The wilderness is no place to lose your way, but it's a wonderful place to find it. The wilderness is the place of desolation and waste, a place that is hostile to human existence. It is an unforgiving place without the things needed for survival and life. And yet ever since a group of ex-slaves stumbled out of Egypt and into freedom, the wilderness is where the people of God have gone to find their way. Beyond the hunger and thirst and the dry, dry desert and the awesome expanses of emptiness that stretch to heaven and back again, there is a richness and a blessing and a world filled with God.
It was to the desert that John the Baptist went and called out, "Here, in the wilderness, in this place make a straight path for God." It was to the desert that Jesus went following his baptism to be tempted and to prepare for his public ministry. It is to the desert that monks and hermits and people like you and me still go. On the South Rim of the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park in Texas, staring across the Chihuahuan desert, feeling the ache of my blistered feet and the thirst in my mouth, I caught a glimpse of a God-filled world. There are treasures to be discovered if we have the eyes to see.
Moses, the legendary leader of the Israelites, had eyes like that -- eyes that could see a world filled by the presence of a God of awesome power. On a mountain top named Horeb in the Sinai desert as he was going about the mundane task of tending sheep, suddenly he encountered a burning bush and the voice of God and he never was quite the same again.
A Hebrew, he was sent to deliver Hebrew slaves from bondage in Egypt, but Moses never really enjoyed an easy relationship with his people. Where Moses saw power and possibility, the people saw bricks to be made without the necessary ingredient of straw and a liberation movement that was encouraging an oppressive Pharaoh to even more hostility and brutality. "You have made us offensive in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants," they cried to Moses. "You have put a sword in their hand to kill us!" [Ex. 5:21]
And Moses began to cry out to God as he would continue to do throughout his forty years of leading the people. "Why did you ever send me?" [Ex. 5:22] he cried. But Moses had been given the blessing and the curse of new eyes with which to see the world. He saw what the people could not see or refused to see.
As the journey out of Egypt continued, the tensions between Moses and the people only grew. Immediately after the miraculous parting of the Sea where the Israelites had marched through to freedom and their captors were drowned beneath the waters, after the dancing, the grumbling began. The wilderness was not a hospitable home. For three days they traveled without water and when they finally came to a watering hole they ran to the oasis with thickened tongues and dust-ï¿½filled throats aching for a taste. But the water was foul and bitter and the people complained to Moses. Moses cried out to God and, with the help of some nearby wood, God, through Moses, turned the water sweet.
After a few days more of travel, the grumbling began again. "There is no food," the people said. "We always had food in Egypt." And again they murmured against Moses. So God sent quail in the evening and bread in the morning.
And then they came to Rephidim, deep into the wilderness -- a place which shows up on no maps, even today. They were nowhere, and when they got there, right in the heart of nowhere, they set up camp. But there was a problem with this campsite -- there was no water, not even bitter water. And the people were not pleased.
"Moses," they cried , "give us water to drink?" The demand was direct and insistent. Should they not ask for something so basic? Should not Moses, as their leader, provide them with this? There was no thought of asking God. Despite the miraculous breakout from Egypt and the miracles of the past few weeks, the people were still not accustomed to looking for God. When you are in a place called Rephidim, in a broken landscape of desolation, far from anything you can remotely call home, and the thirst is undeniable -- the question "What have you done for me lately?" springs quickly to mind.
But Moses, remember, is seeing the world through different eyes. He hears their demand for water, but he turns the demand back on to the people. "Why are you arguing with me?" he asks. "Why are you testing God?"
"Testing God? That thought never crossed our minds," the people must have been saying. "We're thirsty. Is that a sin?"
But Moses sees that beyond their physical needs there is a theological problem. And though the two can never be wholly separated, they are equally serious. Moses sees that their questioning of him is really a way of questioning God. Is God really there? Can God really do something?
The people respond to Moses by turning the whole episode into an indictment against Moses' leadership. Suddenly the whole exodus and liberation and salvation story gets turned into an evil plot on the part of their leader. "For this you brought us out of Egypt?" they ask. "To kill us and our children and our animals with thirst? Thanks a lot, Moses." It's a good way to get Moses' attention. All of the promise and the possibility that Moses spoke of in Egypt has turned into desolation and waste. They left for the promised land and ended up in Rephidim, wherever that is! They left a land whose very name meant "many waters" and now found themselves in a land with no water.
Moses turned to God once more and there was a hint of fear in his voice. But still he did not ask for water, he asked for guidance. "What shall I do with these people?" he asked. "They're about ready to stone me to death!"
And then, for the first time in this story of Rephidim, God makes an appearance. There is no trace of anger in God's voice. There is no chastising or despair. There are only simple orders to be followed and reminders of past deliverance. "Go, Moses," God says. "Go on ahead of the people with some of the elders. And that staff that you struck the Nile with -- do you remember that? Take it with you. And I will be there waiting for you on a rock at a place called Horeb. You remember Horeb don't you, Moses? I'll be there. The people may doubt my presence here, but I'll be there. Strike that rock and water will come out and the people can drink."
And Moses does it. And though the Bible doesn't tell us, we assume that God performed one more miracle with the people who refused to see. Water came from a rock.
But Moses does one more thing -- he names the place where this episode occurred. Moses gets the last word and he uses it to interpret what has happened. He calls the place Massah, which means testing, and Meribah, which means quarreling, because for Moses none of this was about being thirsty and having no water -- it was a story about the people of God questioning God's very presence among them. Though they never used the words, Moses says that the people were asking the question, "Is God here or not?"
That's a good question to ask in the desert. In the midst of harshness and emptiness, is God really present at all? In the middle of muddles and messes and major disappointments, is God there or not?
For Moses, who traveled from Horeb to Egypt and back again, the task was always how to share the vision of what he had seen. Looking at a God-filled world is more than just the difference between seeing the cup as half-empty or half-full. It's not a question of optimism or blind faith. The world which Moses perceived was painfully full of God's presence. He tried to abandon it, to refuse his calling, because he could not see how he could bear the sight. But his eyes were changed forever.
So in a relationship with God's people that was often frustrating, trying and even threatening, Moses tried to give the people a sense that they lived in more than a material world. It wasn't that they were wrong to be thirsty or hungry or scared or frustrated -- God dealt directly with their physical needs. What they failed to see was a God-filled world wrought with wonder and wild holiness. They saw only emptiness and Moses saw what desert hermits and monks have always seen -- a God who often comes to us in our most troubled moments, a God who comes to provide, not only water, but living water.
We're still in the wilderness, you and I. We wander through landscapes blasted by pain and addiction, abuse and neglect. The many sounds and noises of our multimedia age ring hollow in the emptiness of our lives. Through grief and loss and failure we come to know the desolation of the heart. Oh, we know the wilderness, you and I, because that is where we live. And we thirst for water, for hope, for healing. What Moses reminds us is that what we seek is God. Is God here or not? The wilderness is a terrible place to lose your way, but it's a wonderful place to find it. Thanks be to God.