The Rock Was Christ
Epiphany III (O. T. 3); January 26, 2020
Once again, the people of God have a legitimate concern, and they express it by whining. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” The story has a strong tradition in the Bible, mostly as a warning not to test God, but I’m going to follow another tradition, one that is less literal and more metaphorical. I’ll try to explain it clearly; if I fail, please ask me questions later.
I feel the Holy Spirit compelling me to pursue two lines of thought, actually: a question of justice and a question of faith. The question of justice is the simple question of the availability of water for God’s people. Without going into detail, I suggest that the availability of fresh water is going to be one of the major resource issues of the near future. It will doubtless always be plentiful for those who live in favorable climates and who have plenty of money, but faithful people do not make decisions about availability of resources by who lives where or has plenty of money.
In the United States we have plentiful fresh water and we use it for everything: drinking, cooking, bathing, flushing toilets, irrigation, watering golf courses… but you recall the recent crisis in Flint, Michigan, when the State decided to save money and did not look at the consequences that held for real people. Anyway, we in the US typically use fresh water for everything, but in much of the world fresh water is much less available. They have designed ways to use “grey water” – water that has been used for washing – for appropriate purposes, such as irrigation and flushing toilets. Some US golf courses use grey water. And our homes can be re-engineered to use grey water as appropriate.
The availability of fresh water is an issue of justice for disciples of Jesus, because Jesus said explicitly that when people are thirsty, those who are faithful see that they have something to drink (Matthew 25:35). When I was in Haiti I saw the work of Presbyterian missionaries who were helping homeowners develop fresh-water retention systems so they would not have to walk miles to get water. Some of you know of the work of those working to provide fresh water in South Sudan and elsewhere. Yet the issue is more than simply one of charity, but also a question of justice. There are places where the powerful control the supply of water and use it to keep others carefully controlled, such as the State of Israel does to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Those who are disciples of Jesus and see that some are thirsty consider all appropriate remedies: engineering, mission work, and political action.
That was quick-and-dirty, but I think that question is relatively straight-forward. The other question I want to explore is more subtle. Let’s leave aside the matter of the people quarreling with Moses and doubting the love of God and instead focus on the reality that God did provide what they needed, and in a rather dramatic way. Moses struck the rock, and water came from it. They were somewhere on the Sinai Peninsula, approaching the Mountain of God. It was called Rephidim, but Moses called it Massah (“test”) and the rock was called Meribah (“quarrel”). The people had plenty to drink.
Now here’s the curious thing. In the Book of Numbers (20:2-13) a very similar story is told. The people are at Kadesh, and they have no water, so they quarrel with Moses about it. God gives slightly different instructions to Moses, but Moses doesn’t obey God fully; even so, water comes from the rock, and Moses names the rock Meribah, the same name as the rock at Rephidim.
The rabbis and the story-tellers and the interpreters have noticed these similarities, and they have wondered. Did the same thing happen twice? Or did it happen once and there are two different versions of the story? A poet, writing in the psalms, suggested that it happened at least twice and maybe more often (Psalm 78:15). One ancient writer, noticing that the rocks in two different places have the same name, suggested that in some way the rock was following them (Pseudo-Philo, Biblical Antiquities 10:7).
Time out. I know that metaphorical and figurative readings of stories are difficult for some folks. I don’t mean that as a judgment; it is simply that different people think in different ways. But this is an example of why metaphorical and figurative readings are so important to me. After sixty-three years of experience, I am deeply convinced that the Bible is the Word of God, that it is the means by which God reveals to us eternal truth, and that none of it is simply to be passed over. But I also cannot swallow the notion of a rock picking itself up and following the people through the desert. Figuratively speaking, it works for me. When the people needed water, Moses drew it from a rock, and the source was there whenever the people needed it. In a figurative sense, the rock was following them, because it was always there.
The Apostle Paul was writing to Christians in the Greek city of Corinth, and he was trying to convince them that they should pay attention to the stories of the Bible. He picked up on this particular story, and he wrote to them:
Our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud
and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the
spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. (I Corinthians 10:1-4)
I don’t think that Paul believed that a rock was following them around, or even necessarily that Christ was following them around. He’s speaking figuratively. Everywhere the people went they found the water they needed. And they are our ancestors in faith; not literal ancestors, and they were not the literal ancestors of the people of Corinth either. But in faith in God they are our ancestors, and as they were baptized by passing through the Red Sea, we were baptized in the baptistery or font; as they ate the manna, we eat the Lord’s Supper. And they drank from the rock that followed them; the rock from which we drink is Christ.
The Rock was Christ. How do I share with you what I have found in Christ? I’ll start with Scripture. A Psalm that has meant a great deal to me is Psalm 63, which begins:
O God, you are my God, I seek you,
My soul thirsts for you;
My flesh faints for you,
As in a dry and weary land where there is no water. (Ps. 63:1)
I thirst for God. I have plenty of fresh water for drinking, bathing, and cooking, thanks to having been born and raised in comfort. But the part of me that is more than a consuming animal, my humanity, yearns for the life of the Spirit. Much of that thirst is quenched by the human arts, by music and theater, by poetry and visual art and by sports, but I thirst for the eternal. As the psalmist wrote, I thirst for God, for the living God, as in Psalm 42:
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God? (Ps. 42:2)
Jesus once was having a conversation with a Samaritan woman by Jacob’s Well, and they were talking about water. He said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14). The conversation continues, but the point Jesus gets across to her and which she comes to believe is that Jesus himself is the source of living water.
I was raised in the Christian Church; my parents took me to the Presbyterian Church of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania to be baptized and we went to Sunday School every Sunday all our lives. I went to Confirmation Class every Wednesday afternoon for a year, to a teens Bible Study one evening a week, and to youth choir and youth group every Sunday evening. So when people ask when I knew that Jesus was my Savior, I answer that there was never a time that I didn’t know that Jesus was my Savior.
But… I have had many occasions to turn away from it all. I’ve described them to you over the years. My intellectual doubts as a thinking person; my emotional reactions to having been mistreated by Christian people; and other things too, including the appeal of other religious and philosophical traditions. But it all comes down to this: can I turn away from Jesus Christ? Because to turn away from Christian faith and practice, to turn away from the Church, is to turn away from Jesus Christ, which to me is like walking in the desert, finding water – fresh water, cold and sweet – and turning away from the water. I was thirsty, I have drunk deeply of the source of living water, and I don’t want it any more. Does that make sense?
One day I was having lunch with my colleagues; you know them, the ministers who are part of our family, who worship with us and help me at the Lord’s Table and who joined me in offering the oil of reaffirmation of faith a couple of weeks ago. We were having lunch, and I was expressing my sadness at the apparent decline of the Church. Look at all the empty chairs; a lot more of them are empty than a few years ago. I worry about that, as do some of you, and I asked my friends, “What does the Church need? Does it need a new program? A new pastor? A different way of doing things? Different music? What does the Church need?” and one of my colleagues said, “Jesus.”
My friend is right. Wherever you and I wander in this desert, the rock follows us. Many of our human thirsts are satisfied by what we experience in Church: the music, the arts, the stories, the laughter. But the deepest human thirst is the thirst for God, the thirst for that which is eternal, and the source of living water to satisfy that thirst is Jesus Christ. We can find music, art, stories, and laughter in many places, but only in His Church can we find Jesus Christ. Our ancestors drank from the rock, and the rock was Christ.
A final thought: the living water is meant for anyone who is thirsty. When Jesus said to offer something to drink to someone who is thirsty, he meant that literally. Do the work of mission and of justice so that the thirsty have water. But I’m sure he also meant it figuratively. When you know someone is thirsty for God, for the living God, offer them the living water that you have found in Jesus Christ. As it is written at the end of the Bible:
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. (Revelation 22:17)
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master