Let’s begin with the first reading from Exodus. The opening words set the stage. They speak of the wilderness wandering of the people of Israel. After their liberation from bondage in Egypt before they come to the Promised Land, they wander in a wilderness of “sin,” the writer says, as we all do when we move from where we were to where we need to be. The writer says they moved through the wilderness in stages. So it is with us. We move through the wilderness of sorrow, anger, sin and brokenness in stages, sometimes with painful steps and slow.
But there is more in this reading. I must admit that sometimes in my pastoral past, I took some comfort in Exodus 17, because it describes the tensions and challenges of religious leadership. Like most leaders and Moses, pastors sometimes feel the pressures of things going wrong as groups go through the challenges of the wilderness. That’s not really where I have been in these years with you. Actually, as a congregation, you have been gracious and understanding of my challenges and shortcomings, and I thank you for that.
But there is more in this reading than the stages of recovery or the challenges of leadership. Something primitive.
Exodus 17 contains a primitive memory regarding a large crack in a rock near a place called Horeb from which a spring of water flowed, probably in abundance. And according to the last verses of the reading, this story is told not to help us through the stages of life, nor to address problems of leadership, but to explain the name of a particular ancient spring flowing abundantly from a crack in a rock. To the primitive mind, such cracks witnessed to a powerful struggle in which the natural spirit forces challenged each other with massive violence. The spring flowing from the cracked rock would witness to the conflict and struggle of the natural spirits, perhaps the struggle between the spirit of rock and the spirit of water. And so the place was called Massah and/or Meribah. Massah means trial, test or challenge. Meribah means conflict or struggle or unrelenting unhappiness that can erupt with power.
The most primitive memories of this rock cut spring may also involve conflict and challenges among tribes for rights to this water. And it may have become a place for some tribes where strength was tested in rites of passage.
The writer of Exodus is preserving and explaining these primitive names of the rock cut spring: Massah and Meribah. But the writer of Exodus does not want anyone to believe anymore in nature spirits, water and rock sprites or that sort of thing. For by this telling, the people of Israel have entered the land and hold a new religion based not on the worship of nature, but the worship of an elusive desert God.
So Exodus 17 weaves a new story around the place named for struggle, challenge, and violent collision of spirits. Yes, this spring flowing from the fissure in the rock is a place of testing, challenge and conflict; but in Exodus the struggle between God and the people of God replaces the natural violence of water and rock. In the Exodus rendition, the power of the desert God breaks open the stone. And the struggle between Moses, God and the people becomes the new reasoning behind the name of the spring. Exodus 17 is an example of ancient “spin” placed on even older name and tradition. It is an example of one religion re-working the sacred space of an earlier religion for its own purposes.
Then later Exodus 17 itself gets reworked or re-spun: this time in the Book of Numbers. In Numbers chapter 20, the conflict, testing and struggle are between Moses and God. Moses gets angry with God. Moses gets so angry that he disobeys God and strikes the stone in anger, breaking it open. For this angry challenge and testing, Moses will die. But not before he completes his mission of moving the people through the wilderness. The book of Numbers wants to limit the reader’s respect for Moses. Why? Because it is written by priests whose patriarch is Aaron rather than Moses. By the time this version is written there is tension between these two priestly casts; and in their telling of the story, Aaron is lifted up. Moses is portrayed as less than perfect.
So what we have here is story of challenge, trial, struggle, and conflict at an ancient spring, told and retold so that the memories of the conflict are changed with each telling. What we have is the story of the new people shaping the memory to fit new perspectives and realities. What we have is a primitive example of the spin we still put on our stories as we go through our lives and talk about our well springs, rocks and conflicts.
I would like to pause here for a moment and think a bit about ourselves and this story. We shape and reshape the stories of our conflicts. We revise things as we try to face new perspectives and realities. We still spin the stories of struggle that shape us. And sometimes we are so caught up in the spin, we become trapped in the web we have woven, unable to go more deeply into what really happened. We think we have the truth, but what we have is our telling of it.
Lent is a time of self examination: a time when we seriously and honestly admit to God and ourselves, what we have done and what we have left undone. Lent is a time when we realize that we have glossed over or revised our stories so that they are more in keeping with our perspectives and self interests. Lent is a time for re-thinking our own history of challenge, struggle, and conflict and what we have made of it. Lent is a time of moving through the layers of rationalizations we have created until we encounter the God beyond all our reasons. Lent is a time when we stop arguing about what to call the spring of love flowing in our lives and instead bathe together in its waters together.
For beyond all the layers of naming, in the desert of sin, is this remarkable place where water flows, giving us the strength we need to make it through the stages of recovery and renewal. It’s not the name of the spring that matters. What matters is the spring itself, surging through the violence of life, the water beyond naming, the powerful, angry grace of solid rock split open by the waters of life.
Until we sense, as Teilard de Chardin says in The Divine Milieu almost sixty years ago (written in 1957, translated into English, 1960, Harper and Row, the beginning of Part III):
All around us, we have only to go a little beyond the frontier of sensible appearances in order to see the divine welling up and bursting through. But it is not only close to us, near us, that the divine presence has revealed itself. It has sprung up so universally, and we find ourselves so surrounded and transfixed by it, that there is no room left to adore it, even within ourselves.
By means of all created things, without exception, the divine confronts us, changes us, and shapes us. We think of it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its layers.
And with that we come to another story of another spring or well, this time in the gospel of John. This is the well of Jacob. This well also has a history, but I’ve already spent too much time on the history of springs. The people remember it as the well Jacob gave to Joseph, his son. By the time of Jesus, the well has become the watering source for the Samaritan branch of the people. Although the Jews and the Samaritans intensely dislike each other, Jesus and the disciples have taken a trip to Samaria. Jesus is tired and stops by the well. He is thirsty, but has no bucket. So he asks the woman at the well for assistance. They strike up a conversation. This woman gossips about the encounter, and as a result, the gospel is shared in this village.
Now this well also drips with conflict, struggle, challenge, and testing. There is more conflict in the story of Jacob than we can name here. The same is true for the story of his son Joseph There is conflict between Jews and Samaritans. There is tension between men and women as lifted up in the story. And the story speaks to the conflict between what is proper behavior and openness to those who do not meet the standards of propriety.
And no one spins a story anywhere in the Bible better than the writer of John, who puts endless theological twists on the life of Jesus. Here John makes a point he often does: that to find Jesus we must dip more deeply. Jesus is about the spiritual. He is focused not on eating, but the bread of life. He is focused not on drink, but the water of life. He is focused on something called eternal life breaking into this life.
And it is this water of life, this bread of life, this new life of the spirit, to which John points Jesus and us, again and again. We are reminded to draw more deeply from the wellspring of our souls, from the well of God’s grace, from the cracks in the solid rock of everyday life, so that the water flows more fully, quenching our thirst for the truth about who we are, and washing us fully in springs of living water and hope.
But more than that. In the deeper reservoir of grace, love, and hope, we are able to renew ourselves, and find new ways to face the challenges, the struggles, the testing, the conflict that still seem to be part of the human experience. In the deep reservoir of grace and love, like the woman in the story, we encounter Jesus whose life and death speaks to the mystery of God’s love that flows forth from the violence of the cross. In the end, perhaps, it is time to name our lives, our places, and our events not after conflicts, nor our ancestors nor heroes or great men and women of faith, but after our ancient and present yearnings for truth, and justice, peace and love, hope and beauty in the midst of struggle.