No matter how hard we try; no matter how many sidewalk cracks we jump; no matter how many vitamins we take or risks we avoid, we will all end up in the wilderness at some point in our lives.
Some of you — maybe many or even most of you — know what I’m talking about. Whether you have encountered the deserts of chronic illness, or the valleys of broken relationships, or the ocean storms that threaten to sweep us away when life slips out of control — we know that these times can leave us feeling unmoored, alone, and afraid. And no matter what we do, no matter what we buy or what ends we will go to to distract ourselves, the horizon stretches out before us, with no oasis in sight.
Which begs the question: What hope do we have when we are lost in the wilderness?
In our OT lesson today, we hear just a snippet from the story of Israel’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land — and what we hear doesn’t sound good.
Less than a month had passed since the Hebrew people had left Egypt, weighed down with the riches of their enemies. Less than a month had passed since God had parted the Red Sea, so that all of Israel might be saved — and all of Pharaoh’s armies drowned. Less than a month had passed, and already the people of God doubted that the One who had redeemed them from slavery, the One who had called them into existence, cared for them or could care for them now.
All it took was a little bit of thirst. The people of Israel had just moved on from the wilderness of Sin and camped at Rephidim, where they quickly realized that there was just not enough water to go around. And so the people quarreled with Moses and grumbled against him, saying, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”
So Moses cried to the Lord: “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
And no wonder. The human heart so readily turns to anger when we are afraid; and God’s people were afraid. Bad as it had been in Egypt, they had known who they were, known their surroundings, known what they wanted. But now the Israelites walked a seemingly never-ending path of rock and sand and heat and struggle. The present, with all its troubles, loomed before them, taller than the mountains, vaster than the desert. The Israelites could not imagine a future, and they had forgotten their past. Hungry, thirsty, exhausted, and afraid, they were done waiting for paradise.
But God wasn’t done with them.
As the story unfolds we see what most of us would not be able to give: Mercy. Patience. Love. In the face of what wasn’t simply grumbling or quarreling — the Hebrew words used there have more of a sense of open rebellion and strife — God gave water to his people. “Behold,” he said to Moses, “I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.”
There, in the midst of the wilderness, God provided for his people — not according to their deserts, to use an old term, but according to his love.
Does that sound familiar to you?
This is an age-old story, the only True Story, we might say. For God proves his love for us, again and again, in that while we were still sinners, while we were still weak, he chose to save us. This is the Gospel. This is the good news. This is the water of life and the bread of heaven that will sustain us even when we suffer — because we will.
More than any other season in the church year, Lent reminds us that life is not all sunshine and roses. Every Ash Wednesday, we commit ourselves to following Jesus toward his crucifixion. We fall in behind and pick up our cross and begin (again!) the work of reckoning with the fact that our leader never sought the easy way out. He chose willingly to enter the wilderness of Sin that we might follow him to Paradise. And we won’t walk a different path. This is the way that leads there. God forms his people through the desert and in the valleys; he shapes us in the depths and in the heights. But he also waits for us. Guides us. Nourishes us.
As our Lord said to the woman at the well: “Everyone who drinks of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Our hearts may quake, our faith may fail. We will fall — and then get right back up again. For our God stands before us, the Rock of our Salvation, and the water he would give us can create a garden out of even the driest of ground. AMEN.