Freedom is always mixed with a measure of anguish, for freedom looks to a future that is open and unknown, holding both promise and portent. In the freedom given the children of Israel after their exodus from Egypt, there is the guiding presence of God in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Their future is directed, their path illumined. Their present state and immediate future are, nonetheless, touched by the austerities of the landscape they inhabit and the wrenching need it will not satisfy short of miraculous intervention. In a word, they are dying of thirst.
They complain against Moses in an act called by the psalmist, “hardening your hearts,” and thus, we are called, by the psalmist again, not “to harden your hearts, as your forebears did in the wilderness” (Ps. 95). We are called, indeed, to an utter and total trust in God. Reciting the Venite before dawn in the comfort of a chapel or prayer cell or easy-chair may, by grace and good work, excite just such trust. The pain of dehydration and impending death is another matter altogether.
In the end, of course, God intercedes, telling Moses to stand in front of the Rock of Horeb. The Lord says, “Strike the rock, and the water will come out of it, so that the people may drink” (Ex. 17:6). This Old Testament story is, we must remember, also a story about Jesus. Having nothing else to call sacred Scripture, the earliest Christians used what providence placed in their hands. Thus, from the mind of St. Paul we have this interpretation: “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ” (I Cor. 10:1-4). Their passage through the sea was a baptism; their food and drink a spiritual gift. The rock is said, rather strangely, to have followed them, but with the clarifying interpretation, “the rock was Christ.”
In a sense, the whole story is suffused with Christ. Christ liberates and guides, gives food and drink, moves with and among his people. Meeting a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, Jesus said to her, “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Is this a final and happy ending?
Again and again, Israel is tested. Again and again, Christians bear the wounds of Christ. Hunger and thirst become signs of one’s deepest need, the need for God from moment to moment. “As the deer longs for the water-brooks, so longs my soul for you, O God” (Ps. 42:1). This is not merely a longing for refreshment; it is an anguished cry for life. When Jesus says, “I thirst,” he speaks, no doubt of longing-love for the Father, but he feels as well his body gasping for breath and water. In extremis, he cries; and, in some sense, this cry, this longing, this thirsting, is a permanent part of Christian existence. Jesus is to us the satisfaction of this thirst and the cause of it. Receiving him who is the fullness of deity, we will never thirst again; receiving him who transcends all that we may feel and know, we desire yet more. We know Christ my seeking, desiring, and loving. We thirst.
Look It Up: Read Romans 5:5.
Think About It: The love of God poured into your heart is the water you need.