The Israelites are complaining. Again. It has been less than three months and four times already, the Israelites have complained to Moses and Aaron about something. The first time they complained, they had hardly gotten out of Egypt. Standing at the edge of the Sea of Reeds, they spied the Egyptian army in hot pursuit. They whined, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” Mind you, they were not yet in the wilderness. They second time they complained—this time, they were thirsty—they were in the wilderness. But when they arrived at the spring at Marah, the water was bitter and undrinkable, until Moses threw a tree in the water to sweeten it. The third time they complained, they had not been out of Egypt two months. Now they whined that they were hungry. They wished they were back in Egypt where at least they had had plenty of meat and bread. (Never mind that they had been slaves, toiling in the hot sun building pyramids for Pharoah!)
So God provided manna every morning and quail every evening. Now they are complaining. Again. The Lord has led them “in stages” into the wilderness and now they have reached Rephidim. But there is not enough water to drink, so the Israelites quarrel with Moses. They demand, “You give us water now!” Moses has had just about enough. He cries out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me!” Once again—for the fourth time and not the last—the Lord provides.
The Lord has provided a way out of slavery and oppression. The Lord has provided sweet water. The Lord has provided daily bread and meat. Now, the Lord—who is in the midst of God’s people—goes ahead of Moses. There, Moses strikes a rock and out of cracks in the sheer cliffs of the wadi—or dry river bed—wall, out pours water to quench the people’s thirst.
We read this account in Exodus and shake our heads. Quarrels. Complaints. People moving slowly across life in stages in some God-forsaken wilderness. People set free from an oppressive political system, but still complaining and whining. We wonder “What is the matter with these people?
Yet unless we choose to take a journey into a desert, we do not really know what this experience is like. I walk into my kitchen or bathroom, turn on the faucet, and immediately get cool, clean water to drink. I open a cupboard or the refrigerator, and get food to eat. I have a soft bed on which to sleep at night. I live in a country where I have many choices—choices that some of my brothers and sisters around the world do not get. So it is hard for me to identify with the Israelites and their situation.
I have been in the Sinai Desert, however. Such a place forces you to a place of deep humility. The Sinai Desert is vast and deeply silent. It is impenetrable. Enigmatic. Its ravines gape, its mountains loom stark, its cliffs are sheer. By day, the sun beats down without mercy, and as you gaze across the white sand, you see “the luring, deceiving mirage of shimmering water upon dry land.” Sunrise is exquisitely beautiful. There is no full moon as stunning as one in a deep desert night. Yet a human being struggles to survive in this kind of place.
While I was in Israel many years ago, I wrote a letter to my sister and it included the following: “I have a new and deep appreciation of the Bedouin people who live their entire lives in a hot desert wasteland on next to nothing. I also have some sense of the sin we First World citizens commit in our love of, and our arrogant assumption of, the ‘rights’ we have to our creature comforts. When one is stripped of all but the basics of survival in the face of the harshest elements of nature, life in general cannot ever be taken for granted again.”
Thousands of years ago, a small group of the Hebrew people left Egypt. We do not really know their route. We cannot give a precise date for their exodus. We are not even sure what they called themselves—“Habiru” is not a proper name, but a class of people. Yet we do know that this desert experience, this desert journey, was a formative experience for the “Habiru.” Their journey shaped them as a people and it forced them to depend on each other in community. As such journeys often do, it brought out the best in them and the worst. The desert stripped them of everything but their essence, and they learned—often the hard way—to depend on God and to wait on God’s provision. You may do a lot of whining and complaining and quarreling in a desert. But ultimately, you’d better take of each other or you won’t make it. And it helps if you realize that there is a force greater than you—God. God who will make a way in the desert. God who will provide exactly what you need in exactly the moment you need it.
The Israelites quarreled with Moses, complained about their thirst, demanded water like spoiled children. Yet God provided for them. God said, “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. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb.” Despite the quarrels, complaints and demands, God provided for God’s people. The Lord was among them. The Lord was in the midst of them. Emmanuel, God with us.
This should comfort you and me. We church folks are much like the Israelites. We argue about church furniture, fuss over carpet cleaning, mutter under our breaths when too much stuff comes to church and never leaves. We pick fights and quibble about anything and everything when something doesn’t suit us, and we murmur against each other at coffee hour. We complain about the hymns or mentally write our grocery list when the sermon doesn’t suit us, and we—God’s people—are rarely satisfied.
Yet on some level, we have learned some lessons as a community of faith. We have learned that despite our quarreling and complaining, we really must—and do—depend on each other. When a toddler wanders away from his mother, others head him off at the end of a pew. When another pushes past people to get her “Jesus bread,” we chuckle—but deep inside, we are glad that she feels so much at home in church. When a young couple has a new baby, we all give thanks for the new life in our midst. When someone dies, we gather to hold each other and grieve together. When someone is diagnosed with cancer, we send e-mails and prayer shawls and notes and we pray for healing. When someone in the community suffers from old emotional wounds or depression, someone is there to love us back into life, to give us a hug, to say “I love you.”
In the midst of whatever desert we wander, God is in the midst of us. We may not think so. We may test God by quarreling, complaining and demanding. Yet God is good and God is here. We do not know what God looks like. But we do know what the person next to us looks like. Somewhere in each one of us is the Imago Dei—the image of God. As we journey through the deserts of our lives, we must hold on to that truth.
You and I are sometimes the only image of God someone sees. We must remind ourselves of what is truly important in life— and what is not. Let the unimportant—the complaining, the quarreling—die in the wilderness. Take only what is necessary and good with you. Always remember that our God goes before us, behind us, above us, beside us, with us in our journey.
God’s people journey together, grieve together, love together, support one other. And at exactly the moment we need it, God will provide exactly what we need, because the Lord is among us. Emmanuel: God with us. For that truth, we give God thanks. Amen.
© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton
Pictures accessed through Google images.
 Nancy deClasse-Walford, “Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7, from http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=160, accessed on March 21, 2014.
 Exodus 14:11a.
 From study notes taken in Israel, from Daniel Hillel’s Negev: Land, Water and Life in a Desert Environment.
 McJilton, from a letter written in May of 1998.