As the days of summer march on, the thermometer begins to rise, and we find ourselves more frequently feeling thirsty. Thirst is a basic sense which helps us pay attention to our need for water. If you have ever been in a situation in which you had to go long without water you would know the sense of desperation you can feel. I confess I have on more than one occasion been the victim of my own poor planning, and found myself with a great thirst while hiking on a mountain or out in the middle of the desert. Thirst is a very compelling sensation which can drive away all other interests except for water. The beautiful sights and sounds enjoyed at the beginning of the hike are now ignored for the want of a cup of water. As humans, this idea of thirst extends into other intense desires.
When I was in grad school, one of the favorite songs sung in our Christian group was loosely based on Psalm 42:1-2. The first stanza of the song by Martin Nystrom reads:
As the deer panteth for the water
So my soul longeth after Thee
You alone are my heart’s desire
And I long to worship thee
I really liked that song. Having experienced an intense thirst for water, I could relate to the psalmist’s intense thirst for a relationship with God. To me it conveyed a level of intensity and focus with which we should follow after God.
Jesus made this same connection when he met the Samaritan woman at the well, and said, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14) At first, the Samaritan woman was confused, and thought Jesus was only referring to some special physical water (she was very interested in getting some of this water). But when he clarified to her that he was the Messiah, she was even more interested – so much so she quickly ran into town to bring everyone out to meet him. Jesus is the object of our spiritual thirst.
Our sense of thirst for water is always with us regardless of the season, but we tend to notice our sense of thirst more when we are in trying circumstances – on the hot summer’s day, and the canteen is empty. This may also be said of our spiritual thirst. If you read further into Psalm 42, it is clear the psalmist is experiencing a very difficult time in his life, and all the other distractions in life are driven away for want of what is really important. I have had several friends who had long battles with cancer, and through this trial they all remarked how much closer it brought them to God. My cousin is a chaplain in a county jail, and recently wrote about an interaction he had with one of the inmates. In the midst of tears, this inmate told my cousin how his seeking in life led him to many false friends: money, sex, alcohol, drugs and even people. Poor decisions with these false friends landed him in jail. But it was in his desperate situation he finally met Jesus – he finally had joy in life, and he found it in jail! Happily, we don’t need to await trying circumstances to quench our thirst.
That brings me to an interesting question about the psalmist’s thirst. Why pant for God like a deer? Does a deer have greater thirst than a human? I can get pretty thirsty – especially walking through the hot desert. What is the difference between human thirst and deer thirst that I should want the latter? What I have come to realize is it is more than just intensity (though that is important). It has to do with dependency. You see, when a deer gets thirsty its only choice is to drink from the stream, so the deer does not wander far from the stream. Humans on the other hand have the ability to pack up and take the water with us. Therefore, I can wander from the stream – the source of my life-giving water. This is our problem as humans isn’t it? In our pride and sense of self-sufficiency, we wander far from God. I can get “filled up” spiritually, and then in my human arrogance take a hike away from God. This can be dangerous. My little “water supply” I carry with me may run out, and then it may be a very painful road back to get some more water. What the psalmist helps me understand is that it is better to be like the deer – to stay close to the stream so we can always have a ready supply of that which fulfills us and sustains us.
How far away do you wander from the stream? Do you only fill your cup on Sundays, and walk through the desert each week hoping to make it to the next Sunday? Or perhaps your span between spiritual refills is even greater. We know our physical health is better when we drink water often, and don’t wait until we are dehydrated to take a drink. Similarly, scripture gives us a prescription for our spiritual health: daily read and meditate on God’s Word, daily enter into a time of prayer, regularly seek out fellowship with other believers and strive to put into practice what He has taught us.
This idea of our spiritual thirst is beautifully depicted in a fresco and stained-glass found hidden in the back of St. Matthews Cathedral up on the hill in Budapest. There you will find a little round window set into the wall with four offset, stair-step circles cut into the wall. Painted on the inner wall beside the largest circle is a depiction of two deer drinking from a stream. The stream is flowing down the stair steps from this little stained-glass window which pictures a lamb – a common symbol of Christ. Perfect. This is what I should be like – the deer drinking from the living water that comes from Christ, and not wandering far from the stream.
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