Thirsting for Water


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

November 4, 2018


Texts: Psalms 62 and 63

       Stark photos accompanied the National Geo-graphic Magazine last March in its story about large dried up lakes in various parts of the world. Noting that Lake Chad in Africa “is a sliver of its former self” and Iran’s Lake Urmia, once the largest saltwater lake in the Middle East, has shrunk by 80 percent, the article went on to detail the shrinking of lakes in Bolivia, Tanzania, and even the United States.

       In spite of the deniers, there is no question that climate change is affecting our planet in many dire ways. While we on the Eastern seaboard may worry about rising sea levels that threaten to inundate outlying islands and even our New Jersey coastline, other parts of the world as well as our own country face the problem not only of drinking water shortages but of the loss of their means of livelihood based on agriculture as well as fishing.

       The effect of these climate changes as well as others are pushing people into an era of forced migration. The question for the world is how the migrants will be treated. Will those ravaged by climate change be treated with dignity, as William Lacy Swing, Director of the United Nations Inter-national Organization for Migration asks, or will they be simply cast back to areas where parched lakes bring despair and starvation.

       Certain passages in Scripture speak not only of the physical effects of a parched land but also its spiritual effects. The thirst for water in a desert is often compared to a thirst for God. Our NSRV trans-lation says a soul thirsts for God but Alter’s trans-lation using the phrase throats conveys a stronger image of how people in a desert yearn for water as we yearn for God.

        The desert was a dangerous place then as it is now. Along the southwest border the desert can be deadly for anyone who has not brought sufficient water to make dangerous crossings. Members of a group known as Humane Borders put out water con-tainers which the Border Patrol routinely destroys in its attempts to force migrants to go to roads where they are easier to catch.

         Members of both No More Deaths and Humane Borders have been arrested and charged with “aiding and abetting” illegal migration. Scott Warren, a pro-fessor at Arizona State, has been charged with “har-boring” migrants because he gave some men food and water. His defense is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed by Congress in 1993 which has been used by anti-abortion demonstrators and Hobby Lobby to refuse coverage for contraception to women.

       As Warren said, Jesus told us about the Samar-itan who aided the Jew even though there had been a thousand years of enmity between them. He says Jesus demands that he aids whoever comes to him asking for food and water. In light of the Hobby Lobby decision, this will be one of the most inter-esting trial since the 1985 trials of Stacy Merkt for transporting Salvadorans fleeing persecution and John Fife arrested for conspiracy as he sheltered Salvadorans in his church.

         Fife was obviously so dangerous that Border Patrol agents infiltrated the church as “volunteers” to bring charges against him and 10 others in Federal Court. Fife spent several months in prison but now continues to work with various groups to protect immigrants. Merkt’s conviction was overturned be-cause she was not a coyote, a person who transports aliens – the term used in the statute – for money, but a person transporting asylum seekers on their way to see an attorney.

       David’s Psalmist cries, “I shall not stumble” as they and countless others have in their mission to prevent the parched land from conquering another person. He keeps reminding himself that God is his refuge, a shelter in time of trouble.

        As David’s Psalmist continues, we are warned not to put our trust in anyone or anything that is human even though it may bear “the fruit of wealth,” for God measures us by our deeds, which really re-flect how we thirst for God.

        We seek the water that relieves our parched throats as we thirst for God in different ways. Here, the Psalmist talks of dwelling on God during the night watches David had to keep as his enemies searched for him in order to kill him. In this Psalm as in many others, David cries out to God either in a plea for help or a prayer of gratitude for God’s presence during the many times he feared for his life.

        Although we may not have the same kind of fears as did David, we, too, cry out to God in our dis-tress. Fearful of God’s absence when we feel alone we thirst for God’s presence and seek what we hope will be the calming presence of God in our lives. There are times when God’s presence is not so calming, however.

        There are times when God’s presence challenges us to take on tasks that we would not ordinarily consider. That was certainly true for Martin Luther King and John Fife. Whether confronted with the evil of white supremacy or the refusal to grant asylum to people fleeing brutal civil wars paid for by our tax dollars, these two as well as many others experienced God’s presence as a call to action.

       Sometimes the night is not so still but a time of restlessness as we seek the presence of God. We thirst for God but no matter how much water we drink we cannot find the One who is the foundation of our lives. There are times when, like the men and women who went into the desert to find God, that we wonder where God is. Even though we know it’s irra-tional to ask questions such as how can a man walk into a synagogue and murder eleven people, we still ask them.

       We want to return to what we think may have been a simpler time, a time when we think such things didn’t happen. They happened, of course, but we have somehow erased them from our national memory. Between World War I and II, there were at least twenty ethnic and race riots in the United States, some causing hundreds of deaths and destruction of property.

       In his 1955 book Protestant – Catholic – Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology, Will Herberg looked at the so-called religious revivalism of the post-World War II period noting that although the sales of Scripture had increased by 140 percent with people flocking to churches, and the use of religious language by politicians, the Gallup poll showed that few could name the significant events that occurred in the life of Jesus or even the basic tenets of their faith.

       Herberg believed that the paradox of what he called secularism and so-called religiosity dominated American life in the wake of World War II. Although he did not put it in these terms, I believe it was the drive for increased material security that resulted from the deprivations of the Depression and the War that pushed us into what he called “the religious situation.”

        People claimed they thirsted for God and politicians got into the habit of calling on God as in “God bless America” by every politician after a speech, but, in reality, what they want is the assur-ance of the language of religion without really accepting its demands.

        Herberg’s comments on this paradox bring to mind my conversation with the great Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer when I asked him about the threat to peace in the conflict between Muslims and Christians in Indonesia. He replied that the greatest threat was not this conflict but the evil of consumerism that would overtake both groups causing a struggle between them for goods.

        Thirsting for God is different than searching for material rewards to be sure, but we have to wonder if that is the case in contemporary America caught up in the prosperity gospel promising such reward for service to God. We remember this when we sing James Russell Lowell’s poem The Present Crisis, as our hymn “Once to Every Man and Nation,”  “ere her cause bring fame and profit and ‘tis prosperous to be just.”

        When we thirst for God, we’re really not sure how we will experience God’s presence. Each of us has our ideas of what that will mean but usually it comes when we least expect it and in ways we don’t expect. Being open to the surprise of God’s presence can be a startling experience.

        Some of us will find our thirst quenched through music, others through art, yet others through prayer, meditation, even worship. And some like Scott Warren by quenching the thirst of others in an inhospitable desert.

        Let us come to God in prayer: Ineffable Mystery and ground of our very being, quench our thirst and open us to your presence as we strive to follow the One who quenches all thirst, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.