Different biblical authors often look at the same biblical event in different ways, ways shaped by what's going on in their communities when they write.
No event in the Hebrew Scriptures is more important than the Exodus: It transforms a group of Hebrew slaves into Yahweh's Chosen People.
One of our earliest biblical prophets, Hosea, regarded the Exodus and the subsequent wilderness experience as a honeymoon adventure between Yahweh and the Israelites. But the author of the Torah (Scripture's first five books) looked upon this period as a time of constant testing, a probing of the faith in every Israelite's heart.
They failed the test.
"In those days," the first reading begins, "in their thirst for water, the people grumbled against Moses, saying, `Why did you even make us leave Egypt? Was it just to have us die here of thirst with our children and our livestock?'"
The reason the writer focuses on the "dark side" of this most significant event springs from noticing people's reaction to Yahweh at the time of writing the narratives (Ex 17: 3-7). Many are grumbling, complaining and griping about how they feel God is treating them.
Yet, at the same time, they talk in envious terms about their ancestors' experiences of Yahweh during the Exodus: "If only we had been one of those fortunate people who accompanied Moses through the wilderness, those who actually saw Yahweh working in their lives. We rarely experience God today."
In the distinctive Exodus theology, the author tells readers, "Had you been along on the Exodus, you would have griped as much about Yahweh as you do today." That seems to be why the passage ends with the haunting question, "Is Yahweh in our midst or not?"
Biblical authors aren't historians in our sense. They're simply perceptive observers of their faith environments who narrate past events as a way to help people understand their present experiences.
John employs the same technique in the Gospel (Jn 4: 5-42). He's less interested in telling his community about a Samaritan woman's faith experience than in helping his readers reflect on their faith experience 60 years after Jesus died. John believes his church should be pondering what it means to have Jesus as the life-giving force in their everyday lives.
John's Jesus also offers water. "But, whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst;...(it) shall become a spring of water in them welling up to eternal life."
John is more concerned with reminding us of what Jesus is doing today than in telling us what Jesus did 2,000 years ago. In this theology, we're to look at this event through the eyes of the thirsty woman, the hungry disciples and the amazed townsfolk. John directs Jesus' words to us, not them.
In the midst of our complaining about God working or not working our lives, we can never forget what Paul tells the Christian community in Rome (Rom 5: 1-2, 5-8): "We have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." We know this because we believe in the central truth of our faith: "God proves His love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
Perhaps people should still be composing Scripture for our communities today, helping the faithful of the 21st century understand how "God is in our midst." But before we hire someone to do that, we'd best understand how our original biblical authors "did that."