I am stopped at the red light in traffic. The woman stands on the corner of I-95 and Wickham, a cardboard sign in hand that says “looking for random acts of kindness”. She holds it to her chest, facing out, and her stare is loose and distant, more of a gaze toward the horizon than any individual car. Her hair is dirty blonde, stringy and sweaty around her red face. Her clothes look worn. Her sigh is all-encompassing, mixed with the steel glint of determination. Her face is right next to my window. It is the face of despair and hope combined. Hope in spite of harsh reality, and despair because of it. I look around to see what I have in my car, roll my window down, and ask her if she’d like a bottle of water.
“Oh, yes. Thank you. God bless you.”
“You too. Do you have somewhere to stay tonight?” I look into her eyes. They’re a faded blue, with dark circles underneath. She nods.
The light turns green. The cars are beginning to move.
“Be careful.” She nods again. And I’m off. As I drive away, I look in the rearview and see her take a drink. Will I ever see her again? Was that brief span of 2o seconds a divine appointment? Should I have done more? Can you actually make a difference in the world with a bottle of water? Was I part of the long line of those who have quietly stated the love of God for this one woman, through whom He has spoken faithfully and certainly, throughout her life, in spite of the shouting lies of worthlessness and hopelessness and not enough and desperate times?
I hope so. But these are the questions I ask myself any time my tiny acts seem to get lost in the deafening roar of global despair. Any time I see poverty and confusion and abuse and chaos.
I am thirsty for justice. Perhaps she is too. Perhaps the injustices in her life have never been righted, clarified, healed. There are all different kinds of thirsty.
Our thirst leads us on journeys. If we don’t have parents who know how to guide us when we’re little, or someone who is willing to help us truly quench it, if we don’t meet Jesus at an early age, our thirst can lead us far from home. Even if we do learn about God at an early age or any age, there is still much to sabotage our innocence and knowledge and faith. Most of us have taken detours. Into darkness and relationships and boxes and hobbies. Into religion. And pretense. And materialism. Substance abuse. Homelessness. Cynicism. And still, we are thirsty. We want the kind of peace that saturates, calms and fills. We want to be full of splashing joy.
We need a drink.
Sometimes I talk to people who believe in God, but feel so dissatisfied. They’ve been in church their whole lives, they’ve been raised to have a certain set of values. They believe in God, but what does that mean, really? How does it translate into sporting events and parenting and risk-taking and to-do lists? How does this life actually get lived well, when it is often so overwhelming in the first world, so let’s not even think about what the third world goes through on a daily basis. I talk to folks who say they know God, or about Him, but they’ve not yet figured out inner peace or healing or joy. They have the look of a happy life and the Facebook posts to match, they have the clothing and the cause, but something inside is missing. Something doesn’t add up. They’re still so thirsty.
They need a drink.
I’ve realized that my country is dying of thirst. The United States of America is in a drought and scrambling for something wet. I recently talked to a friend in ministry who mentioned being in California for a church conference. Being a gardener who pays attention to rain, I brought up the drought there, that they are literally running out of water, and praying for rain. I said I thought there might be a connection between the spiritual climate and the land. Of course, she looked at me like I was crazy. Most people would. Perhaps it is just my over-analytical hippy philosophy, my earthy self that notes the deep interconnectedness of all of Creation. Or perhaps we have put God in boxes and forgotten that He made it all to work together, and when it’s not, there’s usually a reason.
I recently read a story in the book of John. Jesus is sitting there, at a well, waiting for his disciples to meet him with food, and a woman walks up. He asks her for a drink of water. She is shocked, because Jews don’t usually talk to her people, the Samaritans. But it’s the next thing he says that makes me stop and think hard about thirst.
Jesus replied, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.”
“Please, sir,” the woman said, “give me this water! Then I’ll never be thirsty again, and I won’t have to come here to get water.” (4:13-15)
Of course, he was speaking metaphorically and spiritually to her, drawing a parallel between physical and spiritual thirst, which at first she doesn’t understand. When he finishes his conversation with her they are both on the same page. But His words excite me. They speak to all of my dry places, and touch a hope that is so central in my life that I often forget it is there. Thirst.
We can all relate to thirst. Everything that lives needs water. Have you ever thought about that? How thirst unifies Creation? Call me over-analytical, but in a good book, that’s what you’d call a solid theme.
Even when we do find satisfying things, like love and friendship and marriage and children and ministry or a fulfilling vocation, even when we exercise and eat well and travel the world and have enough money, the satisfaction is only temporary. Children grow up. Marriage cannot completely address our hopes or needs. Our vocation is not our whole life. Seasons change. Hormones rage. Emotions confuse. Tragedy occurs. Ministry grows hollow without an authentic source of refreshment. Our travels make us think about our soul more than we’d like to admit. We become thirsty again. Our thirst for more betrays our heart’s design to us. We were designed with a big thirst, a holding chamber in our core. A massive reservoir that needs filling. It is eternal. It reveals our need for something big. For God. And only He can fill it.
It is 2015. I am with my family in Mazatlán, in the Mexican state of Sinaloa in mid-July. It’s hot. Real hot. We are there to plant a small garden for a ministry that works with children who live in the landfill. We are waiting in traffic. Some men are working at a construction site in the middle of the road, and our car pulls up next to them. We have our windows down, music cranked. My arm is slowly getting a sunburn in the place where the sun beats down through the passenger side window. There is a half-drunk bottle of warm water in the cup holder between my husband and me. A man approaches our truck. He looks to be in his mid-twenties. He’s covered in sweat. Just looking at him makes me thirsty. My husband lifts a hand in greeting.
“Hola.” His voice is hoarse in the bright sunshine, and the heat wafts off the pavement in shimmering air all around us. I turn down the radio.
“Como estas?” My husband loves to speak Spanish, will strike up a conversation with anyone he can find that will speak to him in Spanish.
The man wipes his brow with his arm, licks his lips, says one word, his eyes full of hope: “Auga?”
“Si.” My husband looks around the car for a new bottle of water, but we are out. I grab the half-empty bottle and thrust it toward him. “Here.” He takes it and offers it to the man with an apologetic shrug. This is all I have.
“Gracias.” The man downs it fast, grins his thanks at us, and the light is green and we are gone.
I think about this exchange for days, pondering the power of thirst. How you’ll drink anything to quench it. Even a stranger’s half-drunk bottle of warm water. When it’s hot, and you’re thirsty, nothing but water does the job. It is a powerful and simple lesson.
My kids used to chant a song when they were little. They made it up when we were on a road trip, and had run out of bottled water. We were miles from the nearest town, in the middle of the Utah desert, and thirsty. We were all anticipating a cool drink of water when we got to the campground where we were staying. They started to sing: “If we don’t get any water, we will not survive. (echo) We will not survive.” They sang it over and over in an eerie chanting voice. It has become a bit of a family joke. At the time I remember thinking it was kind of morbid to sing those words so eerily and cheerfully, in light of the situation. But leave it to children to boil things down to their simplicity.
Wherever you are, whatever you believe, however bad or good it is, your thirst is not negotiable. Without water, you won’t survive. And it’s hot out there.
My country has become the wild wild west
Saloon doors swinging, holsters ringing
Flying into rages under the burning sun
Digging into wells that have long been run
Are you thirsty?
“Then Jesus declared, “….he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)
You can be in full-time ministry and be parched. You can be a mentor or a hero or a great mom and still realize that you’re running on empty. You can have great work ethic and a killer retirement fund and all the possessions you ever wanted and still be as dry as a bone. There are less obvious droughts than homelessness and poverty and abuse.
Recognize the simple fact of raging thirst that just won’t go away.
You need a drink. You need buoyancy and submersion and refreshment and peace. There’s only One that can do the job.
Jesus. He never runs dry. He promises endless living water. The kind of drink that will quench your deepest thirst. Will you believe him? Will you ask?
If this is you, and you are feeling thirsty, or weary, or dry, or all three, I encourage you to sit quietly for a moment and offer the contents of your heart to the living God. Be honest. Ask for help. Believe. And then listen. Wait for him to fill you. Sometimes it takes asking a few times. Don’t give up. Water is a priority for survival. Don’t ignore your thirst.