By Rev. J.C. Austin
I stared at the brownish-green water as it swirled slowly in the slight current of the river. It was muddy and murky up close, but from even a little bit of distance I could marvel at its beauty, even as the full danger of my predicament was registering at the same time. The river ran in multiple channels through different small islands of sand and grass here, like giant fingers through some kind of long, grey-green hair. The sky was a deep blue, and the hot sun shimmered off the water in the distance creating an effect that was almost like a beacon blinking. Whether it was blinking as a destination or a warning, though, wasn’t clear.
In that moment, it felt like both, because I was floating through the Okavango Delta in Botswana on a three-day river safari at the beginning of my year living and studying on the continent of Africa, and had just learned from the safari leader that the drinking water that they had promised to provide on the safari was actually the untreated water of the river itself.
The Okavango Delta is one of the most interesting places to see African wildlife on the continent because you go by water rather than land, propelled through the delta by a local guide using a long pole to push and steer small wooden dugout canoes called mokoros, not unlike the gondolas in Venice. Because the mokoros are so small, you are only allowed to bring a small bag with ten pounds or less of gear; the company provided all your food and water.
So we stored the rest of our gear in the company office in Botswana, including our state-of-the-art water filter to treat any local drinking water, and got in the van to the drop-off point in the Delta. When we got there, they handed out life jackets and placed canteens in our mokoro, and we headed out into the Delta. After a couple of hours in the sun, I was getting hot and thirsty, and I asked about the water. “Oh,” said the safari company representative, a woman in her mid-20s from New Zealand who was in the mokoro nearby; “that’s what the canteens are for.”
So I picked mine up, but it was far too light to have water in it. “Um, mine is empty,” I said, wondering which mokoro held the bottled water was so I could fill it. “Oh, they’re all empty,” she said matter-of-factly, as if this was to be expected. “Just fill it from the river.” “From…the river?” I said, hoping maybe I had misunderstood. “Yes, just hold it near the surface where the water is moving, it’s perfectly fine,” which is when I stared down at the slowly swirling water, realizing that I was going to have to drink murky river water in which hippos and crocodiles and who knows what else were all living and dying all the time.
Our filter, which would have solved the problem instantly, was back in the company office, and there was no safe water within several hundred miles to drink. And given the heat, there was no way I could simply not drink anything for three days. Seeing my distress, the New Zealand woman said, “don’t worry, I’ve been guiding here for three months and doing this myself.” But as I began to unscrew the top of the canteen, she continued (and I’m not making this up): “I mean, I’ve had a stomach thing I haven’t been able to shake for about six weeks, but other than that…” I sighed, plunged my canteen into the water, closed my eyes, and gulped it down. If I was writing the tasting notes for Okavango River water, I would say it had a vivid mossy bouquet with earthy notes of sediment and mineral, and a long finish with a whisper of unknown bacteria.
Somehow, after three days of this, we escaped that bacteria more or less unscathed. But the hint of what it is like to live without access to safe water has stayed with me ever since. Now, let me be clear: I understand it was just a hint, and a hint that came in the midst of enormous privilege as a traveler, however modest our safari operator was compared to the luxury ones that are more common there. But even a hint was enough to help me appreciate the truth that everything, everything else is in our homes is a luxury compared to clean, running water.
Medical science says that the human beings can go a while without food, generally at least 30-40 days and often up to two months, provided they are well-hydrated as they do so. But human beings can only survive about 3-4 days without water, and that’s in good conditions. If you are in a place that is unusually hot or arid, that gets cut in half, down to about 50 hours, and even that’s only if you are at rest. If you are exerting yourself, like, say, hiking all day through a desert, it can get down as low as seven hours.[i] Seven hours; that’s a twenty-mile walk if you’re lucky in the desert heat.
Those are the circumstances in which the people of Israel find themselves in this story: they were, at best, seven hours from death when they stopped in this place called Rephidim that had no water. And when death is counting down on its stopwatch from seven hours, hope seems increasingly far away, if it’s out there somewhere at all, beyond the forest of dry, bare stone in which they find themselves.
There are two subtle but very important things that happen next. First, God tells Moses to take some of the elders and go ahead of the people to Horeb, which is presumably nearby, and God specifically points out that Horeb is just more rock. There is no river or oasis or anything other body of water that is already there waiting for them, which the Israelites might have found on their own if they had been lucky or clever enough to do so. The only real difference between the two locations is that God specifically promises to meet Moses at Horeb: “I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb,” God promises.
And second, nobody appears to notice God there. Moses follows God’s instructions: going out ahead of the people, taking some of the elders with him as well as his staff, and striking the rock there. But the only sign of God’s presence there at the rock at Horeb is the water itself that comes gushing out of the rock when Moses strikes it, which is the literal salvation of the people who were about to die of thirst. And that’s the point, really. The lesson concludes by recalling that the people were not simply complaining about the lack of water, as legitimate of a complaint and as huge of an issue as that was. They were questioning where and even whether God was with them in the midst of this crisis: “Is the LORD among us, or not?” the Scripture recalls them saying.
God’s response to that question was not a display of fire or thunder, not smoke or lightning, not an earthquake or a great wind, not a booming voice or even a quiet whisper, which are all ways that the presence of God is announced elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. No, God’s response to the question, “Is the LORD among us, or not?” is a fountain of stone. Now, of course, there’s nothing particularly miraculous about a fountain. Fountains are common decorations and destinations in cities across the world, but the origins of fountains are much more practical.
The first known fountain dates back to the Sumerians, 3000 years before Christ, and it was just a series of simple stone basins that seems to have collected water from irrigation canals as both a public drinking supply and for religious rituals. Which makes sense, given that the Sumerians were one of the first civilizations to create anything resembling what we would call a “city,” and one of the most basic necessities for a city to develop is an adequate and accessible water supply for its population.
Over time, fountains became a gathering place in cities because they provided water for drinking, washing, and bathing, and the movement and spray of the fountain was designed to keep the water at least relatively clean and free from stagnation. But until the 19th century, fountains depended on gravity for power; they had to be connected to a source that was higher than the location of the fountain, like a reservoir or an aqueduct, from which the water could flow down and then have enough power to jet upwards through the fountain. The higher the source, then, the stronger and higher the fountain.
The difference here, of course, is that it is not the people making the fountain, and there is definitely no pre-existing source, elevated or otherwise within seven hours or even seventy hours of where they stand; not so much as a shallow, stagnant, puddle of water. There is only sand and stone: barren, dry, uncut stone. Which is why this is God’s answer to the question, “Is the LORD among us, or not?”
The people aren’t asking if God wishes them well, or if God is with them in Spirit, or watching over them from on high; they are asking if God is among them, in their midst, right down on the ground and in the wilderness alongside of them. And God’s “yes” to that question is not to miraculously pull them out of the wilderness to a place of abundant water, nor even to show them where the water is among or under all that stone and sand.
Instead, God’s yes is that God is where the water is, when there is no water; that when our own energy and capacities and hope have dried up, God can provide sustenance in the very midst of that because God is always and intentionally in the very midst of God’s people, then and now, even when we don’t notice or can’t see; and that, yes, God’s presence and power can and will turn dry stone into flowing fountains, and desperation into assurance, and despair into hope, and death into life.
I think a lot of us are feeling like we’re standing in one of those forests of stone right now: weary and fearful, frustrated and resentful, desperately thirsty for something good and life-giving, unsure of what the coming months and days and weeks and maybe even the next seven hours hold. Part of that is this past week has been a particularly hard week for many of us as individuals, and for us as a nation as all the things that are dividing and conflicting us seem to have gotten even worse. And that is saying something, given the kinds of weeks we’ve been having, week after week, particularly over the last six months.
But I think perhaps even more of it is the cumulative weight of these past six months. In fact, those in disaster response management say that six months in is typically what they call “the disillusionment phase,” when we start realizing that the impact of the disaster is going to last much longer than we thought or hoped, and it’s not clear when or even how that will start to change.
And we, quite frankly, are dealing with multiple simultaneous disasters: the pandemic, of course, but also the ongoing plague of systemic racism, the widening chasm of political polarization, the crumbling of confidence in our democratic norms and institutions, the immediate disaster of the West Coast wildfires and the global climate crisis that promises to make such events more and more common. So, honestly, it would be shocking if we were not feeling disillusionment, anxiety, and even despair at this point, wondering like the Israelites, “Is the LORD among us, or not?”
I think what I appreciate the most about this story is that, when God answers “yes” to that question, when that fountain appears and they receive that water, they are still in the desert, still in the midst of all that dry and barren stone. None of that has changed. What has changed is the sense of possibility and abundance in the midst of that.
With God in their midst, they know that every single stone they pass as they journey through that seemingly endless and empty wilderness has the potential to be a fountain, pouring forth life from the highest source imaginable that is also right there in our midst: the presence and power of God. And that gift of life, of simply being alive, is sometimes as easy to take for granted as clean water, at least until we’re faced with potentially not having it.
And then we know the truth that the poet Mary Oliver spoke when she wrote, “It is a serious thing just to be alive on this fresh morning in the broken world.” And it is: a serious, and joyful, and beautiful thing, something that we need to stop and notice and appreciate and savor. Because God is among us on this fresh morning; God is in our midst in this broken world as we journey through it, and will stay with us every step of the way through the stony wilderness, until we reach the destination that God has promised and prepared for us all along