By Katherine Sonderegger
Let everyone who thirsts, come!
Just this is the Christian life: to thirst, to thirst for the Living God. In our day, and in every day, there are those who do not recognize this raging thirst. But ancient Israel did; how could it not? Here the very land thirsts.
As today so of ancient times, the people Israel inhabited lands that can be parched to the bone. The soil becomes hard, cracked open in the relentless sun. The edges turn to sand, coarse, broken bits of rock and sun-baked clay. Living things struggle to survive. The small rivulets dry up, the wadis little more than bowls of damp mud; animals eagerly lick the brackish water that remains.
The psalmist tells us of such thirst in vivid images: the lions and rock badgers stealing from their dens in the cool of the evening to search for drink; the ravens crying for the water pools; travelers in caravans searching the long horizon for a break in the rocky soil, a spring, an oasis, a piece of cool shade in a weary land. So the freed slaves saw the wilderness, harsh and pitiless and unrelenting: no water but only a burning heat, an unendurable thirst.
When the prophet Ezekiel is caught up by the Spirit and transported to a high country where he can gaze down upon his people, he sees nothing but thirst. Dry bones, whitened in the dry earth. When the prophet Isaiah turns to the vision of the Redeeming Lord, he can find no image more vivid, more lush with hope, than that of water, pools of water welling up when all is barren and dry. Ancient Israel knew what it meant to thirst.
And not just the ancient people of Israel! Modern Israelis, and even more, modern Palestinians know thirst, know it in their very bones. To turn an arid plot into a pool of water, to irrigate a bare root and make it bloom like the desert after spring rains, to drink and to wash and to clean and to drink again, thirst slaked and overcome: that is the luxury of those who own water rights in that heartbroken center of the world.
And this is not simply the story of the Middle East; no, the whole world aches with thirst. Every refugee on a flight from war knows unendurable thirst; every animal, the wild and the tamed, knows the desperate thirst of rivers running dry, drought scorching a once-fertile plain, the water holes little more than sad reminders — a few lines scored in the mud, perhaps — of a water of life, once running rich and full. Refugee camps are schools in thirst. Every day’s morning paper brings images of water jugs, carefully filled, carefully carried back to row upon row of tent — a bare scant measure to sustain human life, a life filled with thirst of every kind.
The citizens of my home state, Michigan, know thirst: the water fouled and contaminated for the citizens of Flint, a hidden danger for a once proud city, now arid and left behind. All who read of water use and water rights in the American West know thirst. It was once said that the mighty armies of Persia drank dry the rivers on their way to battle Athens; but those rivers rose up within their banks again when the satraps marched on.
Not so in our own West. Giant rivers now a small and muddy stream; some towns and cities awash with water and some downstream starved, parched. Ranchers and farmers, native peoples and new settlers, flocks of migrating birds, wild horses and mountain goats: all know thirst as their daily lot. Water, clean water, is the treasure hidden in the field; we will sell all to acquire that prize.
And there is more. Think of the thirst for human affection. That too is a longing of the whole body and soul, an ache that seeks after the smallest drop of human kindness. We speak of love as a kind of flood, a mighty down-rushing stream that sweeps us away, we say, and gives the deepest refreshment, the deepest joy. To attempt to live without friendship, without mercy or kindness, is to enter the desert, the dry places of the earth; no one can live long in such arid lands.
Or think of the thirst for knowledge, the longing to know. Often in our world, saturated as it is by the thin knowledge we call “information,” we forget what a deep longing it is to have our thirst for knowledge slaked. But even so there are times we can recall what cooling waters knowledge can be: when we learn the name of an illness; when we understand at long last what went wrong, really wrong in that painful time; when we visit the grave, or the mass grave, of ancestors, wrongly killed; when we find that our beloved is home, safe and sound. This is the thirst for knowledge that all the world can name.
But we here know a deeper, or higher thirst, don’t we. We know the thirst for the living God. This is the great thirst, the longing of body and soul that outstrips and outlives all other thirsts, of land and of living things. So powerful is this thirst that whole lifetimes can be little more than a search for this living water, a hungry and determined and tireless quest for the spring of life. In truth, this is the purpose of human life, isn’t it, to thirst for God.
Everything in Holy Scripture teaches us to say something this stark, this direct: human life is the thirst for God. We are deserts: that too is the truth of human life. Many of our contemporaries do not know their own thirst. They live in arid places and they have become, like the night creatures, adept at living with racking thirst and small, quick laps of water taken on the run. But they too long to have streams of living water rushing over them, delighting in the superabundance of a water that can never run dry.
And we who are shepherded here, by some teacher, by some quiet saint, by some stirring of the Spirit, can only give ready thanks for this water poured out on us, for us, and for the whole world. This is the Christian life: to teach that thirst; to teach the thirsty how to search the Scriptures for that great oasis; to pour out the water of baptism over every outstretched life; to set a table in the wilderness; to have spiritual food and drink for the whole earth.
This is not our doing, but the Lord’s. The Alpha and Omega, the First and Eschatos, pours out living water for the thirsty earth. He, the one who thirsted on a Roman cross, has become the water of life; He, the one who knew all loss, all defilement and exile, has readied water without measure, without price; He the one of no account, turns water into fine wine, sorrow into joy, thirst into the river of life. He is the one who says, Come! Come, take water freely; Come sit at my table; Come enter into my joy; Come. And the thirsty people say: Amen, Come, Lord Jesus.
The Rev. Dr. Katherine Sonderegger is the William Meade Chair of Systematic Theology at Virginia Theological Seminary.