I first traveled to the boundary waters with my family, as a teenager. My parents would freely admit they had very little idea what they were doing. An outfitter set us up with all our equipment and food. For some reason I still can’t understand, they sent us with an enormous cast iron skillet, which Dad doggedly lugged over all the portages! The first day, we launched our canoes on Basswood Lake—a rather large lake. My little brother and were I in one canoe and Mom and Dad in the other. The waves started to roll and the wind began to blow and I thought to myself, huh, how does a person steer this thing exactly? And then came the drinking water fiasco. My mom had consulted a physician friend at work who advised her not to drink the water straight from the lake. So did we bring a water filter or even iodine tablets? No, of course not. My parents had decided that we would purify our water by boiling it…over the campfire. Terribly dehydrated after a long day in the sun, we waited for the water to be ready. It was scorching hot and we had no way to cool it down. On top of that, it had taken on a nauseatingly smoky taste. We mixed in some grape Kool-Aid to mask the smoke, but that just created an even more disgusting flavor. It was a disconcerting, alienating experience, to be so thirsty while surrounded by a lake-full of cold, clear, refreshing water.
In today’s text from Exodus, the Israelites navigated an entirely different kind of wilderness terrain: a barren desert landscape, completely inhospitable to life. Unlike those of us who canoe or backpack for fun, solitude, beauty and adventure, the Israelites were forced into the wilderness. They were refugees, fleeing the dehumanizing violence of slavery. Like the Syrian people running from ISIS; like the Palestinians exiled from their homes in 1948 and never offered compensation or resettlement; like the Central American children pouring over the US border—the people of Israel became landless wanderers with no place on earth and no place in human society. No homes, no work, no means of sustaining their own lives. And now they found themselves truly helpless, lacking even the most basic necessity of life: water to drink. No wonder Moses named this physical and spiritual place Massah (test) and Meribah (quarrel). No wonder the Israelites asked, “Is the Lord among us or not?” I don’t hear this “complaint” of the Israelites as whining or as a lack of faith. Sometimes, in the face of our losses, an honest lament before God is the only genuine expression of faith that is possible.
Loss, and the grief it brings, is a cumulative kind of thing. New losses can bring up previous losses in a fresh way. Injuries we thought had healed become painful again. A number of different conversations this past week reminded me of how loss compounds to become a heavy burden. One person I talked with described feeling constant, daily worry over climate change. Another expressed pain and anger about the lack of equity in public education. Still another person reflected on how difficult it is to get a job or a place to live with a felony record. How do we find healing in a world so full of wounds—both our own and the wounds of others? Is God, the literal and spiritual water of life, among us or not? This is not a rhetorical question. It’s a real question, a faithful question, a question that we must ask again and again, one day at a time.
The early Christians met God-with-us not in a parting sea or a guiding cloud, nor a rock that produces water, but in a person, a relationship. Professor David Fredrickson argues that our text from Philippians 2 has been widely misunderstood. The “Christ hymn” has been read as a story of obedience to divine power: Christ “emptied himself” of his status as God and lowered himself to the status of human. He died the death of a slave because that is what God required for human redemption.Fredrickson argues for a different reading of this ancient poem. Instead of the typical rendering of verse 6: “He did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,” Fredrickson argues that this phrase should read: “He did not regard snatching (or abduction) as worthy of a god.”He explains, “Stories of abduction [by the gods] conveyed the idea that humans are powerless and completely vulnerable to the gods’ intentions and whims.”So Christ was not like other gods who “snatched” humans to use for their own purposes.Christ became a slave, out of love, not to God, but to humanity itself.Fredrickson notes that the “servitium amoris, the slavery of love, [was] a widespread motif in Greek and Latin poetry expressing the complete dedication of the lover to the beloved.] He continues, explaining that the phrase, “ ‘he emptied himself’ is a poeticidiom in Greek that describes longing, the desire for union with an absent beloved.” www.workingpreacher. org /preaching.aspx?commentary_id=146
Jesus, according to Fredrickson’s interpretation, is God’s expression of desire for union with humanity. A medieval Franciscan poet, Jacopone da Todi, offers this interpretation of the Christ hymn:
You did not defend Yourself against that Love
that made You come down from heaven to earth; …
You humbled and humiliated Yourself,
Demanding neither dwelling place nor possessions
Taking on such poverty so that we might be enriched!
In Your life and in Your death You revealed
The infinite love that burned in your heart.
Thirst can be a terrible thing. I’ve visited with people in the hospital who are unable to drink water, who can only have moisture in their mouths one swab at a time. It’s excruciating to watch and I’m sure to experience as well. And yet, at the same time, I believe that it is our often our thirst that leads us to God. Mary Oliver’s poem expresses this truth well. The poet studies the “beautiful lessons” of nature on the way out to the pond. On that walk, love for God and the earth have a “long conversation” in her heart. She comes to no grand conclusions as a result of her study, except that she is left thirsty for something more, and that thirst leads her to prayer. Perhaps, “Having given a great many things away, expecting to be told to pack nothing,” the thirst will turn out to be all she needs. I am forever grateful that my parents took me on my first canoe trip, because it opened up to me a life-long love of the wilderness, not just the fun parts but also the difficult and scary parts as well. From time to time, I need to be reminded of my true vulnerability, to test my own strengths and limitations and to surrender to the grace of God that sustains me. Perhaps the rock Moses struck at God’s command represented the people’s heavy burden of loss, and the barriers that blocked their way. Maybe the rock was their helplessness, their sense of futility and alienation. Maybe the point of this miracle in the wilderness is not the magic of water from a rock, but the magic of an infinite love that comes down from heaven to share our thirst.