The metaphor of thirst is used throughout the Gospel of John to characterize the believer’s relationship to the spirit. Whoever comes to me, Jesus says, will never be thirsty, for, “Out of the believer’s heart”, or as the Greek renders it, out of the believer’s belly, “shall flow rivers of living water.”(1) Yet, Jesus himself cries from the cross in his final hour, “I thirst,” suggesting, perhaps, that this side of the grave our deepest longing – our thirst – for wholeness, for union, for belonging, will not be quenched.
Our thirst arises from limitation. To be human is to be limited, yet we long to transcend our limitations. Finite beings, we thirst for the infinite. “Man is the creature,” Jean Paul Sartre observed, “who wants to be God.” But we are not God. And the awareness of our limitation, the recognition that seemingly nothing will quench our insatiable thirst, can engender anguish. A sense of emptiness inside of us – a nothing, a void – that no matter how hard we try to fix, escape, medicate, or distract ourselves from, will never be satisfied.
The seat of this anguish is the belly. It can disrupt our eating and sleeping. It can lead to depression, anxiety, apathy, or aggression. Yet, rather than try to fix our anguish, to control it, or subdue it (as some of us may be apt to do) Jesus tells us that the very seat of our anguish – the belly – is also the place from which living waters flow.
Living waters flow. Living water is flowing water. Flowing water cannot be controlled; it flows where it wills. As Christians, our deep, deep thirsting, that is, the awareness of our limitation and the intense desire to transcend it, need not lead us to anguish. Rather, our thirsting is what leads us to God. It leads us to God when all efforts to resist, fix, or control our anguish have failed, and we are left with no other choice than to accept limitation, to accept that we are human, and that because we are human we thirst, just like Jesus did from the cross. We thirst. We thirst, and we recognize that we cannot quench our own thirst. We are not God. And so have no choice but to let go, to surrender, and to let living waters flow.
Our thirst will always be with us this side of the grave. It will never be completely satisfied, and that is not a bad thing. For it is our thirsting, and our inability to quench it ourselves, that drives us over and over again to accept limitation, to admit that we are not God, and let living waters flow.
- John 7:37-38
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