Balancing Bitterness – Lectionary 03/15/2020

Exodus: 17:1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Sermon Text

The rocks of Meribah and Massah are among the most formative moments in the history of God’s people. The long walk through the wilderness has the people of God struggling with Moses, with God, with one another. The constant travel wore down the edges of every relationship. Sometimes this strengthened them, other times it harmed them, but it always transformed them. It was here at Massah and Meribah that an entire tradition within the biblical writings was created.

The pattern of people coming to a time of trouble, complaining to God, and then God responding to that complaint is what some scholars call the Massah tradition. It is a train of thought that is present in several Psalms, the book of Hebrews, and even potentially in the Lord’s prayer.[1] The basic idea being that we all are at risk of engaging in the namesake of Massah – the testing of God.

When we engage with the divine we can do so in nearly infinite ways. We pray to God to work wonders. We praise God for the good in our life. We cry out to God when we are broken and ask for answers, to be healed. God is able to take on all our emotions – good and bad, praise and anger, love and consternation. The work of the prophets attests again and again to God’s willingness to work alongside us in the muck and mire of our most difficult hours. What then separates Massah from other instances of crying out to God? Why is this particular cry for help treated negatively when the Psalmist, the Prophets, and many more in scripture have raised much bigger questions of God?

We cannot, through our reading of scripture create criterion in which a situation is or is not testing God. This creates an obligation based understanding of our relationship with God. “If we use this word we are testing God… If we say it in this way we are testing God…” That does not help us. Imagine any other relationship in your life where the specific words you use were the only part of communication that mattered. That if you had a set of rules to follow that would be enough to promote a good relationship.

Everyone naturally forms boundaries in conversations with people, topics or words you know will make them upset. I personally have an understanding with my friends that they can question anything about me and my actions, but they should not use the word “Naïve,” it is a word that I do not react well to and so I have that understanding with people not to use it. The Rabbi’s talk about a consideration for people that goes even beyond this, “Someone who had a person who hanged in his family, should not say to his fellow, “Hang a fish.” – In other words, simply saying the word, “Hanged” can bring up emotions that a considerate person would not want their friend to be pulled back into.

However, it is rarely a matter of word choice or sentence formation that makes up the meat of interactions between people. Yes, we do a great deal when we learn how to communicate with one another in better more productive ways. Yes, it is better to ask someone, “Can you explain your reasoning?” than to yell, “You idiot! Why would you do that!” But if we are only concerned with the words we choose and the order we put them in then we will inevitably fall into the trap of finding loopholes. “I did not call them an idiot, I just heavily implied they were.” Is not very life giving for anyone involved.

The story of Massah is not one of God’s people failing to meet criteria X,Y, or Z that would allow their complaint to God to be valid. It is not a lesson for us to say, “And thus we should never question God, because if we do God will be cross.” It is instead a lesson in two realities – our need to stop trying to manipulate God and God’s care for us even when we try to do so.

There is a long tradition across most religious systems where people try and persuade a God through trickery to do what they want. The Greeks tell stories of two bags being sorted, one with very good meat on top but nothing but bones and skin underneath and the other with the majority of meat from a cow. The Gods choose the choice meat and are tricked into their lot in sacrifices to mostly be bones while people enjoy the majority of the meat. In Japan the hero Susanoo tricked the Gods many times and so was banned from Heaven till he proved himself. Even in our fiction Gods are frequently tricked, the patriarch of rabbits El-ahrairah in the book Watership Down attempts to trick the great God Frith into blessing him, somehow succeeding in becoming the fastest animal on earth.

The people of God and others throughout scripture are no different. Jacob wrestled with God and would not let him go without being blessed first, trying to strong arm the divine. (Gen. 32:22-32) Moses’ wife, Zipporah, dipped blood on his feet in a seeming attempt to trick God away from killing Moses. (Exo. 4:24-26) Balak the Moabite pays a prophet to prophecy against Israel, attempting to take away the divine voice with money. (Numbers 23-24) Even King Saul of Israel attempted to pull one over on God, by summoning the Ghost of Samuel to try and speak against the rising star that would become King David. (1 Samuel 28)

Whenever people wanted something they would do whatever they could to try and pull the wool over God’s eyes. To make sure that God somehow got confused and worked in their favor, even when doing so would mean that God would be doing something counter to Godself.

For the Israelites in our scripture today the transgression was simple. They were thirsty and they needed water. Yet, when given the chance to pray for God’s provision they chose instead to accuse God of evil. “Is God here or not?” “Are you just trying to kill us?” These questions are certainly the words of people who are concerned about their life, but it is also the words of people who are not prepared for God to deliver something to them. Their first response to trouble was to make accusations, not to ask for direction. That betrays a great deal about the state of their relationship with God.

When we are in relationship with one another we have to be in a responsible relationship. When someone we love comes to us with a problem, we hope they will do so understanding we are not intentionally causing that problem. When we go to a loved one with our own problems, we hope they know we are seeking understanding not making accusations. If on either side of this equation doubt enters in about the good-will of one another things begin to fall apart. If, worse still, one member of the relationship genuinely stops desiring good for the other, then things will also begin to fall apart.

The people of Israel were not wrong to come to God and ask for water. We need water to survive, that was as true then as it is now. However, rather than asking they accused. Rather than seeking understanding they already had made up their mind about God. Rather than seeking an understanding of relationship, they charged onward and fractured the space between themselves and God. It would be like one person accidentally hurting the feelings of another and that person accusing them of ill intent without explaining why they were hurt. It would be like a person being told they had hurt another person accidentally and saying, “Well it wasn’t my intent so it isn’t my fault.” Communication, not intent, is what makes relationships function. Yet, using the right words without proper intent will not produce a healthy relationship either – both are needed.

The complex steps we all must take to communicate with one another are not dissimilar to what happens when we come to speak to God. When we feel we are not having our needs met the solution cannot be to pretend all is well and then sit on our hands. Likewise, it cannot be brazenly charging ahead and demanding what is ours as if God has been playing against us this whole time. Job, perhaps the most afflicted person in scripture questions God for 40 chapters and at the end of it all God said, “My Servant Job has spoken what is right.” (Paraphrase Job 42:7.) God intervenes after a long litany of complaint not to say Job was wrong but to shut down his friends who spoke for God rather than questioned, who assumed they knew what Job needed to do without ever asking how he was.

Testing God can mean a lot of things. Taking unnecessary risk, pushing God to act against God’s goodness. However, most often it manifests in a lack of trust that comes from us not communicating with God. When we come to God with a pointed finger and a raised voice before we ever came to God with a quiet question. Sometimes it is appropriate to yell in relationships. Sometimes it is appropriate to give voice to all our feelings with all the intensity we feel them. More often than not though, it all begins with a question asked in good faith. If we were only willing to ask one another more questions to understand a situation, and less willing to assume we know what’s going on already. What a wonderful world we might create.

So, today, let your desires be known to God. If you are upset tell the almighty. If you have your doubts about God’s goodwill voice that concern. If you have everything joyous in your life let God know. Do the same with your loved ones. Loved ones listen to one another. For God is not an avenger against you, neither should your loved ones be, but when we all come to a place of testing and complaint, let us do so in a land of Support – our own Rephidim to house Meribah and Massah. Test not God, Test not one another. – Amen

[1] Cornelius B. Houk. “Πειρασμος, The Lord’s Prayer, and the Massah Tradition” in Scottish Journal of Theology. 19 no 2 Jun 1966, p 216-225

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