Water in the Wilderness
The Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis
March 23, 2014 - Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-11

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Water in the Wilderness 
Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-11        

Dr. Baron Mullis
Morningside Presbyterian Church
March 23, 2014


Let’s start with the wilderness, shall we?  We’ll get to the water later on, but for now, wilderness.
Maybe you’re tired of hearing about the wilderness already.  We are in a season here in the church that is called Lent.  If you’ve ever wondered when it means when the church talks about liturgical seasons, let me take a quick moment to explain.
Basically, it works like this: since the earliest days of the church, people have sought ways to immerse their lives in the life of Jesus.  What I mean by that is that we ground ourselves in Jesus.  We all have to be grounded in something, right?  If we’re not, we’re just sort of flying around without any solid ground to sit down on.  Well, to be Christian is to seek to be grounded in Jesus.  That means knowing who Jesus is and knowing what Jesus’s life is about.  And so the church developed the liturgical seasons as a means of teaching people about Jesus and his life – and so we try to encounter the whole life of Jesus every year – we start in December waiting for Jesus, and then we remember his birth – you know when that happens – and we’re working our way from his birth to his death and resurrection.  We do the whole cycle every year so that there is never a year where our lives don’t have some grounding, if we’re in church at least, in Jesus.  Lent, where we are now, is the season when we are getting ready to remember that Jesus was crucified.
It’s a season when we contemplate our own lives – and we seek to be honest with ourselves and God.  Where we have failed, we acknowledge it.  Where we have hurt others, we make note of it.  And where we ourselves have been hurt, we name it. 
We are honest about it, or we try to be.
Here in the church we use the analogy of the wilderness to describe this time.
Maybe that resonates with you, maybe it doesn’t.  I think we’ve come to romanticize the wilderness just a little bit.  It’s not as frightening to think of the wilderness when we have North Face tents, Marmot sleeping bags, Merrill boots, and Life Is Good water bottles, all carted out into the wilderness in the Audi.  (I’m not mocking that, by the way, I’m ripping a scene straight from my own life to say what I mean.)  The church talks about wilderness and I’m not sure we all know what that means any more.
What it means, though, is the scary place. 
And I think we do understand that. 
Some of us understand it at a deeper level than others – I don’t want to get too far into the weeds on that just yet – but here’s my point – we talk about the wilderness because we need to ground ourselves in Jesus, and Jesus went out into the wilderness and faced fear.
What are we afraid of?  For each us there are particularities of fear, but at a deep level, we fear brokenness. 
We fear that our lives can be broken.  Our psyches can be broken.  Our memories can be broken.  Our childhoods can be broken. 
It can be perfectly natural to want to avoid the wilderness because of the very things that it may dredge up for us. 
Living with brokenness is a difficult thing.  We develop coping mechanisms – some of them are healthy.  Many are not. 
Sometimes whatever it is, we just want nothing more than to shove it as far away as we can get from it in order not to have to deal with it.   
There are two stories from the Bible that walk alongside each other this time of year.  One we discussed a couple of weeks ago, and that is Jesus out in the wilderness.  He is fresh from his baptism and it is a terrible test to see if this identity that God has given Jesus in his baptism – this claiming of God that is marked with water and the dove and the open heavens – will stick or not. 
That’s one story.  Jesus goes out and faces his fears and faces the temptation to let the brokenness of the world beat him down.
There’s a second story that we tend to think about this time of year, and it comes from the book of Exodus.  We read just a little portion of it this morning when we read about the Israelites grumbling and wanting some assurances. 
Let me give you a snapshot of the bigger picture, though. 
It’s all part of a long story that begins with creation – God created the world, you remember that, then God created all the plants and the animals, you remember that, and then finally God created a person to take care of it all, you remember that.  And then it all went south in a hurry when the two people wanted not to need God, but rather to be like God themselves.  It got worse and worse and worse until finally God despaired and cleaned it up with a terrible flood. 
And then God resolved never to do that again, and so God created a particular group of people to be called to show the rest of the world what God is like so they wouldn’t go wrong again, and so one particular family – Abraham and Sarah – start that off. 
It’s rocky, to say the least, but God keeps at it and the people keep working at it.  Finally, generations later, a huge famine sends God’s people off to live in a foreign land, away from where they were grounded and rooted in God’s ways.  It starts off well enough, but again, things get worse and soon God’s people are themselves enslaved.  They become cheap labor: dispensable, almost.  They’re the migrant workers of the ancient near east: pushed to the margins, ignored, abused, objectified and taken for granted.
If there is only one thing for us to take from the Bible, it could be this: that God is always on the side of those who are hurting.
And so God hears the cries of the people and sends Moses to lead them away from this place of pain and toil to a new land, a promised land of freedom and abundance.  (That’s a few thousand years of Biblical history in five minutes.)
The point is, though, that to get from the bad place to the good place, they have to cross through the wilderness.  They have to go through the scary place. 
The promise is – the promise – is that God will go with them.
That’s always the promise.
But it’s sometimes hard to remember, isn’t it?
Of course it is.  It was no different then.  The people wandering in the wilderness wanted to know that God was with them and so they started grumbling. 
There are so many reasons why that is hard to remember.  It’s all that brokenness!
You know that’s what sin is, don’t you? 
We mistake it for all the bad things we’ve done.  And that is a piece of it, to be sure.  We can’t get so glib about understanding brokenness and its effects on us that we don’t understand that when we do things that harm others there is a ripple effect that goes out and out and out and out so that the thing we do affect others and the things others do affect us.  I know we understand the butterfly effect and know that bad things that have happened to us harden and calcify us and sometimes pervert our sense of well-being so badly that in turn we act badly ourselves.  I know we get all that. 
That’s why we confess our sins so much – weekly, actually.  It’s not because God has to hear us say them first in order to forgive them.  Trust me, God knows them already.  I do realize that makes it very easy to conceive of God as a cosmic version of Santa Claus, you know, “He knows with whom you’re sleeping, he knows if you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been good or bad, so be good for goodness sake.”
That trivializes God. 
The creator of the universe, who made everything that is out of nothing, has better things to do than make a list and check it twice.
We confess our sins so we that we name the brokenness.  God has already forgiven us.
This is one of those rare moments when I’m glad our younger children leave the room because I’m going to tell you the truth about sin.
Do you know what sin is?
It’s all the manure in your life.  That’s what sin is.
That’s not the first word that came to mind, but my job is to teach, not shock.
Sometimes, though, we have to say it.  We can be polite and euphemize it and titter about it and come with a theological word like sin to contain it, but it is what it is.  It’s the hurt… the pain… the brokenness that enters into our lives.
We confess it because it gets the better of us sometimes.  
We confess it because we have to bring our whole selves here so that we can find some wholeness for our selves.
Of course those Israelites needed some water in the wilderness!
How long can you wander around in the muck before you need some assurance?
So Moses wails out to God that the people are about to stone him and God sends him and the elders over to the rock to strike it and get the water they need.  Moses prays and strikes the rock and the water gushes forth.
Paul puts a little differently in Romans.
He says, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
He wants the Romans to understand that same thing that the Israelites forgot: God is always there.
And that’s why Paul can draw a straight line from suffering to hope. 
He can draw that straight line because God is always with us.  God is the water in the wilderness.  And so Paul draws the straight line from suffering to endurance, from endurance to character, and from character to hope.  All because God is with us.
Which brings us to redemption.
Years ago a friend of mine was about to get married and what she thought was her perfect childhood toppled like a house of cards. 
Her parents had divorced and soon after her father died in the hotel room of a one-night stand.
Everything she thought she knew appeared to have been unmasked as a lie.
So she went to see her childhood pastor and poured out her heart to him about the mess that she had found her family to be.  She lamented about how the fairy-tale wedding she had dreamt of wouldn’t come to pass.  There was no one to walk her down the aisle, and more importantly, she missed terribly the image of what she thought was and hated to replace her memories with the reality of what is.  She wanted to be planning the wedding and instead it was a funeral that she had to face.
So she poured her heart out about the ways that the romance and beauty of marriage had crumbled under the weight of all she had learned.
And her friend said to her, “Come over here.”
They walked over to the rose garden beside the house and he pointed at the ground.  “What is that,” he asked?
The smell was unmistakable.  She knew exactly what it was.
“Fertilizer,” she said.
“That’s right,” he answered, “That’s one word for it.  In the mystery of God’s grace, biology is going to turn it into something useful.  But don’t you ever forget what it was.”
That is the mystery of grace… that God can turn what was into what can yet be.
Yes, in this season we pause to be honest with ourselves and with God.
And Paul’s words this morning are the heart of the gospel: that God is already working that reconciliation we need.
The water we so desperately need to sustain us – the living water that Jesus talks about is always just under the wilderness, just waiting to spring.
You see, at the end of the day, it’s not about whether we were faithful to God or not.  God is bigger than that. 
You know that, don’t you?  You know that God sure can use us for good, but that God is more powerful than our motives, our experiences, our needs – dare I say – our sin?
No, the hope of this season – the hope of all our seasons – does not lie in the fact that we are always faithful to God.  Simply put, we aren’t.  You know it, and I know it.
The hope of the Gospel lies in the reality that God is always faithful to us. 
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen. 


Last Published: November 21, 2014 11:48 PM