God has done great things for the Israelites. She has led them up out of suffering, out of slavery, out of Egypt. They are a free people yet again. We might expect that the Israelites would be full of joy or gratitude. But after a song and dance on the shores of the Red Sea, we don’t hear much in our scriptures about their joy and gratitude. Instead, we hear about their complaints. Mostly, they complain about water.
Water. Which is not so surprising. These folks journey for forty years through land that doesn’t have much water. And if any of you have gone hiking or spent time away from modern plumbing, you know: water is hard to carry. It is heavy! You can only bring so much with you. The Israelites need water for life, for strength. And in the absence of plentiful, drinkable water, they complain, and they blame their leader: Moses.
“What shall we drink?” they ask Moses. Or, “Give us water to drink!” Or, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” Or, “This wretched place is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink.” The ancient Israelites, like so many of us, were good complainers.
Moses doesn’t know what to do. No one gave him a wilderness survival course while he was growing up in Pharoah’s household. No one supplied him with water filtration systems, or taught him where and how to dig a well. So when the people turn to Moses, Moses turns to God: “What shall I do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
Moses turns to God, and God makes a way. God gives Moses a piece of wood to sweeten bitter water. God tells Moses to strike a rock, so that water might come out of it. And God leads the people on towards springs and wells in the wilderness.
In the last portion of the scripture we heard, the people reach the well of which God has said to Moses: “Gather the people together, and I will give them water.” And the Israelites sing: “Spring up, O well! Sing to it! The well that the leaders sank, that the nobles of the people dug, with the scepter, with the staff.” The people gather, and sing, and then they drink their fill.
On this Labor Day weekend we are emerging from the season of summer. It is a season in which many of us seek out water. We go out to spend time in sprinklers and pools, by lakes and oceans. We come in to fill ourselves with ice tea and lemonade and to take cold showers. And we seek out activities that will water our souls: the companionship of family members and friends, the refreshment of new experiences, the beauty of nature, the peace of a quiet afternoon.
Unfortunately, summer is not always idyllic. There are some among us right now who are feeling well-watered: strong, rested, nourished, bright. But others are not so satisfied. Perhaps the time outdoors brought sunburns and bee stings and sprained ankles. Time with family and friends can be a frustration as well as a blessing. And for at least one couple we love, travel meant emergency health care in a foreign country, and a very difficult journey home.
Summer is not always idyllic. And there are some among us for whom summer does not really bring a change from the most defining burdens of life: illness, caretaking, worry, loss.
Some among us are still very thirsty, and none of us, no matter how well-watered, can get too far before we will need water, again.
So, we are here. God has led us here, to West Concord Union Church, where those who came before us dug a deep well. The prophet Isaiah says, “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters” (55:1) and again, “with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (12:3). Thankfully, few of us struggle to find drinkable water in this time and place, though our siblings around the world are not so lucky. All of us face challenges in staying spiritually refreshed: hopeful, grateful, at peace.
God tells Moses, “Gather the people together, and I will give you water.” And as the Israelites gather by the ancient well, they sing, joining their voices together to call up the water.
Life is a long journey, and some great stretches each of ours may be wilderness. As we continue our journeys in this new season, do not forget your need for spiritual food and drink, and do not forget that we cannot always find it by ourselves. Instead, we need our ancestors, and one another, and the guidance and generosity of God, to find the places where it can arise, and to call it up together.