1 The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”
Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the LORD to the test?”3 But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”4 Then Moses cried out to the LORD, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”5 The LORD answered Moses, “Walk on ahead of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the place Massah [a] and Meribah [b] because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the LORD saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
Our Too-Small Imagination
Have you ever noticed how we human beings seem to imagine things that we’ve never seen on a scale much smaller than they really are? I remember the first time I flew to California in the 1980s. As we were somewhere over the southwestern United States, the pilot announced, “The Grand Canyon will be coming up on your left shortly.” Fortunately, I was seated by the window on the left-side of the plane, so I had a commanding view. Now, I had been to New Mexico, and we had lived in Texas when I was a child, so I was not totally unfamiliar with the landscape of the southwest. Lots of wild, craggy mountain ranges, separated by lots of vast, arid desert. So, from our height of probably 30,000 feet, I expected to see the Grand Canyon looking sort of like a big ditch in the ground below.
Sure enough, as the plane flew on, I caught a glimpse of what I thought was the Grand Canyon. Okay, it looked like I thought it would — a big ditch with a southwestern attitude. But, as we flew on, the real Grand Canyon came into view, and kept coming, and coming, and getting bigger and bigger. This was no ditch. This was a wonder of nature and time. A carved natural masterpiece more immense than I had ever imagined, even from 30,000 feet up.
We had a similar experience when our girls were small. I was teaching at Glorieta Baptist Conference Center in New Mexico one summer for three weeks. My schedule allowed us to take afternoon trips to places of interest close by. We saw Bandelier National Monument, home to cliff dwelling native Americans hundreds of years ago. We travelled in to Santa Fe and saw the native American craftsmen and artisans selling handmade silver-and-turquoise jewelry. All of those experiences were pretty much what we expected, and very interesting at that.
I had heard of an extinct volcano caldera — the center of the volcano — and thought it would be great to take our girls there to see it. None of us had ever seen a volcano before, even an extinct one, so one day we packed into the car and headed toward the site. Debbie was navigating with map in hand, the kids were peering over the back seat in anticipation of catching the first glimpse of the cone-shape of the volcano itself. But, we drove and drove and drove. According to the map, we should have seen the volcano by that time. But, no volcano. After driving about 20-miles in the vicinity of the volcanic caldera, we stopped and asked a National Park Ranger for directions. I got out of the car and walked over to him, and said, “We’re looking for the caldera. Can you tell me how to get to it?” He just looked at me and replied, “You’ve been driving in it for the last 20-miles.” Then, he pointed to a far distant landmark further down and said, “It goes on for several more miles in that direction.”
We were both stunned and disappointed. Stunned at the immense size — we were actually driving inside an old extinct volacano base. But, disappointed that there was not cone-shaped mountain with lava running down the side to see. We had imagined it much too small.
Our Too-Small Biblical Imagination
We have a similar problem when we come to this story today. It’s the story of God providing water for the nation of Israel as they were on the first leg of their Exodus from Egypt. Here’s the story:
The nation of Israel, with Moses as its leader, has left Egypt, crossed over the Red Sea on dry land, and slipped through the clutches of Pharaoh and his army. They are now on their way to the land of promise, the land God is taking them to. We aren’t sure how many were in the long procession from Egypt, but the Bible says that “600,000 men on foot, besides women and children. Many other people went up with them, as well as large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds.”
Assuming that each male had at least 2 or 3 corresponding women and children — who could have been mothers, sisters, wives, and brothers — the numbers of Israelites could easily have been 1.2-to-1.8 million people. Then, there are the “many other people” who also went with them, who might have been other foreigners, Egyptians who had married into their families, traders, and others wanting to escape Pharaoh’s brutality. So, we could have a small country of people, maybe 2 million, traveling together.
The writer of Genesis says they were accompanied by “large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds.” This is natural for an agrarian economy, which is what Israel had. They lived off the land, and an important part of their economy were their flocks of sheep, and herds of goats and cattle. These domesticated animals provided the ancient equivalent of “horse-power” to plow fields, grind grain, haul mud and straw for the making of bricks; plus, they were a source of milk, cheese, meat, and clothing. And, it obviously took more than one animal per household, probably even more than one per person, to sustain their way of life. Let’s estimate the flocks and herds at 3-4 million sheep, goats, and cattle. We will not even bother with chickens, ducks, geese, dogs, cats and any other farm animals that might have been among their furry or feathered friends.
This massive population of people had already encountered one water crisis at Marah, where the water was bitter. Bitter might have meant “unfit” for human or animal consumption, not just bad tasting. So bad, that no one could drink it. The people immediately began to grumble — “What are we to drink?” Except I think it was a lot more heated than that, and a lot more intense, because Moses “cries out to the Lord.” Moses doesn’t just pray, or ask, or seek — he cries out! “Help!”
God shows Moses a piece of wood. The wood is not important here, but Moses’ obedience is. Moses throws the piece of wood into the water. Miraculously, the water becomes “sweet” — drinkable. For all 2-million people, and 3-4 million cows, sheep, goats, chickens, dogs, cats, geese, ducks, and gerbils. Or whatever else wanted a drink. Plus, they need to find more. So, God takes them to Elim where there are “12 springs and seventy palm trees.” Twelve springs, twelve tribes — one for each tribe. Enough for everybody, in other words. Crisis averted.
Next we come to the story of the manna and the quail. God sends quail to cover the camp and the next morning the manna is there where the quail have been. You know this story — and all they have to do is pick it up off the ground everyday, and a double portion before the Sabbath because it doesn’t appear on the Sabbath. Chapter 16 ends with the writer of Exodus telling us that “The Israelites ate manna forty years, until they came to a land that was settled.” The amazing thing is that later, they want to eat the quail. And, apparently, the quail are providing the manna. That is the ultimate case of wanting eat the goose that laid the golden egg. But, that’s not our story today.
Back to the water crisis. So, now they’ve come to Rephidim in the Desert of Sin. Not “sin” like we’ve done something wrong, but a place name — there was actually a city in Egypt named Sin, but this is not near it. Maybe the name is taken from the same root as Sinai, but we don’t know. But, even though the name doesn’t mean “we’ve done something wrong,” they do something wrong. They complain and quarrel with Moses because there is no water, again.
You might think that the people who have seen God provide water for them by changing bitter water to sweet, and then leading them to 12 streams among 70 palms would believe God could do it again. But, they don’t. You might think that the same people who have been fed by God everyday that they have been on this journey from Egypt to the land of promise, might believe that God would provide for them again. But they don’t. Instead they say to Moses —
Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thrist?”
Again, Moses cries out to the Lord. This time God says,
Walk on ahead of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.”
Of course, Moses does as God directs, and water springs from the rock.
How Much Water Is That?
Now, this is where our imagination needs expanding. How much water? Usually, when we picture this scene, Moses stands on the rock and strikes it with his staff, and a stream of water gushes forth. But, we’re providing water for 2-million people and 3-4 million animals. That’s a lot of water. Let’s say everybody gets a gallon of water. That’s the recommended 8-glasses per day for each person. Plus, animals get a gallon. That’s 5-6 million gallons just for one day! And, they are there for 3-months according to Exodus 19:1. That’s 90-days x 6-million gallons — that’s 540-million gallons of water before they move on. But, the actual numbers are even higher than that.
Let’s take Georgia’s Lake Lanier, which serves Atlanta and north Georgia. Listen to these statistics from the website,Atlanta Water Shortage:
The watershed for Lake Lanier is around 1,040 square miles (the “watershed” is the land area that drains back into the lake).
First we need to figure out how much water we’re talking about if 1″ of rain fell. There are 27,878,400 square feet in a mile. Dividing that by 12 would tell us how many cubic feet of rain fall per square mile: 2,323,200. Converting that into gallons (2,323,200 * 7.48 gal/cubic ft) gives us 17,377,536 gallons of water per square miles. So, if we have 1,040 square miles of area, each receiving 17.38 million gallons, that’s a total of about 18 billion gallons that could potentially find its way into Lake Lanier.
From here it gets much trickier. How much of that rain will make it to Lanier? There’s no way to tell. All of it will make it other than what evaporates or is used by a human or animal. For the sake of argument, let’s say that 25% of the water makes it to the lake — that’s about 4.5 billion gallons.
Ok, so 4.5 billion gallons goes into the lake. What does that do for us? Well, we know that the lake loses just over a billion gallons a day, so we can say that 4.5 billion gallons would give us about 5 days worth of water.
My point in all of this is — this is torrent of water, not just a little stream. God provides enough water for millions of people, plus animals by having Moses strike the rock.
A Bigger Imagination for God’s Love
Do you see why our imagination is too small? God provides a torrent of flowing water that is drinkable and remains so as long as the people need it. Now, let’s turn our attention to Jesus and his conversation with the woman at the well, our Gospel reading from John 4 today. We don’t have time to examine every detail of this story, but here’s the important part.
On a trip through Samaria, Jesus stops to rest in the heat of the noonday sun at Jacob’s well in Sychar. A Samaritan woman is there, trying to draw water, and Jesus engages her in conversation by asking her for a drink of water. She replies –
Samaritan woman: “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?”
Jesus replies — “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
Living water is running water, not well-water. Water that is ever-renewed, a stream of water, not a still or stagnant pond or lake. Living water is dynamic, oxygenated, invigorating, life-giving. Living water never stops flowing, which Jesus explains to the woman as he says –
Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.
An endless supply, with no end either of volume or of duration. A limitless supply, greater than we can imagine.
A Promise Never To Destroy The World By Water, Again
After God destroys the earth by the flood, and saves only Noah and his family and the creatures on the ark, God makes a covenant with Noah by placing a rainbow in the sky –
Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. — Genesis 9:14-15
God promises never again to destroy all life with water. But, what God does instead, is give life to all through living water. God gave life to the nation of Israel through water from the rock. Jesus said to woman at the well, “the water I give him will become in him a spring of water, welling up into eternal life.”
How big is our imagination about God’s love? Do we believe that God loves us enough to provide enough water for all those who are spiritually-thirsty? Do we believe that God’s provision of living water is unending? Do we understand that there is enough and more for all of God’s creation?
During this Lenten season, is our imagination that of the nation of Israel? Doubtful about the ability of God to care for His people? Moses recorded in Exodus 17:7, that the people asked, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Is the Lord among us or not? If he is, what do we have to worry about? If he is not, what do we have to live for?
Believing the Story, Living in the Stream
Recently, I heard about a new book that had just been published, titled, Irreligion, by John Allen Paulos. Dr. Paulos is a mathematician at Temple University in Philadelphia, and an atheist by his own admission. In the book, Dr. Paulos takes on the 12-classic logical arguments for the existence of God, and to his own satisfaction, disproves each one. His conclusion is that there are no logical reasons to believe in God.
I made a passing reference to the book on my blog one day. To my amazement, I got a personal email from Dr. Paulos suggesting that I might actually want to read at least one chapter of his book, which I could do for free online. So, I took him up on his offer. I read the chapter and thought it was well-written.
I then offered to read and review the book on my blog, since I had referred to it previously. Dr. Paulos had the publisher send me a copy, which I read and wrote a review for. In the review I said that I thought Dr. Paulos made some good points, and that the book was well-written and he had done Christians a favor by telling us what atheists thought about our arguments for God. Dr. Paulos was so surprised by the review, that he emailed me and offered to buy me dinner should I ever come to Philadelphia. I fully intend to take him up on his offer, and here’s why: While I think he did a marvelous job of poking holes in the logical arguments for God, I don’t agree with him that there is no good reason to believe in the existence of God.
I believe God exists, not because science or math can prove or disprove God, but because I believe the story of God. I believe God created this world, and that it is good. I believe that God is active in this world, calling his creation and creatures back to him. I believe that God guides, provides, cares, loves, and saves us. I believe that the God who can provide water to a rag-tag group of grumblers on the way from Egypt to the promised land, is the same God who provides a well of living water to those on spiritual journeys today. A well that springs up, not just to quinch an immediate thirst, but a well that springs up into eternal life. A well that never runs dry, a stream that never fails, a source that always satisfies.
I believe in this God despite all those who have “proven” that he does not exist, does not care, is not powerful, is not good, is not here. I believe in this God who had Moses strike the rock once, and sent Jesus to the cross once. I believe in this God who calls people out of bondage into freedom, out of slavery into life, out of darkness into light, out of despair into hope. I have believed in this God since before I can remember, and gave my life to him when I was six years old. I believe in this God because in my life, springs of living water have sprung up. They have sprung up when I was faithful, and when I complained. They have sprung up when I was thirsty, and when I was self-satisfied. They have sprung up, and continue to spring up in my life. I am convinced that they will spring up without pause or end, until they spring up in eternity.
John says, “The Spirit and the bride say Come! And let him who hears say, Come! Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.” Amen and amen.