But try to imagine how frightening it would be to have to scavenge for it. On current trends, within twenty years over a third of the world’s entire population will live in countries suffering chronic water shortages. If this comes true, it is believable that people will go to war over it. The alternative is painful death – and not before people had turned on one another.
This provides some context for the story in Exodus 17: 1-7. The Israelites were on the move in the desert, ‘journeying by stages’ is how the Bible puts it – going round in circles is closer to the truth. When we are coming to the end of a long journey on the road, our bodies ache for comfort. We need the toilet. We need to drink something very hot or very cold (anything but the stale and tepid water we have left in the car). We need to eat something tasty. And we need to rest. As these urges strengthen within us we don’t become scared because we know that each of these needs could be met wherever we choose to stop. To conclude a long journey and then to find some of these needs couldn’t be met would be a crushing, inconceivable blow. If, for instance, we arrived at our hotel in a hot country after a day’s travel and with a parched throat and then found that the taps didn’t work and that we’d have to spend the whole of the night and the next day without drinking at all – how accepting would we be? Let’s not even begin to deceive ourselves: we would press the nuclear button. Month after month we see much smaller failures in catering held up for outraged ridicule by programmes like Watchdog, making the viewer indignant at the carelessness of others. Someone would be made to pay very dearly for such a basic failure.
Now, I think, we can get our bearings in this story of Moses and the Israelites. There are no grounds for smugness as we hear about the desperation of the Israelites when they arrived at Rephidim to camp and there was no water to drink. The Bible says that the people complained to Moses. In fact when Moses turned to God in prayer he was panicking that they were ready to stone him. The people had become an angry mob and we all know the kind of collective evil which can seize a crowd, where individuals lose their self-control and surrender their morality to the mob. Moses was on the verge of being lynched and no-one steps outside the crowd to come to the aid of a man being lynched.
I say all this to try and position ourselves in the story. We wouldn’t have been with Moses – we would have been with the mob. The very cohort which scripture held up for its idolatry and faithlessness. The reason we find that hard to believe is because we mostly haven’t wanted for the basic necessities of life and so haven’t seen how dire need can distort our personal character. This has been termed the power of context: when the environment changes for the worse, so does our character. We like to think that character is constant – that a good and kindly person will always relate in a good and kindly way. But this may only be true to the extent to which that good and kindly person is able to control their environment. If you think I’m being pessimistic, consider how even well-balanced people respond to a sudden traffic jam when they are in a rush to get somewhere.
The comforts of modern life have had a profound effect on spiritual faith. So much is laid on for us now that our faith is only really tested at the outer edges when bereavement or serious illness or personal debt or unemployment strikes. And because our faith is rarely tested in the ordinary things of life we may find that the muscles of faith have atrophied when we finally encounter a life-altering challenge. I remember a friend telling me that when she travelled across Siberia with work she was thrown onto God in a new way, praying for hospitality and safety every night because the credit card was useless and the police non-existent. She found she was given what she needed and that her faith was enlarged.
At one level there perhaps isn’t much we can do about this lack of challenge. Our wealth is a blessing and it has cushioned us from privation. But life still tends to throw up challenges which can test our faith in God at a fundamental level. If you like to be in control of your environment, then the tendency when you lose control is to become anxious and self-absorbed and to miss the prompting you are finally being given to put some trust in God. Character may change for the worse when circumstances later, but in the long run it may still change for the better. As St. Paul said: we boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. (Romans 5:3-4). The human spirit can become stronger for exposure to some manageable stress.
The Book of Job, which may be the oldest book of the Bible, is all about the enigma of human suffering. And its opening exchange between God and Satan has an unsettling ring to it. Job is a righteous man and his life has been blessed by God. He is surrounded by property, possessions and people who love him. Everything is just right. And then Satan comes along and says to God: Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in all the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face. (Job 1:9-11).
It’s a chilling exchange because it exposes the vulnerability many believers feel. We praise God when things are good and we sulk when they are not. Job struggled through forty-two chapters of misery as his life went from bad to worse and at the end proclaimed: I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes (Job 42:5-6). He began to see himself in a new way – and God also.
We are fragile people who are easily broken. People who are cushioned by material wealth may not appreciate this until what they take for granted is stripped away to reveal an astonishing brittleness. Facing up to the truth about ourselves is unsettling – and yet there is also an engaging beauty and resilience in the human soul. More than anything, we have been made for a relationship with God. Sometimes it takes a crisis for us to appreciate this because it delivers the kind of clarity we previously lacked. We find we can finally let go of trivial things and cling simply to what endures.
Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst, says Jesus, it will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John 4:14). When the road is hot and dusty and you’ve got nothing left to give, it turns out there’s more than enough spiritual water for everyone after all.