Reflection March 12, 2023
Exodus 17 – Massah and Meribah
“Wilderness Migration” — Rev. Chelsea Page

How many of you have been to the Artesian well park over by Liberty Park? It truly is an oasis in the city, where people can come and fill up their water jugs with the free natural water that has been flowing there since before the settlers came. It is well maintained by the city and truly a delight if you have not been there before.

In our story today, the Israelites were traveling from Egypt to the Promised Land by hopping from oasis to oasis through the hostile climate. Normally, arriving at an oasis and finding that has been struck by drought would be a death sentence in the desert. But here we have this beautiful story in which a dry oasis is renewed by God.

Many of the prophets were inspired by this beautiful image, from Jesus who called himself “a spring of water welling up to eternal life,” to Isaiah who called the people “a watered garden,” and Jeremiah who called God “the spring of living water.” Jewish feminist scholar Ilona Pardes says that this story is about Israel’s infancy as a people, when they had to beat on the rock as a baby beats on their mother’s breast in order for the milk to flow.

It’s a beautiful story of God’s abundant natural provision, and speaks to us so powerfully as residents of a desert land, especially during a time of ecological crisis when the Great Salt Lake is drying up.

But friends, this is not what this story is about. When it came time for Moses to name this place, Moses named the place Quarreling and Testing. Not, “the source of abundant water” nor “the rock where the Lord provided,” but rather Bitching and Moaning, as we would say in my family. This is a story about conflict.

Moses’s full attention is on the conflict between him and the people. How ungrateful! How self-centered! But it’s not only him. The people too are reactive and escalate the situation unnecessarily. An uncomfortable and maybe even dangerous challenge quickly becomes one in which both sides accuse the other of trying to kill them! How quickly the existential anxiety is personalized and taken out on the other. It’s really sad.

Our church also knows what it’s like to go through hard times and conflict. After all we are human, and life in community is hard. It can be especially hard to face conflict openly in the church, as it can be the one place in our lives where we really just want to feel peace and get along.

So how can we learn to be as wise and courageous in facing conflict, not avoiding it? How can we lean into the challenges that church provides, and not just the comforts, to help us grow to be better people?

Well, I take hope that the God of Exodus did not shy away from the people’s anger and from Moses’s fear, just as God did not judge or condemn the people’s hunger and thirst. Instead, God showed Moses how to face the conflict constructively, not by complaining and hiding from the people, but by crossing in front of them, and gathering up elders for intentional dialogue and action to meet the real human needs.

God also used the conflict as an opportunity to clarify that God is with us for our good. God is a God of healing. Just look at the staff which God tells Moses to use. The staff “with which Moses struck the Nile” was the one Moses used in Egypt to poison Pharaoh’s river, one of the deadly plagues. This staff now gets the chance to redeem itself, from poisoning and killing humans in Egypt, to striking the rock at Sinai, satisfying real legitimate thirst and saving lives. It’s quite a turnaround for this poor staff, and an amazing revelation of God’s true desire to heal, not to punish. Later in Exodus God says, “I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you.”

And finally, God pointed out the abundance that was there all along. In an oasis, even a dry one, the water exists as a subsurface aquifer and can be easily tapped as long as you know the right place. God shows us where to look for new resources or new perspectives when we get stuck. Oftentimes we need to look no further than God’s own mercy, compassion and love for every person and every situation. Exodus says that “God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” Remembering this helps us feel better about ourselves and also become people of forgiveness toward others.

Friends, the reality of conflict in our communities is where God’s healing can be most revealed, where God’s guidance is most transformative. We are not judged for experiencing conflict. Rather, God uses our conflict-prone ways to help us improve ourselves and deepen our relationships. When we see conflict as an opportunity, we are reminded that above and beyond our human limitations, there is a universe or a deity who is all love and all richness of possibility. Where we despair of ever getting our needs met or ever growing beyond our impasses, there is a God who makes away out of no way. Where we cannot solve the puzzle of our conflicts through our own effort alone, God’s healing stands ready to transport us to a new place where goodness overflows and becomes evident all around us.

So maybe this story is a story about abundance after all. But it’s an abundance that meets us right at the place of our need and failure. Wilderness times form us to know how to face conflict, so that our legacy can be wisdom about peace, to pass on to future generations. Don’t forget that when the divided desert people known as the Israelites eventually learned how to get along, their religion went on to change the world.

So let’s actually thank Moses for giving this little spot on the Sinai Peninsula a name that forces us to remember the hard times. May our memory of what God’s people went through, bless our current wilderness migrations, those hard times we experience as church that are formative and transformative. Amen.