Exodus 17:1-7, John 4:5-42
Imagine our text as a call to worship:
PASTOR: “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?”
PEOPLE: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us?”
PASTOR TO GOD: “What shall I do with this people?”
PEOPLE: “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Well, what did you expect besides argument? Israel picks a fight with the preacher, but they are mad at God. When you are God’s press secretary, expect to take some heat. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Complaining people are often irrational. Which is it? – no food or miserable food? Always connect God with water and bread. As for the arguments they will continue as long as there is a sufficient oxygen supply on this planet.
I like to tell my friend Rabbi David Sofian that it is his fault that Baptists are so contentious and argumentative. We learned it from reading the Hebrew Bible. The KJV tells the story of the Jews leaving Egypt and the word “murmur” pops up 14 times. Murmur is a dictionary example of onomatopoeia. Baptists and Jews share the argument gene. The Methodists not so much; they are so well-trained to be passive aggressive.
And the people complained (murmured) against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” (Exodus 15:24). The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:3). And all the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron; the whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness” (Numbers 14:2). It got so bad that even God started complaining about the complaining of the people: How long shall this wicked congregation complain against me? I have heard the complaints of the Israelites, which they complain against me (Numbers 14:27).
The Israelites seem unable to make a mile of progress without stopping to murmur about it. We understand. It can happen to a church. Instead of making a decision there is always something one has to look into first of all, and someone has to retell the history and someone has to make sure everything is in perfect form before one can make a decision, and someone has to check and find out why we have never done such a thing before. That is to say, churches die from too much discussion.
Rabbi Sofian likes to tell the story of the Israelites at the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army hot on their tails and the sea in front of them. The people take time out to argue about what to do. The story goes that finally, just before the chariots of Pharaoh arrive on the spot, Nachshon, steps into the water and God accepts this as an act of faith and the waters part and the people scurry across on dry ground. Nachshon was not one of the appointed or anointed leaders. He is an unexpected leader at a critical moment. “He is a leader for our time–a time when it is possible to enter the waters of change with both surprise and with faith, a time when the landscape is changed and ritual innovation is created by those who have not been the identifiable leaders, when a link to the past is accompanied by an eye toward the future. For Nachshon is not only a prince from the tribe of Judah, he is also the grandfather of Boaz, who, with the biblical Ruth, continues the messianic line through to David. Nachshon reminds us that leadership and innovation may come from many quarters. Nachshon teaches us that a commitment to continuity and to redemption is found by looking forward as well as by looking back.” (Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, sermon at Stanford Memorial Chapel).
Look, doing something new and different that has the chance to bless your church doesn’t require multiple meetings and postponements. It requires one person to step up. Did you know that when the Wright Brothers first got their plane in the air, that none of the major newspapers bothered to report the story? No reporters came to Huffman Prairie to enquire about what the Wright boys were doing. The news was first published by an Ohio beekeeper, Amos Root. The story was not told by the Dayton papers or the Chicago Tribune or the New York Times but Amos Root’s Gleanings in Bee Culture. I suppose that once you accept the fact that a bee can fly, you are not surprised that man can make a flying machine. Years later, James Cox, publisher of the Dayton Daily News, wrote in his autobiography, that reports came “to our office that the airship had been in the air over the Huffman Prairie . . . but our news staff would not believe the stories. Nor did they ever take the pains to go out to see.” Nor did Cox. The editor of the Dayton Daily News was asked later why there was no reporting of the momentous accomplishments taking place right there in Dayton, said, “I guess the truth is that we were just plain dumb.”
Those who are willing to use critical thinking tools, discuss, argue, and discern are more likely to discover the truth than those who cling to old ways and old ideas. What’s the point of a church where everyone is given a bag of acceptable truths and pat answers? How many churches are passing out what amounts to “diddy bags” as if they were directing a gold tournament rather than the worship of Almighty God? Give the people some answers but nothing to say when the answers are easily refuted by others. Argument is more than repeating memorized answers. Let us heed the invitation of God: “Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord.”
Argument turns out to be an ongoing practice of those who would have faith in God. God argues with the people; the people argue with God. Then God argues with his leaders, prophets, and preachers and they argue with God. There’s even a story in Hebrew Scripture of a prophet arguing with his donkey. And the donkey wins. We should not shy away from arguments because the forces of modernity already attempt to grind all genuine disputes into calm “conversations” and this we must resist. Don’t get mad; offer arguments. Discover all the available means of persuasion and use all of them.
Our relationship with God is rooted in persuasion/argument. Before there was time and space, God argued with God’s self and decided to create a universe. I believe that God created us because of a deep desire to share the ecstasy of aliveness with creatures with god-like abilities. The Psalmist sings that humans were created “a little less than God.” The Hebrew word there is Elohim, one of the major words for the name of God. The weak-minded translator who put “a little less than angels” instead of “a little less than God,” simply lacked the courage to make such an awe-inspiring affirmation. And God created by persuasion not by coercion and understanding creation as acts of persuasion changes everything. This is a much gentler picture of God than the one many of us grew up believing. Plato taught that every entity, material and non-material has a perfect form. In other words, before there was a sun, it existed as an imagined perfect form. God’s creating power was to persuade all entities toward their perfect form. The church names this persuasive power that we sense, feel, and hear with the inner ears of our heart, the Holy Spirit. As we move in the direction that God woos us, we are responding positively to God’s persuasive intentions.
Church was meant to be the place where we hammer out how we are to live as God’s people. There’s never been a perfect age, a perfect church, or a perfect preacher. We are all scarred, marred, and maybe deserving of being tarred. The church is that place where we work out our salvation with fear and trembling.
William Hoffman’s short story, “The Question of Rain,” brings us eyeball to eyeball with the tension of no water and what the preacher is supposed to do about it. The story opens with a simple request from a church member: “I’d like for you to pray for rain.” With lawns “scorched right to the soil,” they want Wayland to designate the upcoming Sunday service as a “Special Prayer Day for Rain.”
Wayland refuses to make rain the goal of an entire service. He has theological reasons for his resistance to the idea, reasons his congregation fail to grasp. He complains that people would start asking for snow on Christmas or cooling breezes in August. His response is theologically sound, but the people want a rainmaker. The pastor says, “I feel everybody in the country’s taking a bite out of me.” What should he do? Stand firm on the high ground of theological soundness or cave in to congregational petitions out of his love for his people? After much struggle and intense conversations with trusted friends, Wayland, comes down from the rock of theological certainty into the barren place with his people. Now he stands with his people in their common humanity. So the pastor, newly baptized in the humanity and human need of his people, prays for the rain they all need. If people need rain, pray for rain!
The cry goes up from the people, “Give us water to drink.” A basic request. A real need. The water question is about our material, physical, daily needs, but at some point, the water question becomes the God question. Our gnostic theology has allowed us to separate water from God. Now, we get to live in a material world and we get to keep God shut out. God is now kept in an enclosed holy space – a church building. We, unable to handle a free, spontaneous, now you see him now you don’t God, a God who leaves the reservation and speaks to the strangest people and does work outside the parameters of our understanding, had to be controlled. So we have put him in a building and there we have kept God secure. But it has cost us our humanity and our empathy. Look, it makes no sense to ignore the One who says, “I will give you rivers of living water” about the need for water. It makes no sense to ignore the One who says, “I am the Bread of Life” about being hungry. It makes no sense to ignore the one who shows preferential treatment for the poor about ending poverty.
But there’s more to God than argument. Sometimes there is direct action. Moses, what’s that in your hand? We are never left without resources, not even at Rephidim. Moses has a staff made of ordinary wood, an instrument, a tool, material stuff and yet the power of God.
Well, of all things, God hears the mumbling prayers, the mocking questions, and tells Moses to strike the rock. Yet God gives water from the rock. The rod is the means of grace and not a magic stick. This is not Excalibur or a Jedi knight lightsaber. God’s power is present in the rod even as God is present in our sacraments. And God can empower any old stick to bring water or preach the gospel. And God empowered the crossed sticks where they hung his son to bring all humanity to himself.
Moses smacked the rock with his rod. I bet we didn’t see that one coming. That’s not what we expect from God or preachers. After all, preachers are such nice little people. I bet there’s no item for rock slapping in the pastor’s job description. Yet Moses slaps the rock and out comes the water. Yes, I admit to you: I like the rock-slapping preacher. Every time I read this story I think, “Man, I got to get me one of those staffs.”
God giving his people water in the midst of murmuring gives hope across the centuries to all God’s grumbling people. A much later generation, incorporates this story into their hymnal. “In distress you called, and I rescued you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder; I tested you at the waters of Meribah. Selah. O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways! I would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you” (Psalm 81). Look, now there’s not only water from the rock, but now there’s honey from the rock.
Do you get it? God is still persuading us. O that we would listen to God and walk in God’s ways. And with the persuasion the promise: I would feed you with the finest of wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” Water, honey, rock, God of gracious, non-threatening persuasion. It doesn’t get any better than this.