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The Real Question isn’t about Water (or toilet paper!)

17th after Pentecost, Common Lectionary Year A

Exodus 17:1-7

©2020 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones

Introduction to scripture
Scripture reading
Sermon video

HOLY ONE, the words I speak, and the thoughts and feelings we each experience,
be somehow, by your amazing grace,
touched by wisdom, filled with possibility and hope
for the living of our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ,
we pray for our sake and the sake of the world. Amen.

For all parents–and kids–
who have done the long road trip, this story is for you!
You remember how it goes
(or went in the days before pandemic),
after a tire check and a fill up,
you pile the kids, and the dog, into the van,
and back in my day, before in-car videos,
we packed the sing-along cassettes,
and the Just-so-stories and Roald Dahl,
water bottles, and snacks sweet and salty, and hit the road.

Before long, the first whine from the back seat is heard,
“Are we nearly there yet?”
After way too short a time, the wail turns to
“I’m hungry!”…
and then
“I’m thirsty!” …
and then, the dreaded
“I need to go…”

This is pretty much the story of Exodus 15 and 16,
almost like a pantomime in its comedy,
whining about lack of water, whining about lack of bread,
the taste of the bread, the boniness of the miraculous quail,
whining about the length of the journey,
and Moses at his wits’ end,
no longer thinking the Almighty’s idea of a road trip
was a good one, as the people turn on him, threateningly…
(though, perhaps with justification,
for as someone in our midrash study this week pointed out,
“He may have had a hotline to God,
but he was directionally challenged.”
And after all, who would decide to stop the caravan
at an empty truck stop where the lights are out and
the plumbing doesn’t work?

But was the whining, the wailing, the question
really about water?
Or is something deeper at play?

It was a woman called Irena who, 30 years ago now,
turned this text, and me, in a way I’ll never forget.
Irena was the sole surviving child of Ukrainian immigrants
who had settled the Saskatchewan prairie in the dustbowl years.
She told us of an entire crop macerated
by a plague of grasshoppers in the space of an hour;
she told us of the year, an entire year without a drop of rain;
of licking dew off the barn roof,
and surviving on goat’s milk, til the goat died.
For, without water, things don’t live.
She told us of the night her baby brother died.
She saw her mother, a woman of unshakeable faith,
who prayed daily in the rites of her orthodox tradition,
and who kissed an icon every morning and evening,
walk, with the child’s body in her arms, to the icon,
and turned its face to the wall, crying
“Is God among us, or not?”

Now that’s real.
It’s a terrifying question,
“Is God with us, or not?”

As we turned the text on Wednesday night,
the mood went deep, fast,
when one spoke of the vulnerability and uncertainty
during the Ice Storm of 1998,
others began to pull from their traumatic memories
of being lost in strange surroundings,
the sense of forboding of going to school in the morning,
during the Cuban missile crisis,
worried they’d not be alive to come home.
Is God with us or not?
There were those who remember the terrifying sense of
invisible danger during the polio epidemic of 1945.
Is God with us or not?
We know Syrians, Congolese, Nigerians, Haitians
who have shared with us the hell that is war,
and the purgatory of waiting for others
to decide if they have a future in refuge and safety.
Is God with us or not?
Many of you, of us, know too well the faith assaulting
trauma of living the long-goodbye as a loved one endures
terminal illness.
Is God with us or not?
And then there’s 2020.
Climate change and its terrifying, already present ramifications;
a novel coronavirus that has the entire globe in its grip,
laying bare for all to see
the cracks and polarizing chasms
in our culture and civilisation
as too many do not think Black, or brown,
or Indigenous or gay or poor lives matter.
Is God with us or not?

Is it any wonder we are railing at our leaders
as they seem either not to care
or not to know how to deal with the virus,
how to heal the gaping wounds of society.
It is any wonder some of us are trying to wrest back
control of our lives with the purchase of yeast, flour,
and toilet paper?
But we know it’s not about the toilet paper, really is it?
It’s really the haunting question of the ages:
Is God with us or not?

I think some of us wonder if this text
just lays bare the question,
or if perhaps it also offers
the seeds of a possible response.

First, there is the complaint; a truthful naming of catastrophe;
“There is no water!”
“My child is dead”
“The pandemic, the hurricane, the fires, the disaster will undo us!”
“I can’t breathe!.”
“Where is God?!”
There is power in honest lamentation.
Without it we have no cause to move us.
Lamentation is a crying out to the
benign and provident energies of the universe.
A defiant cry that ugliness, evil, catastrophe,
has an enemy called goodness, and we demand its presence.

And the Goodness answers, and calls forth from
Moses a small yet dramatically symbolic act:
“Moses, this is your Gandalf moment.
Take the staff you’ve used to do good things before
(it was the rod he used when the Nile turned to blood,
the one he held above the waters of the Reed Sea,
the staff with which he’d shepherded the flocks in Midian).
Take it and strike rock with it, until there is water for the people to drink.

And Moses performs the great “as if”
in the face of their doubt, and perhaps his own too.
He lives “as if” there were water in the desert.
He lives “as if” there is a God
who is with them,
who cares, and who can provide
what is needful for life to be possible,
and full, again.

And this great “as if” is what the people of God
have been doing ever since.
Irena’s mother reaches out to touch the icon.
People gathered and shared food and heat with one another,
when the ice gripped for weeks.
We sang hymns “as if” God is with us on the Titanic,
we sang in the bomb shelters,
we sang in the catacombs, and the lion’s dens,
we sang our great “as if” God heard us
by the rivers of Babylon, and in slave pens of Egypt.

We sang it, we sing it, we act it, we live it,
this great “as if” God is with us,
even, and especially, when we’re not so sure ourselves,
because if we don’t,
there will be plenty among us, and beyond us,
who can only answer the question,
“Is God with us?”
with a tragic lament:
“No, God has abandoned us.”

But as I said 23 weeks ago now;
this may be our first plague, but it’s not God’s.
God is with us
in this pandemic,
this climate crisis,
this crisis of civil society,
this polarized animosity,
in whatever more personal pain and trial
that may be happening in our families.

And we know so, because each time
we take up the staff and live “as if”,
when we hold on to the tiny practices of our faith,
touching an icon, greeting the morning sun as a gift,
ending the day with a practice of gratitude,
donating or volunteering at food banks, tutoring programmes,
social justice advocacy groups, whenever we care for the planet
and treat each other with kindness,
that is when our “as if” may be that one sign
another needs to see,
in order to answer the haunting question
“Is God with us or not?”
with, “Yes. God is with us,
in the lives of God’s people.”

May it be so, in each of us. Amen.

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