The film “The Shawshank Redemption” is mostly about Andy Dufresne, a banker who is convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, and given two consecutive life sentences. But the film is also about the other men Andy encounters in prison. During his long incarceration, Andy becomes the assistant to Brooks, the prison librarian. Brooks, like Andy, is a lifer—he’s been in prison since he was in his twenties, and he fully expects to be there until he dies. Only, to his shock and dismay, he is paroled after having served more than fifty years—he has to be in his seventies. Out in the world, where he is given employment as a grocery bagger and lives in a halfway house, he is disoriented, depressed and frightened. Before long, he writes a note to the men he knew inside. "I don't like it here. I'm tired of being afraid all the time. I've decided not to stay." He ends up taking his own life.[i]
You know things are bad when prison looks like a good option. This story from the movies parallels the situation that faces Moses and the people of Israel in today’s passage from Exodus. We are coming in at the middle of the story; it might be good to catch up. The tribes of Israel found their way to Egypt during a time of famine, when Joseph was a high official in the Egyptian court. Now, Joseph and his family had some significant issues to work through—remember that unpleasantness where Joseph’s brothers threw him into a pit, and then sold him to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites? Well, once these issues were all sorted out the Israelites received welcome and hospitality, food and shelter. Egypt became home. However, before long, not only had Joseph died, but also that whole generation—and another Pharaoh came into power who viewed the Israelites, not as welcome guests, but frightening and prolific interlopers—scary illegal immigrants, who must be controlled and punished. That frightened pharaoh tried all sorts of measures to keep the numbers of the Israelites from growing, everything from oppressing them through forced labor (presumably to build the Sphinx and the pyramids), to trying to get the midwives to kill their newborn baby boys (the midwives did not cooperate). Nothing the pharaoh did worked. The people multiplied and grew, for something between 200 and 400 years.
Still, slavery is slavery, and the people cried out to God for help. God recruited Moses to become their somewhat reluctant leader. By following God’s instructions carefully, after many signs and wonders that you can see by Netflixing “The Ten Commandments” starring Charlton Heston, Moses led the Israelites to freedom. That was just two chapters ago.
Only two chapters before our passage, Miriam and the women were singing and dancing on the shore of the Sea of Reeds, celebrating their escape from the mighty pharaoh and his armies. Only two chapters ago, roughly a few weeks before this scene takes place, the hearts of every Israelite swelled with joy at this knowledge: we are free! No more backbreaking labor. No more building monuments to the pharaoh’s vanity. No more threats of our children being snatched away to be killed at birth. We are free. But… you know what they say about freedom. It’s just another word for “Nothing left to lose.” Between 200 and 400 years of living a certain way—even as slaves—well, that is bound to leave a legacy. No living memory of freedom. No traditions, other than slaves’ traditions. And after coming to the stone cold, hard reality you can’t eat or drink your gold and silver and jewelry… the people have had it. They are thirsty. They are frightened. They are no longer sure whether they should trust this Moses or not. They ask, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” You know things are bad when slavery looks like a good option.
What were the Israelites thirsting for? Water, of course. The deep, unquenched thirst for water is terrifying… with bodies made up of something like 60% water, we begin to sense very quickly how contingent our lives are when deprived of that essential element. Within 72 hours the human body’s systems begin shutting down. The Israelites were wandering in a hostile and dry wilderness. There was no water. Of course that is what they were thirsting for.
But is that all?
There is a sentence that rings out at the end of the passage—a passage that includes a solution to the water problem, by the way, another work of wonder, by Moses’ hand, courtesy of the power of God. Still, the passage bears witness to the real thirst, the deep, underlying fear at the heart of the quarrelling and testing and accusations:
Is the Lord among us or not? Is God here?
One thing about systems based on brutality: it’s pretty easy to know who’s in charge. Recently four New York Times reporters went missing for a week while covering the uprising in Libya. They had been picked up by a militia, and handed off between rival groups, repeatedly beaten, until finally they were taken into the custody of Libyan diplomats. But they noticed that their captors—the ones who beat them—exercised authority by brutality. None of their captors wore any insignia identifying their rank; all authority came from barked orders, the loudest voice, the ones who were willing to do the beating.
But when that system is gone—when freedom exists as a tantalizing possibility or promise—then who is really in charge? Was it this Moses, this shepherd who’d spent much of his adult life hiding out in the land of Midian with his in-laws? This man who spoke with a speech impediment, and who really didn’t want this job in the first place? What this the guy the Israelites were supposed to follow? Was he the one who spoke for God? The Israelites may have been thirsty for water, but they had an even deeper thirst: a thirst for reassurance, that they were not alone on this journey into the unknown. A thirst for guidance, a steady hand at the helm. A thirst for compassion, the sense that someone, somewhere, understood what they were going through.[ii] Is the Lord among us or not? Is God here?
And we who read this story perhaps four thousand years later, what are we thirsting for? We who can turn on any one of a dozen taps in this building and quench our thirst for water in a second? I think we thirst for the very same things. Human nature has not changed all that much, even across this many centuries. We too thirst for reassurance, that we are not alone on our journeys into the unknown. We too thirst for guidance, if not in the sense of having a leader to follow, at the very least in knowing there are trustworthy and good-hearted souls to whom we can turn when our questions and worries steal our sleep at night. We too thirst for compassion—we want to know that someone gets it, that someone really understand what we are going through. We thirst to know the answer to the question: Is the Lord among us or not? Is God here?
And if we are thirsting for these things—we who are able to be here in church on a Sunday morning, and who therefore probably have a place where we can lay our heads at night, and who know where our next meal will be coming from this afternoon—if we are thirsting for these things, well, just imagine. Imagine with me, what it is like to be someone who does not know where his next meal is coming from (or who, perhaps, needs to find the right church, to know that they will have a meal on a Sunday). Imagine, with me, what it is like to sleep on a bus that goes back and forth across Broome County, because that’s the safest and warmest place there is to sleep. Imagine, with me, what it is like to be hanging by one finger from the safety net—and imagine that deep thirst for reassurance, and for guidance, and for compassion. Is the Lord among us or not? Is God here?
Maybe this is the question we need to ask ourselves when we find we are confronted with quarrelsome people who test our patience. Is this person thirsting for reassurance? Is he thirsting for guidance? Is she thirsting for compassion? Because, we can do that for one another. We can be the presence of God for one another—not to get brownie points with God, or to show one another how good we are. But out of our own gratitude, out of our own sense that God is with us, here, in this place.
Perhaps this is the answer to the question, “Is the Lord among us or not?” If you look around you at Coffee Hour, and you see someone sharing her time, giving reassurance… God is here. If you look into the eyes of someone and realize that they have just given you the best guidance you could imagine, simply by helping you to understand what your heart is telling you… God is here. If you can respond with compassion to someone who irks you, who makes you roll your eyes, who really tests your patience … God is here.
We are, all of us, “the thirsty ones.” And we find the living water in community, we accept the cup from our neighbor, and we offer it in return. And it is at that point, perhaps, that we begin to find the courage to step out and live into that freedom God calls us to. The Israelites are presented with the sure sign of God’s presence, and they can go on for another day. You and I show the presence of God to one another—to our families, our friends, and the strangers we meet—and we find that we can all go on for another day. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Mark Suriano, “Sermon Seeds: Third Sunday in Lent Year A, March 27, 2011,” United Church of Christ, Samuel, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/march-27-third-sunday-in.html.
[ii] “SheRev,” “Introductory Comments,” RevGalBlogPals, 11th Hour Preacher Party, March 26, 2011, http://revgalblogpals.blogspot.com/2011/03/11th-hour-preacher-party-water-water.html.