Water in the Wilderness

By Bryan Sickbert

Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink. (Exodus 17:6)

Water from a rock? Certainly more biblical nonsense! But the image did not seem far-fetched to me as I listened to the Old Testament Lenten reading this week (Exodus 17:1-7).

Our home in southwest Colorado was very close to the Weminuche Wilderness, a half-million-acre preserve containing three 14,000-foot mountains and accessible only by foot or on horseback. In the Weminuche, there is nothing unusual about water pouring from a rock. My experiences in this wilderness were of God’s boundless spiritual and material generosity.

There are two perceptions of wilderness: as a place of beauty and life-sustaining abundance or as a metaphor for spiritual and material depravity. The latter was certainly the wilderness experience of the congregation of Israel. The Exodus 17 account is a vivid depiction of the people’s response to being faced with limited resources. Their behavior is lamented in the 95th Psalm as God exhorts us: “Harden not your hearts, as your forebears did in the wilderness” (Psalm 95:8). The mystery of the wilderness is that it is a place of sin and suffering as well as sustenance and salvation. This is also the mystery of God’s covenant with Israel and with us.

As people who labor in the wilderness of health and human service ministry, we often despair that water will ever flow from the hard rocks of poverty, cruelty and injustice. How many times do we ask the same question as the people of Exodus: “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7) In our wilderness, more often than not, we may be faced with an acute sense of God’s absence.

Yet our wilderness also contains the powerful source of God’s presence. Granted, God’s provision manifests in unexpected ways and in places we may find difficult to access. The Israelites were led on a spiritual journey into the depths of their despair before their thirst was satiated. So it often happens with us.

Where, in your wilderness, do you search for God? Try striking a rock.

Open now the crystal fountain
Where the healing waters flow
Let the fire and cloudy pillar
Lead me all my journey through
Strong deliverer, strong deliverer
Ever be my strength and shield.
W. Williams (1745)

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