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Camping at Rephidim

March 20, 2017

“Camping at Rephidim” Exodus 17:1-7 © 3.19.17 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Filmmaker and author Woody Allen once quipped that “man does not live by bread alone. Frequently there must be a beverage.” Nowhere of course is something to slake our thirst more essential than in the desert. Humans can survive for many days without food, but not without water. Our bodies are mostly made of that liquid, and I read somewhere that death results after we lose just 12% of it. Water, quite literally, is life.

It was no minor complaint, then, that the Israelites leveled against Moses when they came to a waterless place called Rephidim. There was real need here; their very survival and that of their livestock was at stake. It was not as if they had suddenly run out of spicy mustard or garlic salt or even eggs and butter. In the wilderness, under the blazing sun, if they didn’t discover an oasis, their trek to freedom and the Promised Land would end rather abruptly and horribly.

But how could they have come to such a time of crisis? Weren’t they following the route which Yahweh himself had commanded through Moses? Did they not have the right to expect that obedience to God’s commands would lead them from oasis to oasis until they reached Sinai, then the Promised Land? Surely something was wrong here, and the problem lay not with their expectations, but with Moses’ leadership. He didn’t know how to work the GPS, which in this case stands for “godly positioning system.” He had brought them to the wrong place, where their fate could be none other than death. Even slavery in Egypt would have been better than this risky, insecure, apparently godforsaken wilderness. If they were to obey God, the prospects for the future had better be somewhat better than this!

The commentator Terence Fretheim has suggested that Israel was becoming convinced that the promise had fallen short. They were delivered from the enslaving, violent Egyptians only to find themselves in a worse sort of situation, facing slow death from hunger and thirst. The way to the Promised Land, if ever they arrived, would be littered with graves. It looked as if they better get used to the wilderness, since they were going to be there a long, long time.

But what kind of life is that, when those on a journey are continually at the mercy of the elements, when in Fretheim’s words, people are “in the jaws of the wilderness, where demons howl and messiahs are tempted, where familiar resources are taken away…”? What possibility for life is there in such a place? What does obedience mean and what are its rewards, if any? What can the leading of God mean, what is it worth, if one comes again and again only to the place where life itself is threatened? “Wilderness,” this writer observes, “is life beyond redemption but short of consummation; but the former seems ineffective and the latter only a mirage. The promise has been spoken, but who can live by words alone? The hope has been proclaimed, but the horizon keeps disappearing in the sandstorms. And so trust in God often turns to recalcitrance and resentment. Faith erodes with the dunes. Commandments collapse into the disorder that shapes daily life. And judgment is invited in to share one’s tattered tent” (Exodus: 171-72).

Have you been to such a place? Of course, and so have I. We camp at Rephidim whenever hopes are dashed and dreams go unfulfilled; when we face what seems the greatest crisis of our lives and we know not where to find the resources to deal with it, whether emotional, physical or financial; when the diagnosis is disheartening and the prognosis is not good. We’re in the wilderness without water when the wonderfully structured plans we had for our lives lie broken in the dust, and no matter what we do, nothing seems to change. We can find ourselves in the wasteland watching the TV news or reading a story online, worried, even horrified by account after account of chaos, deceit, death, and injustice. We’re at Rephidim when we lie awake at night, unable to shut off our minds after a troublesome day, certain that tomorrow will be just as bad. And though the promise of God is “I will be there with you,” we wonder aloud or in the despairing, lonely silence of our hearts: “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Like the Israelites, we’re not complaining about trivial things, but about the lack of the very necessities for survival. Where is God when things go so very wrong with us or with the world? Where is water to be found, if anywhere? Why and how did we ever come to this place of risk and danger when we thought God’s purpose for us was life and good? Who can blame us for complaining, for being depressed and hopeless? If only we could strike out at this God who has led us so poorly!

But God’s not there with us in any tangible form at which we can lash out physically or even verbally face to face. So we find some other target for our tirade, a surrogate for our censure.

Years ago, a colleague told me the story of a family in his congregation that had been struck by cancer. Until the diagnosis came, they had been happy together, rarely arguing, enjoying their partnership—husband and wife, parent and child, sibling with sibling. But gradually they began to grow distant; conversations were more shouting matches than anything else. The dominant emotion was anger. The minister was asked for help. He suggested to them that it was not each other they were angry at, but the cancer. The family members ended up being surrogates for that dread disease, against which everyone felt so powerless.

So when we would like to blame God for what has gone wrong, for our landing here at Rephidim without water, we decide to turn our wrath somewhere else, because it’s just not right, we believe, to be angry at God. So we fire away at our spouse or the kids, the church or the minister, the neighbor or the stranger, maybe even ourselves. But let me suggest to you that we direct our anger at the one we really are complaining against, even if we can’t strike out physically and it feels like our cries are addressed to an empty sky. God can handle any feelings we may have, including anger, and fright, and hopelessness. No need is too great or too small to bring to him. Moses, for one, took his burnout and his fear for his life to Yahweh. If the people were going to hold Moses’ feet to the fire, then in turn Moses would insist that God listen and fulfill his greatest and most precious promise, the promise of his presence.

Yahweh could have responded with some anger of his own, could have chided the people for so soon losing the memory of his provision of quail and manna and sweet water at a bitter spring. But instead he is patient, patient, patient. The need of these people is real, after all. And perhaps this would be the time when their brains stop being made of Teflon™, and something about providence and protection would finally stick with them. Yahweh would suffer through the rebellion and the forgetfulness and the complaining until these folk finally grew to maturity. They were moving by stages, weren’t they? No journey is completed in a single step, especially not this trek from chaos to a new creation.

So the Lord commanded Moses to take some of the elders of Israel with him and go on ahead to a place near Horeb, the mountain of God, known as Sinai in another tradition. There they would find some rocks, on which God would be standing and beneath which lay springs. Moses was to take his staff, once used to strike the Nile, and hit the rock, so that the water coursing underneath the limestone could be enjoyed. Then the elders and the people would know yet again that Yahweh was indeed among them.

Impossible, we say. There are no water-bearing rocks in my desert. No resources to help me survive this crisis. Nothing but dust and sun and wind. I’m just camped here at Rephidim with my despair and my anger, still thirsty and worried. If that is our attitude, perhaps we’re looking for something other than what God gives. We want some solution to fall from the sky, some miracle of cosmic proportions, something outside our day-to-day experience. But Moses accessed water with a tool he already possessed. And the water was already there; it did not magically appear.

What I mean is that even the wilderness is not without resources, and we have within us and around us the tools to make a difference. God trusts us to use the gifts of judgment and thought, insight and reason, intuition and instinct, to discern a way out when we find ourselves in crisis. Even what we think of as destructive emotions can be put to good use. Moses’ staff, his plain old shepherd’s staff, had been used to make all the water of the Nile undrinkable. In essence, it had become a weapon. But at Rephidim, his staff, the same staff, became a tool to give life.

Cannot anger or fear be channeled to give us energy, to move us ahead? Are we not surrounded by possibilities, if we would but open our eyes? And does the fact that we possess them within ourselves or they arise from circumstances or are offered by other people make them any less the gift of God?

I once got a call from a woman in Montevallo who was not a member of my church. Why she phoned me, I don’t know. She told me she was convinced there were demons in her home. After talking with her a bit, I was sure she was right, but the demons weren’t the sort she was thinking of. They didn’t come from some smoky pit of hell, as it were, but from the depths of her own heart. Would I bless her home? she asked. Certainly, I said. The Book of Common Worship has no exorcism liturgies in it, so I called a Catholic priest friend. The insights contained in the material he recommended were powerful. After gathering some of the woman’s friends for a brief opening service in her living room, I asked her to get a stick from her yard and a bowl from her kitchen. She was to fill the bowl with water from her tap. Then I proceeded from room to room, sprinkling that plain city water with that oak stick dipped in a beat-up plastic bowl.

Do you see the point of that liturgy? The resources she and her family needed to deal with their brokenness could be found in their own home. They had the potential, if they just got some guidance in discovering it. Their home could know the blessing of God, because God was there among them all the time, patiently waiting, ready to guide them to the next step on their journey together.

I haven’t confirmed this with my Chinese neighbor or my Mandarin-speaking niece in Georgia, but I’ve heard that the Chinese character for “crisis” is a combination of the ones that mean “problem” and “opportunity.” What makes the difference in which one our crises become? Perhaps it’s the realization that even if God does not always lead us to oases on our pilgrimage of faith, he always knows where he is going; that even when the wilderness seems godforsaken, it is in fact God-filled; that wherever it is we may go, God has been this way before and scouted out the land; and that in the waters of baptism, the rushing stream of life and creation, we have been equipped and empowered, imbued and enriched with spiritual graces that can sustain us and support us in our wilderness wanderings. Then we can say with the hymn writer: “All the way my Savior leads me, what have I to ask beside? Can I doubt his tender mercy, who through life has been my guide? Heavenly peace, divinest comfort, here by faith in him to dwell! For I know whate’er befall me, Jesus doeth all things well. All the way my Savior leads me, cheers each winding path I tread, gives me grace for every trial, feeds me with the living bread. Though my weary steps may falter, and my soul athirst may be, gushing from the rock before me, Lo! A spring of joy I see; gushing from the rock before me, Lo! A spring of joy I see.”

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