Nachshon, Where Are You?

Exodus 17:1-7
© Stacey Steck

So, here we are halfway through Lent. Are you suffering yet? Have you been tested by your fast? Are you becoming quarrelsome with your family due to the deprivation of chocolate or coffee, like the Israelites and their water? And imagine, Lent is only forty days, not forty years. Although both the season of Lent, and its length, traditionally correspond to Jesus’ time fasting and being tempted in the desert, in many ways, a better parallel for us might be Israel’s time in the desert, and the spiritual challenges it faced once freed from slavery, but not yet delivered to the promised land. Those forty years constituted a period of maturation, a growing up and a growing into an identity as God’s people, a coming together of the intellectual and the emotional parts of faith in God. And that sounds a lot to me like the purpose of this season we call Lent.

Our verses this morning from Exodus offer a great lesson about God’s provision for a desperate people, and I hope that you have experienced that provision this Lent when you have needed it, that water has flowed from a stone for you in the desert of your spiritual disciplines. In planning for these forty days, I thought a reminder halfway through that God does take care of us might be a relief for some in their journey this year. But I also want to put this little story back into the bigger picture, and see what larger lessons can be learned from that place Moses called Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

If this story of water from the rock sounds familiar, it may be because a variation of it appears in several places in the Old Testament, and because it is not the first occasion of the Israelites grumbling about their food and water supply. In fact, this is the third time since the very recent escape from Egypt that the people complain to Moses, first about the bitter water they encounter at Marah, then about the lack of bread and meat in the wilderness of Sin, and now once again at Rephidim. And all three times, God provides what is needed – bitter water made sweet by a tree branch thrown in it, manna and quail covering the ground morning and evening, and then water pouring from the rock struck by the staff. Each time their cry goes up, the blessings come down, even if poor Moses doesn’t like to hear their grumbling. Yes, even though Moses gets his nose out of joint quite a bit when the people remind him that they are starving and dying of thirst, God not once displays anger at this “testing” of God, as Moses calls it. Only Moses does.

There are places in Scripture where God takes issue with complaining Israelites, but these early desert stories are not among them, and maybe that is because God knows it has been only a very short while since they left the relative food security of their slavery in Egypt, and that they have a steep learning curve about trusting God. You may remember that the Israelites had been in captivity in Egypt for more than four hundred years, but had been in the desert just a matter of days or weeks, and so they have a lot of learning to do about the God who seemed to be absent for four centuries, only to show up and rescue them and demand that they be faithful. I don’t think you can really blame them for asking, “Is the Lord among us or not?” So it is Moses, not God, who seems to be bothered by that question, and you can’t really blame him either since he’s the man in the middle, catching all the heat, perhaps fearful that if his people don’t look faithful or grateful enough before God, that all his hard work will go in vain. Yes, it is Moses who describes the Israelites’ grumbling as “testing” the Lord, but it is God who provides, without commentary, just what they need.

What I would like to suggest to you from this is that despite our reluctance to seem ungrateful to God for what we already have, I think God can be trusted to receive our complaints about what we really need without striking us down with fire from the sky. The people weren’t asking for chocolate éclairs out there. They were asking for what they needed to survive, the essentials of food and water for themselves and their children. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if we have a little Moses on our shoulders who prevents us from sharing our needs with others or even God, for that fear of having our faith questioned, and our legitimate needs labeled as grumbling or complaining. And that little Moses is whispering, “Can’t you just be happy with what you already have? What kind of an ingrate are you?” while our souls are dying to cry out to God or another living soul our deepest needs for companionship or mercy or justice. And to that I say, let Moses be worried about himself, let others think what they are going to think! We know that our God is big enough to take whatever grumbling we can dish out, and to give us without grudging what we need. I can’t say that applies to the new Ford F-150 you want, but when it comes to what really matters in our lives that corresponds with the abundant life God has promised us in Jesus Christ, you can take that as the Gospel.

Now, if you are wondering why Moses should be so angry with his countrymen’s complaining about the lack of water, you are not the only one. It seems like a reasonable request. But maybe that is because you have never heard of Moses’ old buddy Nachshon, son of Aminidab, a real go-getter, a man with the power to really get the water flowing. If Moses is frustrated by the Israelites’ complaining, maybe it is because Nachshon, son of Aminidab, was nowhere to be found. You see, according to Rabbinic legend, legend not recorded in the Bible per se, but Rabbinic legend which was taken very seriously, as the Hebrews stood on the banks of the Red Sea escaping from Pharaoh, the waters would not part, and they began to be more and more worried about the Egyptian army advancing on them from the rear. One group wanted to fight the Egyptians, another wanted to go back to Egypt and continue being slaves. A third group thought they should just pray to God and a fourth thought there was no other option but to throw themselves into the Sea and commit suicide. None of these, of course, were very good responses to the crisis at hand, not even praying, because God had already told Moses, “Just go straight ahead. Don’t worry, there will be a miracle and the sea will split.” So then it was a question of who would make the first move into the sea. Finally, a certain Nachshon, son of Aminidab, strode forth and entered the waters, not waiting for them to part. And he kept going even when the waters reached his knees, then his waist, then his chest, and finally his mouth. But when the waters reached his nostrils, they began to recede, and the people could all pass through safely. It took one man’s faith in God’s promises to open the way for everyone else to trust in them as well.

Now, you may be remembering the story being told a little differently, with Moses raising his staff, and the waters parting, but that wasn’t the first thing God asked of the people. You see, first God said, “Tell the Israelites to move forward” but they didn’t, not until Nachshon. According to one contemporary Rabbi, interpreting the legend of Nachshon, “When our ancestors approached the waters with implicit faith in God, the waters saw in them a measure of the divine. Because the created being cannot controvert its creator, the water instinctively and spontaneously receded before the personification of the divine,” and that personification of the divine was Nachshon, son of Aminidab. Yes, the staff of Moses is important, but important too is the faith of the people to go forward when God tells them to, even without the security of the staff. And so in this legend, the staff becomes a sign of the parting of the waters, rather than the means of the parting the waters, because the faith of Israel is what must always go forward under the promises of God, even without the staff of Moses.

Now, you don’t have to believe this legend, but you might want to pay attention to it, because there is something important in it, namely that God’s promises for us compel us to move forward in faith even when circumstances suggest we should not, or when we become paralyzed by our fears, or when the odds seem overwhelming. So if Moses is frustrated by the complaints for water, maybe it was because nobody went looking for it, that they had forgotten Nachshon’s can-do faith so soon. You see, the water in that region of the Sinai Peninsula is just below the surface of its limestone, and sometimes you just have to poke around until you find it, but instead of everyone going out there with their own staffs poking around until they found it, they were just waiting for Moses to do it. They gave up too easily when taking matters into their own hands would have made all the difference. The challenges we face need to see in us that “measure of the divine” the waters saw in Nachshon as he waded in, faithful to God’s promise. It’s all well and good knowing God will answer your prayers even if you complain, but will you wade into the water even when it hasn’t already parted before you?

This is not a church in which I hear a lot of Massah and Meribah, the quarrelling and testing Moses had to hear. But it is a church made up of the same kind of human beings who sometimes forget the wonderful things God has done, who sometimes think that someone else should do what is needed, and who sometimes take for granted the grace of God. And when we forget, and when we hold back, it doesn’t make God less faithful to us, but it does make us a little less faithful to God, and it robs us of the opportunities to demonstrate to the world, to the waters of the Red Sea, to our friends and families, to our co-workers and our enemies that our God is faithful and generous, that our God ungrudgingly gives when we are in need, even when we complain. But isn’t that exactly what the world needs to know, and we can’t wait for someone else to do what we could be doing.

In Yiddish there is a popular saying, “to be a Nachshon” which means to be an “initiator,” because Nachshon did what everyone else knew had to be done while everyone waited for someone else to do it. I know you’ve been wondering all morning when your discomfort was coming. Well, here it is. On this third Sunday in Lent, I am giving you the opportunity to be a Nachshon, by filling out one of the Time and Talent Sheets that the ushers are just about to hand out. Here’s your chance to step into the waters, and trust God, and do something that needs to be done. Even if you are already doing some of the things on this sheet, go ahead and fill one out anyway. If you can’t find anything on there that you can wade into, there’s a space on the bottom for you to tell us what trouble you would be willing to get into. Yes, I know it’s uncomfortable to be put on the spot like this, but that’s what Lent is all about. So go ahead and be a Nachshon, and the ushers will collect these and bring them forward as part of our offering. May you continue to have an uncomfortable, but holy, Lent. Amen.