the Camina de Santiago in Spain, you’re trusting that the movement itself will lead to some sort of encounter with God. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress conveys that the journey is part of what it is to follow Jesus. Pilgrims move. And their very physical movement is symbolic of their spiritual movement—the journey toward and with God.
So our murmuring, our complaining, is part of the journey to God. We likely are never able to come close to God unless God knows all of us, the joyous parts and the struggles. Part of our pilgrimage is, as we say, to be honest with God, to express the frustration and dismay. The murmuring is never the whole story, though. Pilgrims move. So part of what we do as people of faith is to move out of the murmuring and to move into trust. As the Israelites journey and murmur, it happens that God promises that there will be water for their thirst. Take your staff with you, says God to Moses. “You are to strike the rock,” says God. “Water will gush out of it and the people will drink” (17:6, The Message).
We noted a couple of weeks ago that God isn’t necessarily in the business of answering every request from the people, as though if we just ask for it, God will provide what we want. And it may seem as though God is doing precisely what we said God doesn’t do by answering their request and providing water for their parched journey. In this case, though, there’s a different feel to the divine response. What God seems to be doing here is reminding the people that they are never as bereft as they may feel. God’s provision of water here has about it a little of the feel of “kwicherbichen”: ‘Enough already! You keep acting as though I never do anything for you. Have you forgotten that I led you out of captivity in Egypt?! Have you forgotten that the last time you grumbled on this very same wilderness journey, just a short while ago, I gave you manna from heaven to sustain you in your hunger?! (Exodus 16) Come on, people! This murmuring is wearying! Have a little trust, for God’s sake, or rather, I should say, for my sake.’ Or so we might imagine God saying.
What God’s gift of water does is convey to the people that, even in their worst moments, even when they may feel totally abandoned, God is attending to them and providing for them. And so often, this is what we may have a hard time believing. It’s this movement on the pilgrimage that may elude us, this movement to the recognition that there is grace even in our misery, that, as St. Ignatius of Loyola put it, there is consolation even in our desolation.
One of the most alluring of temptations, it seems to me, is to give in to the notion that we don’t have much: I don’t have the income she has, I don’t have the prestige he has, I don’t have the house they have. My life, we may think, is a living hell!
While there will inevitably be hellish parts to all of our lives, what God says to us is: there’s always manna for your hunger, there’s always water for your thirst. One way to frame this is to say that we have a choice. We can see our lives through a lens of scarcity. Or we can see them through a lens of abundance. We can key in on just the struggles and challenges, and mope about what we see as our awful luck. Or we can be on that pilgrimage and focus on the beauty and tenderness and affection and support and wonder that are always being showered on us by the Creator. Scarcity? Or abundance?
As we say, this doesn’t mean we don’t acknowledge our suffering, that we don’t weep and wail at the losses that will always come to us. What it means is that we don’t live exclusively in that place, that we don’t give in to seeing the world as an enemy out to get us, but that we see it as the magical gift it truly is.
Years ago, Mary was climbing New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington with her family. It’s the third highest mountain in the eastern half of the country and it’s a significant climb, and Mary’s mother found it a daunting challenge. As they climbed, she was grumbling to herself about how hard it was. We might say murmuring. Suddenly, as she approached the peak, she looked up to see a man coming down the mountain. He had one leg and was adroitly using his crutches to descend. And Mary’s mother had an abrupt change of heart. And not another peep was heard from her as they continued their ascent. Seeing this man with one leg had totally reframed her attitude. Now this climb came to be a life-giving pilgrimage. She saw it as a blessing for her to be able to climb, a gift to have a body that was whole and healthy, a joy to be filled by that exhilarating mountain air. Scarcity? Or abundance?
At several points over the years, Federated has engaged in a process of Appreciative Inquiry, developed by former church member, David Cooperrider. Its great gift is its reframing of our natural tendency to see the negative, and to get us to focus instead on the positive. Instead of criticizing some perceived fault, AI teaches us to look at our strengths and to build from there. In a day and age when churches all over the country are folding at an unprecedented rate, and in which this church, too, has taken a hit in terms of numbers, AI reminds us that there is nothing at all to be gained by standing around for decades with arms folded, stewing in our perceived losses and itemizing the ways we imagine we once had it better and we’ve now been done wrong. Instead, what we do is look at the water that has come to this very church from the proverbial stone. We see a lively commitment to various dimensions of justice work. We see ongoing engagement with mission projects that make an incalculable difference. We see last Sunday’s initial gathering of a middle school youth group and twenty-one kids attending and full of joy. We see members and friends visited in their loneliness, flowers delivered to those who are homebound, bereaved people comforted in their sorrow. We see choirs singing and playing glorious music. We see a church beautifully led by laity, and superbly guided by staff. We see laughter and tears and embracing. So we don’t look endlessly at what we imagine we’re missing. We look at what is here and happening now, and we ask ourselves, “How can we build on that? What can we do and be to enhance these already striking gifts?” Scarcity? Hardly! It’s an overflowing abundance!
And even if we didn’t want to take that approach of abundance for our own sake, it might be incentive enough to realize that no newcomer would want to be part of any church whose modus operandi was one of moping and sniping and pining for some longed-for good old days. What people want to be part of is a place where joy overflows, where hope lives into grace, where love fills the air with tender care. Even if we couldn’t see the point of living into our abundance for ourselves, we can embody such a manner for the sake of those who have yet to find us. We can learn not to gripe about our weariness and thirst, but rather to expect a soothing and nourishing water to come from the rock as God makes it to happen. “Is God among us or not?” ask the people (17:7). Scarcity? Or abundance? And the answer is: abundance that takes the breath away.
A neighbor of mine, whom I’ll call Dave, a man for whom I have the highest regard, has three sons. With the oldest of them, he had had a somewhat rocky relationship. The middle child, Tom, was something of an enigma to Dave and his wife. They eventually learned that Tom had been conning them for years. Then several years ago, early one morning, Dave got a call from the Justice Center in Cleveland, where Tom had been taken into custody. He had been dealing party drugs, and had been arrested when the police discovered a significant amount of mushrooms that Tom intended to sell at a party. As you can imagine, my neighbor Dave was pretty undone by discovering this about his son. He wondered how it had gone so wrong. And deep down he wondered whether what he had done as a father had somehow contributed to the problem. That evening, after his son Tom’s arrest, he was sitting in the den with his third son, Adam. He describes it as the lowest moment of his life. Dave slowly got to his feet to leave, and Adam, then a boy in his teens, got up and went to Dave. He put his arms around his father and said, “Dad, you are a great father.” And Adam turned and left the room.
Dave was stunned and deeply moved by this unexpected gesture from his youngest son. Somehow Adam had sensed his father’s inner anguish and knew, in that moment, that he needed to affirm him. Dave was parched and thirsty in this arid land of his. And in his son’s tender embrace and affirmation, the waters of grace had gushed forth from the rock. “Is God among us or not?” (17:7), he might well have wondered. And there, in the arms of his sensitive son, he found his rich and gracious answer. Scarcity? Hardly! He had received an abundance of the first order. And it was enough. Indeed, it was very good.
That’s true for us, as well—as individuals, and as a church. Life can so easily fall apart. And grumble we may. But beyond the grumbling and murmuring there is a fullness and grace that is always being poured out. May we tap into it. May we be filled by it. May we find in it our peace and our purpose. For water will gush from the rock. And God will provide. Now. And now. And now.