Thirsty

Mark’s gospel starts off differently than Matthew and Luke. There are no stories of shepherds, nor tales of wise men from the east. In this gospel, generally believed to be the earliest account of Jesus’ life, the “beginning” of the good news has nothing to do with Jesus’ birth, and everything to do with the events surrounding his baptism.

Like Isaiah, Mark describes the landscape in which the Messiah appears as a “wilderness” and a “desert.”

This past week, I received some automated phone messages from the Superintendent of the T. School District about the status of a water main break at T. Middle School. First, were told, the water main break might disrupt the school schedule, then it probably wouldn’t, and finally it did, with early dismissal on Tuesday. My wife Therese, who teaches seventh grade, reported the reactions of her students, who ordinarily take for granted the water that washes hands, flushes toilets, and runs freely for science experiments. Empty, dry faucets prompted several to complain, “Mrs. Hembruch, I’m so thirsty.”

The wilderness is like that: it’s a place you don’t choose, but are thrust into; it’s a place where you recognize your deep thirst; the wilderness is a place where the basics you’ve taken for granted for so long are no longer available.

During the past two weeks, I feel like we’ve been in a wilderness of sorts as we’ve experienced the aftermath of the grand jury’s investigation into the events surrounding the death of Michael B. Like many of you, I’m surprised by how many people and communities around the country have been impacted by the events in Ferguson. In this new age of social media, it’s not difficult to find people you know on either side of what has become a divisive issue. It’s uncomfortable for me to know that on either side of this divide are members of my extended family, my friends, my ministerial colleagues, and, I imagine, members of this congregation. We’re all dismayed, to say the least, to return to a climate we thought was forty years in our past, a world divided by opinions about racial justice, a world where people scream obscenities at one another, light fires, pillage businesses, brandish weapons, and shoot bullets.

When we pause to look deeply into the meaning of these events, it’s possible to see what Isaiah saw, what John the Baptizer saw: the world without God is a place of disorder and chaos. It’s a place where abundant life is difficult to find. It’s a place that is parched, where our steps slow down in the relentless heat, and we say, “I’m so thirsty.”

In this respect, we are like the ancient Hebrews, whose security and freedom was taken away. Their devotion rotted from the inside, and their national unity and defenses from the outside. They were marched into captivity through a wilderness, and somewhere along the way realized they felt so very thirsty.

Then, after so long that many must have given up hope, the news arrived: “‘Comfort, oh comfort my people,’ says your God. ‘Speak kindly to Jerusalem’.” “And call out to her that her warfare has ended, that her iniquity has been removed, that she has received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

It’s so very like God’s good news to come in two parts. First, an affirmation in which God declares what we already know: the current situation is NOT what it should be, not what God designed it to be. Unquenched thirst is not the Maker’s plan. Second, scripture declares, God is doing something about it. What is an uncomfortable state of affairs today will not go on indefinitely; tomorrow will be different:

  • People who fear one another will have the courage to talk to one another before using fists and bullets;
  • Improved dialogue and understanding will supersede screaming confrontations;
  • An oasis of compassionate sharing will replace the desert of torched buildings.

There will be a change in direction, a “repentance” that involves opening our minds to a new kind of spiritual logic that is not natural to us.

 Tom Long, my former preaching professor from Princeton, tells a story about something that happened years ago in India. A seriously wounded man was brought from the countryside to a mission hospital, an Afghan, a member of a warring tribe.

An attacker had seriously injured the man’s eyes and his sight was at risk. Desperate with fear and rage, he pleaded with the doctor to restore his sight so that he could find his attacker, and take revenge. “I want to kill him,” he screamed. “After that, I don’t care whether I am blind the rest of my life.”

The doctor told the man that he was in a Christian hospital, and that Jesus had come to show us how to love and forgive others, even to love and forgive our enemies. The man listened, but was unmoved. He told the doctor that Jesus’ words about forgiveness and love were meaningless to him. Vengeance was the important thing. The doctor rose from his bedside to attend to other patients. He promised to return that evening to tell the man a story about a person who took revenge.

Later that evening, the doctor told the story an Englishman sent as diplomat to Afghanistan, accused of spying, and thrown into a makeshift prison. There was only one other prisoner, and the men suffered through their ordeal together. They were poorly clothed, badly fed, and mistreated by the guards.

Their only comfort was a copy of the “Book of Common Prayer” that had been given to the envoy by his sister as a farewell gift when he left England. She had inscribed her name along with a message on the inside cover of the book. This book served not only as the men’s devotional resource, but also as a diary. The margins of the prayer book became a journal of their suffering and their faith.

The two prisoners were never released, but many years later the prayer book made it into the hands of the sister who had given it. With deep heartache she read each entry. When she came to the last one, she noted that it was in different handwriting. It said simply that the two prisoners had been taken from their cell, publicly flogged, and then forced to dig their own graves before being executed.

At that moment, a revelation struck the woman. She knew what her mission would be. Since her brother had died a cruel death at the hand of torturers, she must exact revenge – but it must be Christian revenge.

She was not wealthy, the doctor continued, but she took up collections wherever she could, and sent the money to this mission hospital. Her instructions were that the money was to be used to keep a bed free at all times for a sick or wounded Afghan.

The wounded man was quiet, silenced by this story of such strange revenge. “My friend,” said the doctor, “you are now lying in that bed. Your care is her revenge.”[1]

Few stories of wilderness suffering can be tied up as neatly as this one. Yet there is something in the woman’s response to evil that resonates with the Christian gospel. In a world of hurt and escalation of tension, someone creates a place of healing and offers help. Faced with a chronic pattern of violence, someone “changes direction,” breaks the cycle of revenge, and creates an oasis in the desert.

Perhaps you feel like you’re in a wilderness you did not choose: something you took for granted – health, security, peace, a loving relationship – has disappeared, and you are so thirsty. The current situation is NOT what it should be, not what God designed it to be. The good news of the gospel is that God, in Jesus Christ, has done something about it. Today’s wilderness is being changed by people like the woman who funded a hospital bed for enemies, by people of faith who allow their attitudes and actions to be shaped by the One with mighty power to counter hatred with love. Isaiah, just a chapter later on, describes the lush landscape in store: When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the Lord will answer them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.

Thanks be to God!

[1] This story is recorded in Thomas Long’s “Whispering the Lyrics: Sermons for Lent and Easter,” Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., 1995.

 

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~ by JohnH1962 on December 7, 2014.

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