Belief or Disbelief?

Exodus 17:1-7 – The 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for September 28, 2014

“The people argued with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” (Exodus 17:2)

The Children of Israel complained about the lack of available beverages. As usual, they were as petulant as they were parched.

The people argued with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”

This was the time of the exodus. This was the reality between the memory of slavery in Egypt and the promised freedom in the land of milk and honey.

Forget milk. Forget honey.

Water. Now.

How precious water is . . .
How precious water is . . .

Without water, they’d wither. Moses rightly feared, as the people grumbled, that the last act his fellow desert sojourners had would have strength for would be used to cast stones at him.

Water is more crucial than food. If a body’s fluid isn’t replenished, the kidneys will be compromised; there will be days, at most a week or two, until death. The weak and sick will likely die first. Then the children and elderly will perish. The strong won’t stay strong for long.

As someone who has spent time backpacking, I know the importance of access to water. I’ve tramped extra miles to camp by a creek or pond. H2O weighs about eight pounds per gallon—one of the heaviest items in my pack—but the water filter and bottle would be one of the last things I’d discard in an emergency. Forget the tent. Forget the change of underwear. Forget the dehydrated food (just add water!). I’d abandon much to keep the final drops of life.

As someone who has worked in hospice, I know what the absence of water represents. With many patients in hospice, one of the clearest signals she or he nears death is when there’s no interest in drinking. Or maybe they literally can’t drink. Other than keeping lips moistened and the face cool with a wet cloth, water no longer matters.

As someone who lives in the golden but drought-ridden state of California, I know about water conflicts. Farmers demand more water storage through dams. (Dam it, now!) Environmentalists fret about destruction of the ecology. (Damn those dams!) Who cares about farmers and irrigating crops, or about tree-huggers and their dire warnings? I just want keep my lawn green and car clean.

Water = life.

By the way, all went well for the wandering Israelites. Between the first anguished cries of, “We’re dying of thirst! Do something, Moses!” to water flowing from the rock at Horeb, there were six or so brief verses. Dread was quickly replaced by a drenching.

Moses would name the place Massah (argue) and Meribah (test). Oh, how those childish Israelites loved to complain! Oh, how the testy Israelites so frequently tested God.

According to the account in Exodus, the Children of God continued in the wilderness. Within a verse or two, a nasty fellow by the name of Amalek, abetted by his nefarious band of do-badders, attacked the Israelites. Presumably, as they engaged in war, the people who followed Moses were well hydrated.

With more assistance from the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Water, they defeated Amalek.

Not so fast, please.

How long was your shower today? When did you last grab a glass of water from the tap? Clean your hands? Brush your teeth? How about boiling a little pasta for dinner tonight? Do you recall what times and days your automatic sprinklers are scheduled to come on? How was that dip in the pool? Ever flip a coin in a fountain? Time to wash the car? Is your laundry done for the week? Does the kitchen counter need to be cleaned with that wet sponge? Flush any toilets lately?

Even those of us dwelling on the left coast, with the signs of the drought everywhere, probably take water for granted. Like the Israelites of old, we’re only a few verses or a few feet away from adding water to our bourbon or watering our favorite roses.

Water = what?

Moses, following God’s request, would “take some of the elders” to witness the presence—or absence?—of water. Also following the Holy demand, Moses raised his staff to strike the rock that would—or would not—unleash the promised life.

What did those elders wonder before the staff smote the rock? Based on prior verses, I assume they felt doubt, fear, and maybe a solitary drop of belief. Did they believe more in their belief or disbelief?

Nearly 60% of our fragile adult bodies are water: men slightly more, women slightly less. Amazingly, newborns are nearly 80% water.

Over 70% of the planet’s surface is covered by water.

Water, water, water everywhere and yet we’re all a few dry days from death without it.

The elders, mouths parched and lips cracked, witnessed Moses raise the staff high above his head. Now the shaft became still, as if suspended against the brittle blue sky.

Next time, before casually pouring a glass of water, before thoughtlessly flushing a toilet, imagine there’s no water. Faith is easy, until it’s not. We’re all a dusty, dry breath away from death. And not only our demise, but also the death of the ones we love the most. There are experiences that feel like death . . . aren’t we all a teardrop away from divorce, losing a pension, getting that cancer diagnosis? Do we believe more in belief or disbelief?

What does it take to remember how precious water is?

How precious faith is?

Why is it so difficult to remember how much faith God has in us?

The staff swooped down.

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