Monday, April 06, 2009

i thirst (john 19)

The origin of the word Lent has to do with the lengthening of the day, and for us this coincides with the onset of spring, in our family that is always marked by our older daughter’s birthday, as she was born on the first day of spring. Deeper back in my own personal history I am reminded of the cycle of sports season, the end of basketball, at least for some teams, and the beginning of baseball, and as a kid I loved to play baseball. I think I slept with a baseball glove on my hand, and I spent most of my waking hours on a baseball field. It was glorious, and in hindsight I must also thank my mother, who I know was not no enamored with baseball but logged countless hours on the sidelines, in a folding chair, watching the games unwind. Some of you here this morning are smiling, so you know what I mean.

Most of those games have long since been forgotten, but one stands out in memory. Our team had played really badly, in fact we had lost by something like 28-3. This is a baseball score, not a football score! I will confess that I pitched a few of those innings, and they were long innings, it seemed like the game went on forever. Afterward the coach met with us for a team meeting, it was hot, and my eyes were drawn to the water cooler. The coach began his “motivational” talk. He wondered (out loud), if any of us wanted to win as much as we wanted a drink of water? I realized this was one of those questions that was not really asked in anticipation of an answer….he was using the question as a rhetorical device, to get a point across to a group of tired, mildly interested eleven year old boys. Then the coach stopped talking, walked just outside the dugout toward the water cooler, and poured the entire contents, ice and all, onto the ground. I can still feel the jolt of seeing that water seep into the dry red clay of South Georgia. I was thirsty!

Water is basic to life. I have in mind the In John’s gospel, the obvious, everyday, commonplace always points to the not so obvious, the unusual, the extraordinary. The host runs out of wine at a wedding. A child is born and something is not quite normal, he is blind. A group of hungry people search for food. The reading of John’s gospel trains us to see the extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary, the miraculous in everyday life. At times we become dehydrated, we are thirsty. And sometimes we are in need of something, and at the very time we realize it, it is almost too late.

We all have wants and we have needs. Some of our desires have been with us since early childhood, some of our impulses are the invention of modern marketing, some of our dreams are woven into the essence of who we are, they do not go away, they return, again and again, like a hunger and a thirst that is not satisfied. When we look at things from the perspective of eternity, there is an added dimension: we recognize that we thirst for something that cannot be fulfilled in this life.

In today’s psalm, the writer is searching for a language to express the soul’s most fundamental longing and desire. My soul thirsts for you, O God. It is a bodily expression that names a search for something that we need, and yet for something that is beyond us.

In the gospel, Jesus is at the community well, it is the middle of the day, it would have been hot then in the ancient middle east, as today, very hot, and dry. John tells us that Jesus was tired. He was human. We will encounter his humanity later in the message. At the well he encounters a woman, a Samaritan woman. Samaritans were the ancestors of Israelites who had intermarried with the people in the Northern Kingdom, the Assyrians. They were looked down upon as half-breeds, they were not quite kosher. And so it is understandable that the woman is surprised to be included in this encounter with Jesus, who asks her to pour him a drink. This kind of conversation did not happen.

Jesus says to her, “I am thirsty.” The conversation, of course, leads to something more than water on a hot day, more than the quenching of thirst in a dry and weary land. John’s gospel is a recurring narrative of the obvious and not so obvious: birth and new birth; blindness and the light that is coming into the world; a hungry gathering of people and the miracle of the loaves and fish. “We are drinking this water today”, Jesus says, “but imagine that you have a need that you are not even yet aware of; I would like to tell you about living water, that springs up to eternal life.”

Jesus was speaking to the woman about a desire that she did not quite know about, but it was there. We have very real desires in this twenty-first century world, but they are not very often spiritual desires, and in fact we are sometimes suspicious of spirituality. Some think spirituality is not quite real, some think it may be real but it does not have value, some think it is real in some way but it is relative, some think it is too touchy-feely. And so spirituality has become something of a taboo subject, to be avoided. Tom Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham, England says that we live in a “paved over world”. Materialism in its many forms has superceded the spiritual, even in church, and so we have suppressed the spiritual, we have paved over it. And yet spirituality erupts through the pavement, like a bubbling spring…. Wright thinks of the spiritual motivations of those who executed the plan of 9/11, or we think of religion that gets sick and manifests itself in bizarre behaviors, or hypocrisy, and this can happen in all faiths.

A paved over world represents the separation of spirituality and real life, the estrangement of spirituality and suffering, the divorce of body and spirit. A paved over world separates prayer and action, worship and service, Christianity and citizenship, Sunday and Monday. A paved over world is an attempt to control God, to place the living God in a box---my own private life, or this particular circle of friends, or myself when I am happy. A paved over world is an attempt to keep things dry, sterile, under control.

Wright calls spirituality, in our time, the “hidden spring”. We have tried to manage our lives rationally, control the resources of the world and even the spirits of the world efficiently, we have attempted to explain religion in psychological or cultural or economic terms, and yet there is this bubbling water, which represents God’s desire to get into relationship with us (which is spirituality) and set things right in the world (which is justice).

Christians believe that we thirst for the waters that are to be found in this hidden spring, and when we taste these waters we come to life, like a fern growing in the mountains, washed by a mid-afternoon summer rain. The stream in the desert that flows through the days of Lent is a series of words spoken by Jesus from the cross.

This morning’s word is one of identification with us: “I am thirsty”, he says. The word reveals that he is human and divine. It is a word spoken in the moment---this was his bodily need, and it is the perspective of eternity---John says, “to fulfill the scripture”. And it is a word that draws upon a deep and rich tradition.

Israel wandered in the wilderness, and thirsted for water, and water came to them from the rock at Massah, which means “test”, and their thirst was quenched. The whole journey from slavery to promised land was a test, one that Israel fails, finally, but Jesus passes through this wilderness, he is the new Israel, he takes our place, hanging from a cross, and he is thirsty, John tells us.

“I thirst”. Someone has noted that, in the Beatitudes, Jesus fulfills each of the teachings. He says, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”. Jesus is the one who hungers and thirsts, and on the cross he makes things right---he puts the world into a right relationship with God.

I suppose my baseball coach at the end of that long day was getting a message across to us, although we were not in a place in life to comprehend it. Who knows what went through the minds of those who surrounded Jesus on the cross at Golgotha. He has forgiven his torturers. He had included the thief in the kingdom of God, a paradise that would be his that day. He had grieved with his family and friends. And he had wondered, out loud, where God was in all of this. It must have been disorienting to everyone there.

The expression of Jesus, “I thirst”, recalls his question of Peter at his arrest. When Peter tries to defend Jesus against the soldier, Jesus says, “put your sword back, am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” The cup that he drinks is the test, it is the suffering, and even the embrace of death. It is the bubbling spring that cannot be paved over, the lamb who takes away the sin of the world, the blood and water, death and life, flowing from his pierced body. As Stephen Cottrell notes,

“Here the waters of refreshment are flowing. This is the place of healing. This is the place where burdens can be laid down. It is a sign of God’s rule on earth. The parched wilderness is now a flowing stream, the burning sand of Christ’s thirst a spring of water. The dead wood of the cross has become a tree of life. The desert is coming into blossom. From the scars of passion flowers are growing.”
This happens through the offering of his body, his deepest longing representing our thirst for an intervention, the fulfillment of the desire that things are made right, that a spirituality of the cross would flourish and justice would flow to all people.

The cross is always decisive, it is always a test, it takes everything out of us, and yet it is the source of life itself, the bubbling stream that cannot be paved over, the fountain filled with blood, in a hymn that mixes images of baptism and communion. In the days of Lent, on the way to the cross once again, we ask for the grace to meet Jesus at the well of mercy, and we count on his promise that he teaches and lives: those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled.

At the beginning of Harley Dickson’s book about our church’s 27-year mission in Cap Haitien, Haiti there is a quote from an unknown source. In listening it helps to know that there is, at the entrance to the clinic that has saved so many lives, a pump that is a source of clean water, virtually the only source in that community. It also helps to know that, in the Old Testament, Baca is a place of tears.

I do not know his name
But yet I know he passed this way.
Because I was revived
Beside a well he dug
That I might drink
And gain some fresh, new strength.
I do not know his creed Or color
I only know that Weary, fainting,
I have found Sweet rest
beneath the friendly shade
Of trees he planted
as he passed Through Baca’s vale.
Blessed is the one Who
passing through the valley
digs a well. (unknown)

Sources: Stephen Cottrell, I Thirst. Harley Dickson, The Real Miracle. N. T. Wright, Simply Christian.


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