Miriam’s well. Maybe you know the legend. Wherever Miriam, the sister of Moses goes, a miraculous well appears. This story is so well known in Jewish circles, that we are now convinced it is in the Torah itself.
How does Miriam do it? Maybe she understands how waters flow. Reaches past what she knows for sure. Feels along with others and helps them find what they need, too.
Here is a video (8 minutes) of me introducing the legend to a Christian audience.
If you prefer reading to watching, the text is below!
WHEN THE WATER RUNS OUT
The story of Miriam’s well is a story about migrating in hard circumstances.
Here is 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. (It happens in the next verse!) 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.
Originally prepared as a sermon for Canadian Memorial United Church.