Church for the Thirsty
Jay P. Rowland
Psalm 63:1-8 & Isaiah 55:1-9 (selected verses)
March 24, 2019
Every once in a while, I’ll happen to visit someone in the hospital at a time when they are not allowed any liquids, not even a sip.
There’s always a medical reason for this of course—pre-op, post-op, upcoming scan, etc. Sometimes ice chips are okay; sometimes ice chips are NOT OKAY—and so only a swab of some mysterious liquid is permitted to keep mouth and lips moist for comfort. Those who’ve experienced this hospital protocol know what we can all assume, which is how utterly unsatisfying a little swab or a small ice chip is compared to the MONSTER THIRST PARCHING away.
Thirst gets our attention and demands immediate action in a way that few other things can. When we were parched or caught with a dry throat or mouth, our attention to anything else is partial at best until that gets remedied. And then there’s also the feeling that comes when we’re not allowed water so it becomes almost torturous and desperately obsessed over because we cannot have it (whether it be due to hospital protocol or some other situation).
The same dynamic applies to our spiritual thirst. The Psalmist expresses this today with lyrical power:
my soul thirsts for you O God;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land
where there is no water.
The ancients figured out fairly early on that human nature has an awful tendency to look to almost anything and everything other than God to satisfy our innate thirst for God. Which, they also attest, creates all kinds of problems for us because nothing beside God can assuage our thirst for God (which is an excellent rationale for the First Commandment).
From the psalmists, to Augustine and to C. S. Lewis, all spiritual wisdom agrees that what we do with our thirst for God, how we seek to satisfy that thirst, shapes our lives for the better or for the worse. (see Rev. Dr. Tim Smith’s www.waterfromrock.org, and the blog post “Thirsty” published 3/4/19)
Church is a gathering place of the spiritually thirsty. And that’s good. That’s how it’s supposed to be. But this means church is a gathering of broken, flawed, mistake-prone people. Jesus describes this community as being for those who are sick rather than those who are well (Mark 2:17). But we don’t seem willing to accept this. We hide our authentic selves (our authentic thirst for God), behind a façade of “everything’s fine” which defeats the whole purpose of a faith community.
I’m not saying this is bad or “wrong” … it’s just an observation. I contribute to it also. But deep down I see church as a microcosm of the story of creation in Genesis: In the beginning, all was chaos, a formless void. Then God said, “let there be light” and “let there be (water and life and plants and animals and humanity)”. God creates out of nothing. God brings light out of darkness, order out of chaos, life out of death. And that’s how I see the church—the one hidden behind our facades. In the real world, church is subject to chaos, it’s messy, unmanageable, broken—utterly dependent upon God for life and sustenance.
Church and worship function best in tandem with other resources and other aspects of church, as well as with resources outside of church, “out there” where God is on the move, always up to something, always offering the sacred and the holy through unlikely people, places and ways.
We all come away from church acutely aware of how well or how poorly we feel it connects with whatever we’re struggling with. On any given Sunday in any church, it’s a hit or miss proposition. On any given Sunday, some leave church feeling like they just drank deeply from a deep well of fresh cool spiritual water, while others leave that exact same experience just as thirsty as they arrived (or perhaps only a mere ice chip or moist swab’s worth).
Worship at its best can provide draughts of living water through scripture, prayer, liturgy, ritual, music, singing, hymns, preaching, sacrament, fellowship, etc. At its best church can be a deep well of living water for the parched in spirit.
At the same time, it also seems as if we have yet to figure out a structure or forum which appropriately allows us to share or channel our struggles and sufferings into the light of church and worship. We have become adept at engaging worship/church in a way that allows us to anonymously and privately receive comfort in our spiritual anguish, while also keeping it safely hidden.
The good news is that God is generous by nature, and the Holy Spirit is ever-ready to intercede. I have witnessed sacred moments and connections in worship and church by which living water is abundantly shared and received, and which even allow us to be open and authentic about our depleted spirit.
And yet I fear that too many of us come to church hoping for or looking for or ready for … something … anything comparable to a deep-well of living water where we might let our thirst be met. I fear that too many of God’s faithful, beloved children sitting here today are struggling with something that has stolen life and joy, and living water.
Statistics offer a compelling snapshot:
rape (1 in 6 women);
domestic violence (1 in 3 to 1 in 5 women; Men 1 in 4 to 1 in 7);
sexual harassment (80% of women have been harassed verbally; 50% through in appropriate touching);
prescription drug addiction (1 in 10);
alcoholism (1 out of 16);
divorce (1 our of 2 or 3 / 40-50%);
Porn addiction (1 out of 3 men);
not to mention the devastating rates of cancer, dementia/Alzheimer’s, mental illness, suicide, etc.
When I read or hear these statistics, it’s like a prophet’s voice crying out in the wilderness, crying out for anyone and everyone here today and in every church who are suffering terribly--all too many in secret, isolated, alone.
I’m here to say to anyone and everyone here who is suffering today:
It doesn’t have to be that way.
You don’t have to suffer in secret or in silence or in isolation anymore!
It seems to me that Jesus created the church to be the place where we can be real about our lives, a place where community displaces isolation, where support is available to all who seek it. Jesus who “never saw disease without seeking to heal it or any kind of human need without turning aside to help”. I see Jesus here among us right now, seeing each one of us, especially everyone who’s suffering today.
I hear Jesus say to all who come here today suffering,
“come, follow me …”
“ … come away from your suffering, come with me to healing and transformation …”
It’s amazing to me that I can count on one hand the number of times any person from any congregation I have served has come to me to talk about their alcoholism or their troubled marriage or their struggles with pornography or with prescription drugs or with any of those issues that are, at least statistically, happening to so many of us. Perhaps there’s good reasons for this. Perhaps it’s because I’m not a licensed counselor or therapist. My response to that is, I am a professional listener. I can see you and hear you and be the presence of Christ for you in your suffering. I’m not necessarily asking to have dozens of you lining up outside my door or TJ’s door. But I also don’t want any of you to try to get through this by yourself. Hopefully you are finding your way to professionals and other resources, experiencing gradual but real relief, growth, transformation and healing and wholeness.
I truly hope so.
But I fear this is not the case. Too many, I fear, have given up hope and are putting up with the depletion of their spirit and their life. If we only knew how many others sitting among us here today, perhaps in front of or behind or beside you today are struggling terribly. Maybe even struggling with something you yourself have struggled with.
It grieves me know that we have the resources and the people and the Savior who can change your isolation, and your silence, and your anonymity, your thirst.
“You who are thirsty, come to the waters,” the poet-prophet Isaiah cries out to the church! He cries out to all who are depleted to all who thirst for God,
“why do you labor for that which does not satisfy;
Incline your ear and come to me, says the Lord;
listen so that you may live.”
Last April, we hosted Soul Shop here, a workshop on suicide prevention and awareness for faith communities. We opened it to the wider community and it was well attended. A good many of the participants were FPC members. One of the many gifts that came from that gathering, beyond the immediate blessing of creating space here at church for the all-too-rare but oh-so-necessary opportunity for people to gather and connect around the problem of suicide … was, for me, the gift of seeing people who have attended here for many years, meet other members of this church whose name or face they recognized or even knew (who have also attended here for years), discover something they had in common: being personally impacted—devastated—by suicide.
It’s an example of the deep well of living water that’s already here. More gatherings addressing suicide prevention and community support and other critical issues and problems will create a deeper community well. So will gatherings around enjoyable or educational interests such as auto repair or music or book groups or poetry or cooking or gardening, or parenting, etc. There are so many ways we can share living spiritual water with each other, here in this community but also opening our doors to the people who live right next door or down the block from here.
This church is a vast reservoir of living water: your knowledge, your experience, your skills, your interests, your passions; your struggles, your victories and defeats qualify you as a valueable member of this community. Every single person here is a drop of living water in the vast reservoir that is First Presbyterian Church.
Statistics also suggest the mainline church is dieing. The culture has changed dramatically and the generations do not interact with church the way people once did. But people are still people. People are just as spiritually thirsty and hungry as they’ve ever been if not even more so. People continue to thirst for connection and belonging, thirst for God (maybe in all the wrong places). Meanwhile, here we are, followers of Jesus Christ, together thirsting for and seeking out connection with God, seeking to assuage common thirst together, and with our neighbor. There are many ways we are doing this. There are new and fresh ways we have yet to learn. And there are tried and true ways long cherished.
This church is already, right now, a deep well of living water. Whether or not this living water is getting to those who need it most is our work in progress, God’s work in progress among us. And while we realize the church is not the only place where God offers living water, I can tell you that God loves to show up here and reveal God’s self to us, for such a time as this, ready willing and able to lead you through whatever you are struggling to bear. This church may or may not be a source of the living water you seek, but God can and will help us improve and grow and discover and stretch toward our potential
Surely we can, and surely we must. Because First Presbyterian Church of Rochester MN has not yet peaked in our mission to reflect God’s love in Jesus Christ. As we follow Jesus Christ together, He shall lead us toward our potential to bring comfort, resolution, improvement, or if nothing else community out of isolation … a cup of living water to those who thirst for God.
O God, you are our God, we seek you, our soul thirsts for you; our flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
Come Lord Jesus.
Come Lord Jesus.
Speak Lord Jesus.
We your servants are listening …