This blog provides a meditation on the Episcopal daily readings along with a headline from world news:
Shuttle Discovery on last journey
Bitter Water Made Sweet
22 Then Moses ordered Israel to set out from the Red Sea,* and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went for three days in the wilderness and found no water.23When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter. That is why it was called Marah.*24And the people complained against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’25He cried out to the Lord; and the Lord showed him a plant* he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.
There the Lord * made for them a statute and an ordinance and there he put them to the test.26He said, ‘If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you.’
27 Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees; and they camped there by the water.
The story of the desert wandering of Israel, which doesn’t exist in the earliest account of the exodus (see bible blog 713), is a mighty narrative about how a free people can become truly free, culminating in the Sinai covenant. True freedom is won neither instantaneously nor once and for all: it has to be learned again and again, through the rigorous teaching of God.
One of the first lessons is that free people have to stand on their own feet: slaves may be provided with food and drink but free people have to learn the arts of survival. God won’t treat them like slaves or children: they must learn how to live in the world as it is. In this case, as in other instances of God’s rescue in the desert, we are not dealing with miracle but the use of an ancient desert skill-there is a cactus which absorbs the salt in brackish water-to satisfy an elemental need. The Lord, ever ready to teach his people, takes the chance to tell them that his commandments are like sweet water. Indeed he, the God who heals, is himself like life-giving water. The image of the people camped beside an oasis of12 springs and 70 palm trees emphasises physical and spiritual refreshment.
For the Christian reader there is no great distance between this passage and the “water of life” stories in John’s Gospel, the woman at the well and the crippled man at the pool. Cultures that know the desert have given to the world their sense of the necessity and goodness of water. Parts of the UK are presently suffering from drought and citizens are complaining that they are not allowed to use hosepipes to water their lawns or wash their cars. They have forgotten that living in the world means learning to find and preserve the gift of water. The San peoples of the Kalahari desert know thousands of ways of finding water where the appears to be none. Christian Aid continually reminds the churches of the need to fund the building of wells in places where women have to walk 30 miles a day to collect water from polluted sources. Water is precious.
But so also are the arts of true worship, justice and kindness by which a people can maintain genuine freedom for all its members. Learning to refuse idolatry, injustice and cruelty is as necessary to life as clean drinking water. The witness of the book of Exodus is that God is just as much the source of these arts as he is of flowing water, but in both cases human beings have to find and share his gifts.
Jesus the True Vine
15‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower.2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes* to make it bear more fruit.3You have already been cleansed* by the word that I have spoken to you.4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become* my disciples.9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
Here is another instance of John’s use of an elemental symbol frm Israel’s tradition. In the Jewish bible, Israel is the vine planted by God to bear fruit. Those who belong to the poeple of Israel, share the life of the vine by obedience to the commandments and the enjoyment of the fruitful life which grows from them. The prophets, including Jesus, questioned whether the vine was at times yielding any fruit for God. John cuts through the cackle: Jesus God’s son is the true (real) vine planted and tended by God. Those who unite their lives to his by their love and obedience are incorporated in the true vine as naturally as branches in a tree. Indeed there is no vine without the branches. Jesus is the whole tree including roots, stem, braches leaves and fruit. This is a profound image of the shared life of Jesus and his disciples. Without him, they can do nothing. By his teaching, they are cleansed of disease and impurities. The language of mutual abiding expresses a belonging which endures over time and circumstance.
But perhaps the most moving moment in the passage is when Jesus abandons metphor and speaks the language of love: “As the father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you obey my commandments you will abide in my love just as I have obeyed my father’s commandments and abide in his love.” Loving obedience to the commandments of God is at the heart of Judaism and Christianity.
A daily discipline which reminds the believer that he/she is part of the true vine is desirable. I find that the writing of this daily blog does that for me. I’m sure many readers could give their own examples of such disciplines. But more important is the believer’s love of Jesus, knowledge of his teaching and daily refusal to depart from it.