Vicar's Sermon - 28th September 2014

Exodus 17.1-7 

In the Northern territories of Australia there is a river called the Todd River.  The Todd River is what is called an ‘ephemeral river’.  For most of the year you can’t see it. The lines of the riverbanks are clear but there is no water in the river, just dust and sand. Once in a while, when there has been rain upstream, the river comes alive – people camping on the banks of the dried up river can be overtaken by the amount of water that miraculously appears. If you know where to look, you can follow the leading edge of the river as it reappears and makes its way along the riverbed. Then, just as quickly as it has appeared, the Todd River vanishes.

David Tacey in his book ‘The Spirituality Revolution’ mentions the Todd River: he grew up alongside it, and as a child at school he learned that, for all its appearances, the Todd River never dries up simply lives ‘underground’. It is actually ever present, unseen, beneath the surface of things, ready to be awakened by a heavy downpour, ready to miraculously bubble up from below the ground.

In the bible, as in every other religious book, water is a symbol of life. Its importance to us as people physically stretches over into it becoming a symbol within our spiritual life. The language we use in our services in church includes plenty of water based imagery: ‘pour out your Spirit’ we pray at Pentecost, ‘wash us clean’ we ask in Lent. Jesus promises to give us ‘Living water’ says the Gospel.  The Spirit of God will ‘well up in Jesus’ followers’ says the apostle John. Baptism in water and the Spirit marks entry into the Christian Community. Our word font comes from the same Latin word that gives us ‘fountain’.  How can we speak of our faith without the language of water?

So, as we hear today’s Old Testament reading about the people of God crying out for water we should be attuned to both the physical and the spiritual significance of what they are asking for. The story, of course, recalls the people’s desperation in the desert. They have jumped out of the ‘frying pan’ that was life in Egypt into the ‘blazing fire’ of the desert. They are refugees. They have nothing. Behind them they have left the Pharaoh who had ordered the death of their children...but at this point in the story there is no place for them to go...the Promised Land has not yet come into view. ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’ they ask.

Our story presents the most basic of physical needs. But then we have a spiritual question which is what I want to talk about. The people at the end of our reading are described as the ‘Israelites who quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying ‘Is the Lord among us or not’. Their physical difficulty is framed by the writer of this part of scripture in terms of what we would now call ‘spirituality’.  ‘Is God present? If so, where is he’. ..and to use another water image ‘how do we tap in to the life he offers?’ Those are modern questions. If there is a God, where is He? Can the life that he offers be accessed, can we find something that slakes our spiritual thirst?

What does our story show us? What does Moses do? Is there anything this ancient story can teach us about our lives?

Moses is told by God to take the rod that he had used to strike the River Nile back in Egypt when God had rescued His people and to use it to strike the rock at Horeb. He does so, and water begins to flow from the rock.

There are two things here. Firstly, Moses makes a visual connection with the past through using this particular staff or rod as he carries out God’s commands. This says to me that when we are in a dry place in our lives as Christians, when faith and discipleship seem hard, one thing that can help us is to remember the past and what God has done.  In our own lives this may mean simply ‘counting our blessings’: how has God dealt with us down the years, when have we known His presence with us? Can we draw on past experience to help us through a hard time? But it need not just be our own personal past that might inspire or encourage us. What can we learn from others? What help does our Christian tradition offer us? Can we learn to drink from the wells of spiritual nourishment dug by others? I’m amazed by how readily people who are searching for sustenance in their spiritual lives embrace the unusual and slightly whacky ‘mind and body’ sections of the bookshops without (seemingly) being aware that right under their noses in the scriptures, in their parish churches, in our Cathedrals and Retreat Houses there are deep waters of life giving teaching and experience that can be shared and enjoyed that could change their lives.  Moses held on to the reminder of God’s goodness in the past to enable him to trust in the present.

And then secondly Moses struck the rock at Horeb enabling water to pour from it. How do you read this? What does Moses actually do? Some say that this is a clear ‘miracle’. Water appears where before there was none. Other commentators suggest that Moses, led by God, simply does what an experienced Bedouin shepherd would have done: he accesses water that sits just above the water table in a particular rock formation: it’s something you can only really do once but it’s a life saver. You ‘pays your money and makes your choice’ – but for me the point is that Moses accesses a source of water that is present but unseen. Whether we call this a miracle or not Moses puts down a marker to say ‘God is here. God does care for his people. He wishes to sustain them both physically and spiritually. He is the source of our life. We are dead without Him.

What could be more ‘unprepossessing’ than a rock in a desert place?  Yet this story shows Moses finding ‘heaven in ordinary’.  Just stop and look beneath the surface of things and you will find water to sustain your spirit. The people have not left God behind them in Egypt: He is here, with them, ever present, ever faithful.

I wonder as Christians where we would put our marker, where we would strike a rock that might meet the needs of our community? Where would we point someone to whose spiritual experience was that they were living in a ‘dry and barren place’? Some might point to a church building: I take great heart from some of the comments written in our visitor’s books and prayer books...the sense of ‘touching base’ that people have when they come here, the sense of renewal they feel, of peace. We know that sitting in this place where ‘prayer has been valid’ can put people in touch with the God who loves them.

Perhaps you might point to the Christian community as a source of spiritual life. Surely that would be good? Isn’t that what we are saying when we invite people to ‘come to church?’ Here, we say, in this community you can find a life that will sustain you. Here, within this Christian fellowship there is the opportunity to come into contact with values and traditions and ways of simply ‘being’ that help, that build up, that encourage human flourishing. That would be good.

Perhaps we might be more specific. Our marker might be placed in the spot that signifies ‘taking part in worship.’ Worship is what sets a church apart from a club or society.   Drawing on the past our worship in the Church of England finds expression in rites and rituals that, at first might seem strange, but which can carry a torrent of life giving energy. The other week I asked a class of Year 6 children at Green Lane School what the clear, fresh water in the parable of the Good Shepherd I had told them might ‘really’ be. One child replied ‘worship’.  Would that that were the case: that our worship here might convey a freshness and a life that transforms and shapes people’s lives.  I believe the word ‘ritual’ comes from the same Latin root  that gives us the word ‘river’: our rites and rituals are meant to be ways through which we can dive into the life of God’s Spirit....and some people sense this, without realising what it is they are sensing. At weddings and baptisms and funerals, at our regular services...there is a sense of connection to some Thing of depth and significance.

In the New Testament the apostle Paul suggested another place for Moses Rod to strike. In the first letter to the Corinthians Paul, speaking of this passage makes  the remarkable claim that the rock that sustained the Israelites with life giving water was in some way ‘Jesus Christ’. He’s speaking allegorically of course but he is onto something isn’t he?  In this Christian country of ours the source of life giving spiritual energy and renewal and refreshment is right in front of us, right under our noses.  Seen but unseen. Known but unknown.  Jesus, the Christ. Why is it that somehow we don’t turn to Him straightaway as the source of our life in the Spirit.

Like the Todd River of the Northern Territories there is in Jesus Christ a source of life within our reach. The hymn writer expresses it better than I. May we be granted grace to now His presence with us all our lives.

As water to the thirsty, as beauty to the eyes,

As strength that follows weakness, as truth instead of lies,

As song-time and spring-time and summer-time to be

So is my Lord, my living Lord, so is my Lord to me.


Like calm in place of clamour, like peace that follows pain,

Like meeting after parting, like sunshine after rain,

Like moonlight and starlight and sunlight on the sea,

So is my Lord, my living Lord, so is my Lord to me.


As sleep that follows fever, as gold instead of grey,

As freedom after bondage, as sunrise to the day;

As home to the traveller and all we long to see,

So is my Lord, my living Lord, so is my Lord to me.

Words: Timothy Dudley Smith

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