Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Thirsty” Exodus 17:1-7
We all fall into catastrophic thinking from time to time. Something doesn’t seem right and worst-case scenarios play out in our minds, over and over again, provoking anxiety and sending us into a panic. When I lived in Washington, DC, snow in the forecast sent the entire metro area into a frenzy of catastrophic thought. Neighbors rushed out to the grocery stores to buy up every loaf of bread, every gallon of water, and every roll of toilet paper. Then, as snow began to fall and streets turned slick, drivers would give up and abandon their vehicles, leaving cars haphazardly parked along the shoulder while they hoofed it home.
Our catastrophic thinking may not be nearly so apocalyptic. When our teen is late in getting home from a date, we imagine them lying in a ditch or pulled over by the police. When the doctor’s office calls to schedule an appointment to follow up on our test results, we think the worst – we must have a serious illness or they want to put us on a diet. When our employer announces that it’s time to reorganize at work, we’re ready to head for the unemployment line.
Catastrophic thinking preoccupies us, saps our emotional and rational energy. It’s tough on our bodies, boosting our blood pressure and respiration, and flooding our system with stress hormones. Catastrophic thinking doesn’t feel good. Our tummies churn, our thoughts race, and we can’t sleep. Catastrophic thinking is especially hard on those we live with. We may take our anxiety out on our beloved ones with a short temper and sharp tongue. We may even infect them with our catastrophic thinking; soon they are imagining the worst, right along with us.
Our reading from the Book of Exodus tells us that the Israelites were doing some catastrophic thinking. In fairness to them, their circumstances were truly stress-inducing. They were in the Sinai Wilderness, a desert landscape where temperatures could soar over 100 degrees and rainfall was infrequent. For the month of December, the rainiest month of the year, the average rainfall in the Sinai is a whopping two-tenths of an inch. The Israelites in that desert were dependent upon springs and oases to sustain them and their livestock, but at the end of a long day of travel, they arrived at Rephidim, where they expected to find a spring and instead found no water. No water for drinking. No water for their flocks. No water for their children. No water for cooking. No water for bathing. No water at all.
The human body can last about 100 hours without water in normal circumstances, but in a hot and sunny spot like the Sinai, they might be fortunate to last about half that time. Their tongues felt swollen and dry, clinging to the roofs of their mouths. The children began to cry. The sheep began to bleat. Even the camels were looking ornery. The catastrophic thinking kicked in.
“Our water reserves won’t last the night. The sun is going to roast us. We’ll never find water in this wasteland. We’ll have to set the flocks free to fend for themselves. We’ll have to resort to drinking our urine. We’ll cradle our dying children. Someday they’ll find our bleached bones and tell the terrible tale of what happens to foolish people who turn their back on the Nile.”
They took all their angry anxiety, aggression, and stress to Moses, and soon he was doing some of his own catastrophic thinking. “How am I supposed to find water in the desert? I’ve got a mutiny on my hands. They’re sharpening their knives. They’re gathering stones. I won’t last the night. They’re coming for me.”
Our catastrophic thinking can be problematic. It can undermine our workplaces. One manager complained to the Harvard Business Review that every time she tried to delegate to her employees, things went sideways. She was sure they would fail to deliver, or they might miss deadlines, or they could do things the wrong way. Rather than mentoring her workers as they learned new skills and allowing them to make mistakes, her catastrophic thinking would kick in. Imagining the poor sales that would ensue and the criticism she would face from her boss and the possibility of taking a hit to her reputation, she would take back all the work she had shared in an endless cycle of overwork and anxiety.
Catastrophic thinking can impact our relationships. We put off returning the phone call to our friend who is always imagining the worst and foretelling gloom and doom. We start editing what we share with the parent who spirals into a frenzy of anxiety at the sort of everyday setback that happens to everyone. If a spouse goes catastrophic every time that we try to share our feelings, we learn to keep them to ourselves.
Catastrophic thinking can even affect churches. I’ve known churches that refuse to host healing groups like NA and AA because something at church might get dirty or broken or stolen. I’ve known churches that refuse to try new programs for fear that it could demand too much work, take too much time, or bring too much change. And then, there is the catastrophic thinking that surrounds the introduction of new music—often rejected with the insistence that it’s too hard to sing, makes us uncomfortable, and will surely cause a mass stampede for the exit with worshippers vowing never to return.
It probably shouldn’t surprise us that when the Israelites got so anxious about water, it wasn’t the first time they went catastrophic. When Pharaoh’s army had pursued them to the shores of the Reed Sea, they all thought they were goners. Then, when the water at Mara was bitter and undrinkable, they thought that was it. When provisions got scarce and their bellies growled, they were certain they would starve to death. But those things didn’t happen.
Instead, each of those scary and overwhelming circumstances had turned into an opportunity for them to know the presence and the goodness of God. On the shores of the Reed Sea, God had interceded, standing between Pharoah’s forces and the people while Moses raised his staff above the waters—which parted, allowing the Israelites to escape. Then, when the water was so bitter, God had told Moses how to make it sweet. And when the people were hungry, God had brought quails into the camp in the evening and rained down manna every morning. All that adversity wasn’t easy or fun or pleasant or wanted, but again and again, the people had learned that they were not alone in the wilderness. They had a holy traveling companion, who cared and provided and would not abandon them, even when catastrophe struck.
One of my favorite memes that I have posted more than once on my Facebook page goes like this: “On particularly rough days, I like to remind myself that my track record for getting through bad days so far is 100%, and that’s pretty good.” I believe that, like the Israelites, we have a holy traveling companion, who is with us in the midst of those moments that make us want to call our friend and start complaining. We have a holy friend, who walks us through those experiences that make us infect our spouse with our anxiety. We are not alone on those days that make us want to stay in bed with the covers over our heads. Life does bring adversity, there’s no questioning that, but our track record for getting through it so far is pretty good, because we are not alone. We may not have manna showering us from the heavens, or water springing from a rock, or quails flying into the soup pot, but we can trust that God is with us because in Jesus, God chose to walk this lonesome valley and face head-on the catastrophe of the cross.
God’s goodness and grace find us in the middle of our catastrophic thinking. Sometimes it is a feeling of peace that surpasses all understanding. Sometimes it is in the comfort of scripture. Sometimes it is in the caring person who simply sits with us and holds our hand. Sometimes it is in the deacon who shows up with a hot dish. Sometimes it is in the people who pray for us, sending out a holy hotline to the Almighty. Sometimes it is in the leader who casts the hopeful vision for life on the far side of our woe. Sometimes it is in the family member who talks us off the ledge. We all get thirsty. We all go catastrophic from time to time, but God is with us and there is water.
When God sent Moses to Horeb to find water to ease the people’s thirst, God instructed him to take along some of the elders of Israel. On the mountain, in the presence of those witnesses, water gushed forth from the rock, and the crisis was averted. The people drank, the children drank, the flocks drank. There was water for cooking. There was water for bathing. There was water enough for all.
I like to think that those elders, who watched the water spring forth, never forgot that moment. When times were tough and disaster loomed, they took a deep breath and nipped their catastrophic thinking in the bud. They remembered the goodness of God. Then, they turned to their anxious people, and pointed to the presence of God, who brings water in the desert. May we, who have witnessed the goodness of God, do the same.
Julianna Claasens. “Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7” in Preaching This Week, March 23, 2014. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Anathea Portier-Young. “Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7” in Preaching This Week, October 1, 2017. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Callie Plunkett-Brewton. “Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7” in Preaching This Week, September 28, 2014. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Ron Carucci. “Stress Leads to Bad Decisions” in The Harvard Business Review, August 29, 2017.
Ron Breazeale. “Catastrophic Thinking” in Psychology Today, March 25, 2011. Accessed online at http://www.psychologytoday.com.
17 From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 The people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3 But the people thirsted there for water, and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” 4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do for this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile and go. 6 I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”