THE PEOPLE who put their money in those failed Maryland savings and loan associations deserve much sympathy. Attracted by those sky-high interest rates, they were running risks that they did not understand. Some of those depositors now need their money badly, but it's impounded. The meeting of Community S&L's former customers the other night in Greenbelt was a sign of rising impatience and anxiety. The depositors have a point: the state has taken over the insurance of their money and the legal liability to see that they are paid -- but it isn't paying.

Theoretically, the best solution would be a state loan to pay off the depositors immediately while the affairs of the bankrupt S&Ls are slowly settled. But the state is in a dilemma. The amounts of money involved are too great. State officals point out that the deposits of two of these S&Ls alone -- Old Court and Community -- add up to nearly $1 billion. Deposits in those and two others are frozen; 18 more state-insured S&Ls are under rules limiting withdrawals from each account to $1,000 a month. The Maryland Legislature, as these officials argue, would be most unlikely to authorize a bond issue large enough to cover all these institutions' deposits. The impact on the state's credit would not be trivial.

If the best solution is foreclosed by the amounts of money required, the new Maryland Deposit Insurance Fund will have to work with second-best possibilities. That requires the depositors to wait until the failed S&Ls can be either merged or liquidated. That process is coming along reasonably well, given the complexity of the job.

Of the four S&Ls whose deposits are frozen, two -- First Maryland and Merritt Commercial -- are probably going to be taken over by New York banks that want to enter Maryland. A third, Community, may be handled the same way after its affairs are disentangled from those of EPIC, its high-flying real estate subsidiary that crashed. The fourth, Old Court, appears to be headed toward liquidation.

As for the 18 S&Ls now permitting limited withdrawals, some and perhaps most will be able to qualify for federal deposit insurance. When they enter the federal system, the withdrawal limits will be lifted. As time passes, the state may well succeed in working the claims on its insurance fund down to an amount that it considers manageable -- and, at that point, pay them off. But it won't be as soon as either the depositors or the harried state officials would like.

There are a couple of clear lessons here. For the state, the lesson is that it ought not to try to insure financial institutions at all. Its resources are inadequate to meet a crisis. For the depositors, it's a warning to be wary of offers of unusually high interest. They may be signs of danger.