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. 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?”
We are now in the third week of Lent, a season that commemorates Jesus’ forty days in the desert wilderness. It was a hinge event in the timeline of his life, a liminal transition space, a solitary gateway of passage that immediately preceded his years of public ministry.
The geography of “desert” and the duration of “forty” bears unmistakable spiritual connection to the forty years the Hebrew people spent in the wilderness after their liberation from Egypt. The ancient location name “Sin” in this week’s lectionary text refers either to “clay” or “thorny” (rather than English meaning of “transgressions”). It evokes images of parched soil where only the toughest, prickery, stickery brambles manage to eke out life – and by their own stubborn force of nastiness, ward off any critter seeking nourishment.
We also recognize Jesus’ desert sojourn as foreshadowing his journey to the cross – which culminated in another sort of desolation. Amid the Jerusalem crowds, all would abandon him. As he cried out in his last lament of forsakenness, his head was crowned with thorny desert vines.
This week’s scripture yanks us out of idyllic notions that wilderness space always provides delight for the soul. We hear that Jesus sometimes withdrew to solitary places. We figure if we do the same, we will be rejuvenated! A little breather and we’ll perk up. Yes it works that way sometimes, like it should. Like the freed slaves of Egypt should have been perky, now with a breather after 400 years.
Instead, open space often exposes all that is thorny, fearful, and troublesome. It surfaces ugly shadows of desire. For the people of the Exodus, quarrels and panicky demands quickly erupted out of their hunger, thirst, and fears for the future. Trust in God’s abundance and guidance evaporated in the desert glare.
So maybe we have finally taken a personal retreat. Or experienced new freedom from a stressful grind; for instance, a transition from school to work. Or on a social level, an organization or community may find itself in “in-between” space. Here in the open, where we expected to be led to green pastures beside still waters, there seems to be nothing but clay and thorns. Even taking ten minutes of quiet prayer and reflection, we may find our thoughts clamoring and demanding rather than at peace.
In these spaces we may undergo what the medieval mystics called spiritual purgation. Like physical purgation, which ain’t pretty and clogs the toilet, spiritual purgation is a messy process of disgorging false urges and identities. It is a cleansing and clarifying of the true identity into which we are being called and into which we are being formed. The Exodus wanderers were exposed, and so are we.
Our Lord and brother Jesus has gone before us even into this geography. Here in a place of clay, among thorns, Jesus underwent strenuous formation for his mission. Exposed to the natural elements and deprived of basic needs, he was especially vulnerable to the haunting and taunting voices that preyed on his deepest sources of desire.
Exposure to the extremes of the desert was an essential part of Jesus’ journey, as it was in the epic history of God’s people in the scrolls from which he read. Sooner or later, the desert will be an essential part of our journey, too.