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“Are we there yet?”  

Lent 3, Common Lectionary Year A

Exodus 17:1-7

©2014 Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

Once upon a time, about 20 years ago now, I was part of a Bible study group in Calgary. We had worked our way through Creation, the stories of the patriarchs, and had just finished the story of Passover and the escape from Egypt through the parted Sea. These stories together have a mythic, mystical quality, long-ago and far-away stories for grown ups.

Now we were up to this story, near the beginning of Israel’s 40 year wilderness wandering. It too has that ‘fairy tale’ feel to it, and our group started to have a bit of fun with it. We imagined it a bit like any road trip that us Prairie folk would take. You know how it goes. Pile the kids and the dog in the back of the minivan, Ziploc snack bags, juice boxes, and sing along music cassettes. Multiply that by a few thousand, and you’ve got this journey through the wilderness of Sin!

We imagined the inevitable; when the snacks are long gone, and the first whine from the back seat is heard, “Are we there yet?” followed shortly thereafter by  “I’m hungry!”,  “I’m thirsty” Then, the dreaded….  “ I need to go!” No wonder Moses felt at his wits’ end, we jokingly agreed! We holier- than-them tut-tutted the short-term memory loss of these ungrateful wretches; how soon they forgot God’s merciful protection and miraculous providence and guidance! Thinking it to be a mere side-bar in the grand narrative, we were about to draw some simple pithy spiritual truth – “Trust God to provide”, and move on, when Janet, spoke up.

Janet, was mother to four grown kids and grandma a fistful of grandkids. She was also the lone surviving child of Ukrainian immigrants who had settled on the Saskatchewan prairie. She was old enough to remember her early childhood living through the dustbowl years. Quietly she began to tell us of an entire crop macerated by a hoard of grasshoppers in the space of an hour; she told us of the year, an entire year without a drop of rain; of squeezing water from blades of grass, surviving on goat’s milk, til the goat died. This long-ago, far-away Bible story began to feel close, real. We licked our suddenly parched lips.

Now, Janet was a gentle soul,  she didn’t berate us for our misplaced levity, our “fun” at the Israelites’ expense, but what she told us next has become, for me at least, permanently superscripted upon this story of the Israelites’ thirst. Janet told us that the night her baby brother died, she saw her mother,  a woman of unshakable piety, who prayed daily in the rites of her orthodox tradition, and who kissed an icon every morning and evening, get up from her stool, turn the icon to face the wall, and quote this line, from this text “Is the Lord among us, or not?”

Now that’s real. It’s a terrifying question, “Is God with us, in our midst, or not?” Unlike “Are we there yet?”, no jokes can be made with this one.

“Is God with us, or not?” Faced with the real hardships of real living, seen through the lens of both the biblical and Janet’s story, this has to be the most honest question that faithful people can ask.  “Is the God in the midst of us, or not?”

“How is it possible to speak of a God of love in a world so filled with hate?”

“How is it possible to trust a God of life in the face of a dreaded death? In the face of nameless multitudes in peril?”

“Is God among us, or not?” is the question of gay Ugandans, imprisoned simply for who they are and love.

“Is God among us, or not?” is the question so, so many of us have asked as we watch a loved one, a child, a husband, wife, or mother, father, sister, suffer, from illness of mind or body, or some other affliction of a callous world.

“Is God among us or not?” is the question of the ages.

We know well enough, from this ancient story and the story of our lives, that when life is good, it’s easy to assume that a beneficent God is the source of blessing, grace, mercy. But when the world casts us out into the wilderness, it’s just as easy to lose faith, and ask “is God with us”, or worse, to fear that “God” is some disastrous self-delusion, and that the world is godless, fickle and cruel.

You might think that this short tale has little of substance to offer in response to that deepest, most gut wrenching question.

Moses cries out to God – and God tells Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, strike a rock with the staff with which you  parted the sea, wait for a crystal fountain to gush forth from the rock, then let the people drink.”

But in those few short lines, countless folk have discovered a template for honest living in the midst of faith and doubt, wilderness living.

First, we see complaint; a truthful naming of catastrophe; “We’re thirsty! Why are we in this mess? Where is God?!” Naming catastrophe is the first honest step. Then, we see a prayer – a plea from Moses to God – a crying out to the benign and provident energies of the universe. A defiant cry that ugliness has an enemy called goodness, and we demand its presence.

Then, we see action.   Moses takes his staff – the one with which God has in times past, been known and shown to be present. Janet’s mother in her agonized despair reaches out to touch the icon… Reaching out to grasp onto whatever tangible sign we have in our individual and collective memory of God at work in and among our ancestors, or ourselves, – a dog-eared bible, a parent’s necklace, a half-remembered verse of scripture, whatever it takes to hold on to memories of goodness.

And then Moses performs the great “as if.” He lives “as if” there were water in the desert. He lives “as if” there is a God who cares, a presence of life again to be felt, and claimed. Many of you perhaps know the story of Mother Teresa, seen by so many as the ‘saint of Calcutta’ who, from her diaries, we now discover, performed most of her incredible works of mercy as a great “as if”.  Not sure of the answer to the question “Is God among us or not?” She lived as if God is. She wrote that she lived clinging blindly to her belief that it was up to her to show in her body and soul, “the love of an infinite, thirsty God.”

How much more honest can we be with this question than that?

One more thing to take from this text; All of this story happened and happens in the wilderness, in the place of testing, and complaint, in the midst of life, in the thick of trouble, in the absence of safety, long before sight of any promised land. It is lived knowing we are “Not there yet.” It is lived as a great “as if” by our works of mercy, blessing, peace, faith, love,  light, and hope, God is known again, present in the midst of a wilderness world.

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