Click here for the video: Quarrel
The old saying goes, “be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.” In the case of Hebrew people in the book of Exodus that saying might be amended to, “be careful what you pray for, you just might get it.” Of course prayer is more than a wish, more than the fleeting desire we hang on the next shooting star. And sometimes prayer is less than the formal language we’re used to hearing in church when we come to the table, or confess our sins. In the eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul says we don’t know how to pray as we ought, so the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs that are deeper than words. So maybe the Hebrew people who had become Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt didn’t even realize that their cries of misery were being heard by God. Or worse yet, like a lot of us, maybe they looked around and decided that there wasn’t much point in praying because it didn’t seem to do any good. Nothing much seemed to change. Until it did. Until God finally got the attention of a fugitive who had gone into the ancient version of witness protection, living out in the wilderness and trying to keep a low profile. When Moses stepped aside to take a look at a miraculous bush that was on fire but didn’t seem to burn, he could have had no idea the events that he would set in motion. God had seen what the people were going through, God had indeed heard those cries, God knew their suffering, and so God was going to do something about it by sending Moses back to the scene of his crime, back to the Pharaoh with whom he had been raised, back to the sight of his people weighed down and oppressed by their slavery. All he had wanted was for his people to know their God, the one who could light fires that didn’t burn, the one who was called I AM, the one who was at the heart of being itself. Predictably, Pharaoh wasn’t having it, couldn’t be persuaded. So God sent a series of plagues to change Pharaoh’s mind. Which worked, until they didn’t. Yes- they could go worship God, said Pharaoh. But then, no, they couldn’t. This went on for awhile until the final plague, the plague to end all plagues, the deaths of the firstborn. By the time Pharaoh came to his senses, the people were on their way out of town, they didn’t even have time to let the bread they were taking with them rise, that’s how much of a hurry they were in to get out of there. Then the chase was on. A powerful army at their heels, an expanse of water in front of them and nowhere to go. “The Lord will fight for you,” Moses assures them, “all you have to do is keep still.” Sure enough, a way opens up for them where there was no way, and the people pass through the waters. From the cries of an oppressed people to their eventual freedom through the waters of the sea. Now that’s an answer to a prayer.
Only it isn’t enough. It’s never enough. We’re a forgetful people. God hears our prayer and does something about it, sends someone to advocate on our behalf. “Thank God,” we say. And then we move on to the next crisis, the next challenge, the next problem to be solved. The people aren’t three days removed from one of the most miraculous escapes in history when they start complaining about the taste of the water out in the wilderness. It’s too bitter. Not like the water they had back in Egypt. For how many years had they been crying out to God under the heavy weight of their forced labor? But they miss the water? That can’t be right.
It didn’t end there. No sooner did God show Moses how to improve the taste of the water then the people realized how hungry they were. And they complained that there wasn’t enough to eat, that Moses had surely brought them out of slavery only to starve them to death. Once again God rained down bread from heaven for them, to sustain them in the harsh and unforgiving wilderness. So they kept going. Until they ran out of water. Now it might be a little picky to complain about water that doesn’t tastes good. And they were going to need food eventually. But water, well, water is an entirely different matter altogether.
We’ve been witnessing that this past week as relief efforts struggle to get fresh water to the people of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands devastated by hurricane Maria. Lack of water is a humanitarian crisis. That’s why the organization Humane Borders maintains a system of water stations in the Sonoran desert for migrants trying to cross over who might otherwise die out there from dehydration. Human beings require water for life. It doesn’t have to taste great, and we can go longer than we imagine without food, but none of us would last more than a few days without water.
Understandably, the people complain. They quarrel. Sometimes a crisis can bring out the best in people. I remember twelve years ago when Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on the the Gulf Coast. We have family down there who had come to visit for the Labor Day weekend. Then it became clear how bad it was going to be. They stayed with us, others showed up to stay with us. We were only six, or so, hours up the road in Tennessee. Our house became a base of operations once the storm had passed. They went down to recover some things and then came back to re-group. Homes were lost, others would take years to recover. But in the middle of all that stress and loss, we found a way to pull together.
It isn’t always like that. Sometime a crisis can do just the opposite. Sometimes a crisis can bring out the worst in people. Before going back to their storm-ravaged neighborhood a friend who had spent decades with the Quakers, practicing non-violence, stopped by the Wal-Mart and bought a shotgun- just in case. Bedsheets had been turned into impromptu signs, hung from front porches with warnings spray painted on them, “looters will be shot on sight.”
On the one hand you might look at a story like this from Exodus and say, “they had just been set free, what are they complaining about? Why are they quarreling? Can’t they just be grateful for the fact that they aren’t slaves anymore? Can’t they just trust that if God went to all that trouble to lead them out of that terrible situation, God will surely take care of them now?”
Only think of everything that has changed for these people in a mere matter of months. Yes, they were slaves. Yes, it was a terrible situation. But to borrow an expression, it was the devil they knew. They knew what it was. They knew what to expect. It wasn’t perfect, but if was familiar. And there is no greater obstacle to the prospect of freedom and change in our lives than the promise of what is familiar. That’s why on average it is estimated that it takes a victim of domestic violence seven attempts before she, or he, is able to permanently leave an abusive relationship. It isn’t just the abuser that keeps a person from leaving. It’s the fear of the unknown. How will they live? Where will they work? What will happen to the kids, the pets? Maybe it’s not that bad. Don’t want to make it worse. Until it’s been normalized and freedom isn’t really an option anymore.
Yes the people are quarrelsome because they are thirsty and there is no water. But the fact of their freedom, the fact of our freedom is often what makes us MORE quarrelsome, not less. When everything familiar is gone, when every common referent point has been stripped away, when nothing is like it was and what lies ahead is completely unknown, it can be terrifying. Bitter water, no food, no water. These are legitimate concerns, but underneath each one of them is this gut-wrenching realization, there is no going back.
There is a lot of quarreling going on these days with blame being thrown this way and that. It isn’t that the things that we seem to be arguing about aren’t important, they are. Racism, nationalism, respect, protest, corruption, criticism, saber rattling. It’s all important, and none of it is new. No, what seems to have us turning up the volume on all the quarreling is our fear of what is changing, and our fear of what might be getting lost in all that change. Some are afraid that nothing is like it used to be, while others are afraid of that what lies ahead may be more of the same kind of injustice that we’ve been trying to escape all along.
Meanwhile, the real question the one that runs even deeper than, “what have we gotten ourselves into,” is one that lies at the spiritual heart of the mater. Is God with us, or not? Because, you see, those people knew that God had been with them. They saw it with their own eyes. They crossed a sea bed where the waters should have been over their head. They felt the mud squish beneath their feet. They knew that God had made a way where there had been no way because they personally walked it themselves. The only people who mourn the possibility that God has abandoned them are the ones who have known God’s presence to begin with. They had been slaves in Egypt and God had set them free, led them out of everything that was holding them captive. But where was God now? It’s one thing to lose the familiarity of captivity. But it is something else entirely to feel like you’ve lost the very one who set you free from it all.
The thing that has us quarreling is rarely the thing that we are quarreling about. What has us quarreling is the unspoken anxiety that comes from the fear that the answer to our question- is God with us or not- may in fact be, ‘not.’ And if that is the case, then we really are lost in the wilderness with nowhere to go. So we pick a fight. We despair at where we find ourselves. We blame whoever we can.
Even so, God does not abandon us. God has not abandoned us. When we’re ready to give up. When we’re ready to throw in the towel and go back to the familiar as long as it means we won’t have to face what we cannot control, God gives us what we need. God rarely gives us what we want, at least not usually in the way we think God should. But God will always give us what we need, what we truly need; which is the assurance that God is indeed with us. God has not left us alone.
Moses broke open a rock and water came pouring out, and the people knew the answer to their question. Today, with brothers and sisters around the world, most from traditions not our own, speaking all kinds of languages we do not understand, we will put aside our quarreling and come to this table, to break open the bread that is Christ’s body and to pour out the cup that is Christ’s blood, so that we might know for ourselves the answer to that question as well.