Sermon   for   Lent      III,   Year   A

A sermon by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson, based on Exod. 17:1-7. ______________________________________________________________________

This story of Moses and the Israelites wandering in the wilderness without water is a very engaging and instructive one for us today. For those of us who are pastors or lay leaders in the church, this Exodus story has a lot of connections for us. The story not only provides us with a realistic picture of the ever-fluctuating, day-to-day relationship involving Moses, Israel and God; it also probes us to reflect more deeply on the relationship of pastor, parishioners and God in the church today. When we read this story, my guess is that we are able to see ourselves in it--either as pastors identifying ourselves with Moses or lay leaders identifying with some of Israel's elders or parishioners identifying with "the whole congregation of the Israelites."

The story is very appropriate for the Lenten season; as we travel in the wilderness with Jesus to the wilderness of the cross. Lent is the season when we discover that life is full of temptations, tests, difficulties, hardships. This Exodus story affirms that reality for us.

I love this story because it is a clear critique of those "religious folk" in every church who would like to live by the creed that: "If I've got religion, then life should be on my side, it should be a piece of cake for me, everything will fall into its nice, tidy place, without struggles, challenges, and certainly no deprivation of all the finest pleasures of life." WRONG! WRONG! WRONG!

Moses and the Israelites certainly DID NOT have a smooth sailing journey in the wilderness. Nor did they enjoy a stable, unchanging, predictable relationship of peace and harmony forever and ever, amen! They had been travelling in that hot desert for some time and they were thirsty for water. In any hot climate, water is one of THE MOST precious resources for human beings. Without it one is not able to survive in the desert. So, what were the Israelites going to do about this shortage of water? When things go wrong, usually they found something to blame for it. If they couldn't find some thing, they had to find someone. Poor Moses, their leader seems to get the blame almost every time.

According to the Revised Standard Version: "the people found fault with Moses;" the New Revised Standard Version translates it: "The people quarreled with Moses;" while the Revised English Bible renders it: "a dispute arose between them(the people)and Moses." Some scholars have suggested that the Hebrew sense of this heated encounter between Moses and the Israelites is that of the people taking legal action against Moses. It's as if Moses were standing on trial before a court of law. He is being convicted of the crime of not providing Israel with drinking water. I wonder, do those of us who are pastors not feel like Moses at times? Do we, like Moses, not get blamed for "shortages" in the church? "Pastor, why aren't you filling the pews of this church? Pastor, the giving has decreased markedly over the past months, what have you done to offend so many of our previously generous members? Pastor, we don't have an active youth group and you need to start one if this church is going to grow. Pastor, ever since you invited all of those street people to the Wednesday evening Bible Study, none of the regulars want to attend. Pastor, if you keep preaching so many sermons on social justice issues, our business people will transfer their membership to another parish."

Sometimes, we pastors feel like Moses when parishioners complain, dispute, quarrel, find fault with us and our ministry. We, like Moses, are trying our best to follow where God is leading us in our wildernesses; in our various forms of shortages. We, too, ask our parishioners: "Why do you murmur against, quarrel, dispute and find fault with me? Why do you test, challenge, put the Lord to the proof?" Ultimately, we, like Moses, may feel that our life is in danger because of the rebellion, ingratitude, rejection and hostility we face from the masses. So, in our fear and despair, our hurt and maybe even anger, we appeal and cry out to the Lord. "What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone or get rid of me."

From the point of view of lay leaders and parishioners, the story may connect with you in another way. Lay leaders may be able to identify most with Israel's elders whom Moses selected to go with him to assist him and support him in providing the people with water. Lay leaders may feel considerable angst; they may feel caught in the middle of a life-threatening tug-of-war going on between their pastor and the parishioners. They may feel some obligation to put forward the agendas of the parishioners--especially since they were elected into leadership positions by them and thus are accountable to them. They may also empathize with their pastor because they understand the stress he or she lives with every day in their ministry.

On the other hand, parishioners may feel let down by and suspicious of the lay leaders, their pastor, and even God--since they fail to see ministry unfolding as they believe, hope and envision it. What good reasons are there for all of the "shortages" in our parish? Where are we going in this wilderness journey? How much can we trust our pastor, our lay leaders, and God to lead us safely through the wilderness into the promised land?

In our Exodus story, we observe, that it's only when everyone is "up against it;" "at the end of their rope;" so-to-speak that Moses hears the voice of God and follows God's instructions to deliver everyone from this ominous situation. Theologian Emil Brunner, once said: "God himself meets us only when we are at the end of our knowledge and power." HOW TRUE THAT WAS OF MOSES AND THE ISRAELITES IN OUR STORY. HOW TRUE THAT IS OF US AS WELL. It seems that in our old sinful nature, we can get on fine without God--until we face a dead end and there are no other alternatives available to us but God! Maybe we can not hear God's voice UNTIL WE ARE UP AGAINST IT; AT THE END OF OUR ROPE. MAYBE WE ARE NOT WILLING TO FOLLOW GOD'S INSTRUCTIONS UNTIL WE REACH THIS POINT IN OUR WILDERNESS JOURNEY. As was the case for Jesus, so, too, it is for us: ONLY UNTIL WE ARE BEARING THE CROSS AND DYING TO THE OLD SINFUL SELF CAN GOD WORK GOD'S RESURRECTION POWER IN AND THROUGH US.

When Moses reaches this point of no longer depending on his own knowledge and power; he is able to carry out God's work and provide the people with water. In spite of all of his battle wounds; he is still able to serve the Lord and his people. In spite of all Israel's hard heartedness, rebellion and sin, God still loves them dearly, spares their lives and provides for their needs.

Pastor William R. White, in his book, Stories For The Journey, tells the following tale: "The Teacher sat praying under a tree that had large, exposed roots. As he prayed a scorpion, hanging on one of the roots, began to move slowly toward him. A young boy passing by saw the scorpion only inches away from the one in prayer and shouted, 'Teacher,quick, kill that scorpion; it is trying to bite you!'"

"The Teacher looked up at the scorpion and slowly moved a short distance before he spoke to the lad, 'Just because it is the nature of the scorpion to sting is no reason that I should change my nature to save.'"

This tale is a parable of God's love and mercy towards humankind. We humans, in all of our sin, rebellion, hard heartedness, lack of gratitude, along with a host of other vices, mean to cause harm and bite God and one another; yet God in God's mercy and love forgives us and provides generously for all of our needs.

As the Exodus story today ends with God's provision of water for Israel; Moses, ever the faithful servant of God, deliberately memorializes the place for future generations by naming it: Massah, meaning "Test" or "Proof" and Meribah, meaning "Quarrel" or "Dispute" or "Contention." This place-- where Moses's very life was threatened, as were the lives of his people, without water--was to be remembered by Israel as a lesson to them of God's deliverance and generous provision; in spite of their sin, lack of gratitude and rebellion. It was a lesson of placing their trust in God's faithful leaders and, above all, in God with their whole lives.

This Lenten season, as we journey with Jesus in the wilderness to the cross; may we, too, learn the same lessons as ancient Israel. Christ our Living Water never runs dry. May we drink of this Living Water and quench our thirst always.

(Note: My thanks to the Rev. Steve Charles for providing me with the Hebrew script background. Visit his website at:

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

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