Thirst

In 2015, Presbyterian Women/Horizon Association published a study, Come to the Waters, based upon the theme of water in the Bible.  Our congregation decided to complete the study over a nine-week period, and each Sunday I preached on the same text which the class was studying.  This sermon, the third in the series, was preached on June 28, 2015.

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When I was a little girl, I attended a small country elementary school several miles from home.  It was a very basic sort of school – a two-story yellow brick building set among cow pastures, with a very basic sort of playground.  On one side, for the younger kids: some gravel, some grass, some swing sets and slides.  On the other side, past that invisible line that divided third-graders from fourth-graders, more gravel, and a baseball diamond and a basketball blacktop  for the older kids.

And on each side, nested up against the building: one water fountain.  One water fountain for 100 children.  On those really hot days that sometimes envelop southern Ohio in late May, we often spent our entire 15-minute recess periods in line for the water fountain.  People didn’t carry water bottles in those days, classrooms weren’t air-conditioned, and the sun was merciless.  All we wanted at recess was a drink.

After last week’s brief veering off course, we are back to the topic of water, the subject of our summer Bible study.  You may recall that we started with the waters of creation: the tumultuous depths from which God created the whole world.  We moved on to the waters of baptism: the clear, cool waters from which God creates us anew, promising that we ourselves are being created and re-created by the love of God. This week, we are invited to think about thirst.

About that longing to quench dry mouths and throats that propels first-graders away from the swings and slides and into a long line in the sun.

About that frightened longing that the early Israelite people experienced when they found themselves in the desert, freed from slavery in Egypt but suddenly adrift in the sand, no source of water in sight.

About that terrible, anguished longing that Jesus knew from the cross, when, moments before he died, he managed to croak out the words, “I thirst.”

This week, we are invited to consider thirst, and I came up with a long list of things for which I know those among us thirst:

We thirst for racial justice and reconciliation, so evident in the last two weeks, post-Charleston church shooting.  I was at the Euclid Collaborative meeting on Thursday, a monthly gathering of folks who provide social services to our community, and our leader noted that, like the year of 1968, the year of 2015 seems to be one of those in which our struggles as a nation boil over. In 1968, the focus was Vietnam; this year, the focus is the tension between black and white, and between and among other racial and ethnic groups as well.  And we thirst, don’t we, for communication and cooperation and understanding and reconciliation and justice?

We thirst for health, for healing – from cancer, from diabetes, from heart disease, from depression, from surgeries, from all of the illnesses and disorders, physical and mental, that beset us.  I spent three days this work learning and working in Washington, D,C, for legislation and funding for mental health and suicide prevention.  Those of us touched by suicide all thirst for an end to the ever-increasing reach of its tentacles.  “A 20% decline in suicide rates by 2025” is our call for change – because we thirst.

We thirst for peace of mind.  We know grief, and we know financial woes, and family troubles, and neighborhood disagreements, and internal confusion and helplessness – and so we thirst for peace of mind, for that peace which passes understanding to fill our hearts.

We thirst for order.  Our things get messy – look at the spate of books and magazine articles and websites about de-cluttering, emptying, discarding, and creating order in our homes.  Sometimes we think that everything would be all right if only our families or friends or co-workers would just get into line – like those kids on the playground, waiting for a drink of water.  We thirst to see everything — material goods, emotions, relationships, governments – in place and in order.

We thirst for community.  We long to know and to be known, to be part of something greater than ourselves, and to be welcomed and accepted and loved.  We are deeply wounded when, despite the best efforts of others, we find ourselves in the outs with those with whom we thought we were in, and we want so much to find ourselves within that safe circle of friendship and caring again.

We thirst for self- expression, for self-actualization, if you want to use a jargon-y term.  We long to grow into the person we feel called to be, and to say what it is we see and experience and know.

We thirst for beauty.  We could spend months, or years, even, trying to define beauty, but I think we all sense what the poet John  Keats put into words: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever: its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.”[1]  We may each have our own opinion about what makes a beautiful body, or a beautiful spirit, or a beautiful landscape . . .  but whatever it is, we long for it.

And we thirst for safety and certainty, don’t we?  Just like those Israelites out in the wilderness, we want to feel safe, to feel assured of where we are and where we are going.

And what do we do when we thirst?

For one thing, we complain.  Like the Israelites, complaining that they had been led into a barren wasteland, led out of a place of slavery, sure – but their slave dwellings had been places with water and food.  We complain like Moses, too, complaining who whined that God had asked him to lead an unruly people whom he was afraid might kill him.   We, too, complain: Not enough of this.  Too much of that.  We are thirsty for so much, but the glass is never full – or so we think.

And then – what if we get really thirsty?  Thirsty like the Israelites, frightened for the children and the elderly with no access to water.  Thirsty like those who have been denied justice, like black parents frightened for their sons whenever they leave the house.  Thirsty for healing, like the man waiting in an uncomfortable chair in a crowded hallway, wondering about the results of his medical tests.  Thirsty like the gay teenager rejected by his parents and taunted by his friends, wondering if he will ever find community and caring.  What if we get that thirsty?

Then we get frightened, don’t we?  And anxious, and angry?   And we want someone to fix it.  The Israelites want Moses to fix it.  Moses wants God to fix it.  We want the Supreme Court, or the doctor, or our parents, to fix it.

We thirst, and we are afraid, and then,  most of all, we thirst for God. “I seek you,” says the psalmist, “my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”

We thirst.  We are fearful and angry.  We do not know what to do.  We want God to pay attention.

What if —  what if we begin by rephrasing the question?  What if we begin to understand our thirst, our longing, as a gift from God? As something which communicates to us God’s dreams for us?

What if instead of saying, “I’m really thirsty – where’s the water?” – what if we say, “I’m really thirsty – toward what is God directing me?” I am thirsty for God – how does God offer me water?

If we thirst for justice, we long for that for which God longs.

If we thirst for healing, we long to see God’s creation restored.

If we thirst for peace of mind, we seek the face of Jesus.

If we are attentive to our desires, to that for which we thirst, we find God’s dreams for` us.

Just` this past week, someone asked me how we hear God speaking to us.  Our desires are one of the main ways! Here’s how Father James Martin explains how thirst, longing, desire, draw us toward God and what God wants for us:

“The deep longings of our hearts are our holy desires. Not only desires for physical healing, but also the desires for change, for growth, for a fuller life. Our deepest desires, those desires that lead us to become who we are, are God’s desires for us. They are ways that God speaks to you directly.” [2]

“But wait a minute,” you say. “You’re telling me that my desires will lead me to God?  I’ve always thought that I was supposed to resist my desires.  After all. I have a lot of desires – I thirst for a lot – that isn’t good for me – I even thirst for that which causes me problems, or gets me into deep trouble.”

You’re right, of course. We aren’t called to respond to our thirst in ways which are selfish, or unhealthy, or which cause hurt to ourselves or others.  We aren’t called to follow our desires, or to seek to quench our thirst, without prayerful discernment and community conformation.  An alcoholic who says, “I thirst!” and pours herself a glass of vodka is responding to desire for immediate gratification, not to God’s desire for her health.  A student who says, “I thirst for an A!” and cheats on an exam is responding to a desire to get her parents off her back, not to God’s desire for her to learn and succeed in life.

How then do we respond to our thirsts, to our longings?  How do we know whether they are healthy- God-driven thirsts, or merely the maddening calls of our own broken hearts and minds?

We can always check ourselves against the tried and true methods of the church.  Against scripture, for one thing.  You may thirst for that fancy car in the luxury showroom, but the Bible has some things to say about covetousness and theft and material wealth, so you can test your desire for that car against the words of the Bible.

We can also test our longings in our prayer.  If we watch and listen for what God says to us, we can learn to gauge the depth of our thirst for God as opposed to our anxious longing for other things.  God always speaks to us of generosity, of love, of compassion, of caring.  If your longings take you in a direction that harms others, then you want to ask: Are these longings from God?

And our community life provides a third way of testing the desires of our hearts.  If you long for something in life and your friends are skeptical, you might want to reconsider.  If you long to be a great basketball player, but the people you play with point out that you haven’t made a successful shot in three years, then you want to listen.  On the other hand, if you have a thirst for music, and you are being asked to perform in concert after concert, then you are hearing something positive from your community.  Your thirst, your desire, is being confirmed: yes, you have a gift, and God hopes you will use it.

So, yes: we need to check and gauge and test our longings.  Just because we thirst for something doesn’t mean that we should gulp it down.

But at the same time, we should recognize: our desires, our dreams, out thirst, carefully assessed and tended well, are ways in which God speaks to us.  Our desires, our dreams, the empty glass which we  long to see filled – filled with justice, filled with peace, filled with beauty – those represent the thirsts of God as well.

So: Don’t complain about how thirsty you are.  Don’t become anxious or afraid when you look around and see no water in sight.  Your thirst is a gift from God, a gift that will open your heart to the needs of this world and to your place in responding to them.  Amen.

 

[1] John  Keats (1795-1821), Poems of Sentiment IV.

[2] James Martin, S.J., “Our Deepest Desires.” http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/5653/our-deepest-desires (4/13/10).

 

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