The Waters of Meribah, the Waters of Christ

Today’s readings from the Liturgy (Novus Ordo) resound with the image and metaphor of water:  the story of the people of Israel in the desert at Meribah, where they “contended” with God because they were thirsty, is paralleled by the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob in Sychar.  The two stories are apposite for me just at this moment, as I have had a certain amount of trial in my life recently; in a bit of frustration (at a very petty thing), I lashed out at God in anger.  It brings me shame, and I have asked his forgiveness, but reading and hearing the story from Leviticus made me recollect my journey from unbelief to belief once again.

The Israelites wandered in the desert, and demanded water from Moses; their complaint, that their desire for drink be satisfied, is not unnatural, travelling through a desert.  According to Robert Alter’s commentary on Exodus, the verb which is used in the passage “and the people disputed with Moses” often appeared in judicial contexts, where it meant to bring a legal complaint.  Thus, the people of Israel are demanding their “rights” as they see them from Moses, and by extension, from God.  Won’t the God who called us out of Egypt satisfy our basic desires?  Moses, frightened, calls upon God for help, and responds, but asks Moses to “pass before the people,” which as Alter notes might well be a direct response;  before God would manifest himself in power, Moses had to “run the gauntlet,” so to speak.   He then strikes the rock with his staff-the same staff which had caused so much destruction in Israel-and the people’s thirst is quenched.  Tellingly, the story ends with the name of Meribah (contention) being assigned to the place, but also with the revelation of what the people’s challenge really amounted to in the first place:  “for their testing the Lord, saying “Is the Lord in our midst or not?” .” 

Israel wanted an assurance that God really was with them, really; they demanded a sign.  Many times since I made the leap of faith to enter the Church I have felt the same way, for I too can still look back to see the lands of Egypt, and know its comforts and consolations; many times have I said, in my own foolish way, “why have you brought us up from Egypt to bring death on me…for my thirst?”   What is worse, for a long time I could not distinguish the nature of this temptation:  have I fallen back into doubt?  Or is it mere spiritual fatigue? Things are not always so clear in the interior life.  The people of Israel contended with a God they knew, but was not sure loved them; for a long time, I believed in a God that, in faith, I believed existed, but did not know.  What the story of Israel at the waters of Meribah made me realize is that, however sinful, my temper tantrum is a progress, though one through a desert:  one does not contend with someone one does not think exists.  My demanding from God my “due measure” of happiness is a sign that, however perversely, I do believe:  one does not curse a person he does notknow to exist.  I’ve cursed enough people in my life to know that distinction, at least.

The story of Christ with the Samaritan women is another example of how the Gospel writers took the images and metaphors of the Hebrew Scriptures, and made them speak Christ.   In the story, when Jesus asks her for a drink, he is met by the incredible response of the woman, who can’t believe a Jew would converse with her.   And when he tells her that if she knew who she was talking to, she would ask him for water, she replies rather incredulously “where do you get that living water?” Or as Chrysostom says, in paraphrasing her response, “Jacob used this water, and had nothing better to give us.”  You have nothing better to give us either; there is nothing better, nothing else than this water we have thirsted for, and will thirst for again.  This has been my own response, many times.   But then Christ promises her, “he who drinks of the water I shall give, will never thirst.” And from there, he calls her out, naming her indiscretions, and leads her to realize that he is a prophet, then revealing himself as the Messiah with the same simplicity that she intially responded with.  The whole remarkable story ends with her evangelizing people in the town, who finally proclaim to her that “we no longer believe because of your word, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this indeed is the Savior of the World.”   Whereas the contention of the Israelites ended with a sign, which could be taken away (and was), the Samaritan woman’s guileless disbelief led to others proclaiming that they knew, for themselves, that God indeed was in their midst.   But who was the source of this knowledge?  The one whom they heard, for, in this story, the roles are reversed; it is not the people, not the Samaritan womaen who is looking to quench her thirst, but God, in the person of Christ:  “But He who was asking drink was thirsting for the faith of the woman herself” (Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 4:1-42, 11).   God must lead us through the desert, kicking and screaming, so that we can be simple enough to thirst for his love, and that he can respond with the same simplicity, to give that love back to us.  

Lord, grant me the simplicity of spirit that makes me thirst for your love above all things, that you may quench my thirst forever.  In nomine Patri, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, Amen.

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~ by Alypius on March 28, 2011.

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