Whom Shall We Blame?


A sermon preached on February 24, 2008 based upon Exodus 17:1 – 7, and John 4: 5 – 26, entitled, “Whom Shall We Blame?”

Out there in the wilderness, the Israelites found themselves with a major problem. Not the problem of where would they find water; the problem I have in mind was the fact that they now had no one to blame.

For years and years they had a very easy answer to the question: who can we blame? Pharaoh, of course, was to blame for our misery; he who has oppressed us, kept us slaves, worked us to the bone, kept us from being free. And there was plenty of truth in that statement. He was one very cruel overlord, that’s for sure.

And then a funny thing happened. This guy Moses shows up. He is one of them, but not quite one of them. Moses seems to see their plight differently from the way they see things, and he goes toe to toe with Pharaoh. Standing behind Moses is this strange and powerful God, and before they know it, Moses and his God have worked out this deal with Pharaoh whereby they are free to leave Egypt.

So the Israelites up and proceed to leave, and when Pharaoh tries to renege on their deal, the mighty hand of God parts the red sea so they can pass through. Pharaoh’s armies get drowned. They find themselves liberated from their bondage to Pharaoh, without having to hardly lift a finger, Moses and God having done all the heavy lifting.

Now they’re out in the wilderness, which isn’t the easiest place to live. And who do they blame now, especially when food is in short supply, or worse, they can’t find any water to drink?

Well the answer comes quick enough to them: Moses, and his God, that’s who we’ll blame! This new answer requires a sudden re-writing of their history, one in which Pharaoh wasn’t such a bad guy, and Egypt was the lost land of the three square meals a day. Now Moses and his God are no longer the “liberators”; rather, they are the sadists with the perverse desire to watch the Israelites suffer, having brought them out here into the wilderness to starve and thirst to death.


We are the Israelites. There is a whiner in us all.

I often mention the “serenity prayer” with its simple wisdom about life: Lord,
Grant me the serenity to accept that which I cannot change, the courage to change that which I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

When the whiner takes over, we’re not interested in serenity, nor in courage; all we’re interested in is whining about that which we cannot change.

Jeannette Nickelson used to say, “Give yourself 15 minutes for your pity party, and then put it up on the shelf.” Well, it is possible to get so attached to the perverse pleasures of the pity party, that we simply refuse to leave.

Why did the Israelites wander for 40 whole years in the wilderness? They didn’t have to; the promised land wasn’t that far away. Unfortunately, it took them that long to leave the pity party. It took them that long to learn the lessons of the wilderness: that blaming does no good, and that somewhere along the way you have to grow up and stop the whining and take responsibility for your life.

One of the primary stories we are invited to contemplate during the season Lent is that of the 40 days Jesus spent out in the wilderness. A running theme in the temptations that Jesus turned down were that they were all means by which Jesus could have simply taken away all our freedom and responsibility.

Are there hungry people about who need to be fed? No need to share, Jesus will turn stones into bread. Are we having a hard time believing in Jesus, putting our trust in him, and following in his way? No problem, Jesus will jump off the pinnacle of the temple and we can all marvel at the sight of the angels catching him; who could possibly have a problem believing in him after having seen such a thing? Are there people who are misbehaving? Don‘t worry, Jesus will simply take over all the kingdoms and armies and police forces of the world and MAKE everybody behave they way they should.

The great Russian writer Dostoevsky, in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, includes a short story written by one of his characters entitled “The Grand Inquisitor.” Set in the Middle Ages during the time of the Inquisition in which non-believers were burned at the stake, Jesus suddenly returns, walking humbly through a village where a funeral procession is taking place. Laying his hand upon the corpse, he brings a mother’s son back to life, amazing the crowd. The ruling cleric, a Cardinal referred to as the Grand Inquisitor, witnesses the scene, and immediately has his soldiers arrest Jesus.

The following day the Grand Inquisitor visits his prisoner in his jail cell. Jesus never speaks. The Grand Inquisitor does all the talking. He tells Jesus how he made a grave mistake when he didn’t accept the offers made to him by the devil in the wilderness. “The one things human beings can’t bear,” he declares, “is freedom.”

He goes on to say, “We, the Church, have corrected your great error. We have taken away the people’s freedom, which they have been all too happy to hand over to us.”
So the question that is thrown back on us each of us: who was right, the Grand Inquisitor, or Jesus?

One of the insights that have come out of AA and support group at its side called Alanon for the family members of alcoholics, is that oftentimes the family members need the alcoholic to drink.

As much misery as the family member’s drinking causes to the family, it nonetheless provides a convenient answer to the question the Israelites dealt with out in the wilderness: Whom shall I blame?

Oh, how wonderful my life would be if it weren’t for his drinking, her drinking.

If however, they were to actually stop drinking, then I would be forced to take responsibility for building that wonderful life, and I’d have to ontend with my own inner garbage that would thwart my wonderful life. Better to have them continue to drink so I can enjoy my fantasy without the responsibility.

And so it is not uncommon to find family members conspiring to sabotage the recovery of the alcoholic — and the most common way to do this is to not actually hold the alcoholic responsible for their actions — in order that the family members can maintain their posture of whining.

Victor Frankl was Jewish psychiatrist who ended up in a Nazi prison camp.
With every worldly possession and privilege taken from him, he realized that the one thing that the Nazis could not take from him was his freedom to choose his own attitude to the horrific set of circumstances in which he found himself. Frankl was determined not to abandon this most basic of freedoms. Embracing the responsibility of this freedom, he triumphed spiritually over his oppression.

The same responsibility is ours, as we find ourselves in, generally speaking, far less oppressive situations.

So Jesus had to cross through Samaria. Now there was an ancient history of blaming that took place between the Jews and the Samaritans. Six hundred years earlier, Israel was conquered by the Babylonians, and many of the people were taken to live as exiles in Babylon.

It was a humiliating defeat for the people, and as time passed, they sought someone to blame for this humiliation.

When the exile was over, the blame was placed upon those Jews who had married “foreigners”. It was those backsliding Jews with their evil relationships with foreigners that caused our nation’s humiliation and misery.

The Samaritans were the descendents of those marriages between Jews and foreigners.

Jesus, a Jew, sits beside an ancient well in the noon day heat. A Samaritan woman comes to draw water. She is there at noonday when the other women of the village would have come early in the day when the heat was not so oppressive.

Evidently there is another level of hostility between this woman and her own people that leads her to come to the well alone. Amazingly, Jesus breaks through all these barriers of blame and shame, and relates directly to the woman as a human being.

She is taken aback, suspicious, as past experience teachers her she has good reason to be. Jesus is intent on blessing this woman, but there is a lot of resistance he has to get through to offer this blessing.

The woman clings to her whiner posture. She complains about various things, including the fact that she has to come to his damn well every day to fetch water.

Eventually Jesus confronts her with the facts of her broken life, not by way of condemning her, or humiliating her, but by way of getting her to take some responsibility for the misery of her life.

She tries to distract Jesus with a discussion regarding the different religious traditions of the Jews and the Samaritans. “Religion is so confusing, isn‘t it? You Jews say you’ve got to go all the way to the temple to worship God. We Samaritans say you’ve got to go up on the holy mountain to worship.”

“Listen, woman, you don’t have to go anywhere to experience God’s love for you. God is here, right now, waiting in the depths of your thirsty soul, a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

Something happened to that woman in her encounter with that mysterious stranger beside the well.

She dropped her bucket, and feeling powerful in a way she hadn’t felt in a long, long time, she ran back to the center of her village to the very people with whom she’d been caught up in an endless blame game.

“I met a man who showed me what it means to be truly free. Could he be the messiah?”

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