Oh the Places You’ll Go: Thirsting for God

Reflections from Dr. Howell

Although not a water sports enthusiast or a fisherman, I love the water: rivers, ponds, waterfalls, oceans, drinking it with dinner, the feel of the shower, even rain – like everybody else. There’s something mystical about water, some aesthetic wonder, and we need to stay hydrated. We already are. Your body is more than half water. And you were amphibious back in your mother’s womb, in that numinous, aquatic realm before her water broke. No wonder Jesus thought Baptism was full of grace for us. No wonder a rain shower or watching waves lap onto the shore calms the soul. Water can be snow, so lovely, and clouds hovering above.

There are famous waters: Niagara Falls, the Nile and the Mississippi, frozen Antarctica. And there are special, perhaps holy waters: Galilee, where Jesus fished, taught and healed; the Jordan, where Jesus was baptized and across which Israel tramped into the Promised Land; the Red Sea, parted by Moses but then engulfing Pharaoh’s chariots.

When I take pilgrims to the northern edge of Israel, we hike down 95 rocky steps to an astonishing, powerful waterfall at Banyas. The roar of the water, the mist pelting your face, the rapids coursing below. Unforgettable. My Old Testament professor at Duke, Roland Murphy, told me that if I ever got to Israel I must find this place. He believed Psalm 42 was written there. The location is confirmed in verse 6: “from the land of Jordan and of Mt. Hermon, the thundering cataracts.” The Banyas waterfall gushes from snows melting on Mt. Hermon.

So I always go, and read the Psalm over the din. “As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God.” In the dry, water-deprived land that is Israel, it’s easy to imagine a deer, sniffing the air, coming to this lush, soaked place. A profound image of our parched souls.

It’s not just thirst. It’s clearly hurt. “My tears have been my food day and night, while men ask me continually, ‘Where is your God?’” We cannot guess at the Psalmist’s trouble. You can fill in the blank with your own. The water we need, the water we are, the waters we shed in sorrow.

The waters rush toward the south, prompting this: “These things I remember as I pour out my soul, how I went with the throng in procession to the house of God with glad shouts, a multitude keeping festival” (verse 4). As he thirsts for God in this place, he locates hope in the memory of being 150 miles to the south, far down the flowing of the Jordan, in Jerusalem, at the temple, among a vast crowd of those who tears had been their food, thirsty for God. Knowing his solidarity with them, and the joy, blessing and healing he and they had received in communal worship there made his soul overflow with joy and hope, even in such dense sorrow. Fascinating: worship with the congregation fashions in us the sustaining we’ll need when we’re far away, in distance and in crisis.

And so the Psalm’s repeated refrain? “Hope in God.” And the Psalmist’s resolution? “I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” In pledging to praise God later, some small seed of praise has snuck in there already. Lovely. That’s what hope is, perhaps.

Banyas, by the way, is an easy walk from Caesarea Philippi, which in Jesus’ day featured a warren of Roman temples built to the deified Caesar, not to mention the Cave of Pan, the legendary “gate of hell,” the proverbial entrance to the underworld. It was here that Jesus quizzed the disciples, “Who do people say that I am? Who do you say I am?” They’re confused, as always.

It’s here, in the far north, like the composer of Psalm 42, that Jesus turns his attention to the south, to Jerusalem. He explains that Yes, he’s the One – and his destiny is to go there and be handed over. The plot of Jesus’ life fundamentally changes in this moment. Up until now, he has been an impressive actor striding across the stage of history, dashing off miracles, impressing huge crowds, a man in control of everything. From here on, he’s passive, no miracles, hounded by the powers, handed over to them and by them to the passive being crucified.

I wonder if Jesus visited the waterfall. Surely he did – but did he ponder Psalm 42? Tears were his food. People asked him “Where is your God?” as they mocked. He even asked the same question on the cross! Of course, this Jewish man, who’d been to many festivals (like the Psalmist), and in fact arrived to be killed at Passover, the greatest of the festivals, touched off a new festival, the one we call Holy Week, washing the disciples’ feet, water gushing from his side from the soldier’s lance. He’s the one we’re thirsty for. He is the Living Water – which he said to the Samaritan woman as thirsty as the hart of the Psalm. There, at Jacob’s well in Samaria in the north, Jesus said “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I give will never thirst; it will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13).