Staunton Mennonite Church
17From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” 4So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
I spoke with my father the other day and we spoke briefly about some of his evening projects that he is working on. And as we near the end of February, dad knows that he needs to be getting things ready for the busy spring that lies ahead of him. He has to make sure that the tractors are all serviced and fixed up to prepare to till the soil and plant the crops. But there is one crop that is already in the ground, and it will be the first crop that is harvested in the spring. What is that crop? It is the hay crop. The first cutting is usually taken in late May, just after the last of the corn and soybeans are in the ground.
The hay is kind of like the grass of our yards. Most of the hay fields have been in existence for a couple of years, an alfalfa field usually produces a good crop for about five years. Often in Ohio we have a mixture of alfalfa and orchard grass or annual rye grass in our hay fields. And then when the winter melts away, the hay comes out of its dormant state and begins to produce. And hay, much like our yards just thrive in the spring. Why is that? Because hay needs warm weather and water to grow, both of which are readily available in the spring. And as long as the rain keeps coming throughout the summer, the hay will continue to grow, producing 4 or 5 cuttings each season. But it is the rain that can make a growing season a good one or a bad one. The most delicate ingredient in making the hay grow is the water. We can always add other nutrients to the soil, but only God can make it rain.
Water is an essential nutrient for all of life. Plants need it, animals need it, and humans need it as well. And when we don’t get enough water, we get angry. Fights start over water, wars start over water. And today we are going to learn about a time when Moses was able to avoid being killed because he was smart enough to ask God for water when the people had none. And hopefully today we will also find that those of us that have water are responsible to help those that have little or none.
Our scripture begins today with the Israelites wandering in the desert, only a few months after they left Egypt. And the Israelites set up camp at Rephidim, but there was no water for them to drink. And we all know how cranky people can get when they get thirsty. So these cranky Israelites start to quarrel with Moses and they say, “Give us water to drink.”
Well I don’t think Moses really appreciated their tone of voice or their demand. And he asks them why they are quarreling with him, and why they put the Lord to the test. And how do the people respond? The complain some more! Evidently they don’t see a problem with putting the Lord to the test, or even if they really are putting the Lord to the test. And they ask Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”
Now I have never gone any real length of time without water. Oh, sure we get dramatic sometimes and we say things like, “I’m dying of thirst over here. Can I get a drink of water?” But really, how long have any of us ever gone without water? A couple hours? Maybe an entire work day? Maybe a 24 hour period? But probably none of us has ever really been in too much danger of dying of thirst.
Probably the thirstiest I have ever been would have to be back when I was growing up on the farm, unloading hay. My family still bales the small square hay bales, which weigh in at about 50 lbs each. And for some reason, perhaps because I was the tallest in the family, I was always stuck up in the hay mow, stacking the bales. As the bales came off the elevator, I would heave those things up above my head and stack them nicely to be used throughout the winter months.
Now you don’t always get to choose when you are going to make hay. Like the saying goes, “You have to make hay while the sun shines.” And boy that sun can shine on a hot Ohio summer day. The outside temperature in often in the 90’s, and where I was working in the barn with very little ventilation, the temperature often got well into the 100’s.
So let’s just say we were doing about 1,000 bales in a day. At 50 lbs per bale, that means I would stack 50,000 lbs of hay in the 100 degree barn with little ventilation. Between loads I would come down out of the mow just dripping of sweat. And you better believe that I was thirsty by the time the load was empty.
So I know what it is like to be thirsty. However, I had the assurance that I could get a drink of water in between loads of hay. I never would go more than half and hour with out water. The Israelites did not have that assurance, did they? All they knew was that they were thirsty, and they went to their leader to seek what they needed. Now I don’t think there is anything wrong with asking for the water. The Israelites needed water just like we need water to survive today. And I can’t even fault them for asking Moses for the water. He is their human leader. He is the one that showed them the way out of Egypt. The problem was the way they asked, or should I say the way they demanded the water.
Yes, they had every right in the world to ask for water. But they should have approached God first and asked for the water, or even approached Moses and ask him to ask God for the water. But no, they get angry. They begin to quarrel. They make Moses fear for his life! He is afraid they are going to stone him! But did they really have a reason to threaten Moses?
Think of all that these Israelites had seen in the last few months. They had seen the plagues that God called upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians. They had witnessed the separating of the Red Sea. And they had been receiving manna from God, the bread from heaven that provided the nourishment for their bodies to function. And after all that they had seen, after witnessing the power of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they thought that they needed to rough up Moses a bit to get some water? They serve a God that has the power to part the waters, why not ask him for a little help? Why threaten Moses and complain about what they need?
I guess we human beings are just slow learners, aren’t we? We haven’t quite got it all figured out. We look at the Israelites grumbling in the wilderness and say, “Come on, figure it out. God has you covered. God will take care of you. He has proven this time and time again.” And then we turn to the New Testament to things that took place over 1300 years after this encounter in the wilderness and we find Jesus needing to re-teach the same thing to the Jews.
In Matthew 6:25 Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” Jesus is saying, “God knows you need these things. Don’t worry.” And that is a message that the Israelites threatening Moses could have heard as well. God knows you need these things. And he will provide. So why hasn’t he? Why did the Israelites get so thirsty that they were threatening Moses?
I think sometimes, though God knows what we need, still wants us to ask. Jesus goes on to say in the next chapter (7:7), “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Sometimes there is a human action or response that needs to take place before God intervenes. Maybe that is just asking, sometimes it might take more.
Thankfully for the people, Moses knew the proper way to ask for something. He went to God and he asked what he should do. And God told him to take some of the leaders in their group, to take the staff and strike a rock with it. And when he would do so, water would come out of the rock. And while the text doesn’t tell us that Moses actually did these things, we can only assume that he followed God’s word because Moses and the others were able to survive and not die of thirst.
In spite of all of the wrong ways that the Israelites went about doing things, in spite of their demands of God and Moses, God did provide what they needed. That is grace my friends. God knew that the people needed water and he provided it for them even though they “demanded” it at first. God responded when God was asked, not told what to do.
Now if you are anything like me, you starting to think, “Isn’t that a little too oversimplified?” I want to make sure that everybody knows that sometimes, even when we do ask for something, God doesn’t always give it to us like we would like, if at all. But I believe that God always makes what we need available. Sometimes it is up to us humans to take action.
For instance, according to a United Nations report on water, one-third of the world’s population lives in water-stressed conditions. Thousands of children die each day because their water is polluted, and in many countries women and girls spend hours every day carrying water for their families. All over the world poor communities’ access to water is threatened by privatization, corporations are buying up public lands to export the water, and wealthy communities are bombarded with advertising telling them that bottled water is safer than our public water supplies (Sojourners Feb. 08).
Many of us are also familiar with the ongoing battles between Israel and Palestine in the Middle-east. Now it is safe to say that the problems between these nations are many; religion, boundaries, promises, and so on. But one person recently said that the main reason for these battles has more to do with the water supply than anything else. And this hasn’t been the first war over water. It is an essential nutrient for our bodies and for our livestock and for our crops. Without adequate water supply, we as the human race would cease to live.
So what is the first step to take care of this shortage of water? The first step is to ask God for help, like Moses. We cannot demand that God help, but we ask. The second help is we use the gifts that God has given to us to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves.
Think for a minute about the small country of Haiti. Haiti, a country that is just slightly smaller than the state of Maryland, is the poorest country in the western Hemisphere. The average life expectancy in Haiti is just over 50 years. Many of the people in this congregation are older than 50. The Haitians, though surrounded on three sides by water, are not able to find suitable drinking water. Many Haitians die every day because they drink contaminated water. And if they don’t die from the contaminated water or water borne illnesses, there is a good chance that they will die at an early age from malnutrition. Because if you don’t have water to drink, you probably don’t have water to water the rice patties and other crops.
Now a large portion of the population of Haiti claims to be followers of Jesus Christ, 96% by VM Missions data. So when these people are dieing every day, when these Christians are wasting away from a lack of clean drinking water and a prevalence of water borne illnesses, do you think they ever stop to pray? I guarantee you that they have offered up a prayer or two to God, the same God that we worship here today. So why don’t they have the water that they need? God knows they need water. Surely they have asked. So what’s the problem?
I think the problem comes down to those holding the staffs in our society. The staff that Moses held was a sign of authority. When he touched it to the Nile, it turned to blood. When he held it above his head, the Israelites were victorious in battle. When he hit the rock with the staff, the rock sprung forth with water.
Now was there something special about that staff? No, it was just a piece of wood. What was special was that God worked through the staff. The power of God came through that piece of wood. And when Moses hit the rock with the staff, the Israelites received what they needed for survival. They received clean drinking water
As the richest nation in the world, the United States of America is holding a staff like that of Moses. The money and power that we have is really nothing, just like the piece of wood that Moses held in his hand. The money and power that we have is only useful when we use it in the way that God intended.
If God hadn’t intended for Moses to strike the rock and have water come out, than he probably could have gone around all day long hitting rocks with sticks and nothing would have happened. But because the will of God was for Moses to use the power given to him, God worked through Moses and through the staff to bring water to the people.
The money and the power that God has given to us is much the same. We can go throwing it around here and throwing it around there. But until we use it in the ways that God has intended for us to use it, God’s people will go thirsty.
In 1981, Joe Arbaugh Sr. began working as a missionary in Haiti. And I don’t know what JA Sr. did before he went to Haiti, but he must have had some experience and some financial backing that allowed him to start digging wells in Haiti. Over a period of two years, the Arbaughs dug over 70 wells providing clean drinking water for God’s people. And if you know the Arbaugh family, you know that they are still quite involved in evangelistic and work teams in Haiti. Joe Sr.’s youngest son, James, continues to serve in Haiti today in a long term situation.
So why do I tell you this story about the Arbaugh family and their connection to Haiti? Is it to deify them or venerate them in some way trying to show how much work they have done in the name of Jesus? No, that’s not it. What I want to show you is that God can use ordinary people, like the Arbaughs, to do his work. The Arbaughs are a local family. Joe Jr. lives just outside of Staunton. He preached here for me a little over a year ago. The Arbaughs are ordinary people doing extraordinary things for God. And why? Because they came before God and asked the same question that Moses asks in verse 4, “What shall I do with this people?” And God answered, “Take the staff in your hand and I’ll show you what to do.” That staff, that symbol of God’s power working through a mere human being has brought water to countless people, and that staff has brought hundreds to the Lord.
So when we are faced with a crisis, we must remember that God knows what we need, but sometimes he likes to be asked. Asked, not told. And though God may not directly supply the things that we need, I believe that God always makes them available. The hard part is for those of us with much to share with those that have little. Those of us that have much water should help those with none. When something becomes a scarce resource, the people of God don’t hoard it for themselves. They share it with all in need.
Let us learn something from the hay in the field. Let us be like the alfalfa, orchard grass, and rye grass. When the rain comes in the spring, they all draw from the same source, this gift from God. And together, they all thrive as one.