Miriam’s well. Maybe you know the legend. Wherever Miriam, the sister of Moses went, a miraculous well appeared. This story is so well known in Jewish circles, that we are now convinced that it is in the Torah, in the Bible itself. So, let me introduce you, in a roundabout way, to the story of Miriam’s well.
Immigration is never easy
Transitions are hard, even in the best of circumstances. Twenty years ago, I moved to Vancouver with my husband and our young children—in the best of circumstances. We came from the east coast of the United States. So, we spoke English. We were embraced by a spiritual community. They found us a place to live. There was also a job waiting for me, though my husband was unemployed.
Financially, materially, we had some challenges. We had half the money we needed to live. So, we didn’t eat well, and I asked for financial aid wherever I could. But these challenges got easier after my husband found professional work.
Spiritually, I had some challenges, too. I felt uprooted, lost, disoriented. As a pastoral caregiver, I had to travel all around the lower mainland. But I did not know where anything was or how long it would take to get there. The unfamiliar trees and plants made every route look strange. I did not know the smells of the seasons, or have shoes for the wet weather. At night I longed to hear familiar sounds: hooting owls, chirping crickets, buzzing cicadas. But they aren’t here, and I couldn’t sleep without their lullabies.
My children went to school, and they made friends easily. But I couldn’t understand the memos that the school sent home. They all referred to events and processes mysterious to me. So, I worried that I did not know how to be a parent in this new country. And then, when my mother died, I felt so alone. No one here knew her; no one could grieve with me. It took me five years to understand that my own life didn’t die with her.
And I was an immigrant under the best of circumstances. My heart goes out to those who migrate in the hardest of circumstances.
When the water runs out
The story of Miriam’s well is a story about migrating in hard circumstances.
Today we read one version of it, from Exodus (17:1-7). The Israelites escape enslavement in Egypt. Then, they camp in the Sinai wilderness. You might think they do not need to be afraid. They’ve seen miracles. They have each other. And they also have flocks, so they can spin clothing, drink milk, and eat meat.
But they are migrants in an unfamiliar place and they are afraid. The Israelites don’t know which plants they can eat or how to find water. They don’t know where they are going, or whether their children will have a future. But they do know that raiders are lying in wait to attack them. And they know that they are exhausted.
So they melt down. They quarrel, and they complain. Moses melts down, too. And he complains to God. So, God steps in, and tells Moses how to find water. “See this special rock? Hit it, and water will flow.” Water does flow. And then the national tantrum ends.
The legend of Miriam’s well
There’s another version of this same story in the book of Numbers (20:1-13). Here, Miriam dies. Suddenly, there is no water. People melt down. They worry they might die, too. So they quarrel, and they complain to Moses and Aaron.
So, God appears. God tells Moses to hold the magic staff and speak to a rock. But Moses is melting down, too. After all, his sister just died. So, he yells back at the people and hits the rock. God says, “Moses, that’s uncalled for; you and Aaron are not qualified to lead the people on the next leg of their journey.”
This is the origin of the legend of Miriam’s well. As long as Miriam is around, the people have water. But without Miriam, the people are thirsty. Because wherever Miriam goes, a miraculous well appears.
Miriam’s well of water and spirit
Why else would Miriam be near water in almost all her stories? In one story, Miriam waits by the Nile River to make sure her brother Moses is safely adopted. In another story, Miriam stands at the shore of the Red Sea, leading people in song and dance.
Maybe Miriam loves water. Maybe she watches the way it flows through different landscapes. She learns to read soil and plant and animal life for clues about water. Maybe she is not confused in new landscapes; she lets the wisdom of water lead her. So, she finds water for the Israelites at every campsite.
But Miriam’s well is also a spiritual source (Shapiro, Esh Kodesh). Miriam seems to understand people in a way her brother Moses does not. With empathy, she feels people’s needs. And with music, she also speaks to those needs. Maybe that’s what happens by the Red Sea. After the miraculous crossing, people crash—emotionally. Their narrow escape exhausts them. The sight of dead Egyptian soldiers in the water shocks them. Their mixed emotions overwhelm them. So Miriam sings to them, and invites them into a healing dance. No wonder the people melt down when Miriam dies. Without her spiritual wisdom, they feel lost.
Miriam’s well at twilight
The Talmud, the big book of Jewish law and lore, tells us more about Miriam’s well. God creates it “on the eve of the [first] Shabbat, at twilight” (Pirkei Avot 5:6). Just as the sixth day of creation is ending, as light blends into dark, and work gives way to rest, God sneaks in a few wondrous creatures. Maybe they are outside the natural order. But they are also part of God’s creation.
Sometimes, transitions push us into the twilight regions of our consciousness. To the edges of what we thought we could know, or do, or endure. Sometimes, we melt down. But then we learn, we act, we move forwards. At those times, I like to imagine that our ancestor Miriam is travelling with us, filling our cups from her miraculous well.
To all the extraordinary spiritual communities who serve up Miriam’s water of material and spiritual support: May the Holy One establish the work of your hands (Psalm 90:17). Amen.
Originally prepared as a sermon for Canadian Memorial United Church.