Moses at Rephidim

Sermon by Stuart Scadron-Wattles
3rd Sunday of Lent

Exd 17:1 All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the LORD, and camped at Reph’idim; but there was no water for the people to drink.

Exd 17:2 Therefore the people found fault with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you find fault with me? Why do you put the LORD to the proof?”

Exd 17:3 But the people thirsted there for water, and the people murmured against Moses, and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?”

Moses at Rephidim

As Moses looked from the people to the elders and back again, he must have known that they were thinking about a failure of leadership. Who takes 600,000 people into the desert without a water plan? At this point, the elders may not be asking the question rhetorically.

Two chapters ago, this people was miraculously delivered from a well-equipped pursuing army. One chapter ago, they were miraculously fed in the desert.

Now, about a month after their exit from slavery, they’re camping at Rephidim and calling for water.

The desert is like that hotel room one occupies by one’s self: Only when one occupies it does one find out who one really is.

During Lent, our God encounters are often self-encounters, so let’s spend some time on this one, and put our selves into the sandals of these journeying tribes.

Because I submit to you that we are these same ex-slaves. We might be used to hardship, but most of us are also used to being fed on a regular basis

A slave has bought into a transactional relationship. There is oppression, but there is also provision. I do this for you, you do that for me. There is security in the transaction, and mutual need. The children of Israel are defaulting to that relationship. We followed you into freedom, they are saying, now where’s the provision?

This is early adolescence in the spiritual life. We feel our freedom, and yet we want our parent’s provision.

So here is Moses, in front of this people. And the elders are stroking their beards and asking, “What kind of a leader is this?”

Moses is a different kind of leader. He’s not so much the man with the plan as he is the man with the relationship.

Moses understands something about the Almighty. He understands that she is not about a transaction; she is about being– an ontological relationship.

(My gender switching is deliberate. I know of no better contemporary way to equally emphasize the genderlessness and the personhood of the Almighty. If you have a better way that would be less disturbing but equally effective, please let me know.)

Many of you know that I have a two and half year old grandson named Joshua. Sometimes, in the middle of our play, he will greet me across the room: “Hi Pop.” I say “hi” back, and we go back to playing. When Josh first started doing this, I asked myself what is he doing? It’s not as if he is seeing me for the first time. I realize now that he is just saying that he’s happy to be there with me. That’s an ontological relationship.

Moses’ qualifications as a leader were his ability to interact with the Almighty without getting killed. He could say “Hi Pop,” and not get destroyed by the Ground of his being.

As a result, Moses understands God’s character.

The account of what happened next in this story has some interesting relational elements. God asks Moses to take the symbol of his leadership authority, “the rod” (and the feminist in me has some things to say about that, but that’s not what this story is about, so we’ll just move on for now).

God then asks Moses to take the elders with him, and stand in front of the people. Because this is likely a scary proposal, there is one more thing God says: ” I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb.” The love that God has for the people is demonstrated in the miraculous provision of water springing from a rock. God’s love for Moses, however, is evidenced in His presence on this rock. The people receive water through Moses’ physical actions, but Moses knows that this is really about God’s presence.

Now we are told that this place is called “Massah,” which means “temptation.” But it is the Lord who is put to the test here, not the journeying ex-slaves.

We test those whom we do not know, to see if they are worthy of our commitment. We ex-slaves test God, to see who she is.

How well do you know the Almighty? Some times, the Almighty arrives in strange form, and he’s asking for a drink of water. Sometimes, it’s important to pause in what you’re doing and say “Hi Pop.”

What ought to be clear by now is that children of Israel at Rephidim do not know the character of God. In Psalm 95:10, the Psalmist recalls God’s thoughts on these journeying ex-slaves:

They are a people who err in heart, and they do not regard my ways (RSV)

The Hebrew for “err in heart” (ta’ah) carries the image of a heart that wanders, the way a drunk man moves, staggering and not able to move in a straight line. The word “wayward” might give us a good picture of the intent.

RSV translation here (“do not regard”) is great, because of the root of the English verb. Other translations use “have not known” but ” do not regard” is both knowing and seeing, and seeing and knowing.

A more contemporary word might be “recognize.”

It is important to recognize the ways of God, because we ex-slaves have our own journeys to make. And if we truly are ex-slaves, we should use the ways of God for these journeys.

But it is not as if the ex-slaves at Rephidim do not have experience with God, specifically with the acts of God: They have been delivered from oppression, delivered from a pursuing army, and given manna to eat. They know what God can do, because they know what She has done.

As the Psalmist says in Ps 103:7:

He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.

But to know the acts of God, one only has to receive. The ex-slaves at Massah did not have to adjust either their hearts, or their perceptions.

Last week, Amy contrasted new spiritual birth with seeing the kingdom of God, and it’s a similar contrast. New spirit birth is an act of God. One has only to receive it.

For the kingdom of God, the reign of Christ, both heart and perceptions need to be transformed in order see the ways of God– and God’s ways are not so similar to our own, as Isaiah reminds us, when he quotes the Lord in 55:8

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD.

How would I recognize the Lord’s ways?

Let’s move on to another thirsty encounter, this one in John 4. It’s an interesting one, because as Wes Howard-Brook reminded me last night, no one actually gets any water.

Jesus at Jacob’s well

“If you knew the gift of God,” Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, “and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

Now this encounter is at an important site in the history of Israel: Jacob’s well. While this isn’t the well where Jacob watered Rachel’s sheep, it reminds us of that story in Genesis 29, a story about maintaining the racial purity of the children of God. And in that account, didn’t Jacob have to roll a stone away to open up the well?

This makes Jesus’ discussion with a racially impure Samaritan woman all the more interesting.

But the contrast I would like to draw here is not a racial one, nor do I want to focus on the parallels with the Passion and Lazarus stories. I’d just like to focus on activity .

Last Sunday, Amy wished that John the Apostle would write a more practical gospel. It’s true: John’s not so big on pragmatic precepts.

But John’s strength is seeing the divine in the everyday. The first verse of John’s first epistle makes that clear.

1Jn 1:1 (NIV) That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched….–this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.

John may not be pragmatic, but he is tangible. Let us look at the tangible, everyday reality of this well, and the simple contrast that Jesus is making in this encounter.

Instead of a well, from which one must draw water and for which one needs a bucket, Jesus says, you could have a spring.

In John, Jesus uses misdirection and misunderstanding all the time. Jesus uses the everyday to speak about the spiritual. His hearers inevitably seem stymied by his images. How, asked Nicodemus—just last week– can a man be born a second time? He can’t crawl back in. The Samaritan woman, for her part, would like a literal spring; it would make her work of hauling water easier. She says as much.

But, as so often happens in John, Jesus is not speaking literally.

And even though the woman does not initially perceive what is being offered or who is doing the offering, she gets the misdirection. This guy may be thirsty, but he’s not talking about literal water. She stays for the dialogue. Later, she even leaves her water jar behind and draws the rest of her village into the dialogue.

Not everybody in John’s gospel get the misdirection, but she does. She sees something, and pays attention.

And that is the first step. But we must move from seeing to knowing. The children of Israel at Rephidim also saw something. We must move beyond that, to knowing the Lord’s ways.

Transition or Transformation?

Paul gives us a practical example of these different ways in Romans 5:3-5

We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

Paul is elucidating a path of transformation, a clear path from suffering to hope. This, he tells us, is God’s way. And transformation is not our way.

In the middle class Western life, we prefer transitions to transformations. Allow me to explain the contrast.

Transformations move us from one kind or quality of life, through death, to another quality of life. Transformations require dependency. The move of the Passion from Good Friday to Easter Sunday requires submission to an external force, and dependency on that force. One cannot raise one’s self from the dead.

Transitions, by contrast are gradual shifts– nobody dies to self and lives to Christ in a transition. We prepare for them, we take action, and we wean ourselves off of one thing and move to the next. We make transitions. We submit to transformation.

It is interesting that the end point of this set of transformations in Romans 5 is a “hope that does not disappoint”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been disappointed by hope. I’ve lived long enough for that to happen, but then, so has my two-year-old grandson. It must be something different than my grandson’s hope that I’ll take him to the park today, or my hope that I’ll soon find an interesting, challenging, well-paying job in Seattle. I’d like to examine this hope a little further.

The scripture does not say,

“and hope does not disappoint us because the Writer and Producer make sure that everything always turns out alright for the main character.”

A life in Christ is not a movie script for Middle America’s comfort and enjoyment, one where the guy gets his girl, the hero serves justice on the oppressors, and the oppressed are free to vote their mind and make money in a capitalist society, the way God has surely intended.

The scripture does say,

“and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.”

The hope that we have does not disappoint because of our relationship with God; because of Whom we know her to be.

That hope is grounded in our love connection with God, our growing knowledge of Her character and the value He has placed upon us.

Middle class Americans aspire to a life without suffering– we do not prize endurance (except in athletes), we easily tolerate failures of character, and we believe that hope is the province of young, and nostalgia the inheritance of the old.

This is where our addiction to Empire and refusal of the kingdom of God has led us. When we hit a snag on our journey, we have a tendency to call for water and blame our leaders. That’s our way.

But the ways of God are not our ways.

Perhaps our ways need to change. That might be a good agenda for Lent. I know that it is for my journey.

A wise man of God once told me that he had heard this from God during a frustrating time in prayer: “Bob, you and I are different. And I don’t change.”

In many ways, I am still wandering in the desert. I believe that God led me here to Seattle, but it seems that I still have a death to die and a transformation to submit to before I fully enter the promise inherent in that call.

Let me commend a few questions for us to ponder in a bit of silence, before we respond to God.


I’m in pain or I’m confused. I recognize that I am on the way, but I don’t know where this is all leading.

Am I looking for a transition, or a transformation?

A man talks about water, but he doesn’t mean the pause that refreshes. A bush burns without being consumed. Certain people are going to pay attention.

Are we certain people?

Am I paying attention?