The question at the end of the first reading (Ex 17:3-7) sets Sunday's theme. God's followers ask it daily: "Is Yahweh is our midst or not?"
No one has ever accused the author of the Torah's Yahwistic source of "triumphalism." The Yahwistic portions of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy were composed by a very sensitive writer, someone who conveyed the significance of the Exodus in words we can't forget. But alongside the glory, the author consistently emphasizes the Chosen People's lack of faith.
In those narratives, the Jews who experience the plagues, the miraculous crossing of the sea, and the daily signs of Yahweh's care and concern in the wilderness never quite understand the significance of what's happening. Often, they look at these wonderful events through out-of- focus eyes. Immediate, personal problems obscure their view of the whole incredible picture.
Where is God? The immediate problem in the reading is thirst. "Why did you ever make us leave Egypt?" they ask Moses. "Was it just to have us die here of thirst with our children and our livestock?" In other words, "We know Yahweh was in our midst when we left Egypt and crossed the sea. But Yahweh's obviously not here now!" though God instructs Moses to produce water from a rock to quench the people's thirst, not even that action seems completely to remove the fear that Yahweh has deserted them. Our Sacred Authors remind us that only faith can see us through our dreaded periods of thirst, those times in which we doubt God's presence.
This conviction forces followers of Jesus to constantly work on grounding their faith on the fundamental belief that Jesus is always with them, no matter the situation, no matter their state of soul. Those who insist that God's presence is conditional have never read Paul's letter to the Romans (Rom 5:1-2, 5-8). Either they don't know or have conveniently forgotten one of Paul's most basic insights: Jesus' disciples can do nothing to prepare themselves for Jesus working in their lives. "It is precisely in this that God proves His love for us," Paul writes, "that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
The Apostle reminds the community in Rome of this elemental Christian truth only because they, like the Israelites in the wilderness, are tempted daily to doubt God's loving presence. Paul argues that there's no basis for such doubts. If Jesus died for them before they were His followers, why would He desert them now that they've become His followers now "that the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us"?
God is here John's same faith in Jesus' caring presence inspired him to compose the well-known narrative of the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4:5-42). he deliberately reminds his readers that one of the "dogmas" dividing "heretical" Samaritans from mainstream Jews was their belief about the geographical places in which Jesus, "worshiped on this mountain, but you people claim that the place to worship is in Jerusalem." Jesus responds in the same way all His followers should respond when God's presence is in question: "An hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem;...authentic worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth." Meanwhile, according to John, those horrible periods of thirst which we remember from our first reading should now be in the past. Jesus proclaims, "whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life." In other words, "You don't have to go outside your belief in me to find me." but we all know those traditional dry periods aren't completely in the past. they continue to be part of our daily lives. Perhaps the only effective way to deal with out doubts is remind ourselves that Jesus' love is so completely unconditional that His presence doesn't depend on our conviction that He's actually with us.