Thirsty for life

February 17, 2008

The texts speak of thirst for life. The people thirst for water in
the wilderness. The Samaritan woman at the well meets the One who gives
the water of eternal life. Paul speaks of God’s love being “poured into
our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”

The
metaphor of thirst needs no translation from the ancient texts.
Alchemists once picked up the language of “spirit” and applied it to
volatile substances as they sought eternal youth. From this
redefinition alcohol became known as “spirits.” The desire to slake our
thirst for companionship, to fill up the dark places of loneliness and
guilt with “spirits” leads to multinational corporate empires that
market beer and soft drinks by portraying the ways that these drinks
help one make friends.

I once visited the World of Coke in
Atlanta. At the conclusion of a journey through the history of
Coca-Cola (created by a pharmacist trying to help Civil War vets cope
with chronic physical pain), I watched a wide-screen video that showed
people in every culture drinking the life-giving elixir. Singers
chanted, “Life. . .life. . .life,” then the doors opened and I was
ushered to a huge magical font. I placed a cup on its edge and water
shot up from the center of the fountain, landing on a sensor above my
glass so that the life-giving drink poured freely. I could drink as
much as I wanted.

The word “spirituality” has many positive
connotations in our day. Jesus speaks to the woman at the well about
worship in “spirit and truth.” Spirit is from the Latin word for
“breath,” although the word originally also meant “hope” (the word
“despair” means “to have lost spirit”). In Hebrew ruah means
wind, breath and Spirit of God. Jesus links this spirit, this
breathing, this hoping, with truth-telling. He tells the woman the
truth about her life. His dialogue with her speaks her into new life.
It literally in-spires her.

I remember the day when Paul’s
statement that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces
character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint
us” spoke to me. I was with a vintner in his vineyard, and asked about
the effects of a huge fire the year before, when the valley had been
filled with smoke for three weeks. He said that it had been a very hard
year for the vines; they had suffered greatly and had worked very hard
to produce fruit. The result, however, was a very beautiful vintage.
Apparently the plants’ struggle had produced a wine with complex
characteristics, a wine that would mature well with age. The vintner
was reminded of people he knew who had weathered difficult events and
whose character was rich, complex and mature.

I wonder if
this is what a community justified by the faithfulness of God revealed
on the cross is meant to embody. Not a “cheap grace,” in Bonhoeffer’s
terms, but a costly one, marked by shared suffering through which we
discover “God’s love poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”