19 February 2008


Exodus 17:1-7, "'Is the Lord with Us or Not?'”

Sometimes we face those moments where the question we ask is the question that the children of Israel were asking, “Is the Lord among us or not? Is God in fact with us?”

And if you happen to find yourself walking through a desert, whether that desert is our own wilderness wanderings, our own illnesses, our own family problems, our own job stresses and strains, whatever desert full of trouble it is, sometimes the question that is really on our hearts and minds, our fear is that somehow God has abandoned us. God is no longer among us, with us, providing for us and protecting us.

We are alone.

But you see, this story was important to the people of Israel. And when we read, we can’t just read for what the story says, we read for what that story said to the people later on, years later, what it meant to them about God’s actions in history, with their parents and grandparents and great-great-great-great-great grandparents.

And this is a story about doubt and faith, about being thirsty and about receiving water . . . and from of all places, a hard and unwelcoming rock. It is a story about when the people believed in a world of scarcity, of a lack of what they needed, God once again showed God’s abundant love and mercy, of a giving that it is hard for us to comprehend, to understand. It is the kind of giving that when we see a cold and hard rock, God allows water to pour out.

But sometimes it is hard to believe that God is still providing, still loving, still caring.

It can be hard to believe that God will continue to provide. And I won’t mislead you. I struggle with these questions about scarcity and abundance, of trusting in God’s provision.

You see at our home we struggle with this all of the time, although I’m not talking about money or whether there is food to eat or water to drink. I’m talking about something much more important at our home. I’m talking about cereal, more specifically Cheerios.

Yes, Cheerios, those wonderful little whole-wheat cereal circles that toddlers and dogs alike love more than life itself. Well, my wife and I learned pretty early on that we needed to buy Cheerios at Sam's Club.

We needed that kind of bulk because on the one hand our children were eating a log Cheerios, but by virtue of the children eating a lot of Cheerios, our two dogs were as well!

You may not know about our dogs. They were formerlly the focus for all parental-type attention before the children arrived. And I'm sure they felt neglected for a while, but things got better.

After a few months, they were getting some walks, where for a while they did not. They are eating at the same time every day instead of my wife and I asking each other at bedtime, “Did you feed the dogs?” “Oh, well that must be why Lucy seemed so interested in every little bit that fell from the table at dinner.”

You see, Lucy knows what it is like not to have much. You see Lucy was in and out of shelters for the first five years of her life, that is until she met us.

On the other hand, Walter lived the first six months of his life with a woman who boiled chicken and fed that soft white meat to the dogs that she kept.

I think sometimes when I make chicken and dumplings and boil a chicken for a few hours in a pot, I think that Walter remembers, as he comes back and forth into the kitchen, stalking me in a way, even though he has been with us for nearly seven years now.

But you see, Lucy and Walter had some very different early experiences. Lucy knew what it was like to be without, to be without a home, to be without people who loved that funny looking dog.

She knew what that was like for the first five years of her life. Walter on the other hand has absolutely no idea. We like to think sometimes that Lucy sits Walter down and says something to him along the lines of “When I was your age, they stuck me in the back yard, threw me some food every once in a while. When I was your age I lived in doggie jail, the shelter, not knowing whether I would live or die, fighting for my food because sometimes other dogs would steal it.”

And we imagine Walter, this dog that knows nothing but abundance saying back to Lucy, who is now about to be 14 years old, 98 in people years, we imagine Walter saying, “You’re kidding me, right?!?”

You see when you know what it is like to do without, to not have, sometimes you hold on tightly, tight-fistedly to what you do have. You feel that you have to fight for everything; you worry that this world is out to get you; and that maybe God has left you.

When you are wandering around in the desert, like the children of Israel, it is easy to complain, to get mean about it sometimes too, to wonder whether you are just going to die out there in that desert. And sometimes you fight with the person that led you there, Moses in this case.

And sometimes you stir things up with the folks around you, “Are you thirsty? Well I sure am thirsty,” you say. And all the time not seeing what God is going to do, not seeing past that cold hard rock, not seeing that God is with you, that God is with us, just waiting to give us that living water, that water that quenches our thirst, that gives us a chance to continue. Sometimes we just don’t see it.

Well, it is not really the kid's fault that they don't always see it either. They don't know about Sam’s Club. They don't see the huge boxes of Cheerios that are in the pantry. When we give them Cheerios, we give them to them in a little cup for them to carry around.

And they walk around with that cup, digging a tiny hand in the cup and scooping Cheerios into a tiny mouth. Happy.

But then they notices that a dog is stalking, or maybe both of the dogs, although usually the culprit is Lucy, Lucy who knows what it is like to be hungry, Lucy who tells Walter that she grew up in Hell, Lucy who even though we have fed her or had someone feed her every day of her life for coming up on seven years, she still stalks small children with Cheerios . . . just waiting for her to set them down, to drop one . . . to realize it . . . to start to pick it up . . . but wham!

There’s Lucy, crunching that Cheerio in her mouth and the kid that dropped the Cheerio is mad. The child fusses. They say, “No!” to Lucy. And the don't quite know yet that there are more than enough Cheerios to go around.

We could live off of Cheerios if we wanted for a week! There’s plenty. There is abundance.

But sometimes we don’t know that or don’t believe it.

And it is not that our children have ever gone without food since they have been with us. It is not that Lucy has either. But sometimes you just don’t see the Cheerios that are just behind a door in the pantry. Sometimes we don’t see the water that is just below the surface of the rock, a rock that God has but to tell Moses to strike and there will be water for all.

But that’s why this story is important to the people of Israel; it is important to remember that there was a time when they wandered through the wilderness. There was a time when they wished that they had never left Egypt. I mean slavery was bad, but we’ve been wandering around a long time . . . and now we’re thirsty.

But it is important to remember that sometimes we all find fault in others, especially at those times when we are not sure that we will make it, when we too are anxious and worried.

But you know, most importantly, it is important to remember this God who did not chastise, who did not punish the people for their thirst, who did not tell them that they should not complain.

Sometimes it is the exact right thing to do to say we are hungry . . . that we are thirsty. But the most important thing to remember is that even when the people doubted God’s presence, God offered water. When the people saw the rock, God gave them water. God’s love is steadfast, merciful, and giving, and it is a love that is based on abundance, not scarcity. Of God’s love there is no end . . . sort of like the boxes of Cheerios that you can buy at Sam’s Club.

And I thank God for those Cheerios. And so do my children and so do Walter and especially Lucy.

But I also thank God that when we are empty, God will fill us. When we are thirsty, God give us living water to drink. Thanks be to God.

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