I don't drink beer anymore, but it's almost axiomatic that a cold beer after a hard day of hot work in the sun tastes pretty darn good. I myself prefer Pellegrino. It's a sparkling water from Italy. If you get it real cold and serve it in a cold glass with no ice, it's way better than any beer. When you are really thirsty, you gulp that baby, I'm telling you.
To wander in the wilderness is to become thirsty, just as Jesus got thirsty wandering from the north of what the Romans called Palestine down through Samaritan country toward Jerusalem. It's a dry place, the mission field. It is not comfortable. Fruit is not growing on the trees. There is no Walmart nearby.
In returning to this Exodus passage God knows how many times, I finally asked myself what exactly is so sinful about getting thirsty in the wilderness. And a closer reading of the story shows me no anger in God. God never says in this story that the Israelites were being unreasonable. He never says they have no faith. If anyone is being kind of ridiculous, it's Moses who is not so concerned about being thirsty as he is about being stoned by the people.
But God doesn't criticize the people. Instead he simply gives instructions to Moses about where to find water.
But it does say that God was "testing" the Hebrew ex-slaves. It becomes the name of the story. And later, the person who wrote the psalm will interpret the story as one about how faithless were the wanderers. But I think the Hebrews passed the test. The test was to see if they'd give up and go home in the midst of real difficulty or whether they'd stick it out and try to see what God had in mind for them. If anyone failed the test it was Moses. God's people turned to him, as they should. He was after all God's guy. But he was the one who really doubted. Hadn't God done everything through Moses that God had promised to do? In fact at the end of the journey God will punish Moses for his faithlessness, even as God hands the promised land over to Moses' followers.
Now our Moses today is not a pastor or an elder or the moderator of the board or the leader of our men's or women's groups. Our Moses is the Christ. The Christ is our only human authority. And for us, the Christ is Jesus, who rose from the dead and is eternally on the throne of our nation. Jesus Christ doesn't lose faith. Jesus Christ doesn't doubt God or worry about us stoning him. Worse has already happened and he's on the other side of it.
And even in his earthly ministry before his followers did exactly what Moses feared the most and rose up to crucify him, Jesus was the Christ. The world in the gospel of John might itself be seen as a kind of wilderness, and the mission of the Christ and the mission of all his followers might be seen as a sojourn in that wilderness.
From John's point of view, Jesus and those who follow Jesus come from heaven, and have descended into an alien and hostile world, a world ruled over by the devil, as the advance guard, as it were, of the realm of God, the marines of heaven, to use a rather unfortunate but apt metaphor.
And it's in this very sojourn that the Hebrew slaves and Jesus and we were and are transformed. It's in the dry and dusty wilderness of the mission field, the wild place free of the fleshpots of slavery, the place where there are no props and no anesthetic pleasures to dull our vision, the place where we are not quite sure of what to do, where we are uncomfortable in our ignorance, where we don't know really what is right, where the world is at its most damaged and hurt and broken, whether its in the ruins of Japan or in some backwater town where a lonely sinner waits for God. It's in those places, and those places alone, that God pours his Spirit into our hearts.
The psalm encourages us to see God in this way, as the all-sufficient king of our lives, to turn away from all the things the world gives us, the temporary pleasures of slavery to a dying culture, and risk the emptiness and the rare but deeply satisfying rewards of the wilderness.
Because what must it have been like to finally drink the water from the rock? Have you ever been really thirsty, really thirsty for a protracted period of time? How did that water taste when you finally got to gulp it down? That cold beer, that Pellegrino?
Wandering thirsty in the wilderness of our mission is in fact the way that God teaches us to see in God the true and lasting salvation, as Paul says. Paul is not talking about the routine suffering everyone endures. Nor is Paul talking about putting up with abuse or going without in an unjustly compensated job or tolerating active addiction in a family. He's not talking about getting our kicks from masochism or about making ourselves impressive to others by our willingness to be walked on.
Paul is talking about the suffering of following Christ, of entering into the mission, of becoming one sent from heaven. In this passage from Romans this morning he's talking about peace with God, being reconciled with God, and he's talking about suffering, incredible suffering, suffering that comes from the world rejecting and attacking the ones sent by God from heaven. And he says that this suffering, the suffering in the wilderness of mission, is part of what actually transforms us into the ones sent from heaven.
Indeed it is in the experience of rejection and hostility that we enter into God's own experience. As I have been preaching for the last six years, the world as we have made it is neither good nor just nor heading in a positive direction, and it hasn't been for the past ten thousand years. The only thing that has been very gradually changing over that time is that more and more people, through a variety of spiritual paths, are waking up to just how completely off the track humankind has been.
The world that most people still think of as fundamentally decent and good and just, the world people have made, is in fact a horrific and disastrous misuse of the good creation of God. We are making of that good and fruitful creation a desert, a wilderness with nothing to sustain us. God saw it coming a long time ago, and God still sees it coming. It's not getting better, it's getting worse. There are more and more people and the resources of the world are being shoveled up the food chain to a smaller and smaller percentage of the whole, so that humankind on a global level is getting steadily poorer and poorer.
This world is still very much in the business of rejecting and attacking the ambassadors of the realm of God. But strangely and marvelously, just as the cross of Jesus was the instrument of glorification, so the world's battering of the sons and daughters of heaven is itself the path to transformation.
For as we struggle to share the good news of Christ's rule, which is a rule of peace and reconciliation and humility, as we find ourselves going long distances in empty wastes, we will sooner or later find ourselves at Jacob's well, and that remarkable and surprising person will see us for who we really are, and will see themselves as well. And a little more of the world will be saved. One more child of heaven will be born.
And we will gulp that water down, and it will taste pretty darn good.