I preached this sermon on Sunday, September 28. A family of ours is facing a hard situation in regards to their children’s health, a situation that hangs heavy in our hearts as a congregation. Rather than avoid it, I decided to preach about it. Read the scripture it springs from here.
They had been wandering for days on end. Leaving the desert of Sin, not sin in the way we think of our brokenness, but Sin, the name of a place, for the next stop on what seemed like an endless journey. They stop in Rephidim. We don’t know where it is today. In fact, we don’t know much about it all, other than what the scriptures tell us, which is pretty simple, really. There wasn’t any water.
We get thirsty these days, but our general thirst that grows as we work out in the yard or are jogging isn’t quite the same. We know, on the whole, that our physical thirst will be sated. That just inside our kitchens is a faucet that pours out clean water whenever we want it.
But, of course, the Israelites didn’t bring the kitchen sink with them. In fact, in their flee from enslavement in Egypt, they snagged just what they needed. So the water they have was either water they brought with them or water they found along the way. Tradition holds that when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, that there were more than two million of them, not counting their livestock. That would be like the city of Cleveland and it’s metro area heading across the desert looking for Promised Land.
Not only are they thirsty, but the scope of the problem, the scope of that thirst is enormous.
So when the people come to Moses and say, “Give us water to drink,” which, you’ll notice, isn’t a kind request. Actually, you could translate the Hebrew to be more demanding. Something more like: Give us water to drink RIGHT NOW.” Anyway, the Israelites are desperate. And so is Moses, who comes across, at least in my mind as little defensive: “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” To which they shot back, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” I like this little exchange because everyone just seems so human—the people, their leader, everyone—no one really willing to take the blame, but the fact remained that the people needed water. So Moses cries out to God, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” Before we move on, let me just assure you that I’ve never asked God that question on your behalf, and I am confident that you have never wanted to stone me, right? RIGHT?
In any case, Moses asks God what to do, and God tells him to take the staff he struck the Nile with (which turned the waters to blood, you remember), and strike this rock at Horeb from which water will flow and the people can drink. And the scriptures tell us, simply, “Moses did so.” There’s no grand speech as Moses approaches that rock, no geyser that jets forth from what seems to be solid stone. Some scholars say that it’s implied in the scriptures that what God said would happen came to pass. But it seems to me that this story that is so often interpreted as a story about God’s ability to make something out of nothing, a story about God’s literally awe-some power, is really a story about something else altogether.
The scriptures continue, “He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Massah is rooted in the Hebrew for test and Meribah for quarrel. Indicating that what was important about that place wasn’t God’s remarkable ability to make the something out of nothing, remarkable as it is; but rather, the importance of that place was the struggle, the uncertainty summed up in the question the Israelites leave us with: “Is God among us or not?”
Truthfully, it’s a question that we’re confronted with more than we realize: Is God among us or not. There are certainly times when we can confidently answer that question, when we can boldly proclaim that yes, God is with us. Last Sunday’s worship, for instance, was a moment we did just that—a moment when we sang and blessed and prayed and ate. The Spirit, God’s Holy Spirit, was undoubtedly with us. Together, around that table, we sang, “We are standing on Holy Ground…” and friends, it was true. We were standing on holy ground. The next day, I got up early and packed by bag to head to Kansas City for a conference. I was flying out of Providence that afternoon, but before I headed to the airport, I headed to Boston.
Last week, I told you that one of our dear families had a particularly difficult week. Both B. and C. were struggling at Boston’s Children’s hospital. What I couldn’t quite convey to you was just how sick they were, particularly B. Last Saturday, when I went to visit them in Boston, we spent a lot of time talking about next steps, about God’s love for us and for those dear children, about how unfair it all way. At one point, I heard myself saying, “It’s OK for you to be pissed at God. Cuss him out if you want to. He can take it.”
I left that Saturday to head to the open house we had for our visiting preacher Bill Fine and his wife, Sarah. And on the drive home, I found myself in a bit of daze–a wilderness of my own, I suppose. Monday, as I loaded my suitcase into my car and headed back to the city, my mind wandered all about that wilderness. I headed back to Boston to sit in on a meeting with B. and C.’s parents and the medical team caring for their family. And I mean team. When the meeting started, the three of us sat at one end of a table, surrounded by twenty people in that room alone. The spent the next hour discussing options, discerning what next steps to take. Before I left for Providence, I stopped by B’s room, then C’s. Each time, I placed my hand gently on their head and prayed, “God, hold this child, ease their pain, calm their anxiety, help them feel your love.” I made a cross on their forehead with my thumb, and headed to the elevator.
Walking to the parking deck, I thought “Where’s God in this?” and the question any good preacher searches to answer, “Where’s the Good News, where’s the Gospel in this?” Really, the question I was searching to answer is the one the Israelites put before us today: Is God near us or not? It sure didn’t seem like it. Besides the world falling apart around us, there was a family sitting in an 11th floor meeting room deciding when they could bring their children home for the last time.
When I visited them that Saturday, I took a bunch of blankets our stitchers made and we prayed over to them—enough for each member of the family to have, and one large one that Carol Ryley’s mom made that they could all fit under together. Mom and Dad, and siblings J. and W. and I headed too the garden. In the elevator, I asked J. if she wanted to wear her blanket like Elsa in Frozen. “YES!” she excitedly answered. I took two corners, and tied the blanket around her neck. She ran out the doors and around the garden, freezing everything in sight.
That, I know now, is when God was near us. God was near us then, sitting in that sunshine as we spoke of the unspeakable, God was and is in every phone call of concern one of you makes that shows your care; God is in the way this congregation’s heart collectively broke for them last Sunday; God was in the tears we shed.
And God is in more than the sad things. God is in the hope we sense; God is in this community that we are part of; God is in the blessings you pour out on one another time and again. God is among us, whispering to us over and over, “Remember the story.”
Do you remember the story? The story of how the word became flesh and dwelt among us. Of how light entered the darkness and how the darkness did not overcome it. A story of love and forgiveness, of doubt and uncertainty, of healing and grace. And a story of death, not just metaphorical death, but death. And the story of resurrection, of new life.
Friends, that’s the Good News, God is indeed among us. Thanks be to God.
Wonderful pastoral sermon, Jon! Blessings to you, the family, your congregation. Everyone deserves the prayer you prayed over the children. “God, hold this child, ease their pain, calm their anxiety, help them feel your love.” +