I recently watched Lawrence of Arabia in its entirety: I had only seen bits and pieces before. (It clocks in at 3 and a half hours.) It’s a great movie, and I could give a summary of the plot, but I want to focus on one aspect of the voyage to Aqaba. It was occupied by the Ottoman Turks during World War 1. It had a strategic position on the Red Sea coast. Aqaba was primarily defended against a naval invasion, since approaches from the desert were thought to be too hazardous.
Nonetheless, that’s the route T. E. Lawrence and his Bedouin allies took. I have never made a desert trek, let alone one as grueling as through the deserts of Arabia. Clearly, the most important commodity is water. I recall the scenes of the burning sun and frightening heat, the whipping wind of the sandstorms, and the camels laboring in that oven.
There is another desert trek that comes to mind, and it involves Moses and the children of Israel, having fled the slavery of Egypt. They have been in the wilderness for three days, without finding water—at least, not water fit to drink. Exodus 15 tells us of the people’s grumbling. I think “grumbling” would be putting it lightly!
Imagine three days without water. Imagine their thirst and the thirst of their animals. When they do come upon water, it is useless. It is bitter, so they named the place Marah, meaning “bitter.” Moses finds a tree with curative properties, after some prompting by the Lord. It is used to render the water clean, potable. Theologians, scientists, and madmen have weighed in on the nature of this plant. Ultimately, its power flows from the obedience of Moses to the Lord’s direction.
“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” (v. 26).
I am the Lord your healer. I am Yahweh Rapha (רָפָא). Listen to my voice because I am the Lord who heals you. The foul, bitter water is healed.
So they are indeed on this trek into the desert, into the wilderness. The Hebrew word for “wilderness” is מִדְבָּר (midbar). It has a secondary meaning of “mouth,” as used in speaking, as opposed to eating or breathing. God is speaking to them in the wilderness. Do they have the ears to hear? What about us? Do we have the ears to hear?
However, the Israelites are moving their mouths. They are grumbling; they are raising Cain! Still, as we saw, it is difficult to blame them. Thirst can have one doing things one would not ordinarily do.
Quickly looking ahead, in chapter 16, the problem is hunger. The Lord provides quail and manna. The Lord is their provider. In chapter 17, the multitude again faces lack of water. Moses cries out that they’re ready to stone him. The Lord has him get a big stick and give the stone a good whack. Water comes surging out.
(Don’t say God lacks a wonderful sense of humor.)
The biblical month of Iyar began at sundown on Friday. Iyar is the second month on the calendar. It has a focus on healing. It is also a month of transition. In the case of Moses and the people of Israel, it is a transition from slavery to freedom, from the diseases in Egypt to healing in the wilderness.
What transitions are we in need of? What healings are we in need of? Are we willing to receive them?
Speaking of willingness to receive, John tells us the story of Jesus at the pool of Beth-zatha, or Bethesda. We will see that water and healing are, once more, again linked.
Banu and I have been watching the tv show, The Chosen. It is a series about Jesus and the people who met him. It is very well done. Not to give offense, but many Christian movies have one-dimensional story lines and bad acting.
Season 2, episode 4 is called “The Perfect Opportunity.” It begins with a scene of a little boy running to climb a tree. However, a branch snaps and he falls to the ground and is left paralyzed. He has to be carried wherever he goes. Jumping ahead, his mother dies while giving birth to his little brother. We see the boys as they grow up. The older brother is identified as Jesse.
As young men, they come upon a Roman soldier beating and kicking the crap out of a Jewish man. You can see the hatred in the younger brother’s eyes.
The lame brother winds up at a pool surrounded by others in need of healing. The younger brother takes his anger at the Roman occupiers and joins a group where he receives military training. Again, we see the two as they age. Jesse is never able to get in the pool, which periodically bubbles up. The water is said to have healing properties. It was likely an underground spring. As time goes by, his hair gets more and more disheveled, and his clothes get grungier and grungier. His hair starts turning gray.
It turns out the younger brother is Simon the Zealot. Of course, the scriptures don’t say the two are brothers, but the creative imagining works well in the episode’s plot.
Now, back to the gospel!
Jesus visits the pool and sees the man, as we’re told, who has been ill for thirty-eight years. Verse 4 is left out of many translations since it’s often considered to have been added later. Here it is following verse 3: “many ill, blind, lame, and paralyzed people [lay] waiting for the stirring of the water, for an angel of the Lord went down from time to time into the pool and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had.”
Jesus sees the man, knowing he’s been there for a long time. I don’t imagine Jesus needs any special insight. Just looking at the poor fellow speaks volumes!
Now, back to the idea of willingness to receive, Jesus puts the question to him, “Do you want to be made well?” (v. 6). Do you want to be healed? He doesn’t exactly answer the question. Rather, he laments that he’s never been able to get to the water in time. No one helps him. Jesus doesn’t use any special medicine; he doesn’t wave a magic wand; he doesn’t utter any exceptional words. He just tells the guy to get up, pick up your bed, and go for a walk.
Returning to the episode of The Chosen, long ago Simon wrote a letter to Jesse saying if he ever stood on two legs, that would mean Messiah has come. Simon is with a hit squad to assassinate a Roman magistrate. Just as the signal is given, Simon sees Jesse walking around. He abandons his life with the Zealots—he knows Messiah has come. He casts in his lot with this wandering rabbi, Jesus.
This is the month of Iyar. There is healing. There is transition. The children of Israel had healing. They had transition. The lame man had healing. He had transition. Simon the Zealot had healing. He had transition. He was healed of his violence. He had transition to following Jesus.
I asked before, “What transitions are we in need of? What healings are we in need of? Are we willing to receive them?”
Over these three past years, I’ve had a bit of transition and healing. Please forgive me; I know some of my comments might be hard to hear.
When Covid started, I supported the lockdowns. I can’t say I didn’t have greatly mixed feelings about being told we couldn’t worship together in person. Still, I was reluctantly okay with casting a wide net, even knowing the devastating effect it would have on small local businesses.
We weren’t allowed to touch each other; in fact, we had to maintain a distance of at least six feet. I will confess that when a friend of ours feared she might have locked her mom’s keys in her car, I reflexively put my arm around her shoulders to console her. (As it turned out, it was a false alarm. The keys were quickly found!)
Children, when finally allowed to attend school, in many places found themselves behind plexiglass walls, aside from falling miserably behind in their studies.
And I won’t get started on the vaccines.
So, I feel like I’ve had my own transition and healing. I’ve had my own taste of that fresh, flowing water.
After the incident at Marah, when the Israelites finally had fresh water, we are told, “Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they camped there by the water” (v. 27). They arrived at an oasis, which relatively speaking would have been small, considering the large number of travelers. Twelve springs wouldn’t have produced an abundance of water, but it seems to have been enough.
That seems to be the way God deals with us. We usually have just enough. In chapter 16, when God provides the quail and manna, the people are warned against keeping some manna until morning. They are either greedy or afraid God won’t take care of them. Whatever the case, the manna rots and is infested with worms and maggots.
We have just enough, and indeed much more than enough, when we come to Christ—when we approach him for the water that is always fresh and never runs dry. As it says, “On the last day of the [Feast of Tabernacles], the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (Jn 7:37-38).
Jesus says to us, “Come to me and drink, and I will give you life.”