Life from the Lifeless

Exodus 17:1-7

“Is the LORD among us or not?”

This, I think, speaks to the heart of the matter, not just for this particular story, but the grand story as well. 

This is what was at the root of their worry when they found themselves between an army and a sea, this was at the root when they arrived at Marah to refill their water skins only to find out that the water was undrinkable and they complained to Moses. This was the root when they were out of food and they complained to Moses. This is the root here when they arrive at a camp, and find that there is no water and they complain to Moses again. Moses understandably gets frustrated, because none of this was his idea, he was kind of pushed into this whole thing kicking and screaming. 

They took up their beef with Moses because he was there. He was leading them. He was flesh and blood and they could see him and hear him. But their complaints weren’t really with Moses, and I wonder if they knew it deep down, too. Their complaints were with God. 

And so it gets to the question “is the LORD among us or not?”

It’s a question that is asked so many times, with varying objects. 

It is a salient question now, as well, with the pandemic, with the social unrest, with the cultural clash, the political firestorm. The economy is  still tenuous and much of life is uncertain. Is the Lord among us, or not? 

***

At times, we find ourselves looking at the Israelites in the wilderness in a negative way. Looking down on them. Assuming that, if we were in their shoes, we would understand what was going on. We would be able to trust in God. We would get it. 

But if we focus on the Israelites and their testing and their complaints, I wonder if we are missing the point. On the one hand, of course, these complaints are extremely valid. In that region, you get dehydrated without even realizing it. The dry desert air almost wicks moisture out of your body, and even before you realize that you’re thirsty, you are violently ill and in need of IV fluids. And so this was a legitimate concern, because without water, they will die. But, on the other hand, I wonder if the point is not so much the people and their character, but the character of God. I wonder if the point of the story is God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. I wonder if the point is that God can take their complaining, their testing, their questioning, their doubting. I wonder if the point is that rather than sending plagues to punish them, God sends them water — God sends them life. 

I wonder if the amazing thing, the big thing is not so much the fact that God provides water, but that God provided water from a rock. That God brought forth life in the middle of a lifeless desert. That living water can gush forth from something as seemingly lifeless as a rock. 

And this is the amazing thing. Water comes from a rock, a valley of dry bones come back to life, a people who are nearly obliterated continue to exist. And a dead man can come back to life three days later. God can bring life to a place which seems otherwise lifeless. We saw last week that miracles and gifts can show up in unexpected ways and the same remains true here as well. 

But I wonder if we have the same questions. If we have the same wonderings. “Is the LORD among us or not?” 

We may not be in need of water here in the northeast, but we most certainly have times when we wonder if God is among us. Is God with us? Is God going to show up? Is God going to remain with us? Or will God, at some point give up on us? 

***

And so the ancient people wanted a sign. They wanted confirmation that God was with them. And so they received water. Rather than the manna which left them looking at it and each other and saying, “what is it?” the Israelites now received something closer to what they had in mind this time. But even more important, I think, than the water was the way that it came. 

And it is out of this, out of this rock, this seemingly lifeless rock that streams of living water poured. Abraham and Sarah had a child long after that ship had sailed. Hebrews tells us that these two people were “as good as dead,” and from them a nation came. St. John tells us that when Jesus was being crucified, his side was pierced and water and blood flowed out, water came from near lifelessness. And after three days, life emerged from the dark and cold abyss of death. 

The answer to the question, “Is the LORD among us or not” is not so much in the thing, but in the thing signified. Not so much in the water itself, but in the life from a barren place. 

And so we are invited into this as well. Not demanding that water pour out of a rock, but we are invited into seeing God’s work of bringing life out of seemingly lifeless places. 

The signs of the Divine abound around us. The invitation for us is to notice them. To step aside, as Moses did which got this whole thing moving, and notice. To notice these signs of life. 

Because if we can see some of these, if we can pay attention to them, notice them. Perhaps we can find the trust in God’s limitless love and faithfulness. Perhaps we can come to see that God will not tire of us and leave us behind, that God will journey with us whether we traverse the desert, or a lush vineyard. 

And perhaps we will be able to help others to see this life which can spring from the unlikeliest of places. And I wonder, where might new life be springing in you? Where might life be gushing out around you? Where might there be a river of life flowing from a place which is tired and seemingly lifeless? In you? In your family? In our communities? In our church? 

Where in the midst of all this arid space, when we are tired and weary and stressed and burned out, even now, might there be life flowing in or around us?

I think of this great hymn, the text of which was written by William Williams in 1745:

Guide me, O Thou great Redeemer
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but Thou art mighty,
Hold me with Thy powerful hand.
Bread of heaven, Bread of heaven,
Feed me till I want no more;
Feed me till I want no more.

Open now the crystal fountain,
Whence the healing stream doth flow;
Let the fire and cloudy pillar
Lead me all my journey through.
Strong Deliverer, strong Deliverer,
Be Thou still my Strength and Shield;
Be Thou still my Strength and Shield.

“Is the LORD among us or not?”

This is an honest question. And this is a fine question. This is a question that we ought not be too afraid or too timid to ask. Asking the question isn’t the difficult part. The challenge for us, is can we look and listen for the answer?

Published by Matthew van Maastricht

Matthew serves as the pastor and teacher of the Altamont Reformed Church in Altamont, New York. He is a Fellow of the Reformed Church Center at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, and teaches for New Brunswick Theological Seminary. His particular interests are church history, the Reformed confessions, and church polity. The views expressed here are his own.

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