Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Thirsting for Righteousness

The Old Testament reading for the coming week is Exodus 17:1-7, the story of the Israelites in the desert grumbling against Moses and against God at Meribah.

One of the reasons I love the Old Testament is that it just doesn't gloss over the full reality of life. Verse 3 of this passage says "But the people thirsted there for water." When you hear this passage being expounded in a typical Bible study group, everyone will focus on the grumbling of the people. "Oh, they're just so ungrateful. After all that God has just done for them, they still complain. They still don't trust." They're just a bunch of ingrates, right? But what does the Bible say, "the people thirsted there for water." How unreasonable of them!

A common explanation for the way this is usually treated is that we Christians want to "clean up" the Bible. We wouldn't be so impious as to think that the Bible would condemn people in the desert for complaining about thirst, so we clean it up.

That surely happens, but I think in this case the reason may be even more sinister. If we can reduce the sin of the Israelites to blatant ingratitude, we can do better. But if they're just plain thirsty, what then?

I once heard a story about Tertullian counselling Christians who wanted to defend their employment in the idol-making business. The conversation went like this:

Workers: We have to work.
Tertullian: Why?
Workers: Because we have to buy food.
Tertullian: Why?
Workers: Because we have to eat.
Tertullian: Why?
Workers: Because we have to live.
Tertullian: You don't have to live. You only have to be faithful.

Back to the lectionary texts, the psalm for the week doesn't let up. It's Psalm 95, where we read, "O that today you would listen to his voice! Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah." Following the progrssion I expected the New Testament lesson to be from Hebrews 4, "‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.’ ... Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs." Instead, we get Romans 5 and justification by faith.

I fear that we have turned the corner from law to gospel too quickly. We can take the classic Protestant escape and say, "Yes, we're sinners just like the Israelites. We'd complain about thirst in the desert too. It's a good think God lets us off the hook, justifying us by faith." But what is this faith we're supposed to have?

The gospel reading draws this all together with the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well. "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," Jesus says. Then in verse 28, look, "Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city."

We Lutherans like to define faith as radical trust. This week's texts lead me to ask, just how radical are we willing to be about that trust?

Now, and only now, am I willing to go back and let Romans 5 into the discussion in order for Paul to say, "And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us."

We will be thirsty. We will sorrow. We will suffer. But do we dare trust God in the midst of it all?

1 comment:

mindflame said...

This is such a brave post. It is such a breath of fresh air to hear a Christian embrace the truth without trying to soften it. I was really inspired. I will look forward to reading your blog in the future. Thank you.