Living Water from the Rock

“Is the Lord with us or not?”

That is the question the people of Israel ask, after they repeatedly express all of their anxiety about food and water. The people are in the wilderness. They have crossed the sea, and entered into a place of hunger and thirst.

This is the third time the people have complained to Moses. First, when they encountered water that was undrinkable, at a place called Mara, which means bitter in Hebrew. The Lord told Moses to throw a tree into the water, which would make it sweet. The supplies they brought with them from Egypt, including the unleavened bread, must have run out. Next, the people cried out for food, and the Lord gave them manna in the morning, and quail in the evening—meat and bread. And in this last section of the trilogy we could call “kvetching in the wilderness,” the people said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” The Lord commanded Moses to take his staff and strike the rock so water would flow to the thirsty people.

Big Picture

Big Picture

Moses and the water from the rock

Moses and the water from the rock

A painting in our chapel illustrates this scene. There has been some controversy about the painting over the years, because it is very dark. Some say it needs a cleaning, and others say it needs a bright light over it. The thing is: there are a few places—like where the water springs from the rock—that are highlighted with white paint. If the painting needed cleaning, the highlights would be yellow or brown. And as someone who has looked at the painting with a bright flashlight, I can attest that no matter how you light the surface, it is dark. And the brighter the light, the more glare there is, which makes it impossible to see. It’s just a really dark painting. It’s big too; about five feet wide and four feet high. The artist has placed adults, children and animals in a rugged landscape. They all face towards Moses, who stands on a rock at the far left of the painting. As silent as paintings always are, the scene strikes me as noisy; babies crying, dogs barking, livestock protesting their thirst. Moses might be shouting over the noise, trying to get their attention: “Look! Here is water!” as it springs from the rock.

Heading back?

Heading back?

I didn’t notice them when I first looked at the painting, but way up in the far right corner there are two people on the ridge. They are separated from the people, and as far away from Moses as they can be. They look like they are having a conversation: “This is never going to work. We’re going to die out in this wasteland.” “You’re right. I’m outta here. Let’s go back to Egypt.”

The Lord is leading the people, and comes through in every crisis; but the people are stressed and uncomfortable with change. They are between Egypt and Canaan. They can’t envision the future, so they become nostalgic for the past. Maybe slavery wasn’t so bad after all. Maybe oppression and the occasional genocidal purge are things we can live with. Remember, there were melons and cucumbers and fish in Egypt! The people might have looked at the terrain in front of them, and seen even rougher ground ahead. So they argued, and criticized Moses, and gave in to their fears. They cried out with their most urgent question: “Is the Lord with us or not?”

Kvetching in the Wilderness

Kvetching in the Wilderness

Maybe the painting is dark because the people are in such a dark place. They are engulfed by an existential darkness and they need to know: Do I matter? Do I matter to God? Their thirst is a yearning. The thing about being hungry and thirsty is that even when you have food and water, you are going to be hungry and thirsty again soon. And when you are thirsty, especially when you are thirsty, it is the only thing you can think about. Nothing else matters. This existential thirst is a yearning for God. That is why the passage ends with a cry from the soul: “Is the Lord with us or not?”

What can relieve that thirst that resonates throughout the ages and the human condition? In the Gospel of John there is a wonderful encounter between Jesus and a woman at a well. They were in Samaria; the disciples have gone to town to buy food. The woman was surprised when Jesus struck up a conversation, and asked her for water from the well. She wondered what he was doing there, and how he was planning on getting any water because he had no bucket. Jesus replied that if she knew who he was, she would ask for living water. If she drank that, she would never thirst again. “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again,” Jesus said. “But those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Jesus himself is the source of living water. Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus the Christ, the Bread of Heaven and Cup of Salvation: Jesus is the incarnation of the Lord with us. In any moment of darkness we can reach out and receive the bread and wine that feed the hunger and thirst of our souls. Sunday by Sunday, we can experience in Communion, in a fully Incarnational way that yes, the Lord is with us indeed.


(Artist unknown)

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