Well. The whole world has changed since we last gathered for worship, hasn’t it? For one thing, last time, we physicallygathered for worship. But now, life as we know it has blown apart and everything has changed.
It was just two weeks ago that I stood in the pulpit on the first Sunday in Lent and read those lines from Dante:
In the middle of the journey of our life/ I awoke in a dark wood/ where the clear path was lost.
I talked about how we recognize the dark wood, from our stories, from our Scriptures, from our own lives. During Lent, we call it by another name – the wilderness.
And now here we are, in a wilderness that is more than just a spiritual season. We’re off the map, beyond the border of the familiar. It feels desolate. It feels desperate. It feels … scary.
In our reading from the Hebrew scriptures this morning, we find people like us. “From the wilderness the whole congregation of Israelites journeyed by stages,” the book of Exodus tells us. The whole congregation. Not just vulnerable ones, the elderly, the sick, in some sort of self-isolation. It was the whole congregation, the whole community. Together. They were journeying by stages. Their travels started happily – they’d been liberated from slavery, they were headed for the Promised Land. It was a good way to start.
But over time, things got hard. The journey lasted longer than they’d imagined. The desert was not an easy place to be. They couldn’t see an end to their journey. And then one day when they stopped to set up camp, they discovered they were in a place that had no water.
Water. So basic. We take it for granted so often that we forget how precious it really is. We’re remembering now. As we look for places to wash our hands. As we see people buying bottles of it, cases of it. We know that rationally, there’s no reason to think the water’s going to run out. And yet… When we’re told to stock up, what is the one, most essential thing we know we cannot do without? Water.
The people in the desert with Moses were scared and they were tired and they didn’t see an end to their situation. So they turned to Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”
The story in Exodus makes that sound bad. It says the people were quarreling with Moses and that upset him. “Why do you quarrel with me?” he asked, “Why do you test the Lord?” But they’re request seems reasonable to me. There are children in their group. And pregnant women. Elderly men and women. Probably some sick folks, too. And lots of livestock. To call their request for water some kind of complaint or argument is not the whole truth. They asked for water, and there was no water, and their basic need turns to panic. They turn on Moses, saying, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”
They are thirsty. They are desperate. They are scared.
Which is to say: they are in need.
In our country, in our community, in our time, we have found such effective, efficient ways to rise above this kind of basic, animal need. We’ve set up systems that keep us far away from all the things that meet our most basic needs. Food? There’s a whole system of labor – planting and cultivating crops, feeding and then slaughtering animals, transporting, packaging, transporting again. We eat our food, blissfully ignorant of all the hands that labored to get that meal to us. Sanitation? The same thing. Hygiene? The same thing. We have our tidy systems for our most basic physical needs, our animal needs, our wild needs – and our systems are so, so, so tidy and efficient and effective, and we are so removed from the difficulty, the dirtiness, the elemental nature of any of it, that we somehow manage to also remove ourselves from our sense of actual need. Many of us don’t even recognize what actual hunger feels like, for instance. Most of us think very little about the life-or-death event that hygiene and sanitation can actually be. Our water sources are clean and easy – well, along as we don’t live in Flint, or somewhere else where environmental racism is part of business-as-usual. We are so accustomed to getting our needs met through the twist of a faucet, through the intercom of the drive-through, through the flush of the toilet handle, through the click of the “buy now” button, that we find we can move through daily life without too much thought of our animal bodies, our physical needs.
And then something happens to disrupt everything. And we are thrown back to our most elemental needs. There is none more elemental than this: water. Give us water to drink.
And we get it. In new ways, we get it. Life is precarious. That is true, actually, every minute of every day. But with our neat systems of control, we manage to build a buffer between us and the rough truth of our need, and our fragility. We manage to convince ourselves that we are not needy, we are not fragile. Which is to say, we somehow manage to convince ourselves that we aren’t animal, which means we aren’t human.
But life is precarious. And the wilderness always confronts us with the truth of that. In our old life, our “regular” life, it was easy to just keep moving, keep going, keep doing – and ignore the real and wild need inside of us. But the wilderness – this place where we’re caught between what was and what is yet to be – this is the place that confronts us with how dependent we really are on forces beyond ourselves. Like the food supply chain. And the supply chain for toilet paper and hand sanitizer. But also the forces of community. And for a goodness that is bigger than ourselves. For some kind of protection and provision. In a time like this, in a place like this, we suddenly see how much we really need that we cannot provide for ourselves.
In the Exodus story of the Israelites, the people took their desperation to Moses, who took their desperation to God. And God told Moses to take some of the elders and go ahead of the people, and God would go ahead of Moses and would be standing there in front of a rock. God told Moses to strike that rock and water would come out of it, for the people to drink. You could think of this as a miracle, but this wasn’t creating something out of nothing. Water flows in and through rock formations naturally; it’s just not always obvious. We look around and don’t see what we need, and it can make us ask the question, like the Israelites did: is the Lord among us or not?
But this is the thing about the wilderness. It is treacherous, it is threatening, it is scary, it is bleak. But it is not without gifts. There are hidden, life-giving resources in seemingly desolate places. But they don’t usually just magically materialize, even at the hand of God. It takes a divine-human collaboration to uncover and unleash the gifts we need. In the story of Exodus, it took Moses, listening to God and working with God, surrounded by the community of elders, to discover and uncover and unleash the water.
Living in the midst of trauma is hard. And “trauma” is the name for the wilderness we’re in. It’s the space between “before” and “after.” We know that the normal “before” life is gone, but don’t know what the “after” is going to look like yet. We’re waiting for something to happen, and we don’t know exactly what it’s going to be and we don’t know how long it’s going to take before it comes. So we’re just journeying by stages through this wilderness.
And it’s okay to be scared.
It’s okay to be sad.
It’s okay to be angry.
You don’t have to pretend or deny that you are feeling something other than what you’re actually feeling.
But now is also the time for this. It’s time to let go that part of our “before” that involved pretending we aren’t needy.
We are all needy.
We have a wild need for something more than what we can get for ourselves. We’re afraid of seeing how deep our need is, afraid of admitting it, because we’re afraid of feeling it, and we’re afraid of not being able to fill it.
But imagine being able to admit your need. Imagine being able to admit your thirst. Imagine God responding to your need in ways you would never have predicted or expected. Imagine partnering with this surprising God, and with the community of God’s beloved, to discover and uncover and unleash
life-giving blessings. Like water from a rock, God’s provision will flow.
There is no wild need we have that God will not work with us and through us to meet.
It’s okay if you can’t believe that, or cannot see how it’s possible. That’s just the way things are in the wilderness – you can’t see yet what will be, or even what could be.
So it’s okay if you can’t yet trust that things are gonna be all right, that you will be okay, that we will take care of each other, protect each other, unleash a goodness that will flow all around.
It’s okay if you can’t yet believe that God, too, is somehow in this mess with us, journeying by stages ahead of us and right alongside us. It’s okay.
You don’t have to have enough faith yet to believe it. You just need enough to admit your need.