“Is the Lord in our midst or not?”
The grumbling in Exodus 17, summarized by this question, exemplifies the relationship between God and Israel in the forty years of wandering in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. The people complain that they are hungry; the Lord provides manna. They complain that they’re still hungry; he provides quail. They complain that they are thirsty: he provides water.
But it’s the tone of the complaint that gets the spotlight. It’s not just that the Israelites have to confront basic questions about their physical needs. It’s that every single need, rather than being another opportunity to call on God and trust in his provision, seems to throw them into an existential crisis. Is the Lord in our midst or not?
Almost right after they cross the sea, in a dramatic show of God’s power, the Israelites turn to one another and say, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exod. 16:3).
It is a complicated relationship—at least on the people side.
It’s here, after the Exodus, that we see perhaps most clearly the meaning of that strange name, “Israel,” which is given to the patriarch Jacob—“he who strives with God.” The wrestling back in Genesis 32 was more physical. Here it’s more spiritual and emotional. Given this deeply personal conflict, it should come as no surprise that God’s relationship with Israel is consistently described as familial. He is not merely the God of a nation in some abstract association. He is the father, and Israel is the son. As he says, through the mouth of Moses to Pharaoh, “let my son go that he may serve me” (Exod. 4:23 et al.).
Some time later, the Lord will echo this same language in the prophet Hosea: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (11:1). But in that same prophet’s book, Israel is also compared quite directly to an unfaithful wife. And this is the other great relational theme of the Old Testament, portrayed in a crescendo to the Song of Songs, where God’s people—or in later imagination, the individual soul—are seen as a bride in the ecstatic embrace of her husband.
“Is the Lord in our midst or not?”
In light of these familial images, the question comes across as that of an angry child or an estranged spouse. But the prophets also reverse the question often, asking Israel, Are you a part of this covenantal relationship or not?
That question is particularly acute in Samaria, where we see Jesus in John 4. The Samaritans had, over the course of the dissolution of the northern kingdom, intermingled with various other cultures and religions, ending up with a kind of syncretistic approach to Jewish faith. By the first century A.D., they had largely abandoned that syncretism for a more superficial faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—note that the well in John 4 is Jacob’s well. They claim to worship the one true God, but they do not follow the laws of the covenant. John Bergsma suggests that this must look a bit like someone living as if they were married when they’re not actually married. So in a way, the Samaritan woman and her complicated marriage situation are a sign of the Samaritan people as a whole. Here, at the well, the bridegroom of Israel has come back in person to restore the relationship.
Until we get to the conversation about the woman’s marriage, or lack thereof, modern readers may not know that this scene has much to do with marriage. But for anyone familiar with the Old Testament, the scene is immediately resonant with nuptial connotations. Jesus meets the woman at the well. Three of the great patriarchs—Isaac, Jacob, and Moses—met their future wives at a well. So right from the beginning of this scene, we hear metaphorical wedding bells ringing in the background.
According to St. Augustine, “the woman here is the type of the Church, not yet justified, but just about to be” (Tractates on John, 15, 10). Like the nations represented by the Samaritans, she is no model of fidelity. But in a sense, she also represents for the Fathers the ultimate inadequacy of the patriarchs to bring people into relationship with God. Her five husbands represent the five books of Moses, the Torah, which are shadowy and in some sense incomplete until the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. She, like the nations, and like the Jews themselves, thinks in terms of physical water. We want, in other words, God to supply our needs. We think water and food and other material things are all we really need. But no, Jesus suggests—what you really need is the living water, which only I can give. The waters of this world are all, like the waters at Meribah and Massah, unable to quench the true thirst at the heart of human nature, the thirst for God himself.
“Is the Lord in our midst or not?” Now, in Christ, he definitely is. And he gives us not just carnal bread and meat and water, but his own body and blood, soul and divinity.
You see, Israel, as the chosen nation, was always the representative of humanity. Israel was a “kingdom of priests” precisely to recall humanity to itself. The human vocation is ultimately supernatural. Our purpose and meaning for existence is not merely to go from day to day and survive, or to provide for the survival of our descendants, or to make the world a better place, or even to be happy; our calling is to worship God in friendship and love. Our calling is a marriage, actually—it is why, as Jesus insists, marriage in this life really does end at death, because it exists as a preparation and a sign of our final vocation in heaven.
The living water that Jesus speaks of is of course baptism, which we might think of as our betrothal to Christ. It is what marks us as belonging to him. But the water is also the Holy Spirit who has been given to us in baptism and in confirmation. So while there’s a future promise, in another way, the marriage has already begun. And the question for us is whether we will be faithful to the vows we have made—of leaving our old house of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and cleaving to Christ our spouse—or whether we will run around forgetting the God who loves us and gave himself for us that we might live.