This past week, Leroy and I traveled to NY State to see my brother and daughter, as well as attend to some matters related to our upcoming move. While there, we participated in two days of preliminary training for our retirement career. Who knew that making beds and flipping pancakes was so complicated?! The most challenging part, for me, was navigating the systems required to access water deep in the back woods of rural western New York. The inn has a well. Plus a deeper well. Plus a cistern two hundred feet from the house. Plus a five hundred gallon water tank in the basement. Plus water purifiers and softeners and regulating gadgets and gizmos that make my head spin. It is so much more complicated than living in the suburbs and turning on the tap and paying an occasional water bill.
We all need water to live. It is essential for every human being, including those who trekked across the desert with Moses. They had left the urban region by the Nile River and now found themselves in the very dry and deserted regions of the Sinai Peninsula.
Because Moses and the Sinai Desert show up in so many Lectionary texts, I’ve mentioned here more than once that Leroy and I visited the Sinai in Egypt during our sabbatical travels. In St. Catherine, the oldest Christian monastery in the world contains an Islamic mosque. Since the year 600, local Muslims have provided protection and needed services for the monks who live there. A young man named from that community Mohammed gave us a tour of the monastery and then led us up the steep trail to the peak of Jebel Musa, the Mountain of Moses. The summit has long been identified as the place where the Ten Commandments were received. At the base of the mountain, Mohammed pointed to an ancient chapel made of stone, sitting beside a large, oddly shaped rock. He explained that the rock was the very same, famous rock that Moses struck to produce water in the desert. There were 12 cracks in the rock, and the Quran’s version of the story states that twelve springs poured out when Moses hit the rock. We stopped and rested there, drinking water from our plastic bottles and not from the rock!
It’s hard not to feel sorry for Moses. He was doing the best he could. He didn’t ask for the job. Guiding large groups of Israelites in stages across the vast Sinai wilderness couldn’t be easy. Memories of slavery had quickly faded for the travelers, and there was no end of inconveniences to complain about in the desert. Moses was a lightning rod for criticism, despite his best efforts, and the lack of water in a dry, hot landscape resulted in what is almost euphemistically referred to in the text as “grumbling” or “murmuring.” Who could blame the people? It’s likely they did more than grumble under their breath, and Moses seemed to fear for his life as his followers demanded water for themselves and their children.
Moses brought his own complaint to God, and was instructed to take the rod that successfully parted the Red Sea and apply it forcefully to a large rock in the wilderness. So he did so. Water gushed forth, and another desert emergency was averted. The cool, clear water refreshed the tired wanderers and we can assume saved the lives of many.
As I reflect on the Hebrew Scripture for today and think about the necessity of water, it’s easy to have an image of all of creation thirsting: of the thousands of parched Israelites representing something common to all of the earth and all of its creatures. Getting water to all of creation requires creativity.
In 2009 the small Caribbean island of Dominica began to capitalize on its seemingly endless supply of fresh water that is accessed from streams flowing from Volcano. The island contracted with a Colorado company to supply billions of gallons of water to parched countries throughout the world. This past week, Hurricane Maria devastated the island, reducing the homes of many of its 72,000 residents to rubble. Electricity went out, and many, many residents today have no access to clean water despite too much water from the sky and plenty of water still flowing from the mountain. The water mains are cut off, and it will be a long time before there is safe water to drink in Dominica and those who have relied on the overflow in other nations will have access to that water again. Where is Moses and his mighty stick when you need him?
Creation itself is thirsting. Only about one percent of the earth’s water is available for drinking, and many people thirst for clean water. Recently the Christian Century magazine published an article with the title “Billions Gain Access to Clean Water.” The good news is there have been huge strides in the last two decades to provide clean, safe water for people who previously only had access to water filled with contaminants of various kinds. Four billion people world-wide now have clean water piped directly into their homes. The bad news, though, is that almost a third of the world’s population has no access to safe drinking water whatsoever. Creation is thirsting. And waiting.
So much of the destruction of our water and other natural resources has been the result of greed. A proverb from the Cree Nation says “When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money.”
One of the most powerful memories I will take with me from my time in the west was the trip with Pete Terpenning and Chris Gilmore to the Standing Rock Reservation. I felt inadequate and insignificant as well while trying to support the pipeline protest. Who was I to stand beside those who had suffered so much and were now putting their lives on the line? I learned a lot about water and treaties and history during that short visit. Shortly after, our new administration in Washington further fast-tracked the pipeline and it was completed within weeks. Oil has been flowing past the reservation and under the Missouri River, with some small leaks already noted. This summer, a federal judge ruled that in fact the environmental studies did not adequately consider (quote) “the impacts of an oil spill on fishing rights, hunting rights, or justice.” Despite setbacks and losses, we cannot give up. The earth is too important to leave its environmental stewardship to others. Standing Rock had a huge impact on me; Moses was nowhere to be seen in North Dakota, but I witnessed native and non-native Americans at the edge of the water willing to endure tear gas and rubber bullets to make sure that clean water flows for future generations.
When I was a child in Sunday school, I learned that Moses wrote the books stretching from Genesis to Deuteronomy: the section we call the Pentateuch. You’d be hard-pressed to find a serious Bible scholar who believes that today. Most agree that the earliest books of the Hebrew Bible were written many years after the events they describe while the Jewish people lived in exile in Babylon. They were desperate to believe that God had not abandoned them. The stories that had been passed along orally for generations were written down as a permanent record of God’s faithfulness. When they weren’t sure what would happen to them, or if they would ever return to their home, they gathered to read about Abraham and Jacob and Moses together. They read about water from the rock, and just as water sustained the Israelites in the desert, the story sustained them.
What sustains you during difficult times? When I had most of this message prepared before heading east last Sunday, I had no idea what new concerns would emerge during the week for our nation. Racism is on the front page once again, and we can’t allow the biases of some to infringe on the rights of citizens, whether that is on the streets or in the sports arena. Threats of nuclear annihilation have been spoken at the United Nations as rhetoric escalates between national leaders who act like children. The people of this earth along with all of creation, earth, sky, animals, and water are in jeopardy if reason doesn’t prevail over displays of who is most powerful.
Just as stories sustained the Hebrew people in very difficult times, may we remind each other of how goodness and wisdom and justice have prevailed in the past. We will not give up, and we will work together for a future that better models what God’s realm is like here on earth as it is in heaven.
Water connects us to ancient peoples and their stories, and it connects us to those living today in other places. How we use it here and now ultimately affects all who share this earth with us, and all who will ultimately follow us. Creation itself is thirsting. As people of abundance, we hold in our hands the rod that has the power to strike the rock and release clean, safe water for all. May we live in such a way today and tomorrow that all will share fully in the life-giving resources of this earth. Amen.