He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
Exodus 17:7; from Exodus 17:1-7, lectionary text for Sunday March 15, 2020
I have never seen the grocery so busy on a Friday morning. I take the last of the small carts and wipe it with the last of the sanitizing wipes from the dispenser. Workers are restocking, yet there are gaps in the displays. ‘No carrots?’ I say aloud, surprised. The man who manages produce thinks there may be a case in the back. (There is.) A woman nearby tells me ‘They’re out of toilet paper. It was the first thing I checked.’ Her daughter in California told her that toilet paper is not to be found; she herself is stocked up from Costco; she may send some rolls to her daughter. The store is not lacking in vivid green St. Patricks Day cheer: cardboard shamrocks sign displays of Kelly-frosted cupcakes, green-sugared cookies, and Irish soda bread (which is normal soda-bread color).
The sense of something looming seems palpable in the presence and intensity of so many shoppers. None of us here is obviously sick. We don’t know when or if we will be. Yet whatever anxiety each of us feels is shown — at least on this morning, in this place — in gestures of fellowship. Confidences about the procurement of toilet paper; wry grins and comments in the checkout line. (A line in which none of us maintain the recommended six foot distance.) There is a camaraderie in the shared circumstance of unknowing. Maybe because as yet the crisis is coming, but not fully here. Is there something of this waiting time not just to savor but to save? Something that we need to remember, to carry us through whatever it is that may come?
Israel in the wilderness. Out from Egypt and not yet to Sinai. Just saved from slavery, and on the way to covenant, and already this is the third instance of ‘grumbling.’ The people grumble for sweet water, instead of bitter (Exodus 15:24), and for food to eat (16:2-3), and now again for water to drink in this place where there is none (17:1). The conflict has intensified. The people ‘quarrel’ as well as ‘grumble’ (in the NRSV: ‘complain’). Their hostility has increased with their desperation. They are unified in their demand: ‘Give us water’ — all of us, as one, require drink.
In the Hebrew, the demand then takes an interesting turn: ‘Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill me and my son …?’ See what happened there? The collective has become fragmented. Suddenly what matters is not our need but my own, not our children, but my child. It’s awkward in the Hebrew — the sudden singular ‘me/my’ — and entirely elided in the English translations, which maintain the plural ‘us/our’ throughout, as if that middle shift in number was a grammatical hiccup to be corrected instead of a signal of the people’s fear. The need is real. Water is necessary but there is no water for the people to drink. The panic has set in — what’s at stake, each realizes, is my life, my child’s life. Where there had been an all the people now there is each one of them. For the moment of that phrase, the desperate urgency of their need revealed in the insistence on individuality.
The text ends with the place name explained — Massah-Meribah, Trial-Quarrel. The people quarreled with Moses and tried or tested the LORD. The final line, the accusation the people are accused of making, is what their quarrel sums to: ‘Is the LORD among us or not?’ There is either the LORD in their midst or there is nothing. This demand for water is a demand to know that the LORD is among them. God’s response to Moses takes seriously the need. Water will be provided; the people will drink. God will be present. More than that: God is present.
‘See — me!’ the LORD tells Moses (‘hinneni’), or in the old form of the King James ‘Behold! — me — standing there in front of you.’ God’s speech can be translated and read as if its point is proper attribution of the miracle that will occur: God will stand there, before Moses, and therefore Moses’ gesture will result in the life-giving flow of water. But what if God’s speech is not just about divine power? What if God’s speech is about divine presence? After all, this is what the people’s demand for water sums to: Is the LORD among us or not? ‘See me,’ the LORD tells Moses. It’s not just about the water. It’s about God. See: God is standing there.
I walk home with a bag of groceries hanging from each shoulder. The first yellows of spring — forsythia and daffodils and crocus — are being joined by soft pinks and creams of blossoming trees — magnolia, pear, cherry. The wind is blowing and the branches sway and the air is billowing warm. It is a beautiful day. It is a strange season, unnerving with virus as well as flowers blooming. We are all out of our ordinary. Wandering this period of patterns disrupted and no idea when new ones will be set, or can be set, or even what they might be.
At least one particular morning, in one particular grocery store, the result of each of us shaken out of our pattern seems to be that more of us were seeing each other. Recognizing each other’s presence with comments and smiles and an unusually patient waiting in line. Maybe that’s what we need to save and carry on into this unknown future, near term and far. When the crisis comes full, when the fear becomes acute, when desperation overtakes — resist the urge to regard and cry out only for me, for my own. Even when we keep our ‘social distance,’ spend days apart from others, move work and teaching and worship online, we must keep seeing each other — not only looking out for ourselves. See especially those who are not online but restocking grocery shelves, caring for children, nursing the sick. See each other. Regard the ‘us’ of community.
Is the LORD in our midst or is nothing? That’s the question that the LORD answered, in providing the water and in speaking to Moses: ‘See — me, standing before you….’
Maybe the start of seeing the LORD standing, the LORD present in our midst, is by looking to see each other, the ‘us’ among whom the LORD is present.