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, 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 us sitting here today are struggling with something that has stolen life and joy, and living water. Statistics provide a compelling snapshot of what people are struggling to survive:
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 inappropriate touching);
prescription drug addiction (1 in 10);
alcoholism (1 out of 16);
divorce (1 our of 2 or 3 / 40-50%);
pornography addiction (1 out of 3 men);
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. We are here because of 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 anyone here who’s suffering today. I hear Jesus say to anyone suffering here today,
“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 shared 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. I hope so. Because I 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.
But I fear this is not the case. I fear that too many are putting up with the depletion of their spirit and their life. I wonder how many sitting 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 lead us out of isolation, help us break our silence or anonymity, help meet our 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.”
In April 2018, we hosted workshop on suicide prevention and awareness for faith communities. It was open to the wider community and 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 people to gather and connect around the reality 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 maybe recognized or even knew (who have also attended here for years), discover that they had in common the experience of being personally impacted—devastated—by suicide.
It’s an example of the deep well of living water that’s already here. Gatherings like this addressing suicide prevention and community support and other critical issues and problems help 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 this living water with each other, here in this community. So many opportunites also to open our doors to the people who live in the neighborhood.
This church is a vast reservoir of living water: your knowledge, your experience, your skills, your interests, your passions; your struggles, your victories and even your defeats qualify you to be the valued member of this community that you already are. Every single person here today regardless of age or circumstance is a drop of living water in the vast reservoir that is First Presbyterian Church.
Meanwhile, statistics declare that the mainline church is dying. But that isn’t the full story. What’s happening “out there” is that the culture has changed dramatically. Newer generations do not interact with church the same way previous generations once did. But people are just as thirsty and hungry spiritually as they’ve ever been—if not more so. People continue to thirst for connection and belonging, people continue to thirst for God maybe in all the wrong places. Meanwhile, here we are, followers of Jesus Christ, thirsting for and seeking connection with God, seeking to assuage our common thirst, together and with our neighbor.
This church is already 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. The church is not the only place where God offers living water, but I can tell you that God loves to show up here, God loves to reveal God’s self to us for such a time as this; God is ever ready, willing and able to lead you and me through whatever we struggle to bear. This church may or may not yet provide the living water you seek, but I believe that 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 help us reach our potential to bring comfort, resolution, growth; to lead people out of isolation and into community, out of anonymity and into identity, a cup of living water to those who thirst for God. Because, 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 …